Why Girls Don’t Lift

Second to spicebags, weight training is one of the great loves of my life. It has helped me, and countless other women improve our physiques, strength and mental health. And yet, many women are still afraid of setting foot into the weights area.

Contrary to what Instagram will have you believe, most women don’t fear lifting weights because they will get “bulky”. No, what most women fear is the gym itself.

What does the science say about why girls don’t lift?

Exercise & Female Health

Physical activity, regardless of gender, offers huge benefits to health. Public health advice does not differentiate between genders. It is evident throughout literature, that females tend to be less active than males[1]. Inactivity can lead to loss of muscle mass, risk of metabolic X syndrome, poor mental health and elevated cancer risk[2].

Females have an elevated risk of osteoporosis (from low bone density associated with menopause), mental health disorders and a litany of metabolic diseases[4]. Resistance training can reduce risk of type II diabetes, lower blood pressure, increase self-confidence, cognitive health and improve bone density[3].

If resistance training is the panacea to the majority of gender-specific co-morbidities, why don’t all females lift?

The God Damn Patriarchy: Gender Roles & Societal Expectations

You didn’t think you’d get through an article without me bringing up the patriarchy, did you?

Throughout childhood, boys are far more active in sporting activities. Literature shows that boys are more motivated to participate in sports and physical activity[5]. Of course, there are some obvious biological physical differences that may predispose males to be more active in certain sports – but where does the psychosocial factors come in?

Certain sports and forms of exercise are considered “masculine”, and therefore as delicate little ladies, involvement in strength-based training is unladylike and must be avoided. Weight training is typically an exercise regarded as “masculine”, as it is presented as a means of displaying strength and aggression[5].

In addition, the preconceived notion that women should not engage in weight training or strenuous exercise has been identified as a major barrier for college-aged women[6]. Our parents’ generation came from the aerobics craze, where the only people engaging in resistance training were Olympic bodybuilders. And you wouldn’t want your daughter to look like Arnold would you?

Female Gymtimidation

Female gym involvement has been hugely influenced by “gymtimidation”. And trust me, I have been there. I have spent hours on the treadmill, watched countless hours of Nikki Blackketter gym videos, making sure I know how to use the weight machines inside out, convincing myself that today was the day I would try the weights.

And then I would shit myself, chicken out and fume at myself on the treadmill.

Intimidation plays a crucial role in this. And it can be partly owing to the male-dominant weight rooms[7]. It is a terrifying experience to enter a weight-room, be unsure of yourself and then realise you are the only Gymshark girlo in the vicinity. This is unfortunately well-documented in literature. Women report feeling uncomfortable around men in the gym, and awkward weight training alone or in a crowded gym[7]. And, contrary to some male PT’s, it runs a lot deeper than just get over it girls. Thankfully, this culture is largely changing, and it is now not a rare sight to see a girl throwing around some heavy ass-weights.

However, in the interest of #NotAllMen, females also report being intimidated by other girls. Not very women supporting women is it? Many females report feeling “unworthy” to engage in weight training, as they are not as “pretty” or in as good “physical condition” as the other women of the weights area[9].

Now, it must be noted that most of this research comes from college students, who are naturally more self-conscious and unsure of themselves. Gotta love that early adulthood crisis.

Not Having A Clue What You’re Doing

This one is universal, but the fear of having no clue is a massive barrier. No one wants to look like an idiot, and as research suggests, this is particularly applicable for women in the weight area[10].

You can do what I did, and spend hours of your life researching exercises and watching videos, and never getting the confidence to touch a weight. Or, save yourself the hassle and get a coach! If that sounds terrifying, you could try rope in another female friend. That way, you both look like idiots, and two idiots is better than one.

In all seriousness though, the gym is a terrifying place, particularly for the gals. All the Gymshark co-ord sets and pink glute bands can only take you so far. There are plenty of barriers as to why girls don’t lift, and it will take a lot more than a short blog post to dismantle them all. But, hopefully by now, you can appreciate that there is nothing wrong with you for being afraid to lift!

References

  1. Trost, S.G., Pate, R., Sallis, J.F., Freedson, P.S., Taylor, W.C. (2002) ‘Age and gender differences in objectively measured physical activity in youth’, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34, pp. 350-355.
  2. Kohl, H.W., Craig, C.L., Lambert, E.V., Inoue, S., Alkandari, J.R., Leetongin, G., Kahlmeier, S. (2012) ‘The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health’, Lancet, 380(9838), pp. 294-305.
  3. Westcott, W.L. (2012) ‘Resistance training is medicine: Effects of strength training on health’, Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(4), pp. 209-216.
  4. Westergaard, D., Moseley, P., Sorup, F.K., Baldi, P., Brunak, S. (2019) ‘Population-wide analysis of differences in disease progession patterns in men and women’, Nature Communications, 10(666).
  5. Chalabaev, A., Sarrazin, P., Fontayne, P., Boiché, Clément-Guillotin, C. (2013) ‘The influences of sex stereotypes and gender roles on participation and performance in sport and exercise: Review and future directions’, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(2), pp. 136-144.
  6. Lovell, G.P., El-Ansari, W., Parker, J.K. (2010) ‘Perceived Exercise Benefits and Barriers of Non-Exercising Female University Students in the United Kingdom’, International Journal of Environmental & Residential Public Health, 7(3), pp. 784-798.
  7. Peters, N.A., Schlaff, R.A., Knous, J.L., Baruth, M. (2019) ‘Barriers to resistance training among college-aged women’, Journal of American College Health, 67(1), pp.4-9.
  8. Coulter, K.S. (2019) ‘Intimidation and distraction in an exercise context’, International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology.
  9. Martinez, Y., Harmon, B.E., Nigg, C.R., Bantum, E., Strayhorn, S. (2016) ‘Diet and Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for College Students’, Health Behavior and Policy Review, 3(4), pp. 336-347.
  10. Hurley, K.S., Flippin, K.J., Blom, L.C., Bolin, J.E., Hoover, D.L., Judge, L.W. (2018) ‘Practices, Perceived Benefits and Barriers to Resistance Training Among Women Enrolled in College’, International Journal of Exercise Science, 11(5), pp. 226-238.

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am a qualified personal trainer and radiographer. I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I am hoping that by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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