Archive for September 17th, 2010

Strength and fitness and women

When I gave up smoking many years ago I put on a considerable amount of weight in a very short space of time. Over two stone to be exact, as I attempted to find something for my hands and mouth to do other than dance the lethal mambo with the noxious weed.

I suppose I was in denial for a spell. Until shopping one day I caught a glimpse of myself in a window and stopped dead in my tracks. Who was that bloated double-chinned woman staring at me aghast? Oh dear. It was me.

Being a proactive sort, once I got over the shock and, I admit, some tears,  I decided to get busy with losing the weight and making my exterior fall in line with my slowly repairing interior. If my lungs were improving– and I hoped they were– I figured I might as well up the ante and meet them some of the way. Thus I entered the previously unexplored world of fitness

I can’t say it started out all that well. I took up running, only to run out of puff after a minute. Undeterred, I kept at it. I huffed up hills and puffed down them. I chugged along, pink-faced and sweating, reeling from stitches and shin splints. I hated how it felt, hated the sensation of leaden legs and wondered if I was kidding myself.

But over the weeks slowly the running portions increased and the bent over trying not to vomit portions lessened. After 6 weeks, I ran/jogged a complete 5k without the need to stop. I almost wept with relief and disbelief. Emboldened by not dying,  I committed to running a mini-marathon (10k) and trained on.

Gradually some of the weight shifted. Feeling a little lighter and little fitter I took to other activities. I used my cigarette money to buy some better exercise gear. I added squash to the mix. I joined a kickboxing class and discovered I really liked hitting things ( extremely cathartic, I highly recommend punching and kicking the stuffing out of a heavy bag). I learned how to use kettle bells, and finally with some trepidation I tip-toed into weight lifting.

I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that women –by and large– often avoid weight-lifting. Which is such a shame because as we age and our bones become less dense and lifting weights regularly along with a considered diet is one of the most efficient way to combat osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease as it is commonly known.  That aside, a strong body is a boon when avoiding injuries accrued by life and all it hurls at you. Muscle is good and beneficial in so many ways.  It gives us shape, burns through calories – even when we are resting, it magics bingo wings into oblivion, lifts rear ends, flattens stomachs, makes legs look lithe and in general makes us feel better.  I can find no flaw to gaining muscle.

I have a few vague ideas from talking to friends why more women don’t lift weights.


‘I don’t know, I’d feel embarrassed. Everyone would be looking.’

In the Carlisle where I used to train, the free weights area was dominated by men, many of whom were large and intimidating looking. They also appeared to know what they were doing. ( Now, armed with more experience I attest that many did not).

It can take pluck to enter this testosterone filled zone. Once in there you are then faced with a dazzling array of ugly-looking barbells and plates and weights. What to do with them?  As you stand there pondering, other thoughts enter your head. Am I in the way? Why is that man grunting like that? Oh, I am in the way. Jesus, I can’t even lift the bar from the rack. Eek! To the machines!

So you retreat to the safety of the treadmill or cross trainer, glad to be out from under scrutiny. But the truth is you ought not be worried. Most of the people in the free weights section are so busy concentrating on their own work outs they will hardly notice you, and even if they do, you should remember that they all started out in much the same boat as you find yourself. Plus, and this was always a big thing with me, if I pay gym membership, I will damn well use the gym, all of the gym.

Realistic weights

It doesn’t help that most images of women and weights generally consists of a slim, sweat free model in a sports bra and lycra pants, curling a pink dumb bell –weight 2k max.  Oh yeah baby, feel the burn. Or not. To get stronger you’ve got to lift as heavy as possible. 2k dumbbells? Why? Your hand bag probably weighs more, as do the bags of shopping you’ve hefted along the pavement countless times. Lifted your toddler up a few dozen times in one day? Then for gosh sake, you’re probably already well able for a 10 kilo bar. (Some people swear by higher repetitions and lighter weights. I don’t really get that. Muscle builds as it repairs, you break it down when you tax it, but simply tiring it? Again, if it works for some so be it, but it would not be something I would champion)

‘I don’t want to get bulky’

Another common misconception is that weight lifting will suddenly cause women to sprout muscles like the incredible hulk. (I wish) Let me categorically say that as a woman I have no where near the testosterone levels of a male, so unless I’m planing on injecting steroids sometime in the near future ( I’m not) I am unlikely to bulk up. Even holding onto the bit of muscle I have managed to build takes hard work and dedication.

Women also have a higher percentage of body fat over all, which means that even if you do develop muscles, you might have to drop weight before you see them ( oh abs, I know you’re under there somewhere, but cheese comes first). What I am trying to say is you can carry muscle and still look feminine.

Which brings me to my next point.

Contra to the slender model with pink/purple dumb bells are the images of a masculine looking woman with bolted on fake boobs, posing in a bikini, spray-tanned the colour of a walnut. Why these women are associated with your average weight lifter is a bit of a head scratcher to me. Sure they lift weights, but these ladies are highly competitive body-builders, usually photographed ripped and cut and performing for a very specific competition. They are the apex of a very specialized commitment to a very specialized look and form. They are not the norm, yet they are more often than not the image that pops into a person’s head when women and weight comes up. A more realistic image of the average lifter would be that of a actress or athlete. Think Jessica Biel in Blade 3, Venus Williams, Jada Smith, Xena, Michelle Rodriguez, Dara Torres (photo in post). These women have strong, fit, athletic bodies, and they can hardly be called unfeminine, ( although some people with the IQ of a puddle do attempt such foolishness,  but I have no interest in sliding into the negative today)

Mixed signals

‘I just want to tone up.’

This is the one that makes me laugh, but only because I used to say it myself all the time. To tone. What on earth does it really mean? Well, to most of us that means be less flabby, tighten certain areas, get Michelle Obama’s awesome arms. How do we ‘tone’?  Afraid there is only one way. We build supporting muscle and we drop body fat.


The last thing any of us want to do is attempt something, fail, look stupid, feel stupid or injure ourselves. But fear should not hold us back from attempting new things. Forget fear, fear sucks.

If you are a member of a gym, grab the floor staff and ask to be shown how to use equipment properly. Go in when it is quieter and ask to be shown proper form. See the big huge guy squatting heavy? Wait until his set is over( very important) then ask him how he got started on squats. He might tell you to bog off, but nine times out of ten those big guys are terrifically helpful and know their stuff. Go to websites, like Sumptuous.com or  Crossfit. Look at what women are doing. Weight lifting is no longer the domain of the male. Women of all makes, shapes, ages and sizes are squatting, dead lifting, split jerking and doing elaborate hang power cleans.

Aside from the weight lifting what else can we do? Honestly, assuming we are not injured or have a medical condition, when it comes to getting fitter we can do almost anything. We only need to start. Try a yoga class, investigate what suits your level of fitness. If you’re very unfit start with walking. If you can, take up running. Buy good runners, start slow and steady until you can run for at least 5k. If you already jog rack it up a notch. Practice sprints ( 200m, 400m) until your quads scream and your lungs burn. Lunging is free, it hurts but it’s free. So too is squatting (bane of my life due to tight hip flexors). Buy a skipping rope, they are as cheap as chips and nothing and I mean NOTHING gets your heart rate up as fast, nor co-ordinates your movements quicker. Lie down on the floor and do a press up, if you can’t do one, learn how. Stretch, oh by golly stretch or you will one day wonder why you are stiff and your toes seem so far away.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself or step outside your comfort zone.

I’m still learning, I still make mistakes but I’m making gains too. At 37, I can honestly say I have never been stronger or fitter than I am now, and that in itself is empowering. When I look at the other ladies where I train, ( Crossfit in Sandyford) and see them struggle and triumph it makes me smile (like when the awesome Rosie, who probably weighs 60 kilos wet, threw up 37.5 kilos in a push press the other week). I’m proud to be a part of something so inspiring. It makes me want to do better.  I think back to when I was 30 and puffing my way through 3o fags a day and couldn’t run up a flight of stairs without hearing the Grim Reaper clear his throat and I hardly recognise that person.   It wasn’t always easy making the change, but then things worth doing seldom are.

I’d love to hear what everyone is doing/thinking about doing.  Have at it ladies!

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