Over the summer, I began to feel more comfortable lifting among the men. All those hours in the weight room were starting to pay off—I continued to lose weight, and I was starting to get some muscle definition. So out went the short-sleeved workout gear in favor of my new sleeveless collection. My husband used this as an opportunity to taunt. “New tank top?” he’d say as I left the house for the gym. “Are the straps shrinking?” I tried to ignore his comments, but he was hitting a sore spot. Truth be told, I was growing fond of the muscles, but I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious about them. I was unable to escape the feeling that this just wasn’t how women were supposed to look. I kept thinking of all those female muscle-heads, with their orange skin and bulging veins.
And I understood that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Body image is the real reason women aren’t lifting weights. We aren’t supposed to be strong. Just look at Michelle Obama and her pumped-up biceps. The first lady’s sleeveless dresses have sparked conversation everywhere from ABC News to the opinion section of the New York Times. “She’s made her point,” columnist David Brooks quipped. “Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.” If the incredibly fit and beautiful Michelle Obama is ridiculed, what can the rest of us expect?
“Looking fit or slender is the primary goal for women,” says Charlotte Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden. Messages about the perfect female body bombard us from every angle. “People look at celebrities who have personal trainers, and they want to look like them,” says Lou Schuler, an author and strength-conditioning coach. “That’s their ideal body type.”
The logical extension of that beauty myth, of course, is the belief that muscles don’t look good on a woman, and, taking it further, that if you use heavy weights you’re going to grow huge ones. We see pictures of female bodybuilders with veins popping out of their Hulk-like shoulders, and we fear looking like them. I certainly did. “In terms of weight training and women being muscle-bound, our society is very conservative,” Wright, my trainer, says. “Women believe that anything above 10 pounds, number one, they don’t believe that they can lift it. And number two, they think they’re going to cause an overabundance of muscle. That it’s going to either put their husbands and boyfriends to shame or make them feel manly somehow.”
It took me a while to become comfortable at the gym, but as I started to look and feel better—and as the pounds fell off—my confidence began to soar. If people wanted to look, let ’em. The muscles in my shoulders and back ripple now and I’m working on the six-pack. Maybe I enjoy working out in those tank tops more than I should, but it’s not like I’m some oiled-female-Schwarzenegger psycho. Far from it. Still, I’m jacked enough that the other day, my seven-year-old son informed my husband that Mommy is stronger than he is.
I still lift heavy three times a week, and the plates are getting bigger. Big enough to attract even more attention than before. When I started, I didn’t put any weights at all on the leg-press machine. Now, it’s 355 pounds. I can bench-press 115, squat 185, do six unassisted pull-ups, and do tricep dips between two benches with a 45-pound plate on my lap. But I’m still one of the only women working out in the weight room.
What’s it going to take for other women to join Wright and me, to drop those pink Barbie bells and pick up some weights that will actually help them? It may just take time. “No one wants to be that solo pioneer, the one who gets stared at,” Schuler says. “Maybe another generation needs to come up with all of the women lifting the black plates and that will change everyone’s attitude.” He compares it to the hordes of girls who, in direct contrast to 40 years ago, are now being encouraged to play sports like soccer and hockey.
And a few promising signs point to shifting attitudes about women and weightlifting. A muscular Hope Solo combined buff with beautiful on Dancing with the Stars in 2011. Women are also increasingly seeking out information about weightlifting. After Schuler published The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle, in 2005, he was overwhelmed with letters from women asking whether they could also use the workouts, which seemed to have been designed for men. The answer was an emphatic yes, but Schuler, sensing an emerging market, published a follow-up book, The New Rules of Lifting for Women. It’s gone on to become his most popular book, selling more than 100,000 copies. Clearly, there is a new demand for instruction, which bodes well for lifting—and women.
In late November, I jogged up the stairs to the second floor of the gym, tightening the Velcro on my black weightlifting gloves. I watched a guy in his mid-forties with a bit of a gut and the requisite Under Armour attire grunt out some squats. After he finished, I headed over. He clanged the barbell onto the holding rack with one final “oomph.”
“You done?” I asked.
“Just finished.” He looked at me, taking in my 5-foot-6 frame, Tufts baseball hat, and tight black workout capris. “Here, let me take those plates off for you.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said, and then proceeded to toss two more 25-pound plates on the bar. Looking stunned, he walked over to the water fountain.
As I finished my first set, I noticed more people staring at me. It was quite a cross section: skinny soccer moms with rolled-up mats strolling to the back room for yoga class, thick-necked dudes sitting on padded weight benches who’d just dropped their 40-pound dumbbells, and a pencil-thin male runner who’d come upstairs to stretch. All eyes on me. I don’t think I was grunting or making any squat-induced bodily sounds, but then again, my iPod was blasting Nelly’s “Here Comes the Boom.”
Part of me wanted to rerack my barbell and return those looks one by one. But I had kids and a husband waiting for me at home, and I had three more sets of squats to do, so I took a swig from my water bottle and got back to it.
A year ago this month, my new personal trainer led me up the stairs to the second floor of my gym in Concord, the Thoreau Club. I was nervous. It’s an upscale suburban gym—the type that’s filled with Bosu balls and treadmills—and until that point I had mostly avoided the upstairs room, because it’s loaded with racked weights, benches, and weight machines. I hadn’t come to the gym to add muscle—I had come to shed pounds. Besides, the weight room was always filled with grunting men. My trainer, Lynda Wright, smiled as we looked into the room. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s see where you are.”
Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I sighed. I’d already given her the abbreviated version over the phone—that I’d played college sports and stayed in shape right up to my first pregnancy, in 2003, but that after two kids, the baby weight remained. I wasn’t exercising enough, I was eating more Goldfish crackers than salads, and I’d started a medication with the unfortunate side effect of increasing appetite while decreasing metabolism. “Look at me,” I told her. “It’s pretty clear where I am.” I tugged the sleeves of my blue T-shirt, trying to cover up my arm flab.
Frankly, I was confused about what we were doing in a room of free weights. My goal was to lose weight and get back in shape. I’d been expecting a routine made up of the treadmill, the elliptical, and maybe a couple of weight machines. Why were we up here on the second floor?
Still, I went along, lying back on a weight bench, happy to be in a position that diminished the size of my gut. Wright put two silver 15-pound dumbbells in my hands and showed me how to do a simple press, bringing my hands almost together as I straightened my arms above my chest.
By the time I got to the third set, pushing those 15-pounders up took everything I had. I’d barely managed six repetitions before my arms started shaking and Lynda took the dumbbells. I sat up and tried to breathe. “That was great,” she said. She nodded over to the next rack, the one that held the real weights—the ones that men with no necks use for their bicep curls. “Pretty soon you’ll be ready for those.”
Those weights looked huge. Visions of she-male bodybuilder freaks from 1990s Lifetime specials flashed through my head. I was here to drop some pounds and firm up—not become a female Arnold.
Wright smiled again. “You just wait and see.”
Despite my misgivings, I continued returning to the gym and lifting. By April, just two months later, I’d graduated from the silver 15-pound dumbbells up to the 25-pounders. Real weights. In addition to the lifting, I had improved my diet and was doing some cardio sessions. I’d lost close to 20 pounds. I’d gotten in good shape before by eating well and doing cardio, but the weightlifting made an enormous difference. I was feeling powerful—and I loved it.
However, I was also feeling like a freak show. Whenever I was lifting, I could feel the stares at my back. The men, so unused to finding a woman among them—let alone one hoisting heavy weights—were outright astonished. The women passing through to the second-floor yoga room simply looked uneasy, as though put off by the sight of a woman doing something so unfeminine. It was embarrassing. It took all I had to keep returning to the gym.
But I did, because it turns out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends lifting heavy weights as part of a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that regular strength training results in increased bone density, lower blood pressure, and a longer lifespan. No wonder CDC guidelines call for adults to each week do two or more muscle-strengthening workouts—which means lifting a load that taps you out after 8 to 12 repetitions. (Whatever your weightlifting approach—heavy or light—studies show that you need to lift until extreme fatigue to get the benefits.) And yet even though women make up more than half of gym-goers, the CDC’s 2011 National Health Interview Study reports that just 20 percent of them strength-train that minimum of two times per week.
Why? What’s pushing all these cardio queens away from the weight room?
At least some of the problem is a simple lack of knowledge about the benefits of lifting. “A lot of people have the thought process that if they want to lose pounds, then they shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights,” Lynda Wright says. “That’s just not true.” In fact, strength training increases metabolism even more than cardio workouts. “The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest,” Wright says. That leads to fat loss and an increased potential for overall weight loss. A Penn State study found that people who lift weights lose six more pounds of fat than those who don’t.
But it’s my feeling that the lack of education about weightlifting pales in comparison to the way American society looks down on women who lift weights. When it comes to females working out, there’s a glaring and insulting double standard—women should be toned but never jacked. No wonder, then, that women (and men) tend to treat cardiovascular exercise—the treadmill, the stationary bike, the elliptical machine—as the holy grail of female fitness. The fairer sex can sweat it out in hot yoga, but must never lose the softness, the femininity.