(crossposted at BlogHer)
I’ll let you in a (not so little) secret: I Strength Train.
Five to six days a week I throw a large gym bag into my car and drive 4 miles to my local gym. After a 10 minutes warm-up on the cardio machines, where I am surrounded by other women, I head to the very back of the room. Here the dumb bell rack running under a half-wall of mirrors holds pieces of iron from 10 to 110 pounds. Flat benches, incline benches, racks, and platforms stand ready for use. There are smaller barbells ranging from 20# to 110#. Barbells, capable of holding weight plates marked 5# to 45#, sit on racks or the floor ready to challenge someone to go toward a personal best.
There are the usual assortment of men here- wearing their white t-shirts and black nylon pants. So I- in my pink work out skirt and lime green and white top- kind of stick out. However, that’s only visual. Once I claim a spot, grab my weights and start working, I’m no different than the others back there: the sweat comes early and stays the whole hour- dripping off my nose, hair, chin onto the black rubber flooring below me. I mutter my reps, and tell myself “just one more” when my triceps are begging for me to stop. When I finish a set, I sit exhausted and panting watching the clock for the minute before I go again. Because of this, the guys see me as fitting in.
What has prompted me to confess this all to you? Did you notice that in the description above I did not mention the other women working along side me? While occasionally there might be another woman there, by and large, women in the free-weight section are rare. While both sexes are equally represented in the cardio section and working the weight machine circuit, few make their way back all the way to free weights.
There were a couple blog posts published last week discussing the ideas of women and strength. They spoke to me because, when surround by sweating grunting testosteroney males working as hard as me, I always miss the women who I wish would be beside me too. I see them, sitting on a leg curl machine or the “inner/outer thigh” machine watching me in the squat rack putting 100# on my back. Many smile shyly and stare -I hope they are proud that their sex is representing. Still, I wish they would do more than simply smile.
I wonder about you, reader…
—I wonder if you have bought into the false line that when women work out with heavier weights -moving beyond the pink 5# dumb bells marketed to the gentler sex-you will get huge and muscley. A line that is usually false- we women rarely produce enough testosterone to get “huge”.
The Gubernatix, in her piece Strong Is Beautiful, told this secret:
I’ve never had so many compliments on my physique or attitude as when I’m training. Seriously, if you care about such things, squatting heavy is a guy magnet.
….Yeah, the world isn’t perfect but there’s plenty of spare respect to go around. Women can choose to dance around in their panties on youtube and pander to male chauvinist images of what they should look like, or women can respect themselves and pursue what they think is right for them (and if that is dancing around in your panties, why not consider competitive pole dancing?).
Pretty girls are everywhere, strong women are rare! I’ll never stand out as being pretty (I have a brilliant mind of course but that doesn’t show up in a club) but put me in a squat cage with a pair of black leggings on and I’ll show you who’s your daddy.
In case you are wondering, the Gubernatrix, in the photo above is squatting approximately 200#! Yeah, I smile when I see that picture too. But there isn’t a huge, masculine looking muscle on her body. If she were standing in front of you at the grocery store would you think anything more than “that woman is in good shape. How does she do it?”
—I wonder if you believe that pushing heavy weights is somehow unfeminine. If so, I would remind you that every day you are expected to pick up children, groceries, pet food, laundry baskets, heaven-knows how many things that are heavier than a 5# pink dumb bell. Wouldn’t it be better to train in a way that prepares your body for it’s everyday life? Krista Scott-Dixon, the beloved creator of Stumptuous.com, addressed this in Don’t Fear the Free Weights!:
Real life isn’t tidy, or organized, or perfect. Real life movements don’t usually happen while you’re safely strapped into a contraption that immobilizes most of your body, unless you’re biceps curling a 48 oz Super Big Gulp to your lips while seatbelted into a car — and c’mon, why are you doing that anyway? Real life movements are off-balance, asymmetrical, one-handed or one-legged, moving in curves and squiggles, done in funny ways, done unexpectedly, and done all day long. Real life movements involve lifting awkwardly shaped things like babies and couches and sloshy cases of beer and Rottweilers that don’t want to take a bath. Machines aren’t going to help you when it’s time to haul the groceries out of the car with a screaming toddler stuck to your hip, or when you need to move that load of topsoil for your petunia bed and can’t find your wheelbarrow.
What will help you? Dead lifts, farmer’s walks, squats and lunges, shoulder press, kettlebell swings. Lifting weights will prepare you for your everyday life in ways that nothing else can. Believe me, after spending time dead lifting a barbell with 135# of weight on it, picking up my arthritic 60# dog to place her in the car is a piece of cake.
—Or is it really that there are not enough strong female role models to inspire you? Looking around, who would be the inspiration for a strong woman? Yes, Jillian Michaels has the muscles and body, yet we think of her more for her ability to push others to achieve beyond their perceived strengths. Michelle Obama had everybody talking about her stunning arms, but is she a model for strength? Or a model for the “you can have it all” woman? Dana Torres, the Olympic swimmer, is strong, yet we wonder more about her ability to do get into Olympic shape at her age. So is she a model for strength or for ability at any age?
Chip at BodyTribe Fitness started this whole discussion on strong women when he posted on Gender Strength.
Define a strong woman. Unfortunately the blurry image we come up with, because all archetypes are actually blurry and only step into the light and cease vibrating when we clearly define them, will often not feature physical power.
…Physical strength is held as a male trait. Wait… drop it. Do not throw anything at me yet. If this isn’t true then why is the common stereotype of a strong woman riddled with words like ‘butch’, ‘bulky,’ ‘steroids’, or any number of terms that have very male connotations? And why are women’s ‘fitness’ magazines so bent on perpetuating a soft, helpless version of a woman who should only do petite Pilates moves or move little colored weights around that weigh less then a kitten? And why does the cover always feature a waif-ish model who looks like a 12-year old boy with make-up on as some sort of icon to what a ‘fit’ woman is?
For myself, a strong woman is both physically and mentally able to set goals for herself and work to achieve them. She has not let her body betray her with age, nor her mind defeat her with doubt. Krista, again, explained what to me is a perfect description of a strong woman in her rant: Who Are You?
Every little mini-obstacle that you overcome in training makes you stronger inside. Strength is an expression of the body but more importantly it is also an expression of the will and the spirit. To struggle and surpass; or even to struggle when there is no means of surpassing – that is strength.
And so I ask you to do the same. Define a Strong Woman.