Is weight training the domain of dudes? Most gyms have no shortage of female members, but in my experience most women congregate near the cardio equipment or group class area. It’s true that I’m a guy, and I’m a huge fan of lifting weights. It’s also true that almost all the weight-training women I’ve ever talked to rave about the benefits of weight-bearing exercise. So why do so many ladies steer clear of the iron? And more importantly, what are they missing?
I can testify to the glories of weight training all day, but for women who are curious, interested, or even skeptical about starting a strength training routine, I went to my local expert (she teaches next door): personal trainer and figure competitor Anne Kartun.
Anne started training 35 years ago when her friend dragged her out on the university’s track team as a runner. After holding up track meets waiting for her to finish, her coach kindly requested she try discus and javelin. That became her introduction to strength training, and she has since worked as a personal trainer, competing in eight different fitness and bodybuilding competitions (she took first in five of them!) At 51, she’s probably the most ripped English teacher in California, and she has one of the best physiques of anyone I know, period. The lady knows a thing or two about weight training.
Richie: I basically wanted to talk to you about women and weight training—why so many seem to avoid it, and what your personal philosophy is when it comes to lifting weights. What would you say are some of the most common impediments that keep women from flocking to the weights?
Anne: Well, what do you think it is?
Richie: Um, I guess I’d say that they’re afraid or unsure. If one girl walks into a weight room with a bunch of guys, all the guys start looking around like a pack of prairie dogs. I can see how that would be intimidating.
Anne: Mmmmm. I don’t think that’s really it. I’ll tell you the reason most women don’t want to work out: They don’t want to have muscles. They think they’re going to turn into a man. That’s the thing I always get: “Oh I don’t want to bulk up.” Women are under this impression that if you pick up a weight, you’re going to turn into a man, that you’re going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger with boobs.
It (comes down to) society’s vision of what feminine is, and it’s all media driven. If you don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model, who are really “skinny fat,” if you don’t look like that then you don’t have a perfect body. Have you ever seen their contracts? They say if they gain any weight at all, their contract is null and void. They talk about eating only lettuce–
Richie: I don’t know, some of them are looking pretty ripped these days.
Ann: Well they’re getting better. People are getting more into fitness these days. But so much of that is airbrushed anyway. But ultimately it’s important to remember that much of what we see in print media is manipulated to fit a current ideal. Photo Shop and airbrushing help give the illusion of perfection ,which can give women unrealistic,even unhealthy goals.
But, overwhelmingly there’s still this thought that “If I lift weights, I’ll turn into a man.”
Richie: So it’s not about being intimidated?
I think part of it is that they don’t want to go over to the free-weight area because that’s where guys are, but if you went over to someone and asked a knowledgeable looking person for help, they would love to help out. And not in a bad way. I really don’t get that either. Sure if you carry yourself a certain way and dress in a certain way, then you’ll get that negative feed back. But I don’t ever get that “hey babe.” Maybe it’s just because I’m old. I don’t know.
Richie: So if you look like you’re at the gym to take care of business, it’s never been an issue for you?
Ann: No. it’s all about the attitude you convey.
Richie: I also wanted to touch on what you think are some of the myths surrounding weight lifting. What are some of the most common pieces of misinformation surrounding women and weight training?
Ann: So that’s one, that you’re going to turn into a man.
Richie: And why is that such a myth, that women are going to bulk up?
Ann: Women don’t have the same testosterone. The only way you’re going to look like a man is if you start injecting yourself with male hormones. If you just train, you’ll get a nice “tone” to you. Whatever that means. Tone just means you have less flab.
Richie: Right. I hear a lot of people talk about wanting to tone vs. bulk. What are your thoughts?
Ann: Look, flab is fat. When people say they want to tone, they mean “I don’t want to jiggle when I walk.” Muscle doesn’t jiggle. But some people think that muscle will become fat, and they’re two totally different metabolic things. One doesn’t become the other. What happens when you weight train, and it doesn’t happen with running or cardio, is that when you build muscle it’s metabolically active. It uses a lot of energy. It burns more calories, and you raise your metabolism, which causes your body to burn more fat.
Richie: I hear about that, and there’s really no such thing as tone. People want to tone their abs, so they’re killing themselves on the ab machine, and it’s like, you probably already have a ripped up six pack but you’re going to be at that ab machine for awhile before you clear all the excess fat from your body.
Ann: Exactly. I tell people that. You can’t remove fat in targets. They ask “how can I look like you,” and it’s like “you probably do, it’s just under stuff.” And just doing ab work will not make your abs visible. People just don’t want to hear that they have to diet.
Richie: Wow, you’re going right down the list here. So how important is diet?
Ann: It’s 85% of what you look like. There are a lot of people who want to know how to get a great physique just by lifting, and that’s not going to happen either.
Richie: So what do you eat? I’ve seen that six-story lunch box you have.
Ann: Ha, it’s all for show. You don’t really know what’s in all those compartments. Seriously, you need to eat small meals—grazing—every two to three hours.
Eat breakfast. There is a huge amount of research that says people who skip breakfast gain weight. You starve yourself, binge later, and end up gaining a bunch of weight. But yes, I eat a lot of small meals; it keeps your blood sugar relatively stable. Ideally, I try to keep all my meals about the same size. I try to eat clean—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein. No processed foods—I try to cook all my own meals, and I try to make good choices when I do eat out.
Richie: How do you train, as far as exercise selection and frequency?
Ann: Ideally, I’d be in the gym maybe five days a week, and I can get in and out in an hour if I needed to. Sometimes I’m down to one day a week, and I’m training a bit at home now. When I do cardio at all, I do HIIT (high intensity interval training). I use a protocol of 90 seconds of active rest, like pedaling on a bike, and then 30 seconds at a full sprint. And that sort of training has been shown to release more growth hormone, and the metabolic burst, the amount of calories you burn afterward goes for hours. People who do cardio-cardio-cardio aren’t doing much for themselves. They’re just eating their muscle.
As far as weight training, I’ll do split routines like back and biceps one day, chest and triceps another. Or I’ll do pushing and pulling exercises, or I’ll do just legs, I just mix it up because you have to keep the body guessing.
Richie: So if you had to train one thing, what would give you the most return on your investment?
Ann: I’d do legs. Legs are the best. I hate training them because it can be difficult and it makes me tired, but it’s a huge bang for your buck. When you do squats, you’re having to work all kinds of muscles, including your core, to stabilize the weight.
Richie: I know so much depends on individual health and goals, but can you outline a basic routine for women just looking to get started?
Ann: I would suggest that someone who has never weight-trained before or is just beginning to exercise be sure they are in good health, and check with a doctor before beginning any exercise routine for the first time. Then work with a personal trainer to ensure proper form and weight for individual goals. Once she feels comfortable with the exercises, then she can continue on her own.
Beginners should stick to machines as much as possible until strength has been improved and the “mind/muscle” connection has been learned. (Machines control the movement and range of motion for the exerciser, making them safer until one learns the proper feel of an exercise). Free weights offer more “bang for your buck” because an exerciser must use the stabilizing and neutralizing muscles to control movement, along with the targeted muscle group, thereby causing more muscle to be recruited and developed).
For someone with a little more experience I would suggest a full body circuit training routine. Something like this 3 to 4 days a week would be great.
Richie: Any final words for women considering weight training?
Ann: Weight training is more important for women than it is for men. It protects your bones, and the younger you start, the more bone density you can build. And the older you get, you can maintain that bone density. It can also do a lot for the hormonal systems in your body, regulating those.
There are so many benefits for women. Sure, men can become osteoporotic, but it’s a key issue for women, and the best way you can build bone density is to do weight bearing exercise.
You’ll look better, feel better, sleep better, you’re just happier. You’re not sick as much; you don’t get diabetes. A lot of times women sacrifice their own time and health for others. But they need to take the time so that they can be a better person for themselves. When we don’t take the time to do these things we get all cranky and it’s not good for anything. Being there for other people requires staying healthy, and weight training can be a beneficial part of a health conscious program.