A set of barbells over a rosie the riverter style bicep

Women's Health

Getting Strong Gave Me Strength


The health benefits for women to do weight training are manifold, from improving mental acuity to increasing bone density. So why aren't we more strongly encouraged to do it?



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This is not a fat-girl redemption narrative. I’m not here to stand on a stump, Chunk-like, and do the truffle shuffle for the collective amusement of the skinny Goonies to prove my right to participate.

It is also not about learning to love the slowly rotting meatsack I’m lugging around—I never hated it—or about “body positivity” or a thinly disguised weight-loss guide masquerading as a health piece. 

This is about picking up heavy things and setting them down, over and over again. This is about why and how women tend to venerate Rosie the Riveter and coo over “Michelle Obama arms” but often eschew the sort of exercise regimens that we think would build visibly bigger muscles in favor of ones that will just slim us down. It is about which kind of bulk society identifies as feminine even as it culturally primes us to reject that bulk, and the kind it identifies as masculine and thus primes us to reject. It is about presuming cultural competence with regard to gender and activities, and how we don’t talk or even really think about the ways in which those ingrained assumptions about who can do what often make women physically more dependent on men than we often say we want to be.

It’s a story about how, in fact, thick thighs do save lives—yours. And mine. And whomever else you end up being able to carry because you grew them.

***

But if we’re going to talk about lifting weights, let’s start with some numbers.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2016 suggested that only about 20 percent of Americans exercised on a given day. Women who did exercise were, unsurprisingly, disproportionately represented among those who did aerobics (86 percent of participants, women) and yoga (85 percent); men were disproportionately represented among those who played football (93 percent) and basketball (90 percent).

Less than 30 percent of all people who did any weight training on a given day were women.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from the same period reflects similar patterns: 60 percent of Americans do no weight training at all, and only 20 percent do it twice a week, which is what’s recommended. Women were among those disproportionately likely to do little or none at all.

Why does this matter? After all, isn’t cardio the thing we’re supposed to be focused on?

Well, first off, a 2019 report from the Department of Health and Human Services outlining why and how often Americans should exercise emphasizes that any physical activity is better than none. (In other words, if the thought that running a couple of miles is what’s required of you is why you’re not doing anything, go take a long walk. Congrats: You’ve just exercised.) But, in general, they recommended 150 minutes of “moderate physical activity” a week—which includes brisk walking, slow biking, yoga, dancing, and yard work—plus two sessions a week of “muscle strengthening” activity, which includes either weight or resistance training.

The weight-training part is key because the science there is essentially unequivocal. Weight training can increase bone density, which is especially important for women as they age, and it helps to reduce osteoporosis. In older adults, it’s been shown to reduce the signs of chronic disease and help with depression and insomnia, as well as improve mental acuity. It’s more effective at perpetuating weight loss because having more muscle mass burns more calories; and it’s possibly essential to weight loss in general, according to new studies. (All of these benefits actually get more important as you age.)

None of this is to say you should eschew getting your heart rate up—there are definite benefits to cardio. But if you are doing just cardio—whether to lose weight, or simply for the health benefits, the fact of the matter is that you are legitimately missing out.

And a lot of women are missing out.

***

I didn’t know any of that five years ago, when I walked into a neighborhood gym with my then-housemate. I knew I needed to exercise; I knew having a buddy to go with would hold me accountable; I knew paying for it would incentivize me actually doing it.

I also knew, the first time I went, that I would hurt for days after. And that even by the standards of a newbie gym-goer, my performance on the weights was pretty sad. 

But the fact of the matter was that, with the minor exception of doing the 30-Minute Circuit on the weight machines at Planet Fitness a couple of times—an annoying experience that involved dodging thin young women who would sit quietly on the machines’ benches while their boyfriends preeningly lifted weights nearby, and the staff ignored everyone—I’d never lifted weights before. 

In my high school, the weight room was adjacent only to the boys’ locker room; the girls passed it on the way to our locker room and the two gymnasiums we all used for phys.-ed classes. We took a class in it just once in four years—my senior year—for some sort of assessment the gym teacher demanded.

I actually wasn’t nearly the worst of the girls in class that day. I’d been taking dance lessons since age 7, so despite my skinny frame, I had pretty solid legs, which my dance teachers had said—more than once—made me less than the ideal for a ballerina. 

My innate musculature came up a lot until my junior year in college, when I finally stopped dancing for other people. Choreographers were always polite, but the upshot was that women with longer muscle fibers (and thinner hips, and smaller boobs) than me have looked more lyrical, more feminine in their physical expressions. Big calves and thighs—mine grew bigger the more I worked—and hips and tits lent themselves more to “ethnic” dances or expressions of fertility, I was told. 

Of course, they weren’t alone in those thoughts, back in the 1990s when I was growing up, nor were those ideas about what supposedly looks most attractively “feminine” unique. The Sir Mix-A-Lot hit song “Baby Got Back,” while aimed primarily at the way white beauty standards disproportionately targeted Black women and their butts, also noted that “knock-kneed” white women—by which he meant women with extremely skinny legs, rather than the disorder—were more in fashion than the beautiful, well-muscled track-and-field Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner. (Her husband-coach Al Joyner told CNN in 2012, “I trained her like a man. We did a lot of things then that they do now with nutrition.”)

The disdain for muscular women, and particularly muscular Black women, remains broadly intact 35 years later—just ask Serena Williams—though Mix-A-Lot’s much-derided Cosmo magazine is now at least more likely to publish pieces slamming the body shaming that women athletes experience than engage in it. 

But that doesn’t make it easy for women to set aside much of what we’ve internalized about appearing muscular or the sorts of exercise we ought to do. And even as Kim Kardashian popularized larger asses on otherwise skinny (white) women, she hasn’t popularized the natural way to get that: squats. Lots and lots of squats. And then more squats. (Which will also usually make your thighs more muscular.)

***

I can’t tell you exactly why this time, of all the times I joined a gym, actually worked. It wasn’t out of any deep and abiding desire to get high-school skinny again. That time felt long past and, perhaps more to the point, being overweight meant having huge tits and a big, round ass. 

That’s the trade-off for many of the vast majority (nearly 70 percent of women in 2018) of us who qualify as overweight or obese: We might not have Kim K’s abs, and there is a hell of a lot of fat-shaming with which to contend, but at least we have the visible markers of femininity that society prizes even as we are encouraged, shamed, berated, and subjected to all kinds of messaging to indicate that it’s a womanly duty to shed weight.

I didn’t actually think I’d lose a lot of weight, to be honest. But I was nearing 40, I wanted a reason to get out of the house after work, I’m culturally Catholic enough to appreciate the value of penance for my mozzarella-stick-eating sins and, again, I knew I sort of ought to.

So I kept going and working with a kind, empathetic trainer who combined high-intensity intervals with serious weight-lifting, while explaining to me what he was doing and why. That helps combat something trainers and researchers call “gymtimidation,” or the feeling that keeps many of us out of the gym: that you suck at something and don’t want to keep going. In fact, Finnish researchers behind one of the studies on the benefits of weight-lifting found that, after researchers stopped prodding their subjects to train, the factor most likely to encourage people is the personal feeling of competence in the gym, not the physical gains.

But then a funny thing happened as I started to see my jeans fit better: I also realized there were other things I could do better.

Five months in, I helped a male friend move, and realized that things that ought to feel heavy just … didn’t. I wasn’t wheezing while going up the stairs—thanks, cardio!—but I was also lugging things that I know would’ve been difficult six months prior without the same kind of effort. 

I wasn’t cursing trying to open jars. I wasn’t straining to carry my groceries. I didn’t feel the three-story walk up to the train platform in my quads or my lungs. I moved furniture around my own space without assistance. 

Then, I grew a tiny little bicep, and, for the first time in my life, could make a muscle like Rosie the Riveter that you could actually feel. I posed with it in front of mirrors; I made people touch it and tell me it was a big deal. (It was not, but I felt like it was.) I took a picture of my less-fat back in a sports bra and put it on Instagram; a male friend told me, admiringly, that it was hot. 

I lugged heavy things to the curb for the garbage men and I didn’t have to have a friend come help. I bought an exercise bike and carried it up a flight of stairs without batting an eye.

Having the thick thighs and growing arms of my ballet teacher’s nightmares means that I can increasingly live as independently as I choose, because I don’t need someone else for the heavy stuff.

***

Two weeks ago, I bought weights from a guy on Facebook marketplace: two 35-lb. dumbbells, two 25-lb. dumbbells, and two 10-lb. kettlebells; my trainer is out of town and who knows what this winter could bring. The seller and his boyfriend carried them downstairs; the boyfriend, who had a solid eight inches on me, told me he brought the kettlebells down because the dumbbells were too heavy, but he could probably carry one to the waiting car if I could get the other.

I smiled, picked both 35-pounders up off the ground, and thanked him. 

 

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