Lessons from Lifting Weight as a Woman
If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed by now that I’m a big fan of weight lifting. However, it wasn’t until about four years ago that I started lifting on a regular basis. While more women seem to be embracing strength training these days (I feel like the popularization of Crossfit has helped with this), it’s still a sausage party in the weight room at most gyms.
There’s a whole host of reasons why you see more men in the weight room than women, but a big part of it is due to a lot of misconceptions women have about strength training. I mean, it also doesn’t help that being female in the weight room is like walking around with a giant “come over & bug me” sign on your back… but that’s a whole other topic.
I jumped right into running when I started on my fitness journey, but I was a lot more hesitant to start lifting weights. I mean, I don’t want to look like Arnold, so why would I ever pick up a dumbbell over 5lbs? It’s sad, but honestly, that was my mentality. And I know I’m not the only woman who has had that attitude.
Through weight lifting, I learned how many misconceptions I had about strength training and overall health. Here are a few of the most important lessons that weight lifting has taught me:
There is no such thing as toning
Somewhere along the line, society started teaching women that they should strive towards “toning” their body rather than building muscles. Building muscle became synonymous with looking like a Miss Olympia champion, and “toning” meant creating more subtle definition. Tons of videos and workouts claim to be the perfect program to “tone” and “sculpt” your muscles. I mean, they even came out with special shoes that claimed to “tone” your body and spot reduce fat.
The crazy thing I discovered when I started learning about lifting weights is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TONING. Yup, it’s just made up marketing jargon. You can only build muscle, which will increase muscle definition and firmness. Don’t believe me? Check out this article or this one or this one.
Lifting heavy will not turn you into a man or make you “bulky”
So, after learning there is no such thing as toning, I got the message that to achieve a more sculpted, Beyonce-esque bod, I’d need to build some muscle. However, I was still hesitant to pick up a barbell, because I didn’t want to get HUGE. What I didn’t realize is that no one accidentally gets jacked. Women especially are slow to put on muscle mass, and it takes years and years of dedicated training to build massive muscles. Plus, diet also plays a huge role in your body composition and ability to develop large muscles.
Everyone’s body is different, so it’s impossible to know exactly how your body will change after you start lifting. However, no matter who you are, you won’t accidentally get “bulky” from lifting heavy weights. You will, however, have more effective and efficient workouts. You’ll also see some pretty aesthetically-pleasing results. Check out this great post by Girls Gone Strong to read more about why lifting heavy weights won’t make you bulky.
There’s no room for your ego in the weight room
The thing that sucks about starting to lift is that (unless you are a genetic freak or have a very physical job) you probably can’t lift very much. However, that didn’t stop me from enthusiastically loading up a barbell to do squats when I first started lifting. So, I spent a lot of time (more than I’d like to admit) doing shallow squats with poor form, which was ineffective and put me at risk for injury. Eventually, I swallowed my pride, stripped the bar of any weights, and worked on squatting the empty bar with good form. And that’s when I started seeing progress.
Erin Stern said it best when she said, “You can’t lift weights with your ego.” You can’t compare yourself with others at the gym and you have to be okay with starting wherever you’re at. Even after you spend years lifting, you’ll probably find exercises that will kick your ass and leave you completely humbled.
Progress isn’t linear
Every workout won’t be a personal best. If you’re lucky, it might be that way when you first start lifting. However, eventually your “noob gains” will run out and you’ll start stalling. It’s okay, progress takes time. Sometimes you’ll take two steps forward, only to take one step back. It doesn’t mean you’re failing or backsliding, it just means you’re human and lifting is hard work. Many lifters find it helpful to add in intentional periods of “deloading” to allow themselves recovery time before chasing after PRs again.
Everyone’s timeline is different
Speaking of progress, do not compare your progress to anyone else. It is poison. Instagram makes me believe that everyone except for me can get six-pack abs in just 6 weeks. Or everyone can deadlift over 250lbs except for me. That’s a load of crap. Some people are lucky and make progress quickly. Some people have more time to dedicate to training. And some things on the internet are just straight up lies.
The fact is, transformation photos and PRs don’t tell the whole story. And even if they did, you still shouldn’t compare yourself. We’re all unique snowflakes, dammit, and progress is going to look different to everyone. When I started focusing on being the best version of myself, I started being a lot happier.
Calories are your friend
I spent so much of my life focusing on ways to limit my calorie in take that I kind of forgot what calories actually are: energy. While I did see some impact of my diet on my running, it wasn’t until I started lifting regularly that I had a new appreciation of food as fuel. When I start limiting and restricting my diet too much, I notice my workouts start to suffer.
When I first started lifting, I was eating about 1,500 calories a day. Per the advice of a trainer, I started slowly upping my calories. And a crazy thing happened: I started gaining muscle, my waist grew smaller, and I started looking thinner than when I was eating less food. Building muscle requires fuel. Lifting weights forced me to stop looking at calories and food as something bad to be controlled, but something good and essential to power my body.
The scale can be deceiving
We’ve all heard it before: muscle weighs more than fat. I had heard that fact a bajillion times before I started lifting, but I still freaked out when I was kicking my ass in the gym and the scale was staying stagnant. It’s hard to detach yourself from the number on the scale, especially if that’s been your main measurement of success on a weight loss journey.
However, muscle really is much more dense than fat. 5lbs of muscle is going to take up much less space than 5lbs of fat. So, the number on the scale could not budge, but you’ll find your clothes are getting looser. Focus more on how you feel and your physical performance rather than the number on the scale. And if you feel you really need a more objective way to gauge your progress, focus more on body fat percentage, measurements, or photos.
Throwing around heavy shit feels good
There are days that I crave the freedom and peace of a long run by myself. Then there are other days where I just want to throw some heavy shit around. If running is my “meditation” time, then lifting is my “screaming-obscenities-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-after-a-long-day-of-biting-my-tongue” time. Lifting can be cathartic and one hell of a stress-reliever.
Additionally, I find it incredibly empowering. Weightlifting requires both physical and mental toughness. It requires focus and continually telling yourself, “I can do this.” As a result, nothing makes me feel stronger and more confident than hitting a PR. I know I not only pushed myself physically, but I also overcame mental barriers as well.