Author and journalist Poorna Bell shares the things she wishes she’d known at the start of her strength journey
I came to strength training pretty late in life and starting competitively weightlifting a year ago. It isn’t hyperbole for me to say it is one of the best things in my life, but it is also one of my biggest regrets: that I didn’t start it sooner. While I can’t take too much blame — the world is not particularly encouraging towards women interested in lifting weights — there is a lot I wish I had known. Here are four reasons why I encourage every woman to try strength training at least once.
The intimidation is real but it’s also a smokescreen
Feeling intimidated in the free weights section, or defaulting to feeling weak and small just because you’re a woman isn’t an imagined thing. We’ve been conditioned to automatically think of weights as something men do and gyms are fairly gendered places. A study back in 2017 showed that women ‘self-police’ by sticking only to spaces they feel are “appropriate” for their gender. In an attempt to take up as little space as possible, women feel less inclined to use the weights section in gyms where men typically congregate.
But here’s what I’ve learned. 1) There’s no reason why men belong in the free weight section more than women do. 2) Some men feel just as intimidated as women do when strength training around more experienced weight lifters. 3) Half the guys in there probably don’t know what they’re doing either but are covering it up with bluster.
The biggest thing however is that the intimidation stems from worrying about what others think of you, or whether men are going to mansplain your workout. Given that strength training makes me feel capable, strong and happy, I’ve decided to never let anyone else scare me out of doing something that I love.
Your body will change - try to lean into it
The short of it is that it’s incredibly hard for women to build muscle, but your body will undergo changes as you strength train. What I wish I’d known is that this is totally normal and is called re-conditioning. If you’re doing something different with your body, then it will respond and react accordingly, and that’s fine. Hell, it’s science.
I ended up in a complete tizz because I was trying to keep my body as small as possible while trying to build strength, and it reached a point where I had to choose between aesthetics and strength. Several things helped with this. The first was a realisation that getting stronger had given me everything positive, while trying to be as small as possible had given me nothing but heartache- whether that was feeling guilty about food or ‘punishing’ myself by burning off calories on the treadmill.
The second was realising that I needed to get some different clothes. I hadn’t increased in a dress size but the configuration of my body was different, for instance my glutes were bigger and my shoulders were broader. The result was that some of my clothes were uncomfortable all the time, and it made me feel terrible that I didn’t fit into them properly. The minute I got clothes that flattered and fit the new, stronger body I had, I felt such a sense of relief. And it actually allowed me to enjoy how I looked.
But the final thing is learning that bodies do change and the world doesn’t end when they do. If we can push past that initial terror, we may find that watching our bodies undergo change is strangely freeing, because if it can change once, it can do so again and again.
People may not understand – but don’t let that stop you
People will always have an opinion, especially when you take up strength training, but that may be because they don’t do it themselves.
The fact that people think they can comment on what we women do to our own bodies makes me want to scream from a hilltop. I’ve heard it all, from ‘why are you doing that?’ to ‘don’t get too muscley’.
Training and hanging out with like-minded individuals who also enjoy the benefits of lifting weights can do wonders for your own attitude towards fitness. And surrounding yourself with this kind of positivity applies to all aspects of your life, not just working out.
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Image: Shani Kaplan, Getty