For decades, the average gym-going female was discouraged from lifting heavy weights. Fear of “getting bulky” and looking like the muscle-bound men in their gym prevented them from picking up anything that weighed more than 10lbs, in case they transformed into the Incredible Hulk overnight.
Then, slowly, people began to understand the connection between genetics and adaptation to training. Unless a woman has hormone levels approaching male proportions, she won’t experience comparable results from lifting heavy weights.
As society evolved and women became more empowered, we also began to embrace women being strong. It was no longer “unbecoming” or - eye roll - “unladylike” for a woman to take her training more seriously and strive for physical prowess. Of course, social media has accelerated this, filling our feeds with inspiring videos of incredibly physically capable women achieving impressive athletic feats with the physique to match.
As we know, there are countless benefits to being strong. Day-to-day activities are far less demanding, and our quality of life is maintained much longer into old age. “Strong, not skinny” is also an aspirational image for many women’s confidence, both physical and mental.
However, the reality is that for many women to achieve their ideal figure, the recipe is far simpler than social media would have anyone believe. So why isn’t it portrayed as such?
Well, because you can’t justify selling someone simple advice for $20/month.
The reality is, 30-60 minutes on what are commonly called ‘cardio’ machines is often sufficient. But try telling many women this, and a common response will be “but I don’t want to be skinny, I want to be toned”. Fair enough at face value - but bear in mind that this conversation often takes place with someone who isn’t currently doing anything at the gym. Let’s walk before we run, shall we?
StairMasters, ellipticals, rowing machines, stationary bikes; all of these machines have built-in, adjustable resistance. We need to stop seeing them as ‘cardio’ machines and instead as ‘low resistance, high repetition’ machines. Any woman scared she might compromise her “booty gains” on one of these machines should consider the role of the glutes: hip extension. The StairMaster involves performing hip extension over and over again as the hip bends to pick up the thigh and then straightens to push oneself upwards. It’s basically training the butt muscles on constant repetition. Go and do 20 minutes on the StairMaster with a decent resistance level and try and tell me it doesn’t hurt to sit down the next day.
The majority of women would be well on the way to their desired physique (disclaimer: if they also addressed their diet) if they used resisted cardio machines at various intervals for 20-30 minutes, and then made up their “steps” for the day on the treadmill or outside the gym. Set an elliptical machine on a decent resistance level and you’ll need to use the handles to assist the legs, pushing and pulling on each stride. There’s your chest, back and arms workout all packed into one. Want a nice, toned back? Hop on the rower.
I’m absolutely not suggesting that weights are a waste of time for women. Not at all. But for many women, especially those just beginning their fitness journey, they’re not really necessary. Health benefits, even reducing issues like back pain, can be achieved with the basics. I have countless conversations with women who are anxious about going to the gym because they either “don’t know what they’re doing” or because they think they have no choice but to go flat out with medicine balls, burpees and battle ropes.
Just as we’ve started encouraging women to go to the gym, our obsession with monetising it has made many of them more apprehensive about doing so.
It’s different for guys. Most men want to be muscular, just merely toned (which, by the way, is effectively just sufficiently low body fat to see one’s muscles) and so need to lift weights to achieve that. Most women would be happy looking slim, as long as they don’t look like a stiff breeze would snap them in half. They want to be capable and healthy and happy when they look in the mirror. This can easily be achieved with relatively high intensity resisted cardio and responsible dietary choices. Oh, and probably better sleep.
This is absolutely not to discourage women from lifting heavy weights in the gym, or taking themselves through a workout routine that Rambo would be proud of. Rather, this is to encourage women to take care of their cardiovascular health and low-level resistance abilities without fear of sweating themselves stick-thin.
Girl Power is absolutely welcome in every training facility (or it should be) and is an incredible and inspiring benchmark to set for women and what they are capable of.
But you simply have to build your baseline fitness and strength capabilities to get to this point.
Self-satisfaction - and physical and mental strength - lies in much closer reach than your Instagram feed would have you believe.