Women and Training: The “Weight” of Misconceptions
by Diane Omari
When picturing a weight lifter, the image is often one of a muscular male. Why is it that men are more associated with the sport than women? Women have often had the lower hand in weight training due to various misconceptions that appear to dominate it. Overall, research has found that women are far less likely to engage in weight training than men. This is despite the fact that it has been proven to have health benefits for everyone (Salvatore & Marecek, 2010, p. 556). It has become apparent after recent trends in fitness that women are not educated about what weight training does to their bodies. When walking into a common gym, there is usually a clear trend with respect to both genders: Women tend to stay by the several cardiovascular machines such as treadmills and often steer clear of the heavy weights and machines. Men, on the other hand, are often training hard in the free-weights section, and loading weights onto other machines. This is not to say that all men who exercise lift weights and all the women do cardio, but there does seem to be a significant pattern in that the average woman will not incorporate high-intensity weight training into her workout, if any. Women’s low involvement in the sport is mainly due to the fear of looking masculine, the discomfort of going against societal norms, and the lack of education in its health benefits.
Fear of “Masculinity”
One of the major perplexities that women encounter regarding weight training is the fear of developing manly features. The media creates complex circumstances for progress, as it communicates what is ideal for femininity and masculinity. This in turn creates the conflict where there is no fine line between the two. This creates a mental conflict where women are not sure how far they should take their training or if they should pursue it at all.
Women will often restrict themselves in the gym because they fear losing their so-called femininity. A major issue with this concept is that there are no clear criteria for feminine traits. It seems, however, that women are expected to lack masculinity and strength. This idea is influenced by the historical concept of being the physically inferior gender. Even with all the progress that women have made over the last several decades determining what exactly “femininity” entails regarding the female body is still not clear. Women are seen as the weaker gender, and as such, are expected to have more gentle features. The trend has been to attain “skinny” bodies, rather than fit ones, and not focusing as much on strength as on appearance.
Tennis players. An article by The New York Times illustrates this idea by quoting several highly ranked female tennis players as they discuss the controversies they face with their body types and muscular development. The article explains that several of the women resist lifting weights to avoid compromising their feminine features. What is most significant about this is that all of these women are professional athletes, which shows just how deeply the stigma is engraved. Serena Williams, ranked number one in women’s singles tennis, says that she does not touch weights because she is already “super fit and cut,” and that if she merely looks at them, she gets bigger (Rothenberg, 2015). Even the coaches stress the necessity of femininity. One of the coaches said that he wants to keep his player the “smallest” in the top 10, because she is a woman, and wants to be a woman (Rothenberg, 2015). This shows women who pursue sports and strength as a career may resist weight-training activities in order to avoid an increase in size or remain feminine.
Fear of injury
In The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look like a Goddess by Schuler and Forsythe (2007), the authors explain how women are either afraid to train or train very lightly for this very reason (p. 3). They also tend to follow perfect form and are able to do so by using the lightest possible weights (p. 4-6). This could imply that women are more afraid of injury while working with weights. The authors explain that men are more likely to speed up their final repetitions to add more to their sets, because when they are more experienced, they trust their bodies more (p. 6). While having good form is necessary to prevent injuries and get a full range of motion, it is often a lack of self-trust or experience that causes women to resist heavier loads. This reduces the gains that can be acquired in the gym as the lighter weights women lift may not actually challenge them nor push them to their muscular limits. It appears they correlate lighter weights with leaner bodies and stick to the same weights for long periods of time to avoid what they believe will make them big: “Lifting like a man” (p.1).
Another issue causing self-restriction is that women generally have goals related to fat burning, whereas men tend to lean towards gaining muscle (Salvatore & Marecek, 2010, p.560). Nevertheless, muscular growth is not likely to occur under the conditions that women exercise. Using the same weights for a long period of time will cause them to plateau and eventually stop seeing positive changes in their bodies. When pursuing this goal, many women associate optimum fat burning with long cardiovascular training sessions, such as long-distance walks or jogs on the treadmill. They seem to be unaware of the fact that building muscle does indeed increase the amount of fat burned, not only during the session, but also after leaving the gym. This is because muscle development requires the body to use more energy, therefore burning calories at higher amounts, even at rest (McGlashan, 2013). Women need to understand this in order to stop neglecting weight training as an avid source of fat burning.
A study of 120 females between 20-40 years old showed that aerobic exercise (like jogging) decreases body weight in fat and lean muscle, whereas using weights maintains lean muscle while decreasing body fat (Lehri & Mokha, 2006, p. 99). Women are often not aware that building muscle, although it may increase the number on the scale, will encourage fat loss. Especially for those who are inexperienced, weight training is immediately correlated with big and bulky features, whereas cardio training is associated with lean body types. Regardless, developing muscle does not necessarily mean that women will become bulky.
Social influence is a strong factor in the realm of sport, and weight training is no exception. Men are more likely to practice weight training because social standards dictate it as a masculine sport. Unfortunately this idea is another strong influence towards women’s resistance.
The “glass ceiling”
When trying to identify where these restrictions lie, it is often discussed that a “glass ceiling” emerges for women who take part in the sport. It causes them to feel that they have a certain social restraint even when they do consider lifting weights. B. Christine Shea, an expert in the domains of gender issues, has published in many academic journals and books for her research on psychological differences in gender. Her article, “The Paradox of Pumping Iron: Female Bodybuilding as Resistance or Compliance” (2001) explains that female bodybuilding can give women a sense of empowerment while simultaneously putting them at a disadvantage. She claims that although there has been a wider acceptance of women who weight train, there are still disagreements on what a female body should look like (p. 42-46). This reiterates the idea of a glass ceiling, which is further analyzed by Shari Dworkin (2001). In an ethnographic study, she found that ¾ of the women she interviewed in a private gym were conscious of a glass ceiling existing. They showed this through fear of looking like female bodybuilders and attaining “bulky” muscles. Even non-lifters who also exercised, which accounted for 25% of the women surveyed, were worried about this (p. 337-339). This idea is shown to be more popular towards women. Men do not seem to face the same circumstances when they take up weightlifting as a significant part of their lives. Women are therefore held back with weight training, even if their intentions are simply to lose weight or attain a fitter physique.
Another social concern arises with the idea of physical attractiveness. In a study within a private university, differences of gender in weight training were observed. After a questionnaire was given to 109 males and 71 females, where 6.4% of males said they were concerned that developing too much muscle mass would make them less physically attractive, whereas 35.2% of women felt this way (Duff, Hong, Royce, 1999, p. 77). There is undeniably a double standard in weight training, where, although women have been encouraged to stay fit and healthy, they have to be careful not to go against what is adequate for a “feminine” physique. Women who take part in weight training, whether it be for sport, fitness, or power, may also worry that it will make them less physically appealing. The standards for beauty have already been determined, and a muscular or strong body type does not fit the criteria for a woman.
Fighting against the social norms depicted by society
High-Profile Weight Training
Societal norms can shape people’s behavior in far more ways than they realize, and women weight training is no exception. Women are not only trying to improve their bodies, but they have to do it from a place of immediate disadvantage. High-profile sports competitions often make impressions on the common public about what the sport does to the contestants.
In Olympic weight training, high performance records are often set by men (Thibault, Guillaume, Berthelot, Helou, Schaal, Quinquis, & Toussaint, 2010, p. 214-215). This perpetuates the idea that weight training is, and should be, a male dominated sport. It also shows how even when women become involved in the sport they will never be as competent as men as they are being judged on the same muscular standards even when their bodies are clearly different. On a larger scale, the average woman will see these results and conclude that men seem to be setting the standard for the sport. Female viewers will therefore refrain from weight training, and look elsewhere to achieve their goals.
Even within the realm of bodybuilding, females face a controversy where social norms expect them to uphold “feminine” features in competition. Although the competitors’ aim is to lose extreme amounts of body fat, while gaining maximum muscle mass, they are often judged or penalized for non-fitness related attributes. Dworkin (2001) quotes Bolin (2001), who explains that judges still consider features such as hair being blown-out, painted nails, and breast sizes when determining the winners (p.335). Men do not face the same issue and are only judged on their ability to flex their large muscles. The female bodybuilders, therefore, have more to worry about whilst in the exact same competition.
Limitations in the UAE
There are also cultural norms that depict the equipment that should be used by either gender. One example of this can be seen in the United Arab Emirates where religion plays a strong role in society. As laws in the UAE are influenced by Islamic, religious morals, they play a large role in the lives of those that populate the country. This may influence women who exercise in private gyms.
Influences of segregated gyms
For religious purposes, several gyms in the Emirates have “women’s only” sections as religious women are supposed to cover most of their bodies when they are in the presence of men (Boulanouar, 2006, p.135). While this benefits religious women who want to train, there is still a drawback when looking at the diversity of equipment on either side.
Deborah Jones is a certified Canadian resistance training teacher and female’s football coach in the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. When asked what differences she sees in private gyms, she commented about this very point: “On the ladies side there are a lot more machines and few weights whereas on the guy’s side there are a lot of weights and few machines” (personal communication, 2015). Based on Jones’ observations, the mixed-gender (or men’s only) side, depending on the gym, is more encouraging with respect to weight training. On the other hand, the women’s side is somewhat deprived of weights, and is populated with [cardiovascular] machines. Jones also stated that she thinks this is for safety purposes, but is not exactly sure why there is a difference (2015). By this she means that the owners and trainers in the gym are actually more concerned for women’s safety and are influenced by the same misconceptions as the uneducated population.
Influences for cardio
Based on this, women in the UAE are more likely to succumb to hours of cardiovascular training simply because of limited access to equipment. The presence of unlimited cardiovascular machines (elliptical trainers, treadmills, Stairmasters, rowers) will influence them to believe that this is their best if not only option. Not knowing what is available on the mixed side, or seeing other women training with heavy weights, will make them more prone to performing ineffectively on a cardio machine for hours. Gym owners and those who equip the gym have therefore been influenced by culture to make women less likely to weight train. Consequently, women of the UAE are disadvantaged as they lack the basic resources necessary to get past the misconceptions that have influenced the community.
Motivation against the norms
The universal standard for women’s beauty, although dynamic, rarely has any considerations for more muscular women. The unfortunate result of this is that women are far less inclined to gaining muscle, based on ideas that are portrayed to them by the media and by basic social encounters on a daily basis. There are, however, women who get past these influences, and find different motivations for weight training.
Women may use weight training as a means to empower themselves against the norms of society. Suffolk (2015) addresses this controversy in his article “Professional female bodybuilding: Self-determination theory approach,” which discusses various interviews of female professional bodybuilders and what motivates them to do the sport. His studies show that these women were inspired to go against the gender norms (p. 70-83). In a sport dominated by men, weight training would not only increase women’s physical power and strength, but also their mental determination. Indeed, the main reasons they engage in the sport is so that they can thrive against unequal circumstances. Although this may increase their confidence, it exhibits just how difficult it can be for women to succeed in all aspects of weight training when society seems to undermine their ability to do so.
Overlooked Health Benefits
As a result of women giving in to the pressures of society, they often neglect to see the several benefits that weight training can have for them. Women also believe that weight training is more for people who are already athletes, for purposes like increasing physical performance. Older women, for example, are often afraid to engage in the sport because of their lack of experience and education on its health benefits.
Impacts on bone marrow density. A study by Englund, Littbrand, Sondell, Pettersson, and Bucht (2005), published in Osteoporosis International, addresses this issue. They performed an experiment, which showed that women aged 66-78 greatly benefitted from weight training, balance, and resistance exercises (p. 1117-18). In this context, weight training refers to lifting weights such as dumbbells, and resistance training refers to body weight and endurance exercises. In a 12-month exercise program the results found that bone marrow density increased for the group that trained while it remained constant for the control group. Walking speeds were also measured, and significantly increased for the women who underwent the program (p. 1120-23). This shows not only that older women are capable of weight training, but that it can also aid their physical development. This, in turn, can reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis where bones lose tissue and therefore become weaker (Seltzer, 2013). Therefore, weight training can be applicable to all women who wish to prevent this disease. Beginning to train from a young age may reduce the risks of losing bone tissue. As this condition is found to be more prominent in women, weight training may protect them from it.
As described above, weight training is not limited to specific age groups. While it can surely aid older women in decreasing health problems for the future (and, likewise, reduce risks women face at a younger age), it can help younger women in attaining more desirable and healthy body compositions.
Nickols-Richardson, Miller, Wootten, Ramp, and Herbert (2007) conducted a study that addressed how weight training can decrease the body fat mass in younger women, with the age range of 18-26 years. The hypothesis of the experiment tested whether concentric (the tensioned part of lifting weights) or eccentric (the part when the weight is released) resistance weight training had the most effect on physical gains in 69 women. In both groups tested, fat-free mass and bone marrow increased compared with the control group (p. 789-796). This study shows that weight training in various demonstrations has a positive effect on body composition and physical health.
As a result, young women may benefit mentally from the effects of the changes they make to their bodies. Jones mentions this by saying, “females who weight train generally have more confidence… are happier with their body composition, they are stronger and that reflects in their outlook on life and their demeanor” (personal communication, 2015). Women who weight train may therefore also feel better about themselves on a day-to-day basis, on the grounds that they are able to improve their body compositions through the addition of muscle and the reduction of fat. Oftentimes, however, this does not take place because women do not risk building muscle to burn fat, or fail to understand the relationship between the two. Women who wish to decrease fat through weight training could spend fewer hours in the gym and burn more fat in the long run than those performing continuous low-intensity cardio. Therefore, weight training could help younger women increase their self-esteem by bringing them closer to their desired physiques. It may also help them maintain healthy bodies in the long run and make their lives easier as they age.
While it is clear that weight training has become more understood as a legitimate type of training for women, the fears, social stigmas, and lack of education related to it have persisted. Women need to become more educated about the benefits of the sport, and for this to happen, the myths regarding its effects need to be revealed. Women are often afraid that heavy weights are correlated with “masculine” body types, as well as extremely ripped bodies that they see through various forms of media. This causes them to neglect both the empowering aspects of weight training and its numerous health benefits. Progress will not be made unless both genders can cooperate in portraying the true consequences of weight training for women, which are largely positive. Women should not feel at a disadvantage simply for gaining strength or muscle. Women should define their own standards for weight training and the physiques they can acquire, and they should not have to worry about society depicting them as anything but strong, empowered, and healthy human beings.
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Diane Falez Omari is a Turkish national, born in Istanbul. She is a Junior, currently majoring in International Studies with a concentration in International Relations, and minoring in history and psychology. She wishes to pursue law for her Master’s degree and hopes to one day specialize in either family or labor law. Diane was inspired to write this paper due to her personal love for heavy weight lifting, and her desire for other people to learn the many benefits it can bring. Weight lifting has played a major role in her life alongside her education.