Strong Women Set the Pace

Women's Strength-training programs have come a long way over the years, but watch out for red flags that could chase potential memers away.

Carlton Smith was ready for action. He was looking forward to his weekly strength-training workout at the Brick Bodies club in downtown Baltimore. This time he opted for a group effort, hoping for a personal challenge that would increase his strength and endurance, and teach him more weight-lifting techniques.

He approached the aerobics room where the class was scheduled. With a jerk of hesitation in his step, he stopped short of entering the center of the room. With a look of astonishment on his face, he raised his eyebrows and took a deep breath, surveying the room with his lips pursed. He then exhaled and slightly shrugged his shoulders in response to being beckoned into the room by Erin Miller, the club's group exercise director. Smith then joined one of the smaller groups of three participants to begin the club's quarterly BodyPUMP Challenge with 13 other members-all women.

"I thought I'd have a little more [male] competition," Smith said, smiling and nodding his head in approval, "but the women are working out just fine!"

The women-and Smith-were, indeed, working out. While one member lifted the barbells, her (or, in Smith's case, his) group partners spotted and motivated the trainee to do 20 reps, not just 10. One group raced in the center of the room for an aerobic workout between presses, pumps and crunches by the other groups in the room's corners. When all had finished the routine, the small groups rotated to another location for another set of strength-training workouts.

Amid the controlled chaos, Miller and fellow instructor, Kenyaetta Busch, timed, motivated, instructed and synchronized the small groups of members. And taking on one group as an instructor was Lynne Brick, co-owner of the co-ed downtown Balti-more club. Fast, vibrating background music kept the class at a rapid pace.

Brick said strength training is "mandatory" for all women who are club members. She said she is en-thused about the BodyPUMP licensed workout because it offers deconditioned, inexperienced and experienced members the opportunity to exercise all the body's major muscle groups while increasing their strength and endurance.

According to a random survey of club managers and trainers, as well as health and fitness reports, women have shied away from strength training, citing fears of being heckled in weight rooms by men who are also working out. "BodyPUMP [classes] make the weight room less intimidating for women," Brick said.

Indeed, the strength exercises long favored by men are slowly getting the interest of women. They are reading about, listening to each other and basically buzzing about strength/weight training. This is partially due to the fact that women have a better understanding of the effects of strength training. Common misconceptions-like lifting weights make women look like men-are losing their hold.

Gail McHugh of Lady Wellness in St. Cloud, Minn., said, "women are not going to be bulky" from strength training. She noted that the women she sees in her club are more educated about the benefits of exercise programs. "There's kind of a turnaround [in women's view of strength training] because of health issues such as osteoporosis," she explained. So there's no surprise that the Lady Wellness trainers who provide and pitch strength training are booked solid.

Gayle Winegar, president and general manager of the SweatShop in St. Paul, Minn., noted that female members who utilize her club's personal trainers (most of whom are women) for strength training, as well as her club's group programs, seek "someplace safe" to work out. They want the comfort of being with other women, without the pressure of the expectations that accompany the presence of men in the gym.

In other words, when women work out with women, they don't feel the need to wear make-up, have coifed hair, put on designer wardrobes, and, especially, have a trim figure. That's why they may avoid the strength areas populated by men and make a beeline for the group exercise room, where they can join mostly women in strength-training classes.

Winegar said that her group strength-training classes are based on the club's own guidelines. She noted that women respond more positively to group workouts because they find the classes very motivating for fitness, social and networking opportunities.

The SweatShop staff is trained to identify what a woman's perception of strength training is before she starts her training, as well as her health needs and limitations. Winegar believes that men training women is "something to pay attention to," noting that some younger, male trainers may need coaching to help them to identify women's needs in strength-training programs. They must learn how to identify women who may feel vulnerable working out with men, as well as women who may be at risk for osteoporosis because they may be more prone to injuries than younger women or men.

Indeed, with osteoporosis looming as such a potential threat to many female baby boomers, strength training has increased in popularity among women who seek its health benefits. According to a newsletter published by the revered Mayo Clinic's Foundation for Medical Education and Research, as our bodies age, we suffer not only significant loss of bone, but also of muscle and aerobic capacity.

Men usually lose about 10 percent of their muscle mass each decade after age 65. Women lose somewhat less, but they also lose about 35 to 50 percent of bone mineral content by age 90. The newsletter also reported that research studies have shown exercise can slow the loss of bone and increase the size and strength of muscles, including the heart.

Brick also pointed out that a study performed by Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., at Tufts University in Boston showed the benefits enjoyed by women who started high-intensity strength training. Dr. Nelson's research concluded that high-intensity strength-training exercises are an effective and feasible means to preserve bone density while improving muscle mass, strength and balance in postmen-opausal women.

According to Dr. Nelson's results, the women who did not exercise in her control group lost 2 percent of their bone mass over the year of the study, which is a typical rate for women during and after menopause. This increases the danger of fractures. The women who strength trained, however, gained 1 percent of their bone mass back.

Older women aren't the only ones who can benefit from strength training. And strength training does more than strengthen muscle and bone. Research has proved that the average woman loses 5 lbs. of muscle and gains 15 lbs. of fat per decade. As a result, the average 20-year-old woman has 23 percent fat while the average 50-year-old has 47.4 percent. With strength training, women can help decrease fat while increasing lean muscle.

According to Dr. Nelson, strength training burns calories, elevates metabolism and helps tame appetites. Furthermore, it gives people energy. With higher metabolisms and stronger muscles, women in a Dr. Nelson study became 27 percent more physically active, while, the non-exercisers became 25 percent less active.

So why aren't more women working out in the weight rooms? As previously stated, some myths have kept them away from strength training. The best way to dispose these myths is to show women that they're just that-myths. That's why Brick encourages women to try a strength-training class: Learning the ropes of weight exercises can help women overcome their fears associated with strength training and their lack of self-confidence in meeting their goals.

Again, in contrast to popular opinion, strength training won't make women become less feminine. Testosterone does play a vital role in bulking up with strength training, but some experts argue that DNA ultimately determines size. Some women may increase their muscle mass more than others, depending on their DNA and their testosterone levels (experts agree that it varies in women), but the bottom line is they will not grow muscle as do men.

Another myth is that women need different strength-training routines than men. There is no supporting evidence that women are more likely to be injured during strength training than are men.

Myths aren't the only things that have kept women away from strength training. Past experiences have driven them away too. One source (requesting anonymity) told the story of a woman who once used plate-loaded equipment in a co-ed weight room only to be jeered and teased by men pumping weights nearby. This woman walked out of the club...and never went back.

Tips for Meeting Women's Strength-Training Needs

* Survey your members: Identify women who want strength-training programs, either in a group environment or with personal trainers.

* Evaluate your staff's credentials: Assess staff members' credentials for strength-training programs for women. Look for backgrounds that include training women, working with women's groups and sensitivity training for women's health issues.

* Find a separate space for women's programs: Be sensitive to women's fear of their vulnerability while strength training in your club.

* Survey your equipment: Consider investing in strength-training equipment that is specifically designed for women's needs, such as lighter dumbbells, selectorized equipment with smaller weight increments, and machines that accommodate women's smaller hand grips, arm and leg lengths, and seat heights.

* Research strength training's health benefits for women: Review health newsletters, query local health care providers, get the facts on health issues for women.

* Consider offering seminars: Sponsor an educational foundation on women's health issues at your club by networking with a local health care provider who can provide documented advice about the benefits of women's strength-training programs; open the seminars to everyone in your community, not just to your members.

For more information on strength training for women, check out these dot-com resources: The Web site of the Melpomene Institute that helps girls and women of all ages link physical activity and health through research, publication and education. The Web site of author Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., whose books document the benefits of strength training for women. The Mayo Clinic's Web site offers access to information on many health issues, including women's needs. InteliHealth, a joint venture of Aetna U.S. Healthcare and Johns Hopkins University and Health System, has again been nominated for a prestigious Webby award for the best health-related site on the Web. It includes fitness issues for women.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.