Lifting weights has totally changed my body. But not in the way you think.
I don’t look like a female Schwarzenegger. I don’t look like a glazed beef jerky. I don’t challenge strangers to arm wrestle. Instead, the changes are subtle. And yet, totally radical.
My story isn’t special. This is what weightlifting can do for any woman. Stop believing weights will make you bulky. Start believing in your own inner-badass. Because she’s in there, just begging for more front squats. Here’s why:
Why You Should Lift
There are a bunch of very practical reasons why you should be weightlifting. For example, lifting heavy…
- Boosts metabolism: The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Score.
- Protects against osteoporosis: Weight-bearing exercises increase bone density. Protect your future self from a hip fracture, and fulfill your bungee jumping retirement dreams.
- Tones your body fast: If you’re doing steady 30 minute lifting sessions three times a week (and eating clean), you’ll start seeing results in as little as two weeks.
But there are even more intangible benefits. Namely, transforming you into a badass. While you’ll get toned on the outside, the biggest transformation is what happens on the inside. Here’s what I’m going to prove to you. Weightlifting…
- Strengthens your life outside the gym: your career, relationships, life goals, sex life, (…the list goes on)
- Makes you stop “self-objectifying” (…more on that below)
- Gives you killer confidence and independence
- Aligns your body image with strength and function, not thinness
I believed low weight, high reps, and miles on the treadmill would keep me long and lean. But all it ever did was hurt my self-esteem. The more I obsessed about cardio and calories, the worse I felt.
That undergrad in the velour jumpsuit watching America’s Next Top Model on the elliptical? Yeah, that was me.
It started with the clean and press. The first time I did this move properly – pull, throw, catch, lift – I wanted to do a Tarzan chest thump.
I looked around the room like, Did you see that b*tches? If I had a mic, I’d drop it.
That feeling is exhilarating. When else in my life have I felt so powerful, so in control, so triumphant? I’ll tell you when: since I’ve been lifting weights – all the effin’ time.
These little victories show up everywhere now: Oh, sweetheart, need help with that luggage? Nope. Alone at home with a stubborn jar of pickles? Puh-leeze. Oh, is that subway escalator broken again? I’ll take the steps two at a time and beat all y’all to the bus stop.
I’ve always considered myself a confident person. But I feel more capable and empowered than ever(and I’m still very much an amateur!).
Weightlifting teaches me everyday that I can take care of my own damn self.
It means I can retrieve my suitcase from the overhead compartment without fear of crushing my skull (or someone else’s!). And it lets me grab the sleeveless, backless dress without hesitation while shopping. The women I met at a recent powerlifting competition had bodies most dieting women would starve themselves in hopes of achieving–and many of them eat 3,000, 4,000, or more calories a day just to fuel their training.–Dana McMahan on Blisstree
Weights Won’t Make You Bulky: The Proof
Ladies, we’ve been lied to. Everything you think you know about female weight lifting is wrong. So, let’s get the facts.
Frequent, progressive, heavy weightlifting with basic compound exercises does not make women big ‘n bulky. The true culprit that gives a woman (or anyone!) a bulky appearance is excess body fat. Period.- Nia Shanks
- Muscles need tons of testosterone.
On average, men produce 7 mg of testosterone per day, which according to the BBC is about 20 times more than women. Testosterone builds muscle mass by speeding the process of protein synthesis. The more testosterone a body has, the more potential for getting jacked. But because women have less, our muscles will only grow so much.
- Men have more muscle fibers than women.
So it’s not that we’re weaker, explains Olympic lifter Dresdin Archibald, “Fiber for fiber there is no strength difference between male and female muscle fibers. The difference is that women have fewer fibers.”
- Our body compositions are super different.
Our bodies have radically different morphologies. Women have a higher percentage of adipose tissue (aka fat) stored in those lovely lady humps. Our shoulder girdles are narrower. Our pelvis is wider. And on average, we’re about five inches shorter.
“So,” Archibald writes, “even for two people of the same height and the same weight, the woman will probably have less muscle than the man due to sexual di-morphology.” Again, that doesn’t mean you’re weaker – it means you’re less bulky. Naturally.
Try as you might, unless you change your body chemistry, you will not look like Mr. Olympia. But you will look better in a g-string. These are just the laws of nature, folks.
Strengthens All Areas of Life
When I pushed my body, it surprised me. Every pound I added to the bar proved I was stronger and more resilient than I thought. These little victories with weights made me see how often I underestimated myself. This feeling, Jen Sinkler writes, is “contagious.” It spills over into every part of your life.
A funny thing tends to happen when you build physical strength: Your expanded capacity carries over into every facet of your life, and you discover you’re willing to take more chances and shoulder more responsibility outside the gym. In fact, you want to. You can’t help yourself.
When you see your body triumph in the weight room, you become confident that you’ll triumph in the board room (or the lecture hall, or hell, the bedroom).
I started seeing it in my writing, my meditations, and my relationships.
Chicago powerlifter Dawn Maroscher calls it the “trickle down effect.” Dawn is the founding member of the Monsterettes, the women’s powerlifting group at Monster Garage Gym. A high school psychologist and mother of three, her sole fitness activity used to be running:
“I ran all the time – so I felt fit,” she says, “But I didn’t feel a sense of strength until I started lifting.” Now she’s the founder of The Monsterettes, holds the title of AWPC World Powerlifting Champion for Benchpress, and qualified for this year’s World Strongman competition.
Powerlifting redefined me: it made me a more confident woman, and a more confident mom. I see myself going after other goals, and competing harder against myself. Now I’m speaking at a conference for girls about fitness and empowerment. Before, I never would’ve wanted to do that. Now I feel bolder about speaking up.-Dawn Maroscher
For years I’ve been “self-objectifying” without ever realizing it. And most likely, you are too. This is a psychological phenomenon created by the perfection-pushing beauty and fitness industries.
Duke University psychologists Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson and Dr. Tomi-Ann Roberts wrote a fantastic paper on it. They observed that “girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.”
I started asking, why do I want the “perfect body” anyway?
So I can bang more hot dudes? Rope in a lawyer fiancé? Finally “love my curves”? Ugh.
Basically, I wanted a killer bod so that other people would notice.
In an amazing article in the Harvard Political Review, three women rugby players state this problem succinctly: “Women are bombarded with the idea that the purpose of exercise is to attain a fit body, rather than to improve athletically.”
Trainer, powerlifter, and general badass Jessi Kneeland of ReModel Fitness sees this all the time. And she’s sick of it.
In an incredible manifesto on Greatist, she writes, “When a woman comes to me for training, she has one million perceived external flaws that allegedly need ‘fixing.’” These womens’ goals are never based on their own objectives. Instead, “they are the result of seeing herself through the eyes of media with the goal of sculpting her body into something that will please others.”
How do we escape the self-objectifying cycle?
For a truly fulfilling and joyful relationship with your body, the key is to focus on your internal experience, not an external one. But working out, once you find something you love, feels amazing. I wake up on lifting days excited to have a challenge worth pushing myself for.–Jessi Kneeland on Greatist
Like Jessi, weightlifting helped me shed these feelings of self-objectification. I started associating fitness with function, rather than aesthetics.
Reclaim Your Body Image
It’s a cruel paradox, but often when we try to slim down, we become more dissatisfied with our bodies. Even when we’re getting skinnier.
Nerd Fitness’s Staci Ardison writes, “When I was overweight, I would look in the mirror and say ‘ugh, I need to lose a few pounds’ and then go on with my day. But after I started to lose weight, I started looking in the mirror and seeing 30 things that needed to change.”
For me, lifting big caused a paradigm shift. I stopped scrutinizing what I thought was “wrong” with my body, and started noticing the things that were right. Like, my legs: They’re fleshy and pale, with knobby knees, and a few too many toe-hairs.
But, you know what? My thighs can snap you in half. Now that I’ve started to appreciate their power, I don’t lament their fleshiness.
It was only after I noticed how strong I was getting that I realized that I was also looking hella sexy. It was so freeing to have my body image tied directly to strength and athleticism rather than body fat or thinness.
I actually LOVE having bigger shoulders because as a pear shaped woman, wider shoulders help even me out. Once I start to get below a certain body fat percentage, I start to lose my boobs and my hips – and my curves are one of my favorite things about my body. I’m happiest both performance wise and body wise hanging out around 17 to 18 percent body fat.– Staci Ardison on Nerd Fitness
How To Get Started
So, now that you’re convinced, get on down to pumptown and release your inner badass.
- Focus on getting stronger.
Try not to worry about calories, how you look in the mirror, or what other people think. Just try to get a little bit better with every workout. You’ll see yourself lifting more each day. And that’s the most powerful motivation of all.
- Use negative and positive reinforcements.
This will make sticking to your goals easy. Once you start seeing that sexy definition in your biceps, continuing will be easy.
- Get good advice.
Join a CrossFit gym, try a powerlifting group, or check in with a personal trainer. Making sure you’ve got a solid foundation on form and technique is critical. Check out these great beginner guides from Nia Shanks and Staci Ardison.
- Find a lifting partner for accountability and support.
Having someone to spot and encourage you will keep you enthused. Don’t have a buddy? Visit Dawn Maroscher and the Monsterettes north of Chicago, they’d love to take you under their lady lifter wings. Check ’em out here.
Lifting weights has completely redefined my femininity, made me more confident and autonomous, and turned me into a card-carrying #WomenWhoLift activist.
Every clean and press is a protest, every barbell is a giant middle finger.
To everything I was taught about bulky muscle mass, to every wafer-thin fashion model, to every social norm and glass ceiling, this overhead press is a giant F you.
Develop an appreciation of what your body can do, rather than how it appears to others. –Beauty Redefined
My body can do so much more than I thought – and that, in my opinion, is beautiful. I realize now that’s the only opinion that matters.
And stay tuned for more exclusive interviews with Jen Sinkler, Jessi Kneeland, and Staci Ardison in an upcoming post.