Why more women are focusing on strength training
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
Looking round the full Bodypump class, at least twenty out of the thirty-five people packed into the sweaty studio are women. Bodypump, if you’re not sure, is a 60-minute workout with barbells involving lifting, curling, squatting and just about any other movement you can think of- aiming to strengthen your entire body. This is my first Bodypump class, although I’m not new to weight training. Sweating nervously before the class even began, I set out to see what weight training can do and learn how to increase my strength. I was actually recommended the class by my 50-year-old female work colleague, who described it as addicting- as she took her blazer off to flaunt her new biceps.
In 2011, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport reported only 15.7% of women who were engaged in sport and fitness activities lifted weights. Now, 97% of my 1,350 Instagram followers who go to the gym say they are pumping iron. More women are into weight training than ever before and dominating the weights area as much as the men, focusing less on pure cardio induced sessions on the treadmills. Social media trends such as #StrongNotSkinny and #LiftLikeAGirl might have something to do with it. When I asked my followers, 79% of them said they thought this was a positive thing. After all, who run the world? (girls).
I Had a personal training session with Sophie Dickens, to try and learn some more about weight training myself and find out what other women were also working on. “Most women come to me to lose weight and tone up, they definitely want to achieve a toned look” Sophie says. “There are more women now interested in weight training I think with social media showing more women training with weights.” Sophie thinks this has also given more women the courage to try it for themselves, and gain confidence in an area of the gym predominantly male. Sophie’s confidence in her practice and knowledge is radiating off her, unafraid to make space for our session in the heavily male populated gym. Her attitude is contagious, and I learnt more than just how-to chest press.
In our session, Sophie had me mixing weights and higher-intensity cardio in ‘super-sets’ to get more from a shorter workout. We started with box jumps followed by glute bridges. By the first six reps, my body loses the power to even fathom another jump and I looked forward to the barbell glute bridges coming up. “Keep your spine neutral, no bending the body and no just thrusting your bum up,” I learn as she demonstrates a proper glute bridge. Embarrassingly, I was still hurting from the Bodypump class three days earlier and Sophie was not messing around today.
Sophie said how frustrating it was seeing girls using weights, but not investing in learning how to use them properly to avoid injury. Glute bridges and squats are the number one things she sees them doing wrong, aiming to do as many reps as possible with a false impression they’ll grow their glutes. “Women are focusing on weight training now as it’s clear you get positive results in that if you want to tone then you need to build lean mass.” You won’t just achieve a sculpted body from running on a treadmill every day for an hour.
Even though Sophie has noticed more women picking up weights, many are still put off; “some women still think if they do weights they will end up looking manly, but that isn’t possible due to our hormones.” In our heavy, sweaty lesson she says the most important benefit of weight training is to build lean mass, increase your strength while keeping your bones healthy and burning body fat and calories. I’m already sold. Weight training also reduces your risk of injury and pain but also helps improve your posture, your mood, relieves stress and makes you feel better all round.
Becoming too obsessed with lifting weights can be just as unhealthy as striving to be as thin as possible. “My bodybuilder days were more of a controlled eating disorder,” Victoria Spence, co-founder of the Girl Gains group said. Before finding herself body building, Victoria struggled with an eating disorder and depression. “I felt like I needed to do more to have the ‘perfect body’. My eating disorder took me to a point where I’d lost control.” As well as gruelling 9-12 hour days at dance school, Victoria would hit up the gym for a 10k run and a couple hundred sit ups. The scales were her new best friend, she says in the past it was almost easier to be completely obsessed with something than being able to enjoy a balance.
Not to be defined by obsession, she recovered from anorexia nervosa and orthorexia and her dad hired her a coach who introduced her to weight lifting. “I felt strong, I felt empowered, I was hooked! I eventually gained a slight obsession with weight training and looking lean.” Not long after, Victoria entered a body building competition. “I am now completely free from obsession and I train with the intention of caring for myself as opposed to trying to change myself.”
The Girl Gains was set up by a love for fitness, and is ‘a movement which aims to unite women, create a community and educate, empower and inspire them to become the best versions of themselves.’ “The Girl Gains advocate weight training because ultimately weight training is the foundation of all training” Victoria explains. Whether you’re a runner, a tennis player or a netball player; it’s important to have a strong foundation. “We’re proud of the Girl Gains because it brings like-minded women together and makes sure no woman feels alone.”
55% of women in my survey said they feel uncomfortable lifting weights because of the large quantities of men already inhabiting the gym. Even though this is only just over half, it’s still frustrating. “We’re real and honest in everything we do and we genuinely want to see other women thrive, and I don’t think there are other places for women to go and get love and support.” The Girl Gains have played a great role in seeing more women into weight training with their events and community, but Victoria says it’s when they see women training in a way they love, celebrating what our bodies can do- that’s when she’ll feel like she did a good job.
One person I’ve come across in my own training is 19-year-old student Mia Fox, who reflects on weight training as the best lifestyle change she’s ever made. “I was very overweight and very unhappy. I spent my days in bed eating junk food, watching fitness YouTubers.” After longing after their crafted bodies, she joined the gym and lost two stone. Unsurprisingly, Mia got bored with the constant cardio workouts and she then learned how to start weight lifting through watching online tutorials.
“Without weight lifting, I don’t know where I’d be. I enjoy it so much because it makes me feel amazing, strong and confident.” From seeing Mia’s fitness journey, it’s clear to see she’s come a long way and it’s owed largely to working on her strength and being able to interact with other girls training the same way- as we have done. “So many women are into weight lifting because it makes them feel empowered and strong, and sometimes women aren’t looked at in that way” which precisely explains why some women are devoted to the weights room and some are apprehensive to give it a go, unaware of their own capabilities.
Instead of benefitting from the strength and confidence that comes attached to weight lifting, the focus for women has often been on being slim. However, there are of course still preconceptions against women having muscle. “There is 100% a stigma around that, no matter how many times you walk into the weights section. You will still get stares.” Mia, Sophie and Victoria have all said in unison the unfair response from men and other women who don’t understand it or share the enthusiasm. I’m always met with the ‘I would but I don’t want to get bulky or look like the hulk’ whenever people ask what I do in the gym. “Strong is beautiful, no matter if you are female or male, and you should embrace it” my chat with Mia ends on.
If I learnt anything from the Bodypump class and personal training session, it’s that strong feels good, but it may hurt for a week. Weight training isn’t just about losing, but gaining; gaining strength and gaining confidence. 95% of my followers said they feel mentally stronger from lifting heavy; feeling more positive and generally better (mostly likely smug too). One thing to take away is every woman I spoke to loves it, and would recommend it to anyone- no wonder the Bodypump class is full of women each week. There’s a lot to #gain from squatting, lifting and pressing.