Now more than ever, women are learning to celebrate and recognise their strength – that they are just as worthy a voice, just as qualified for that promotion, just as clever, important and relevant.
Yet lifting weights can still sound alien, even intimidating. Women might puff away at treadmills and struggle through sit-ups, but part of us still cringes at the idea of women paired with literal, physical power.
But more and more women are turning to the weight room. This is encouraging not just because attitudes towards what women can and can’t do, and what womanhood does and does not mean, are changing – but because weight lighting is an undeniably good thing for your health and wellbeing.
Increasingly, women are moving away from the expectation that they should take up less space, be small, slim down. Now, they want to be strong.
indy100 has talked to ladies who lift, the ladies who train them and the ladies who swear they’ll never go anywhere near a weight room. Here's what we learnt.
You are not going to turn into the Hulk.
Sally Moss, the founder of Strength Ambassadors and creator of the pioneering Ladies Who Lift class, is recognised as the most influential female strength coach in the UK
No wonder she is frustrated that the myth that women will bulk up if they weight lift just won’t die.
It’s just not going to happen. But you are going to change body shape and hopefully in a good way.
If the image of looking in the mirror just to see only hulking muscle winking back at you freaks you out, it’s time to relax. Women simply don’t gain muscle like men. With higher oestrogen levels, bulky muscles aren’t going happen without synthetic male sex hormones.
Instead, Sally reckons any woman taking up weight training will like the results.
I think it’s something everybody should be doing without exception. I think it’s one of those really core activities that has so many benefits that it’s crazy not to.
The physical benefits – stronger muscles, stronger bones, better body composition – are markers for longevity, a more active and functional life well into old age.
It’s almost like this secret that men have had for ages that makes you feel good about yourself – and now women are in on it too!
Don't be scared to ask for help.
Learning about fitness can be overwhelming. It is full of jargon, myths, truths, hard opinions, studies, counter-studies, musings, blog posts, Instagram selfies, that personal trainer that tells you one thing, that personal trainer that tells you another…
But educating yourself – and, no, your vague secondary school memories of PE teachers yelling advice at you don't count – can often be the difference between a successful first punt at the gym that leaves you feeling good, and one that leaves you feeling unfit, unprepared and scared.
Six or seven years ago, aerobics was pretty much all girls got up to in the gym. But Sally was a bit of a trailblazer when it came to lifting weights – and it was around this time that she first picked one up.
I remember feeling intimidated by the weight room when I fish started lifting.
You feel so exposed, everyone’s looking at you, you don’t want to do a single thing wrong because you think you’ll be embarrassed.
If you’re imagining a male-heavy, testosterone-fuelled environment, you’d be right. But if you’re picturing disparagement that Sally was daring to join in, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Those four big, intimidating guys in the corner that were eyeing Sally up? Well, they just wanted to help.
They turned out to be really nice!
The people who look really, really serious – and really, really strong – are probably the most happy to know you’re interested in lifting and the most happy to share their experience with you.
Now, Sally offers her expertise to women struggling with lifting that first weight – and she recommends taking as much advice as you can.
Get yourself informed. Go to a class or a session where you’re actually taught how to do things well and properly.
Another secret that people don’t realise is that a lot of guys in the weight room don’t actually know what they’re doing either. They’re just better at winging it!
It’s an investment for which the benefits last a life time. If you invest a bit of money and time, you have it for life.
You might even be surprised at what you can do.
People are coming in thinking they’re really weak, but you can really surprise yourself. But I’d say go for it and be prepared to be surprised.
There will be physical gains – and mental ones.
Business developer Shadee Bazcar weight trains four to five times a week, plus two to three cardio sessions – and her life has changed in a myriad of ways since she started lifting.
I was a lazy, unmotivated student who would stay in bed all day, eat a mountain of junk food and watch fresh prince on repeat.
Life now couldn't be more different.
I am now a happy, confident, driven and resilient person, who has been anxiety free for a little over a year now, the qualities I didn't have when I was a professional couch potato.
One valuable lesson I've really learnt through my fitness journey is that, if you really want something, you can achieve it if you work hard for it and I have taken this lesson throughout everything aspect in my life.
Jude, a teacher, went through a similar transformation when she started weight training.
She started running in her 30s and went to the gym on and off. But she avoided equipment, particularly weight machines and “the barrage of muscular men”.
It was only after a health scare last April that weight rooms became more appealing and she hired a “marvellous” personal trainer, Tim.
I needed to address my work life balance, stress and came to realise that if I didn’t build muscle, whilst I was still young enough, it may be too late.
Whereas before tackling weights alone left Jude feeling judged by younger men, an hour a week focusing on core strength with Tim has been transformative, particularly as he can offer advice and expertise that boast her confidence.
It has taken the anxiety away for me of what equipment I should use, how to use it and anxiety about injury. I have realised that I can do an awful lot more than I gave myself credit for!
As you get older, exercise becomes particularly important and that includes strength training.
I want to be mobile, strong and healthy well into my old age and I believe the key is strength training.
I intend to be lifting weights and running well into old age. Inspired by my rapid progress, even my 70 year old mother has started strength training although she is sticking with press-ups for now and not weights.
Don't let the guys put you off.
Medical student Amna Hussain has long seen the weight room as the men’s section of the gym, an area where women are technically allowed but that’s about as far as it go. But sucking up her fear was worth it.
Lifting weights has not only helped me shed the pounds, it has helped me to get stronger, fitter and healthier in both my body and also my mind.
Seeing progress not only on the scale, but in how much weight I can lift or squat gives me a great sense of achievement, empowerment and independence, whilst also being a great stress-relief.
Stepping out of my comfort zone and into the weights section has helped me in so many ways and has also opened the door to some amazing friendships.
Don’t feel too intimidated. Amna started out as just another one of us – you know, the people who dip their toes into a gym once a year and at the beginning of the year, obviously.
She started working out in January 2016 in a ‘new year, new me’ rush and, unlike the rest of us, never stopped. What was the difference? Friends, support and education, she thinks.
With the help of some fitness-obsessed friends and a personal trainer, I finally mastered how to achieve my goals and started training the right way for me and my body.
Keep your routine fresh.
Amna alters her routine every few months. Currently, she works out four to five times a week for at least two hours each time, concentrating on cardio, HIIT (or high-intensity interval training) and strength.
But she made clear that she remains mortal, just like everyone else:
That isn't to say that there aren't days where I simply don't have the energy, stamina or motivation, in which I will do 1 hour only.
There are also particularly busy weeks where my university workload is too intense, during which will I may only go to the gym 3 times in a week, and that's okay.
Mortal-ish, anyway. An hour is still pretty impressive, we reckon. She continued:
I keep my workout splits simple: upper body and lower body days, simply because that's what works for me!
As I get further in achieving my goals, I plan to split my workouts into individual muscle groups; having tried doing this too early on in my fitness journey, I found that it was not working for me.
It's a learning curve!
So, no pressure is the take home message. Amna continued:
There are still rare occasions where I will feel somewhat self-conscious and that's totally normal, particularly at peak times like those Monday evenings where the gym is packed with every 'chest day'-doer of your local area.
My key is to get into my zone, stare at my reflection in the mirror – the toughest opponent I will ever meet, according to the legend Rocky Balboa – and growl away as I squat, clean and press those weights.
It's important to give yourself a break.
Joslyn Thompson Rule, a trainer, athlete and all-round inspiration, advises beginners to gradually ease themselves into a routine, concentrating on getting movement right.
If all this sounds exhausting, you’ll be glad to know that Joslyn thinks recovery is often overlooked.
There is a general addiction to the buzz of high-intensity training, but that can have extremely negative effects in excess. Personally I try to recover as hard as I train!
Recovery is the non-sexy stuff that doesn’t look so great on instagram, and yet it’s the very thing that will ultimately bring results!
To gain confidence in the weights room, I would advise seeking guidance from an experienced professional first.
I recognise that that is a little less available than I might like and I am seeking to change that in the industry by putting on regular lifting workshops for women.
We still have work to do.
Harriet Pavey, a journalist, squeezes in exercise while she can, particularly running and YouTube workouts. It is a stress reliever for her, a way to improve her mental wellbeing and let off steam. But she is not a member of a gym.
What I hate about the gym is the feeling of being watched and judged, a sensation that’s suddenly heightened as soon as a woman enters the weight section – in my opinion.
I know realistically most people are in their own world and probably listening to music and not paying attention anyone else, but there is a palpable divide between the weight and cardio floors in the gym.
Sure, it’s not as bad as it used to be, but I found the weight section to be very male dominated when I used to be a member of a gym.
To make weight sections a more female-friendly environment, I imagine having more female trainers on hand to help would make a massive difference.
As it stands, I know a lot of women feel too embarrassed – myself included – to even go to that part of the gym.
A bigger female presence might help them to feel more inclusive. Or maybe we all just need to stop worrying about what other people think.
But if we didn’t worry about what other people thought of us, why would we bother putting gym selfies on Instagram?
Likewise, Zoe, a science and technology impact officer, is into fitness but not into weights.
Instead, Zoe keeps fit through playing football and body weight exercises. She said:
I don't want to gain too much muscle from lifting weights and feel that I get enough exercise elsewhere.
Also, weight rooms are a bit intimidating. I'm not sure if I would fit in a place so dominated by men.
All these feelings are real and shouldn’t be easily discounted.
‘No one is looking’, ‘don’t obsess!’ and ‘everyone just cares about themselves’ can feel flakey and cheap when you’re faced with strength classes geared predominantly towards men.
After all, a standard weight room with a representative proportion of women is rare enough that it might just be mythical, and the niggling reminder from magazines that you should be slimming down for summer, not bulking up for life, doesn’t help either.
Sally Moss, who is far from a visitor in the weight room, agrees that we still have work to do:
Even today, when strength training has become more mainstream, gyms still don’t do enough to make women feel more welcome in the weight area. I think they should put group session on to properly induct people into weight training.
There doesn’t seem to me to me a corporate programme to encourage more women into the weight area. I am surprised by how slowly things have been moving…
Maybe women need to be a bit more vocal about what they want about gyms… Speaking up and saying I do find the weight room a little bit intimidating.