As a coach that has worked in the industry for close to a decade, I have had the privilege to coach and work with hundreds of women in a variety of settings; in fitness classes large and small, in workshops and certification courses, through online coaching and in one and one personal training. My first ever client was a woman and a large percentage of clients that I coach today are women. I would even fathom to say that women are easier and generally more open to coaching than men, but that is the subject of another article! To suffice it to say, I am experienced with working with women in a gym setting and thought it was a good idea to talk about the importance of strength training for women.
Despite any experience or expertise that I may have accumulated, I realize that I really may have no clue what strength training means for women and that it would be better to hear it from women themselves. So, I asked seven amazing women about their history and how their experience with strength training has changed and evolved over the decades, how it has shaped and influenced their lives and what their hard work, sweat and dedication has produced. The women range in age from their 20’s to their 60’s and come from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences in different training settings.
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From Nautilus to Modern Day
Let’s start first with Carol, a woman in her mid-60’s that has been strength training since the 1990’s. She first started at Nautilus training on machines, in the old school golden age approach to fitness that provided the first taste for so many people. Her current goal with strength training is to continuously improve her body and health by building more muscle and reducing body fat (if possible, she added). She prefers working out in a setting that is primarily women only as it can be intimidating being in a setting with the big guys sitting around in groups hanging out on the machines. Fitness has come a long way since the bodybuilding influenced days of the 1990’s and she has adapted in kind. She finds it fun to do workouts that incorporate whole body movements and has learned that everything she does will improve; it just takes time. This applies outside of the gym as well; she has realized that strength training has not only physical benefits but emotional benefits as well.
Next we have Roxanne, an Iron-woman triathlete in her 50’s who does strength training 3x a week. She first started strength training when she was 18 years old in her first year of university. She didn’t want to gain the freshmen 15 and was into softball and volleyball and wanted to bolster her performance in her sports. She began training free weights and was not intimated by all the guys around her, despite only counting a few women. She was right in her element and soon began training five times a week. Her current goals with her training are to maintain her physical ability, mobility, flexibility, and ultimately move pain free. Strength training has helped her to prevent and recover from many injuries. Endurance and triathlon training can be very hard on the body. She credits strength training for feeling confident and good about her body and for looking good too!
Building Confidence, Holding Space
Rosalie starting training at an even younger age in high school. She has always been competitive and dreams of one day becoming an amateur weight lifter. She played competitive basketball in elementary school, mostly with boys, and playing alongside boys continued in high school and Cegep. Summers were spent playing basketball with men at community centres with only a small handful of women taking part. For this reason she never felt intimated by men in the gym. This experience helped prepare her for similar challenges in her career where she worked in a predominantly male dominated industry and she drew on her experiences in training and on the court to persevere. As she stated “The discipline, the intense focus, the ability to hold my ground was pivotal as I continued in my life”.
Her goals are to become stronger, healthier and live a better life. She owns a sporting Jack Russel and competes with him and wants to be able to keep up her fast moving and agile pup. Strength training has improved many aspects of her life, from the simplest of things like not being winded after walking up a flight of stairs to improving how she approaches nutrition, like trying to tweak a car for maximum performance. She doesn’t enjoy training with large groups of people as she always felt a disconnect between the trainer and herself. She prefers private training and says that the hardest part is finding a trainer to tune into who are you and how you are going to accomplish your objectives. As a plus sized woman, she has never felt any kind of body shame, saying that “Even in my heaviest of days, I have always felt comfortable with myself. Strength training fuels me even more. I feel great before a training session, and I feel like king kong after a training session”.
Moving Beyond the Aesthetic
Jolene, now her in late 40’s, was first introduced to strength training in her 20’s with nautilus machines. Before finding functional strength training when she began dry-land training for competitive dragon boat racing. Her goals are to maintain a healthy, resilient body and remain strong as she ages. Over the years she has experienced several instances of “mansplaining” – the offering of unsolicited and uninformed advice from men in the weight room. Some guys even tried to bully her or make comments about her appearance. She said she also received lots of encouragement and had positive conversations with men too. She concluded that spaces like weight rooms have been traditionally mostly male and mostly white and often stay that way unless gym owners and trainers/members make an effort to change it.
In regards to how strength training has influenced her perceptions about herself, she had a very important insight to share. She stated that “there are a lot of potentially damaging aspects to fitness and diet “culture”. I feel that women are conditioned to see strength training as a means of achieving an attractive physique or for weight loss rather than encouraged to set goals oriented around sports benchmarks. There is still fear among some women in my age group that strength training will make you appear too masculine. Strength training has had an impact on me in that it has helped me develop a healthier and more sustainable way of being in my body. For example, I can be proud of what my body can do rather than solely be focused on how it looks”. Moving beyond the aesthetic has been another common theme amongst these badass women in terms of their goals and focus.
Confidence and Utility
This is something that Jennifer also reported. She learned about strength training when she was 16 as a friend’s mom had personal training sessions that she wasn’t going to use and the trainer agreed to teach her and her friend the basics instead. In university she used weight machines and in post grad got into powerlifting. She became interested in how strength training can shape her physique. Now into her 30’s she is more interested in mastering her own body weight. She still loves to lift heavy, but what use is that if you can’t do a single pull up? To quote her “I mean… When the zombie apocalypse comes and I need to scale a wall, a pull up will be very useful!”. Strength training used to be about how much she could lift and now it is more about what it can do for long term health, including maintaining bone density.
In terms of body image, she admits going through some growing pains and that she is not as lean as she once was and is still learning to see her body for what it can do as opposed to what it looks like. She feels an increased confidence because of her training, feels more capable and has increased connection with and awareness of her body. She can carry all her groceries up two flights of stairs in one trip. Daily morning strength training also helps focus at work. She trains for marathons and triathlon and strength training has improved her performance in aerobic endeavours, allowed her to run faster and keep pace on long hikes.
Not Always Welcome
For Stephanie, a competitive hockey player since her youth, strength training wasn’t part of her development and she didn’t begin until she was 22. After university she got her first job and started going to the gym after work. It was a big box gym and after months of the elliptical and AfroCardio aerobic classes she finally ventured into the weight area and did the programs her mom was doing. She eventually joined other classes and fell in love with strength training. Over the years training became more goal oriented. She tried CrossFit, olympic lifting and finally fell in love with kettlebell sport.
Like some of the women have reported, she always felt more welcome in smaller studios and gyms and in class settings. Big box gyms were often filled with men hanging around the weight training area for hours, mostly spending time talking to their buddies. It was intimidating and she mostly avoided it and felt like she had to go hide in a corner.
Her goal is to get stronger overall, feel confident in her abilities, carry 6 grocery bags at once and feel strong in everyday life and everything she does outside the gym. She has had some struggles with body image, and strength training has a been a positive by focusing more on trying to be the best version of herself rather than relying on external motivations. She has come to appreciate her strong and athletic body and looks at athletes as her role models instead of actresses. Strength training has helped her to appreciate her body more for what it can do for her then how it appears on the outside.
Strength and Acceptance
Finally, we have Catherine, who came to the game late in her athletic career, only starting strength training at 31. She had been teaching Pilates and decided to try a kettlebell class at the studio she was teaching at and loved it! She started working with kettlebells and later took a mace certification and began working on the gymnastic rings. Her goal is to feel strong in her body. Being able to swing heavy things and lift her body up and over things is “pretty cool”.
Strength training has also gained her more confidence. She admits that she has always had bigger arms and a strong upper body but she didn’t feel that she owned it. Now in moments that she is feeling a bit down on herself, she knows that she is stronger than she was and if she doesn’t feel good about how she looks, she reminds herself of the strength that her body possesses and she is proud!
Most of her strength training has been at a women’s only studio that offers a variety of classes and strength training. The women are supportive and push each other to do the best they can and with her community behind her, she feels confident moving in shared spaces. Her understanding has evolved over time, her focus now is more on learning and understanding how to use her body effectively, so when something in life comes up, she can use the knowledge she has. Even easy things, like walking and bending down to pick something up still has an underlying strength quality.
When we look over the experiences of these seven women, we see many through lines. Despite differing experiences and years of experience, strength training has had a positive impact on the lives of all of these women. It has helped to breed confidence, a positive connection with one’s body and a sense of pride not in appearance, but of what the body is capable of. In an age when the pressure on girls and women towards perfection and being measured by some fake and filtered standard, strength training has provided a means to navigate these waters and love and appreciate ourselves. While the experience working alongside men and in gym settings is also quite different, lessons exist here for both men and women alike. Men can learn to check their attitudes and make women feel more welcome in the squat rack; women can hopefully see that despite some resistance or unwanted attention they may experience, the confidence gained from strength training will help empower them to continue to take their space in the gym and assert their greatness.
P.S. – Don’t forget to check me and Dave chat about how to become a better prepared tactical athlete on Episode 1 of The HRD2KILL Podcast
Don’t miss out on the opportunity so sign up for this very limited program for female CAF veterans living in Quebec. Get stronger and apply the principles laid out here in the article and click the button below to set up your initial assessment. The program is generously funded by the Barry F. Lorenzetti Foundation and is at no cost to you.
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Patrick Burkhard is the a Level 2 Agatsu Kettlebell Instructor, the Director of the Mace and Indian Club program for Agatsu Inc. and the head coach at the Agatsu Montreal Gym. He competes in both kettlebell sport as well as mace sport. He has had a passion for health and fitness since his youth and his mission is to inspire others to lead a healthy and active lifestyle and use exercise as a means to better all aspects of their lives, making them physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually stronger. You can connect with him on agatsumontreal.com or on instagram @coach.burkhard and @agatsumontreal.