Since the women’s rights movement, more women are in cubicles, offices, and boardrooms. Since Title IX, more women are on soccer fields, basketball courts, and in locker rooms. But they have yet to venture in large numbers into weight rooms.
Yes, that sweat-scented, typically-testosterone-filled lair, where iron plates clank and men stomp, grunt, and snort like dragons is still thin ice for many fitness-minded females.
The Chapel Hill / Carrboro YMCA is doing more to welcome women around the weights. Two days a week for six weeks, its Women on Weights (W.O.W.) program is seeking to help women understand both the realities and benefits of resistance training with weights at its 980 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard facility.
“We present the myths and misconceptions of strengthening,” YMCA health enhancement director Kevin Cragwell said. “They’ll know what weight and levels of resistance they want in order to achieve to maximize the benefit.”
“We try to give participants the basics, and then they can grow from there,” Women on Weights instructor Kim McLean said. “There’s always (an instructor) on the floor, so if these women want to (change or add) something, they can just ask somebody. We’re trying to teach them how to get stronger without injuring themselves.”
Sarah Richards wrote in Fitness Magazine that, despite acknowledged health benefits of resistance training, of the 12.7 million women who belonged to commercial health clubs as recently as 2009, only about half used weight machines and only one-third lifted free weights.
Industry figures fly in the face of the fact that resistance training has myriad benefits for both men and women, from reducing blood pressure to warding off arthritis and strengthening bones and muscles.
“Women have a higher incidence of osteoporosis,” Cragwell said, “and we know that resistance training … stimulates bone growth and development.”
“They’re getting cardio too (by lifting weights), so these women are burning fat while they’re shaping the muscles,” McClean said. “They’re going to see a difference in their bodies.”
Entering the weight training area of a fitness facility can be like traveling to a foreign land: people look different, they may stare at you or treat you like a tourist, and the language can be tough to understand unless you speak a smattering of words: “glutes”… “quads”… “pecs.”
“Some of these terms we’re learning I’ve heard, but I didn’t know what they meant,” program participant Cat Smith said.
“A lot of women say they don’t feel comfortable in a free-weight environment,” Cragwell admitted. “But everybody has a starting point. ... “We help them understand the language of exercise.”
Cragwell said many women worry about gaining too much bulk through weight training.
“You’re not going to look huge,” DiBlasio said, “and the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism is going to be. Muscles require more calories to maintain themselves than any other tissues in the body.”
“There’s no fear that I’m going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” program participant Donna Prather said, laughing
“I want to be stronger, and I want to know how to lift the weights correctly — how to do this without hurting myself.”
Prather’s concern for safety was echoed by other participants
“While I’ll do a lot of work on the ellipticals, I was afraid to do weights,” Carol Marlow said. “I’m at that stage of my life where I’m afraid to do upper body work though.”
Kate Sullivan agreed: “I just want to do things carefully and not get hurt. (I’m interested in) injury prevention and trying to get the most out of it.”
Still, even younger women often remain reticent.
“I had a younger girl in a class, and she never went down to a weight room because there were guys there and they were sweating, so this is not just for older women,” McLean said. She noted that some men were cutting right in front of the women and grabbing weights. “I told the women, ‘Don’t worry about that. By the end of this class, you’re going to feel comfortable in here.’”
The program will run Mondays and Wednesdays for six weeks on, then six weeks off. The next W.O.W. program will start around the beginning of May.
It may take a bit of bravery at first, but McLean said there’s no reason women need to stand by while men throw their weight around.