There’s a growing interest in building muscle, and the old-fashioned weight room is where women are headed to put in the work. For years—decades, really—this part of the gym has been seemingly reserved for men looking to build muscle and strength. While that’s long been a goal for women as well, the macho culture of “pumping iron” has often made women feel hesitant to join in. Not anymore.
“We are seeing an increase in women training with barbells and free weights in general rather than just sticking to cardio,” says Crunch Fitness senior personal training manager Anna McCloskey (who is a professional powerlifter herself, with the all-time world record in the squat at 775 pounds in the 181-pound class). And experts say that this uptick comes with major benefits for the women getting in on the trend.
Why women are flocking to the weight room
Part of the reason why women are feeling more confident lifting in the gym is thanks to fitness influencers like Whitney Simmons and Alex Redmond. On TikTok and Instagram, top female trainers are sharing video tutorials of their strength workouts that anyone can follow, along with fitness pointers, and even some comedic relief. Altogether, it makes lifting a lot less intimidating and a lot more approachable.
The Covid-19 pandemic also played a major role. When gyms and boutique studios alike closed their doors in 2020, female trainers flocked to their socials and Zoom to serve as beacons of optimism, strength, and hope, teaching women all over the world how to lift within the comfort of their own homes. Now that most of us feel comfortable heading back to the gym, women are taking their lifting routines to the weight room in order to access so much more equipment. Since, while most of us have enough space to store a yoga mat at home, fewer have the ability to stock weights and bars, let alone larger equipment like squat racks.
According to personal trainer Bianca Vesco (aka Coach B), living through a pandemic led many of us to change our approach to working out in general. “Covid forced everyone to get really serious about their health, and life became so precious so quickly that, I think, we all started looking for lifelines—lifelines that protected us long-term, and strength training was at the top of that list,” she says. Working out became less about what it made us look like, and more about how it could improve our health.
The growing strength training trend has also fed itself in a way. “Over the years, women have become empowered to speak up and take up space—we see this happening in many contexts, including the gym,” says Caliber trainer Laura Lee Crabbe, CPT. “And when women see other women thriving in the gym, it empowers them to join in as well. There is power in numbers, and it is a comfort to know that more and more women support each other, stand together, and lift.”
Picking things up and putting them down builds stronger bodies
Whether on social media or in gyms, more trainers and fitness experts have spent the last few years talking about how lifting uniquely improves cardiovascular health and bone density, and reduces the risk of injury and disease.
It also improves our overall quality of life by actively building muscle strength. “In the past, women’s fitness has primarily been a combination of cardio and dieting,” says Crabbe. “Diet culture has led women to believe that their ‘dream’ body is the smallest version of themselves. In recent years, though, women have begun to break free of this stigma, realizing that shrinking themselves doesn’t necessarily lead to a happier life.” But lifting can—especially in the long-term.
“Women have begun to [realize] that shrinking themselves doesn’t necessarily lead to a happier life.” —Laura Lee Crabbe, CPT
Functional training through lifting weights is all about performing movements that you do in everyday life, only with weights to make you stronger in the process. “Movement patterns such as sitting down, bending over to pick something up, or even pushing a heavy door, are things we do on a daily basis,” Crabbe says. “So it only makes sense to incorporate movements like squats, deadlifts, and push-ups to your routine.” By practicing these movements with weights in the gym, she says that you’ll not only be better able to perform everyday tasks, you’ll also be more stable and balanced in your daily life.
Lifiting can also lead to a healthier post-menopausal life in particular. When estrogen levels drop during menopause, women become more susceptible to bone density loss. In fact, research shows that within just the first five years of menopause, women can lose between 10 and 20 percent of their bone mass. Weight training is one of the best ways to combat this: “Resistance exercises, including classic strength training, rely on muscle contractions that tug on bones to stimulate them to bulk up,” say the experts at Harvard Health.
Discovering the mental benefits
As effective as weight lifting is for building full-body strength, the mental gains may be even more notable. “For many women, lifting weights isn’t about looking a certain way, but increasing confidence and improving overall quality of life,” says Crabbe. “When you feel strong, you carry yourself differently in the world, and that has huge impacts in and outside of the gym.”
Research shows that lifting weights has the potential to improve your mood and cognitive function, and to reduce anxiety and stress levels, Vesco says. “There are even recent studies that show long-term strength training has the ability to prevent parts of the brain from degeneration.”
Life Time Westchester personal trainer and alpha coach Sarah Pope, CPT, adds that lifting also affects our hormones. “Strength training increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain just like medication can,” she says. These hormones are types of neurotransmitters that carry messages throughout our body. Where serotonin plays a vital regulating role in many bodily functions (including mood, digestion, and sleep), dopamine is known as the “happy hormone”: It’s part of our body’s natural reward system. Meanwhile, norepinephrine is largely responsible for our alertness and ability to focus.
Beyond the hormonal effect, many women are finding that spending time working through reps and sets creates a stronger sense of self. “There’s something about looking in the mirror and encouraging yourself to get through that last rep that helps you build a strong connection with yourself,” Crabbe says. Because form is so essential to lifting heavy weights safely, weightlifting also teaches you how to be more in tune and aware of your body, she adds, “which leads you to be more in tune with your emotional and mental health.”
Then there’s the fact that lifting heavy things is just downright empowering. As personal trainer Bekah Long, general manager of Gold’s Gym Live Oak in San Antonio, puts it, “It would be tough to not feel more confident after picking up a heavier weight than you thought you could!”
To that, Crabbe adds, “When you know you can bench press over 100 pounds or squat your body weight, you know you can take on anything else that comes your way that day.”
Intrigued? Try this 15-minute full-body strength routine:
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