A few months ago, I sent a survey out to my email list and the wider lifting community, asking them for their feedback on the most infuriating myths about ladies who lift.
In my vast years of experience, I have lost count of the amount of times women have been dissuaded from lifting by remarks such as “You don’t want to do that, you’ll get bulky.” Or “Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself!”
I even wrote a tongue in cheek blog on the subject way back in 2014 where I poked fun at the common things women could expect to hear on the lifting platform.
But since then there have been so many advancements in tackling sexism head on, and evening out the sporting landscape for women – for example, in the now mainstream women’s football and rugby teams – that I wanted to find out whether or not the same could be said for the weights room.
We surveyed 120 people across a wide range of age groups. 89.2% of respondents identified themselves as female, with 9.2% male and 2% preferring to not comment. 43.3% of our respondents were between the ages of 26-35, 25.8% were between the ages of 36-45, 20.8% were 46+, and 10% were between the ages of 18-25. 81.7% of them lifted heavy weights, whilst 18.3% did some form of resistance training.
Here’s what they told me, with some surprising – and unfortunately unsurprising – remarks thrown in.
What is the most annoying myth about ladies who lift?
Drum roll please…
The most annoying myth about ladies who lift is: Lifting weights will make women bulky/masculine looking and therefore “unattractive”.
Yes, the stalwart of female lifting myths holds its title for the nth year running. A whopping 56.7% of our respondents attested that this was still the most annoying thing to hear when it came to their lifting.
It’s also been proven repeatedly that it’s factually incorrect. Women can’t get “masculine looking” from lifting weights because of two important factors: their hormones, and the types of muscles they’re born with.
Let’s get sciencey for a second to really drive the stake into this absurd misconception.
Yes, women who lift will increase their muscle mass. That’s part of what weight lifting does, among other things. But it will not leave women sprouting huge Eddie Hall type biceps, and it’s all down to our hormones.
Men have higher levels of testosterone than women. The average woman will have around 15 to 20 times less testosterone when compared to a man, and when it comes to lifting this makes a huge difference.
It makes such a difference because testosterone is the primary hormone that is needed to develop significant muscle. And because women have slightly less, it means that we cannot gain muscle the same way. Instead, a weightlifting programme will often strip women of the fat covering their muscles, which will result in the toned appearance many women seek.
Another reason why women won’t gain the same muscle mass as a man is actually all down to the muscles we are born with. There are two types of muscle fibre: slow twitch and fast twitch.
Slow twitch muscles are smaller and more fatigue-resistant, whilst fast twitch muscles are significantly larger and fatigue more easily. Just like the testosterone saga, men have more fast twitch muscles than women on average, which means that men can increase the size and thickness of the muscle fibers to a larger extent than women can.
So between men having more of the hormone needed to grow muscle, and more of the right type of muscle fibre to gain size, it means that it’s considerably unlikely that a woman is going to start boasting muscles the size of a male compatriot just because she lifts a dumbbell.
What are some other annoying myths about ladies who lift?
The eagle eyed among you may have noticed that although the “bulky” myth still received the most votes, it actually only received just over half of them.
In the survey I included some other myths which also commonly surface in conversations regarding women that choose to lift weights, and I left room for you to tell me some of your own.
Three other popular choices, receiving 11.7%, 10.8% and 8.3% of the vote respectively were, “Women lack knowledge when it comes to lifting and could injure themselves”, “Spot reduction works to target fat burn” and “Women should stick to cardio over weights because it’s better on their bodies and burns more calories”.
I’m going to address all of these head on and debunk them once and for all.
Women lack knowledge…
Women lacking knowledge when it comes to lifting weights is a completely unfounded and nonsensical excuse for why women shouldn’t lift weights. A beginner in the weight room is anyone who has never done organised resistance training or been taught correct lifting technique, and plenty of men are in this category. Anyone can pick up a barbell wrongly! That’s why wannabe lifters join gyms, like ours at Strength Ambassadors: to learn how to do it right.
A new lifter, whether male or female, is not going to have existing ingrained knowledge just because of their sex. They’re just not. Sorry.
In fact, one of our respondents, Emily S, put this perfectly: “The idea that women don’t know what we are doing is obviously misogynistic – as if men are born with an innate knowledge of how to use a barbell? I’ve seen so many men lifting ‘heavy’ with poor or incorrect form and clearly no knowledge of the science behind what they are doing yet they feel more entitled to take up space in the gym. It’s infuriating!”
Spot reduction exists…
Another common myth which really extends to the wider lifting community and not just us as women lifters is that spot reduction works to target fat burn. Spot reduction is a myth, full stop. Spot reduction anywhere does not exist because it’s not how exercising, and our bodies, works.
It would be fantastic of course if we could decide to tell our bodies that we really just want to lose some weight in our thighs, but that doesn’t happen. For example, performing leg exercises will strengthen the leg muscles and give them more shape. But it won’t cause fat to be lost from those areas alone, as fat loss comes from being in a calorie deficit.
Notice how just one area has a considerable knock on effect to other areas? That’s because our bodies are connected! Targeting one area will naturally bring effects to other areas, like concentrating on the abdominals and also noticing a stronger upper chest, arms and shoulders. Areas and muscles are interconnected. You cannot just siphon off one area and decide that this will be your primary focus, because none of our muscle groups or parts of our bodies are isolated from any other parts!
Women should stick to cardio…
There are two parts to this myth so I’m going to break them into two. Firstly: cardio being better than weight lifting for burning fat.
I saw this echoed in quite a few of the responses, and one respondent in particular, Francesca L, shared her own personal experience with this which was: “In my 20s I only did cardio because that’s what women should do to burn fat and be healthy apparently”
It’s almost as nonsensical as women not knowing what they’re doing when it comes to lifting.
Firstly, there is more to health than burning fat. The World Health Organisation recommends that all adults should do muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week for optimum health. For women it’s even more important to do strength training as we are more at risk from bone density loss and osteoporosis as we age. Weight training mitigates against bone loss, and builds stronger muscles and joints to keep us strong and active throughout life.
And as for fat burning, lifting weights will elevate your metabolism for longer when compared to cardio exercise. That means that even when you’re lounging on the sofa after your lifting session, you’re still burning calories. Why? Because in a high intensity, heavy weights session, your body uses a large amount of its muscle mass, which requires a lot of energy consumption, both to execute the workout and to repair the muscle afterwards.
In addition, building lean mass through weight training will elevate your metabolic rate, since muscle is more metabolically active than fat, i.e. it burns more calories even at rest. In the end, though, the ‘after burn effect’ (known as EPOC or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) is not as effective for fat loss as caloric restriction, which means that technically it’s difficult to claim that either cardio or weightlifting is “better” than its counterpart for fat loss. It’s all part of a much bigger picture involving a nutritional diet, caloric monitoring and of course an exercise program.
The second part of that myth, “better on their bodies” is also all but answered with science. Women’s muscles are not somehow more delicate than a man’s, and can shift weight just as effectively. A woman’s muscle repair is no different from a man’s, even with the differing distribution of muscle fibre types. If you lift weights, you’re still going to encounter the same muscle breakdown and repair, and you’re still going to burn calories with your feet up watching evening telly.
Have you ever been dissuaded from lifting because of a myth?
60% of survey respondents had to dispel a myth whilst in a gym environment. That’s annoying perhaps, but not entirely surprising.
Because I know about the multitude of myths floating around, and I know that women have to deal with it more often than they’d like, I left room for respondents to also tell me about myths and experiences they’d had, and some of the answers were shocking.
Common things that had dissuaded our respondents included:
Lifting will make women infertile
This was quite a common theme running through the responses and it’s downright shocking. Some of the personal experiences shared included “Heavy lifting will make a woman infertile”, a PE teacher telling a class their “uterus will fall out if you do full pushups” and that lifting is “unhealthy/dangerous for women if they want to have children”.
This is an example of an issue or concern being exaggerated and then applied in a blanket manner to any and all women, no matter what their specific situation.
Firstly on fertility, research is wildly inconsistent and indeed inconclusive about the effects of heavy weight lifting – and exercise in general – on women’s fertility. For example where some studies claim to have found a link between very strenuous exercise (i.e. working out to exhaustion every day) impeding fertility, others have not found such an association. Other studies have found a correlation between regular exercise of all types improving fertility!
Unfortunately until scientists find a way to mitigate external factors and present something conclusive, the grey area of does it or doesn’t it in some cases, will always be used as an excuse to dissuade women from lifting.
In addition, it used to be thought that lifting heavy weights would cause pelvic organ prolapse (POP) in women, but this has been found not to be the case for otherwise healthy women. POP is usually caused by pregnancy and childbirth, and some people have more risk factors than others. Of course, if you have symptoms of POP, always take the advice of your doctor and physio. But if you have not been diagnosed with POP, there is no reason to be concerned.
Women are weaker than men
This has been a consistent theme in both the survey and real life, too. Because of those aforementioned lower levels of testosterone, different muscle types and just the age old stereotype, women are often told they are too fragile to lift.
Some of our respondents ran into scenarios such as “Women can’t lift because there’s no light weights to start with”, one respondent even had “Men offering to carry barbells for me, expecting me to be using the smaller weights, etc” and another was told “You don’t look like you lift”.
Competitions such as that of the World’s Strongest Woman, women’s Olympic Weightlifting and the Crossfit Games are doing slow but important work in tackling this once and for all, but the most important way to shatter this stereotype is by owning it. Lift those barbells and carry them on your own. Load the rack to the weight you’re comfortable with. Carve out your own space in the weights room and leave little room for sexism.
A core value of us at Strength Ambassadors is to help women feel confident in the weight room. Often women do face and deflect these types of comments on a daily basis, and overall it makes women self-conscious, and as we’ve seen from numerous examples above, it can dissuade you from wanting to do something you enjoy.
There is no “too weak to lift” and there is no “Women can’t lift heavy”. Women can lift heavy – just look at our many homegrown heroes, like Strongwoman world champions Andrea Thompson and Donna Moore, or powerlifting world champion Joy Nnamani, or the olympic weightlifting Commonwealth champion, Emily Muskett. If you are a woman and you want to lift, you can.
Another common theme was to do with one of the staples of weight lifting and an exercise which often features on my blog: the deadlift.
A handful of our respondents were dissuaded from deadlifting because “Women have narrower waists and weaker backs so deadlifting is dangerous”, deadlifting overall is “Dangerous for your back” and women shouldn’t do deadlifts because “You will get a slipped disc”.
Ironically, years of men doing deadlifts badly has given the exercise a reputation for injury. Yes, a deadlift performed with the incorrect form (something you don’t have to worry about at Strength Ambassadors!) can cause injury. Deadlifts that follow the correct form and are taught, understood and practiced are unlikely to cause you damage and will strengthen your movement, if anything.
In fact, you could say that women not deadlifting is more likely to cause them injury than deadlifting itself, since if you are not building back strength and learning how to safely lift objects from the floor, you are more likely to hurt yourself doing an everyday task like picking up a heavy box!
To lighten the mood, here are two absolute corkers that two respondents sent in.
- “Women shouldn’t do flat bench press because we’ll lose breast tissue. I was told this by an actual PT.”
Once again this gem no doubt stems from the stereotypical image of women becoming “masculine” in appearance but unfortunately for that PT, they were very wrong. Chest exercises – even those that enhance our pectoral muscles – cannot, and will not shrink your breast size. Ladies who may have been hoping that: I’m sorry.
- “Recently in a HIIT class, I was dissuaded against shrugs as “traps aren’t a good look on a girl“
Looking healthy, strong and toned is not a good look on a girl. We just can’t win!
Why are all these myths so frustrating?
Though we’ve had some fun with them, there is a very serious side to this and it’s that overall encountering these myths on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is just.. tiring.
We asked our respondents what made the myths so annoying. Overall the majority, 43.3%, said that the reason the myths were so frustrating was because they were untrue. Meanwhile 36.7% attested to finding it discriminatory, misogynistic or sexist. A further 8.3% found them off putting, whilst other comments included finding it malicious, harming body image, and ignoring the health benefits.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the fundamental untruths in these myths rank as the number one reason they begin to grate on us. After all, we already know that we won’t sprout The Rock Johnson arms, so why are you telling us we will?
And more’s to the point, the subtle, malicious (as some of our respondents so accurately put it) undercurrent to these myths is that of demeaning a woman’s appearance.
Comments such as being too “bulky”, looking too “masculine” and even as one respondent said she was told “Women have to be small to look fit” all undermine our strength and attach it entirely to our appearance, instead of our ability to perform challenging physical feats. Judging on looks alone also plays on the self-consciousness that everybody possesses, which is why so many women are easily influenced away from trying their hand at heavy weight training. If you’re going to be judged on your appearance, against some invented standard of ‘attractiveness’, rather than celebrated for your ability, why pursue it?
More needs to be done to counteract the uneven, and still sexist culture found in weight rooms in standard gyms up and down the country.
In the meantime, debunking these myths wherever possible – even in the weight rooms themselves as 60% of our respondents have had to at one time or another – is the way to do it. The more truth we can get out there, the more untruth we’ll eventually be drowning out.
Why do women really lift weights?
So despite all the frustration and the constant myth debunking, why do women lift?
I wanted to find out the reason so many women owned their lifting, and I was glad I did. The responses I received are the exact things that we should be shouting about in the fitness world because they highlight the importance of exercise, health and overall: strength!
Reasons given by our respondents included getting stronger (56.7%), building muscle (15%), feeling good (12.5%), getting healthier (6.7%) and even improving mental health (5.8%).
Some of these reasons are absolutely fantastic and it’s a shame that they cannot be the focus of the conversation when it comes to women lifting weights.
Myths surrounding ladies who lift ultimately only damage the women who are dissuaded because they miss out on the chance to experience these health benefits for themselves.
Getting stronger and building muscle means a woman can have the independence to lift the sofa up when she’s lost the remote, or carry those bags of compost to the garden shed, without needing to ask anyone else to help. Feeling good about ourselves is another vital reason because it boosts our confidence which bleeds into all aspects of our lives, including work, relationships and our social lives.
As one of our respondents, Rachael, attested to, “Strength training is particularly good for we older women as it helps keep you fit and strong and increases your bone density, combating osteoporosis.”
And of course, getting healthier, not just physically but mentally too, is what it’s all about. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine even concluded this, stating that out of 16 studies involving 992 participants, weightlifting significantly improved anxiety symptoms among healthy participants and those who had a pre-existing mental health condition.
Maybe if every time we are greeted with a myth we can dispel it and then counteract it with one of the reasons women should lift weights, we’ll start to change the narrative for the better.
What advice do our ladies who lift have for other women?
Finally I wanted to end on a positive note that highlights the spirit of the Ladies Who Lift community. Weight training can often be a daunting exercise to start for beginners, without needing the constant unnecessary, and untrue, chatter of myths going on in the background.
But for those wanting to get started, here are some reaffirming pieces of advice for ladies who have been there, done that, and can now bench it too.
Be consistent and gradually build up to heavier weights. Consult a PT if you are in any way unsure of the safe way to do anything. Form is everything. Check your form before loading weight.
Set your goals and get excited about them – they might alter as you proceed but they are yours and part of your creative energy. Get some terrific coaching from someone who is interested in your journey and needs. Embrace the joy of it. You know what you are doing and why. You can do it!
Do it! Research your local area for gyms that cater for women if you’d like guidance, or take advice from a trusted friend. Do your best to ignore anyone who comments – it’s none of their business, and 9.9/10 they are uninformed, nosy, or plain jealous!
Start small and build a solid foundation of move patterns and skills before you add weight and then add weight slowly so it’s safe. Lifting heavy doesn’t come overnight so be patient and enjoy the journey.
Go for it – it is a hugely interesting concept and great fun. You will learn a range of skills and understand a lot about technique.
Lifting heavy will make you look and feel amazing. Go for it!
A woman’s place is in the weights section! Lift heavy! It’s the best thing you can do for your health, longevity, weight management, mental wellbeing…everything!
Do it. Then do it again.
A huge thanks to all that took part in our survey. It has been an eye-opening experience to learn about experiences that other female lifters have had when in a weights room, and to learn about new myths that are still unfortunately circulating all the time.
If we can continue to debunk the myths with facts, and own our presence in the weights room then we’re one step closer to eradicating myths around ladies who lift – for good!
In the meantime I’ll leave you with some closing advice put so succinctly by one of our respondents. See you at the rack!
“Join Ladies who lift! When I first started to use the free weights area in my commercial gym I had a couple of sessions with a personal trainer but was not confident in training on my own. I was intimidated by the men lifting heavy weights so would go and find a quiet corner out of the way rather than using the only Olympic platform. After joining Ladies Who Lift and learning how to lift correctly I am now confident to walk into any area of the gym knowing that I probably know more than most of the men in there!”
[…] “You’re going to get bulky. Do you want to look like a man?” (This one is laughable but, sadly, the most persistent myth about women and lifting.) […]