Tuesday, August 7, 2012

La Bell Vie: The Crucial Importance of Strength Training for Women

Fifteen years ago, the state-of-the art women's-only gym I now work for faced a lawsuit that could have easily put them, and all other women's gyms in the state, out of business forever.  Specifically, the gym faced a civil rights charge headed by a male lawyer who walked in one day inquiring about a membership.  (Mmmmm - don't you love the smell of court bait in the morning?)

In any case, the gym's single-sex membership policy was found to be in conflict with a state Accommodations law, but the outpouring of support from the gym's dedicated members overwhelmed the owner to work hard to pass a new law in the state that would allow single-sex facilities under reasonable guidelines.  Since then, 10 or more states have passed similar laws allowing such facilities.  The number one reason that drove the company to make a policy change came form the voices of the members themselves: "Yes," most of them answered in a survey taken during the heat of the lawsuit, they would continue to be members even if the gym became co-ed.  But they most likely never would have joined the gym in the first place if it hadn't been women-only.

I can see the shining truth and impact of this statement every day at my new place of work, where there exists no "weight room/cardio room" dichotomy all-too-prevalent in so many fitness centers nation-wide.  Cardio, you see, whether in the form of a group stepaerobics class or a solo run on the treadmill to CNN and the latest episode of Ace of Cakes, is a "woman's thing;" shouldn't their main concern, after all, be to find the quickest way to burn the most calories possible and finally achieve the level of waifiness only known to New York socialites so they can wear all those to-die-for outfits they've been Pinning since last November?  The weight room, conversely, is the haven of sweat and phosphagens where dudes and bros and dads and men go to get their pump going - working 'til failure, always ramping up the pounds, and scoring the bicep bulk and core definition that would make Tony Horton run away crying.  Right.  Right...?

But at my gym, the women crowd the free weights and the hydraulic strength machines as eagerly - even more so, as was evidenced by the utter disruption of routine many felt while we had only part of the strength-line machines removed and updated - as the treadmills and the ellipticals and the Urban Rebounders.  They can pick a weight that's right for them, curl their biceps and back-ward lunge until they're sore but somehow exhilarated and ready to take whatever the rest of the day hurls at them.  

The sad fact about the dominant views of each gender's respective "place" in the fitness center is that individual men and women are not to blame.  Most men would likely be happy to show an interested woman her way around the bells and whistles and machines of the strength center.  Like so many mechanisms of oppression prevalent in society, the forces of privilege, access and advantage are beyond the best intentions of most individuals; these forces live in a Gestaltist world of social influence and cultural hegemony.  What keeps most women from the weight room isn't the actual men in the room at all, but the different expectations of ability and access that society places on men and women apart.  On a similar note of disclaim, not all of us have the privilege of a membership at a gym like mine, and not all of us would want one - indeed, a proud feminist like myself can only dream of the day when gender is simply not a consideration when admitting a member to a gym.  But until that day, many women might miss out on a crucial aspect of their health and fitness routine and will be deprived of the myriad benefits, physical and emotional, of strength training.  

Let this post stand as a manifesto for female-bodied citizens everywhere to be up in arms (dumbells raised in correct form, with your arms extending straight past your ear to the ceiling) and stop and nothing to make strength training a priority.  Your bones and your spirit and your newfound popping triceps will thank you.

1. Strength training makes everything in life easier.  According to about.com fitness editor Elizabeth Quinn, "[i]f your maximum strength is increased, daily tasks and routine exercise will be far less likely to cause injury.  Research studies conclude that even moderate weight training can increase a woman's strength by 30 to 50 percent."  Who needs a cute neighbor when you can lift two weeks of groceries up seven flights of stairs all by yourself?

2. Get a lean, mean, disease-fighting machine.  The average woman can gain two pounds of muscle simply by strength training a few times a week for two months.  We all know muscle is responsible for the sleek, toned look a lot of you are going for after watching the Olympics gymnastics finals, but vanity aside, muscle burns fat - and a body with a lower percentage of fat and more lean muscle mass is one that's better at using food for energy and less prone to diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and all other Scary Disease Words, not to mention ramping up your metabolism to make room for an extra delightful dessert every now an then.  In fact, weight training can improve glucose utilization, a major risk factor in Type II diabetes, by 23% over just four months; it has also shown to help levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol) rise while lowering LDL ("bad" cholesterol).

3. Shatter-free, pain-free bones.  Regular weight training has been shown to increase spinal bone density by 13% in just six months.  It also works wonders for the stuff around your bones - namely, the ligaments and tendons.  Low-back pain, a huge contributor to lost work days and overall unhappiness among the American public, can be quelled by up to 80% with a strength training regimen.  Especially if you, like many women, have a family history of osteoporosis, arthritis, or other related issues, take strength training seriously and enjoy your golden years without a lifetime subscription to LifeAlert services.  (Unless you're only really in it for the cool, chunky necklace).

4. A strong woman is a happy woman.  One Harvard study found that a 10-week strength training regimen was more effective at fighting symptoms of clinical depression than traditional treatment. 

Convinced?  Good.  If you're a lucky owner of a gym membership but a first-time strength trainer, check with your current schedule to see if your center offers any group classes that incorporate strength training.  Some, like the internationally known BodyPump, focus solely on weight training for a full hour.  If you're a cardio addict and only have limited time each day to devote to a work-out, see if there are any current classes that utilize circuit training, or a system of cycling through sets of cardio intervals with weight training to keep your heart rate elevated as well as your muscles pumping.

If your wallet or your personal preference keeps you at home for a work-out, check out some strength-oriented Beach Body programs like Les Mills PUMP, a home-video version of internationally renowned BODYPUMP classes, or the classic and deservedly popular P90X.  If you've only got so much time in the day and love to feel your heart rate busting through the roof, try one of fitness superstar and all-around certified badass Jillian Michaels' DVD programs, "30-Day Shred," "Ripped in 30" or her new release, "Body Revolution." 

Women and weights: truly a thing of beauty.

1 comment:

  1. I loved your post! I regularly recommend strength training to my female patients, and commonly cite those same arguments that you outlined so well in your post.

    I wanted to share some of my own favorite strength training resources. For those who are self-starters, I highly recommend "Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training." It's available at Amazon for $29.95 (paperback) or $9.95 for the Kindle version. http://www.amazon.com/Starting-Strength-3rd-Mark-Rippetoe/dp/0982522738/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344368546&sr=8-1&keywords=starting+strength

    On June 25, 2008, my life changed forever when I got this book. It turned me from someone who had tried once or twice to lift weights without any results or measurable success (and therefore no follow-through) to someone who could safely and correctly perform all the lifts that I would see the athletes doing in my college gym - squats, bench press, press, power cleans, and deadlifts. Armed with this information, I gradually increased the weight on the bar with each exercise and saw real change in my strength, confidence, and physique. I began looking forward to my next workout. In the book, there is ample in-depth detail about how to perform each lift, with plenty of photographs and diagrams demonstrating the mechanical principles of lifting safely and correctly. I highly, highly recommend it.

    Also, Annie and I like this blog by a female weightlifter. The blog is called Stumptuous. www.stumptuous.com/

    Keep lifting!