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Women and Weight Lifting: It’s Good for You

So why aren’t more doing it?

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Sarah Kuranda has learned the joys of joining a small but sculpted minority: women who pump iron.

She began a little more than a year ago, joining her roommates in a temporary high-sweat home regimen that mixed weights, martial arts, yoga, and calisthenics. “I loved how much stronger and more fit I felt when I incorporated weights and strength into my daily workouts, instead of just spending my time on the elliptical,” says Kuranda (COM’13). She felt better while indulging her love of horseback riding, so she kept up with the weights. Few sisters, however, share her passion for squats, presses, and curls, in part, she says, because they fear bulking up into a she-Schwarzenegger.

“I have not found that to be true at all,” Kuranda says. “I have become much leaner and stronger. The only downside of this is that the scale sometimes shows a higher number,” because muscle weighs more than fat. She decided to “throw out the scale and instead just look at what I see in the mirror.”

Fear of morphing into a muscled mastodon is only one reason behind the skittishness many women feel about weight lifting. Just 17. 5 percent of American women—and 20 percent of college-age American women—meet the aerobic and strength training recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Aerobic exercise, like jogging, walking, biking, and swimming, helps with weight loss; strength training, such as lifting weights, can do that while building muscle and bone mass.) The comparable figures for men are 23 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

Boston University BU, womens weight lifting class, instructor Dan Zaltz, research psychology Andrea Mercurio

Psychology instructor Andrea Mercurio, who lifts weights and boxes, is researching women's attitudes toward strength training. Photo by Cydney Scott

Some research suggests that women shun lifting as a guys’ activity—and that they think those guys on the weight floor are passing unflattering judgment on weight-lifting women’s physiques. The former is a big concern, says Leorah Bernstein (SAR’12,’14), who began lifting as a member of her middle school swim team. In her experience, most women “are afraid of becoming too manly if they work out too much.” In fact, an ESPN profile of Olympic lifter Holley Mangold notes that the typical woman is physically incapable of developing into the Incredible Hulk because of insufficient levels of testosterone. (Mangold, at 5-foot-8 and 330 pounds, told the reporter she was comfortable with her own physique and lamented that she’d have more lifting peers “if women just realized that they’re not going to get as huge as I am.”)

The vexing thing is that strength training benefits women especially. Not only does it buffer against aging’s atrophying of muscle and bone in both sexes, it’s a protection against such cripplers as osteoporosis, says Andrea Mercurio, a College of Arts & Sciences psychology instructor, who lifts and boxes to keep fit. Mercurio and Dominique Cheung (CAS’13) wondered whether women might be more likely to warm to weights if they were surrounded only by other women. A study the two are doing through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program suggests that that’s only part of the answer.

The pair surveyed more than 1,000 women who were members of Boston-area gyms—most of them coed, but some all-female ones, too. The women were asked their attitudes toward weight lifting, the number of days they did it each week, and the average duration of their lifting sessions. The findings were mixed: younger women at all-female gyms did indeed lift more than peers of a similar age at coed gyms. But the difference evaporated when it came to older women. Mercurio explains the difference as a function of younger women’s greater concern about their appearance. For them, having only women watching them reduced their reluctance to lift weights.

Stopping by FitRec’s first floor weights room shows how it could be different. Fitness Director Mike Lagomarsine sees female lifters every semester in the Weight Training for Women class. The twice-a-week one-hour class usually hits its 25-student cap, he says, and it’s not popular only among athletes. Most participants are “the average college-aged female looking for guidance on proper workout programming, progression, and technique,” he says. “We also see some join the class because they have never exercised before and are fearful of doing counterproductive or unsafe exercises.”

Boston University BU, womens weight lifting class, instructor Dan Zaltz, research psychology Andrea Mercurio

Victoria Bullard (CFA'15) takes FitRec's Weight Training for Women class. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

“I tell women to look around at how many men are working so hard in the gym to get bigger; they are at an advantage when it comes to developing muscle, and it still takes a lot of effort and intensity.”

Mercurio and Cheung are studying weight lifting frequency among BU women this semester to gauge attitudes among a college-educated sample. They have to schedule the work between their own workouts; Cheung lifts, too. For Mercurio, practicing two sports thought of as masculine might give the impression that she’s one of those uber-secure people immune to the self-consciousness of us mere mortals. Think again.

“I wish I was a person who wasn’t concerned with my body, but most women are,” she says. “I definitely had to overcome something mentally,” with several false starts and then a free trial at a gym, before becoming a convert.

Find a US News & World Report blogger’s strength training tips for women here.

20 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

20 Comments on Women and Weight Lifting: It’s Good for You

  • Kyle on 03.06.2013 at 12:53 am

    It is weird I find it kind of gross that in the first picture the girls heads are on the “butt pad” in the best way I can describe it. Other than that, its awesome to see the community as a whole getting more educated and active.

    • K.O on 03.07.2013 at 5:31 am

      It’s good to see people being active; however, I would hope that someone would say something about what position to be in while using the equipment.

  • Lillian on 03.06.2013 at 9:12 am

    I’m glad that someone is bringing up this topic. I’ve been looking into Weight training for women for a while. I think it’s better to have a coach for weight training — they know that to focus on, they know effective techniques for training and they know the limit for trainers at different level. Even though I know that FitRec@BU has a weight training class, but it never works with my schedule. I wonder is there any other way to get in touch with trainers or take classes on weight training? Thanks a lot.

    • Powerlifting on 03.06.2013 at 3:24 pm

      Hey Lillian, if you’re interested in weightlifting myself and a group of other students at BU do powerlifting, which is a sport centered around lifting the most weight possible. We have a ton (pun not intended) of collective experience and several state record holders, male and female. We’re always interested in helping people learn about weightlifting. Find us on facebook under Boston University Powerlifting.

    • FitRec on 03.06.2013 at 5:40 pm

      You could sign up for Personal Training at FitRec and meet with your trainer when it fits into your schedule. Trainers will show you specifics about safety, techniques and form to get you off on the right start!
      http://www.bu.edu/fitrec/programs/fitness/personaltraining.shtml

  • Chris on 03.06.2013 at 9:30 am

    Great article! I find the “I don’t want to get huge” mantra difficult to bear because it seems so self-defeating. More women need to realize how difficult it is to obtain a “Schwarzenegger” physique – were talking a caloric surplus diet, intense workouts, testosterone level, and genetics among other things.

    One thing I think the article failed to mention however is that women should lift like men. I find that a lot of people think that lifting light weight for a high amount of repetitions somehow “tones” their muscle. It needs to be brought to light that you either gain muscle or you don’t. “Toning” I guess would equate to dropping body fat so you can see some of the muscle under the skin.

  • Alex on 03.06.2013 at 11:00 am

    Interesting article. I actually love weight training and I do it at least three times a week. However, the fact that all the weight spots are male dominated does make me a bit self conscious. Sometimes I am the only woman in the first floor weight area, which can be intimidating XD!
    But then I just put my music on and just enjoy a nice workout. You get over the intimidation pretty quickly. its just a matter of taking the first step!

  • SR on 03.06.2013 at 3:51 pm

    I do some weights on the second floor, and always have respect for the women out there doing their thing. Some of the guys can be somewhat macho, making it seem like a woman-unfriendly environment.

    In my opinion, if you go out there as a women and just buck stereotype and pump serious iron–well, you’re awesome. Keep it up.

    • K.O on 03.07.2013 at 5:32 am

      Being a women trying to use the weights carries some similarity to men wanting to use the cardio machines.

  • Miriam on 03.06.2013 at 10:27 pm

    This is great! I’ve been trying to get one of my friends to start lifting, just so that she can be self-dependent and protect herself if necessary. She’s seen this article. Hopefully it’ll help!

  • Kathy Donoan on 03.07.2013 at 5:50 am

    May I suggest this book: http://www.thenewrulesoflifting.com/nrol-for-women Great common sense read that will be a motivating factor.

  • Jasper on 03.07.2013 at 9:56 am

    I HATE when girls think they are going to get giant from lifting, when the truth is they will just get leaner, healthier, and more attractive.

    As a guy, I’m trying to bulk up, eating 3500-4000 calories per day, and lifting 5x a week, and I’m still barely gaining weight! If it’s hard for me to get bulk, y’all girls certainly won’t get big, only more fit.

    Thanks for this post!

  • Lilian on 03.09.2013 at 1:50 pm

    One aspect this article doesn’t mention is the gym environment. While college gyms maybe different, at alot of public gyms weight lifting areas are dominated by men. One of the reasons why women stay away is from not wanting to be harassed, catcalled while just trying to work out.

  • Erin H. on 03.29.2013 at 11:21 am

    Dear Holly Mangold,
    you are not huge… you are a beautiful woman and are an inspirational person!

    long live the weight lifting women of the world

  • nancy bryant on 04.20.2013 at 9:16 am

    It’s good to see people becoming health conscious. These women inspire the women’s world a lot. Weight lifting is a great kind of workout to reduce the body fat and strengthens the muscle. The muscle always weight more than the fat. The physic of the woman boosts her confidence which helps to overcome many problems in life. Being fit makes a person’s psychology stronger in the decision making. The building muscle not only involves the workouts at gym but also taking a balanced diet. Also not to expect the results fast as soon as they start working for the building of muscles. It needs a span to shed the fat and build the muscles.

    • Samuel Young on 05.03.2013 at 8:18 am

      Hi Nancy… My cousin used to go to gym and she worked on weights for 4 weeks. Due to health issues she stopped weight lifting, now she is suffering terrible back pain. Is this the effect of weight lifting, will she get cure by continuing her weight lifting. Please let me know.

  • Mike on 08.08.2013 at 2:10 pm

    For both men and women, muscular does not automatically mean huge. I find it heartening to increasingly see muscular woman when out and about, where as back in the 70′s and 80′s, one would almost never see women with even slightly muscular physiques. However, these women are never “huge”. They do not look freakish; just fit.

    It’s healthy and attractive and women should continue increasing their use of weights in exercise routines.

  • Bnc on 08.12.2013 at 1:03 pm

    It’s good to be active and to workout smart. To know proper techniques for training will help you build muscle and stay injury free. Proper technique is the number one rule in weight training.

  • Sandy on 10.10.2013 at 5:33 pm

    Weight lifting should be gender neutral and this article is a nice step toward making that happen. I’m glad to see the women in the pictures using free weights rather than machines. I think that’s the better way to go.

  • Nancy on 03.01.2014 at 1:31 am

    I liked this article but I think they failed to mention that many women don’t start weight training because they don’t know how to begin or anything about proper form.Instead of looking stupid or starting out with just the bar they opt out.This was how I felt until I began to really educate myself on how to lift and got my own weight set/rack at home.

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