The great objection to women exercising—namely, the fear of becoming muscular—is quite without foundation. It cannot be too often repeated that woman is not simply a weaker man: she is physically an entirely different being … In women the muscles simply become firm, close-knit, and well-rounded, and show under the layer of fatty tissue intervening between muscle and skin only in soft, hardly discernible masses, just sufficiently to give a delicate moulding to the form.
Eugen Sandow, Sydney Mail, October 22, 1902.
You don’t have to go far in the average gym to find someone willing to give you bad information. People are full of ideas and advice about women and weights. The other day I heard the most ludicrous thing yet: that cardio work was bad for you because it built muscle that pushed the fat out farther. Yep, I guess that’s why marathon runners are all so obese—duh. Some of the worst offenders are fitness magazines and personal trainers. This is somewhat distressing, considering that people look to such sources for help and information. The other day, reading a fitness magazine, I learned that yoga will firm my breasts (it won’t, unless they meant to write “plastic surgeon” instead of “yoga”), and that over 90% of all long term exercisers exercise in the morning (oops, I guess all the evening regulars at the gym are just fooling themselves).
Anyway I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common myths floating around like the alligator in the sewer stories. The difference is, of course, that there really ARE alligators in the sewer. And snakes that pop out of your toilet, heh heh.
LIE: Weight training will make you huge and masculine.
Probably the worst lie ever. People look at women bodybuilders and say, “Ohmigawd, they’re huge and if I lift anything heavy I’ll look like that too.” Nope. In general, women are not able to build monstrous muscle mass in the same manner as men, due to a number of physiological factors. It’s a rare woman that can become a competitive bodybuilder, and to get that big she has to combine genetics, extensive long-term training, strict diet, and supplementation (legal or otherwise).
If you enjoy watching bodybuilding, have a look at the tested (natural, i.e. steroid free) shows versus the untested (anything goes) shows. You will notice a great difference in the builds of the women onstage. A natural female bodybuilder is lean, almost wiry, and certainly not the mythical monsters whom exercising women fear resembling (have a look at my reader letters page to see some examples). Also, women bodybuilders do not normally have the low levels of bodyfat that they do while in competition. Low bodyfat makes muscles stand out, and it changes the contours of the face, making jawlines and cheekbones prominent, which contributes to a rather unnatural look. Bodybuilders about to go on stage for a competition look quite odd, actually, due to dehydration, extremely low bodyfat, and deep tans. During the offseason, competitors’ bodyfat is higher, and in clothing, most wouldn’t stand out as unusual in any way.
The average woman (that’s you) cannot achieve a masculine monster look simply through strength training. You’re not going to wake up after a workout and be huge. You don’t believe me? OK, then, try to get huge. Just try. And see how far you get. If you don’t believe me, check out what happened in my before and after photos. I’ve had people tell me that they think my legs are “too big” (too big for what?) but the old gams were a whole lot bigger before I started training.
LIE: Men train, women tone.
To be serious about strength training, eliminate the T-word-“tone”-from your vocabulary. Lifting a tiny weight for a hundred reps is a waste of time and energy, plus it never really stresses your muscles enough to make them much stronger. As the good Sgt. Robo says, “More isn’t better, better is better.” In fact, according to one study in which men and women trained the same muscle group 3 days a week for 20 weeks, “the women made significantly greater relative increases than men in strength.” (MacDougall et al, McMaster University)
Women and men have exactly the same skeletal muscle composition. It would not be possible to tell biological sex from muscle tissue alone. But more importantly, there is no such thing as “toning”. There is muscle mass and strength gain, and fat loss, and that’s it. In purely technical terms, “tone” refers to the ability of the central nervous system to provide passive muscular resistance to being stretched. What you probably think of as “toned” muscles are merely muscles which are not hidden by a lot of bodyfat. In other words, there is no reason why you should waste your time on the stupid little weights when you could be getting tough and strong.
LIE: There is a difference between toning, sculpting, and firming.
Please don’t write me asking how you can tone but not sculpt, or firm but not tone, or whatever. There is no such thing (see the next lie). There is only building muscle mass and losing bodyfat, nothing else.
LIE: Muscles grow different ways depending on how you work them.
This school of thought says that if you lift heavy, you’ll get huge, and if you lift light weights with high reps, you’ll just “tone”. AAACK! The T-word again! Muscles only know how to grow one way, and just how big they get depends on gender and genetics.
Okay, this isn’t exactly the whole picture. A helpful reader emailed me recently, encouraging me to clarify this point. We have several different types of muscle fibres which respond to different types of training. BUT nevertheless you won’t be able to get freaky big unless you try very, very hard and you have one-in-a-zillion genetics. And ultrahigh rep training is a complete waste of your time.
LIE: You can change the shape of your muscles.
You hear a lot from nimrods at the gym about which exercise is better for reshaping your muscles, or for building big peaks on your biceps, etc. Sorry, but the shape of your muscles is genetic. Muscles are attached to bones and joints in a way that is specific to each person’s body. As an example of this, look at the bump of people’s outer thigh muscles above the knee. You will notice that some people’s quads make a bump almost right at the knee, while other people have their quad bump higher up, sometimes quite high above the knee. This is merely an individual variation in muscle attachments. So, no matter what exercises you do, you’re not going to change where your muscles attach, and you’re not going to change their individual shape. You can, however, make them bigger and stronger.
LIE: Women shouldn’t work their leg and butt muscles, otherwise they’ll get too big.
Once again we have the fallacy of the “big muscles”. Have a look at women bodybuilders’ butts and you’ll see this isn’t the case. The truth is this: by building muscle, we can speed up our metabolism, resulting in more effective fuel (calorie) consumption. In other words, more muscle means less fat in the long run. And where do we find the largest group of muscles in a woman’s body? Why, her legs and butt, of course! Neglecting these means neglecting the best area for building calorie-burning muscle. In addition, women tend to have much better lower-body than upper-body strength, so it’s very satisfying to work the lower body and see some great results!
LIE: Women should stick to machines and stay away from free weights.
This is another heinous myth. In fact the opposite is true for a variety of reasons. Have a look at the article called “Don’t Fear the Free Weights.”
LIE: If you build muscle, it will just push the fat out more and make you look bulky.
Sorry to burst the bubble girls, but you’re not going to wind up like the Incredible Hulk, ripping through your shirt with the massive expansion of your muscles. The amount that muscle contributes to visible size is negligible compared to the bodyfat.
hall of shame
I hear so much bullshit about women and working out that I’ve decided to compile it into an archive of stupidity. If you have some to add, please do.
The following idiocies were contributed by reader Jenn Wilson:
- “Women shouldn’t squat past the point where their knees and shins make a 90-degree angle; their lower bodies are weaker than men’s and their knees can’t handle it.” (This came from a woman, believe it or not… she meant well, but it was obvious she’d never lifted a non-vinyl-covered weight in her life. Wanting to get back to my set, I smiled and responded with, “You must read a lot of fitness magazines.” She chirped “Yup!” and proceeded to list Shape, Fitness, …)
- “Trap muscles on a woman are unsightly.” (I nearly punched this guy.)
- “Women shouldn’t deadlift or squat, because it makes their waists too big, and that’s unfeminine.” (Nearly punched him too.)
- “Women shouldn’t look like little frogs.” (From my grandma, bless her soul.)
Reader Becky Duncan writes: ‘I’m sorry to report I have heard each and every one of these:
- “That’s pretty good… for a girl.”
- “You’re not supposed to be able to do that…you’re a girl.”
- “Do you need a spot?” (when I rack up my warm up)
- “Here… let me get those for you.” (when stripping/loading a rack)
- “I bet your breasts are really hard.” (oh yea…fat just hardens like cement)
Oh, and God forbid my pecs ever get sore because guys just find that to be funny for some reason…’
Reader Kim Brueggeman writes: “I hate it when you offer a inexperienced male lifter a few pointers and they assume you don’t know the first thing about lifting weights, even when your biceps are bulging from a great set, yet he will run to the steroid freak who ignores his plea for help.”
A reader identified only by her email address as “Xzena” writes: “My favourite is when girls who are overweight tell me, “Well, I don’t want to lift weights until I lose weight first.”
An unidentified reader writes: ‘I’m at the point where guys at the gym who know me, know I can hold my own. But I once had an older man tell me I was going to hurt my baby maker. Another man told me I wasn’t ugly enough to be a weightlifter. (Like the ugly gene makes you strong?!) My mom always supports me in powerlifting meets, but just when I’m getting pumped and ready to go she says, “Just don’t go too heavy, you don’t want to hurt yourself”
My #1 biggest pet peeve of all times is when someone (who always means well) asks “How much do you lift?” What do you mean!!! Well, partial deads 405lbs, or tibia raises 15lbs. Or along the same lines is when they find out I lift they always ask me to flex. First thing, No! Second, flex what, forearm, bicep, calf, what!!!! These same people don’t ask men these questions! Thanks, for letting me vent!’
Reader Marge writes: ‘When you wrote about the warnings women get from guys who think we’re too delicate, I was reminded of my 4 or 5 years in construction work. I was in my late twenties, started installing fire sprinkler systems in 1980. The guys were so-o-o worried (some for their jobs, some sincerely; it was really hard work.), but one union official really stuck in my mind.
In a very “I have it on the best authority” voice, he said to me, “Do you know why women have quit this trade?” He continued, “In the vast majority, their ovaries dropped!” I must have given him some kind of “huh?”. He nodded vehemently and repeated. “The vast majority of women who have taken up this trade have quit because their ovaries dropped!” I’m thinking, “Where? On the floor? Will I have to carry them with me, truss them up, or what?” And I’m also thinking, there are only two women in this trade in the whole state, and I’m one of them, and I know the other one, and she never mentioned a thing about her ovaries, so what the hell is a majority? Never did find out. Never dropped ‘em, either. ;o) I did screw up my knees, but that’s a separate issue, and the guys in the trades did the same.’
Reader Krissi Shea writes:
‘I heard a great one in gym the other day while I was on the hamstring curl machine. A guy said, “You should only do those curls with your legs together really tightly. Otherwise, your muscles will develop wider and make you look wider.” ooooookkkkkkkay……’
Reader Chellie Young writes: “Here’s one for your list…my wellmeaning grandma told me that if I lifted heavy weights it would make me sterile. No kidding. :)”
Reader Dan Roche writes: “A high school basketball coach I worked with refused to let his women’s team work out with weights, for fear that ANY weight work would compress the spine and make his players shorter, and therefore less basketball-ready. I’m not sure if this is funny, offensive, or simply ignorant.”
Reader Louise Newman writes: “I’ll take ignorance for 100 please, Alex. And how about the guy that says to me, ‘You dont want to squat you will be sore the next day.’ Or how about the people (yes both sexes) that say, ‘A woman with muscle is unattractive.’ GIVE ME A BREAK. Was she talking about my 5’6″ 130lb 12% bodyfat
body??? GIVE ME A BREAK AGAIN !!!!!
And, ‘A woman could never be able to bench her weight.’ I say… probably not if she is NOT weight training.
‘Women, perhaps because of conditioning, dont push as hard as men.’ CROCK CROCK CROCK
In the 1st issue of Muscle and Fitness HERS mag there was an article. I won’t say which one or who the “professional” is. It’s there. You can look it up. But what was said, and I quote: ‘Women, perhaps because of conditioning, dont push as hard as men.’ I know for a fact this is NOT true of most women I know. I mean for heavens sake. I work many times harder than the guys watching and checking me out at the gym. And lets not forget how hard it is to PUSH a baby out…
This one isn’t really about lies in the gym, but I thought it was a cute story anyway. Speedskater Carol Dailey told this anecdote:
“Three older ladies in my gym (50’s maybe?) have been watching me work out for the last two years. A few months ago, fed up with making no gains on
our gym’s one set to failure protocol, they started asking me some questions and finally got up the nerve to ask me to set up a program for them.
Needless to say, I was happy to do so and we have great fun training together. They have since progressed to asking my advice on nutrition and
are really doing well. Well, one of ‘my girls’ went to her doc, who noticed a ‘mass’ in the center of her body, just under her breasts (at the lower tip of her sternum) and he sent her for a CAT scan. Needless to say, we were all upset and nervous waiting for the results.
As it turns out, the ‘mass’ was the first row of her abs, which are visible to her for the first time in her life!
Can you believe it! We all laughed with her pretty hard once the relief set in…”
Reader Karen Sanford writes: A very dear and very ignorant male friend remarked to me, “Women don’t get as muscular as men because they don’t work out as hard. If they did, they would be just as big and muscular.” My husband butted in and said, “If that were true, she would be as big as Arnold by now!”
Reader Elizabeth Harris writes, “I’ve heard, ‘You’re over 40, you’ll never be able to lose weight!'”
Reader Jan writes, “A woman on another online forum said never go higher than 40 lbs for squats or you develope a “bubble butt”???? [Krista’s response: Why is 40 lbs the magic number? Is there some receptor in the glute muscles that knows to develop a huge ass when the poundage hits 41?]
Reader Graham writes, “I am a member on a couple of martial arts forums, and this myth was quoted: ‘women shouldn’t do “proper” pushups,
as it puts strain on the womb and causes gynae problems.’ My thoughts on that are that the people who believe that don’t know much about the
musculo-skeletal system. If there is a problem with women experiencing gynae probs during exercise, they are more likely to do with unstable cores and
pitiful pelvic floors. Those problems would show up first during jogging or high impact aerobics, and by the time they were affected by pushups, their
womb would already be by their knees!”
Reader Alisa writes, “Had to share this paragraph from a recent NY Times article:
At health clubs, pear-shaped people in their 40’s and 50’s obsessively lift
weights, trying for those defined muscles that, even in youth, come only to those with a certain genetic predisposition. But by middle age, the overweight tend to stay that way, and the body has a harder time increasing muscle mass. So even the greatest personal trainer will not produce rippling abs.
Obviously the writer has never seen the photos of the women on your site who began lifting in their 40s and 50s. Hmf.”
Reader Crystal writes, “I was doing a set of bicep curls, maxing out at 35lbs per arm, but really struggling and a guy came up to me after I’d moved on to another exercise and he said to me, ‘You might not want to lift so heavy because you’re a girl and you don’t want huge muscles.’ PARDON? I was like, actually I WANT big muscles but thanks for noticing. He offered to ‘buy me a drink’ at the protein drink bar but I laughed at his pimple faced skinny ass and walked out.”
Reader JJ writes, “Some guy came up to me while I was squatting (warming up with just the bar) and informed me: ‘You should use the pad behind your neck, if you don’t, your traps will get big. And big traps are ugly on women.’ Uhhhhh… yeah… so much wrong with that statment.”
Reader Christopher Hudson writes: For the hall of shame: “‘Women weren’t designed to be built (muscular), or God would have made them that way.’ This was overheard in the gym during (football) camp, by one of my less than open minded coworkers. Although it is true that women cannot achieve Arnold results without juicing, I dont see many dudes who can either.”
Reader Kate writes, “I have a hall of shame moment for you: A guy I work with told me that you should never work opposing muscle groups on the same day (i.e., biceps and triceps). When I responded that my trainer has me do that with great results, he said “Well, he’s just doing that so you will tone, as opposed to GAIN MUSCLE.” I thought about punching him and asking him how “toned” my arms were. :)”
Reader Maggie Novak writes:
A woman at my gym asked me, “I see you lifting really hard and really heavy all the time. How do you keep from getting too big?” I wish there was something I was doing to keep from getting ‘too big’, because then I could stop doing it and get bigger!
A client of mine, as we were walking past the elliptical machines: “Those women are on those machines all the time. Why do they still have cellulite on the backs of their legs?” (she’d just started working with me, so I forgave her the silly question and explained that the two had next to nothing to do with each other)
Some old man in the gym to a younger woman who was doing dumbbell shoulder presses with 15 lb weights and excellent form: “You know they have lighter weights over there” and points around the corner. (Though strangely enough he ignored the woman next to her — me — who was pressing 40s.) After she glared evilly at him for a few seconds, I felt the need to try to break the tension, so I told her, “yeah, you wouldn’t want to get too big.” She started laughing, he walked away, and a good time was had by all who deserved to.
(Not really about people being particularly dumb, I just found this really funny.) I was doing dumbbell wrist curls (of all possible things) when a guy comes up and asks me, “Can I take one of your thighs home with me?” He only wanted one of them apparently, and he wasn’t trying to be lewd or insulting, just asking in a normal conversational tone. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I just said, “No, I need them… but you can have half of one…”
Reader Shelly writes:
(1) After doing two months of intensive swimming training for a triathlon I was told how female swimmers are so ugly because they always look like men, and the friend who told me this stopped swimming after two weeks because she didn’t like looking so “boyish”.
(2) My sister mentioned she wanted an exercise program she could do on her own pace and not have to talk to other people. I suggested she try free weights. She said she lifted weights once (yes, once, as in one time), and didn’t like how big her arms felt after. Apparently our family’s shoulders are too broad and look unattractive when showing muscle (my husband begs to differ). One of the best compliments he ever gave me was that he loved being married to a strong woman.
(3) I really liked the way my legs looked after I added lunges to my routine. I pointed them out to my mom, who said my legs were too big to wear a skirt anymore and I should probably cut down on those exercises. (Don’t worry, I corrected her swiftly.)