In the words of my Orangetheory trainers, “For all the ladies in the house, just a reminder: lifting weights won’t make you bulky; it’ll just make you stronger.” To give you some context, Orangetheory offers workouts that vary by type throughout the week. Some days will be endurance days, some power, some strength and some that combine all three. This disclaimer, delivered fairly consistently on (you guessed it) strength days, always sticks with me, partially because I agree wholeheartedly — but mostly because I know that a lot of other women in the room do not. In fact, I used to be one of them.
Our brains, for better or worse, like to categorize things so we can better understand them. Good and bad, black and white, weak and strong. While these categorizations are not always inherently positive or negative, I believe that most would agree that strength is almost invariably a positive identifier in our world. We like our buildings, bridges and cell phones to be strong. When the road gets rocky, we tell ourselves and our loved ones to “be strong.” Ask anyone, female-identifying or not, this question: “Do you want to be weak, or do you want to be strong?” I guarantee just about everyone will answer “strong.” Now, ask women if they want to lift heavy. Suddenly, the answer is not so unanimous.
For a large part of my life, and most intensely during high school, I was self-conscious about my arms. Despite being a naturally thin person, I always thought my arms looked too large or “flabby” in sleeveless tops. I searched endlessly for solutions, workouts that would make my arms smaller. “Low weight, high reps, lots of cardio,” I read. “Don’t lift anything too heavy,” I read. And believe me, I tried. Like so many of us, I wanted to look like the women in the magazines. I wanted to look like the models who probably, pulling from one of my favorite That’s So Raven one-liners, don’t even look like their own photos. For some reason, I bought into the idea that having super-thin arms was the essence of femininity and that having muscles would place me in the opposite “category” of masculinity. That somehow, there was no space in the middle for me to exist.
Fast forward through years of lessons learned to now, and you’ll find me in the weight room (with some modest muscles) not giving a damn what my arms look like. Ironically, I love them all the more. At some point in my search for arms so small they didn’t exist, I simply gave up. At some point in the “giving up” period, I learned about CHAARG, joined CHAARG, became an exec and started lifting with 5 lb dumbbells. Slowly, at first with little more than a “why not?” attitude, 5 pounds became 10 pounds and 10 pounds became 15 pounds. Roughly around the 15 pound mark, I started noticing myself in the mirror in a way that was reactive instead of demanding. In other words, I saw the tiny muscles building and marveled at my body’s work instead of searching for the specific changes I was begging it to produce — an attitude that is certainly much more rewarding and realistic. Now, 15 pounds is becoming 20 pounds and I hope to start some barbell work soon.
To be clear, I do have more muscle definition than I’ve had in my whole life, but I am by no means “bulky.” Having lots of muscle requires impressive effort and tireless dedication to what is essentially the “art” of bodybuilding. Beyond lifting a lot of weight, workouts must be frequent and nutrition must be adjusted to provide the muscles exactly what they need to grow, creating a unique lifestyle that is shaped around bodybuilding. If you’re like me, eating what makes you feel good and lifting about two times per week is simply not going to make your arms rip out of your sleeves.
That said, having even a little more muscle will grant you countless other benefits in your daily life. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, even when your body is resting. Muscles protect your joints and prevent injury during both everyday activities and your cardio workouts. Above all, there is the basic function of muscles — to move your limbs and allow you to move other things! Life is a constant struggle of you vs. your packages from Station B, you vs. your ten grocery bags that you refuse to carry in two trips and, of course, you vs. your friend who’s having a better (or worse) night than you. At some point, life might be you vs. your child asleep in your arms or you vs. the weight of the patient who needs your help. When these tests come, you’ll want and need your body to work for you. When the aforementioned anonymous interviewer asks you, “Do you want to be strong,” you can answer, “I am.”
Some favorite quotes from my favorite people:
“The team focuses a lot on developing good form with whatever exercise we are doing to prevent injuries and practice better form for stunting — a lot of the same motions are involved. I personally think that the most important part of strength training is developing good life-long habits. Not only do you prevent injuries, but you make recovering from injuries easier, too.” – Courtney Bair, Vanderbilt Cheerleading
“I love lifting and the friends it brought me. Don’t be afraid to be a beginner. We all start somewhere and I promise that people are more than willing to point you in the right direction and give you tips. For most of us, this is a passion and we love to share with whoever will listen. And don’t ever let someone tell you, “You’re strong for a girl.” No, you are just strong. Period. Your gender doesn’t define you and you just have to refuse to let someone put you in their little box based on your gender alone.” – Alexis Smith, CHAARG Exec