Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On Being Strong

So, I've been getting back to the gym now, after four or five months off. I was never an athletic person, and I always thought of myself as the resident Fat Girl at school (this wasn't so true once I hit high school, but my self-image was already set by then), so when I go to the gym, I'm still pretty self conscious. I try not to look at the women around me and compare myself, but shit like that happens. I mean, when everybody's (OK, when all of the *women*) are skinnier and hence more "socially acceptable" than you are, you tend to get a little ancy.

I do about forty minutes of cardio, and I don't kill myself doing it. There are Super Women who run full tilt for an hour on the treadmill or beat themselves up on the elliptical machine like it's a torture device, but I like to pace myself. I don't want to fall off the elliptical when I'm done.

So if you were to see me and one of these thin racer-women side-by-side on the elliptical, I'd look like I was behind, not as tough, not as healthy, not as strong. I mean, after all, look at her go!

That is, until you get us both to the weights.

It's something I noticed at the martial arts school as well when we'd do free weight and punching bag rounds. I took dumbbells in equal or greater weight to the ones the women who'd been there for years took. I thought it was interesting.

Then I started here on these weight machines, and you can use the pin to select what weight you want, so you can track what the person ahead of you was lifting, and I started to clock what everybody else was lifting. There were women who left the pin at 5 or 15 pounds for the upper body exercises. The heaviest weight I saw a woman clock in was 35 lbs.

I was doing a minimum of 45, and that was when I was doing the lift-over-your-head stuff. For the rest, it was 55-65. And for the legs? 90 lbs minimum, up to 115/120. the only other woman I saw do over 100 lbs for the leg weights was bigger than me set everything on a really high weight and only did 5-10 reps, one set.

And I'm thinking, what the hell is up with the lifting weights thing?

I don't think women in general can only lift 15-35 lbs. I just don't buy it. So what gives? Is it just a matter of doing it for years without increasing the weight? Why?

I know there are a lot of women who fear "bulking up" like a guy. The thing is, unless you've got a big dose of above-average testoserone, you likely won't do this unless you're expressly training for it and taking supplements. Instead, you'll likely condense. Muscles get denser, not bigger, if you don't have a ton of testoserone. That's what happened to me after six months or so of martial arts classes. My biceps got to a certain size, and then just stared getting denser and harder.

So, lifting more than 15 lbs isn't going to turn you into Arnold Swartzenegger.

What gives? Are women afraid of being strong? Or are the weights really not the priority, since we're all *really* just at the gym to get *thin*? And is there really such a push to be thin that we'll give up being strong to get it?

Because let me tell you, being strong is really fucking useful when your roommate and her SO are out of town and you have to move your entire household (including the goddamn fucking air conditioner) up two flights of stairs. It's also really useful when you're getting harrassed on the train or on the street. It gives you a confidence you didn't have before, and in fact, you'll likely get harrassed *less* because of that newfound confidence (yes, I've been harrassed far, far, less since I took up the MA classes and learned the boxer's walk).

So why keep lifting 15 pounds? Cause you think you can't lift any more? Cause you're thinking, "What's the point?"

At work, I sit in a cubicle immediately behind the receptionist. It took her almost a year to realize that she didn't need to call one of the guys from the back to haul around boxes for her. The sad part was when she brought me over to haul a box that weighed less than 20 lbs.

13 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I never understood the weights in the gym, either, especially since weights are one of the things that can help prevent osteoporosis.

We have a dumpster for a week to get rid of a lot of old junk and some pieces of fence. I cleaned out a lot of the garage last night by myself, including a bed, and all of it went into the dumpster. One of my coworkers recently dubbed me "small, but mighty" which cracked me up. I don't *feel* like it is that big of a deal, but apparently most women are not comfortable being strong or aren't willing to work at it. Or something. I don't understand. 

Posted by Wendryn

Anonymous said...

I hate that whole if-I-lift-this-heavy-I-will-look-like-a-man BS. I haven't been hitting the weights like I'd like to in quite a while, but when I was I completely loved my body and how strong I felt. They're missing out I tell ya. 

Posted by Khandi

Anonymous said...

Maybe they don't know much about lifting weights or other training, and are following bad advice? Are they afraid of hurting themselves? Maybe they don't really want to invest time and effort to lift a LOT, but are just doing the minimum upper body stuff to tone for road races or other sport of interest.

I just started working out with free weights at home, after 20+ years of desk jockeying, and I don't have a clue. I just got this advice: "start light, don't work the same group every day, when things get easy with multiple sets and you get bored, increase weight". Makes sense, seems to work, takes a long time, but at least I don't get laid up. 

Posted by NancyP

Anonymous said...

One woman told me she didn't lift more because she didn't want to look too buff--she put it as "I don't want to look like a man." Which was purely a psychological thing, as there was no way she'd look like a man if she tried, even by the purely subjective standards of modern society.


Posted by JeffV

Anonymous said...

Yea, I don't get it.

I was always told that lifting more weight was preferable to doing more reps. This is definately true - I was doing a bazillion reps with my dinky 5lb weights a couple of years ago, and knew I needed to lessen the time my morning routine was taking, so I cut reps and increased weight. I'm now using 20 and 30 lb free weights, and the results are way, way better than doing 100 reps with dinky 5lbs, let me tell you.

About the only thing that gets bigger is going to be your shoulders, if you do a lot of punching routines and lifting over the head, and even then, it's not a huge difference. The big difference is that everything else tightens up and gets denser.

Maybe it is just a matter of stereotypes re: weightlifting, and not wanting that sort of body. If you look at something like Hers Magazine, yea, there are some professional bodybuilders in there who strive for bulk, but mostly you'll just see really buff, strong women, not the frail-looking sort you'll often see on the cover of, say, Vogue.

Maybe everybody wants to look like a Vogue model and fall over in a strong wind. I dunno.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would love to be all buff and muscly. Unfortunately, I have zero strength in my arms no matter how much I try and develop them. I am, however, beginning kickboxing lessons, inspired in part by my reading of your blog (yay internets!) I always felt like the Fat Girl at school (though I still enjoyed swimming, dancing, walking and other non-school enforced activities)and like the effete fop I am, tend to eschew scary, spandex-laden gyms. Learning to be confident in-as well as about- my body is a big thing for me,especially after I was physically assaulted a year ago, and your blogging has definitely spurred me into thinking about my body as an instrument, rather than as a burden, or something to be objectified. Sorry if this has rambled slightly off-topic..:) 

Posted by Kat

Anonymous said...

Hey, Kat, kickboxing is way cool!

I think you'll like it. I have also been wondering how much of the building muscle thing is genetic. Like Wendryn said a few months ago, she comes from a long line of strong, stocky women. The women in my family are traditionally pretty big and strong, too, and I'm wondering how much of ones ability to gain muscle mass, like fat storage and etc. has to do with genetics.

You may find you've got killer legs, though, which is where the kickboxing will come in handy... 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

I just started lifting weights about 2 months ago and I can't begin to tell you how much better I feel. I had been in pretty good shape (doing cardio, etc) before, but now I feel so much stronger and have much more energy. My body looks better, not manly, but sleeker and more defined. And I also love the fact that I can do more now, too.

I plan to find a school to study Martial Arts next because that has been one of my dreams and now I'm making it my reality. This is why I love your blog. It speaks to me on so many levels. 

Posted by Ann V

Anonymous said...

If it makes you feel better, the approvably skinny women working out next to you probably wish they had your strength.

I got a lot of awed stares when I started doing chin-ups--which were a piece of cake compared to tricep dips, at least for me. It was kinda sad, especially since all those women were devoting hours to one-pound weight workouts.  

Posted by piny

Anonymous said...

The 1 # weights are handy for finger extension exercises (musicians, typists, etc)

Cheer up and start those finger extensions, Kameron (ie, the ones involved in typing The Book). 

Posted by NancyP

Anonymous said...

Dude. You're lifting 115-120 for squats? No way. Go bigger! I'm a head shorter than you, and only weigh 140, and I can squat bodyweight, which is a nice minimum weight goal for anyone. (I've even got a blown ACL here, or I'd be trying for more.)

I think you could really be pushing some IMPRESSIVE weight around a gym, and lifting heavy weights does some surprising and attractive things to the female body. Schwarzenegger? Even Arnie had to take steroids to get that body. For women, not happening.

Lower reps is actually fine. The typical ladies' 15-20 rep scheme is not in fact terribly useful for either strength or hypertrophy; it's more of an endurance range. A lower rep range with a higher number of sets (and appropriate rest periods between sets) is a good way to build the kind of sick strength that REALLY pops eyeballs in the gym. 

Posted by Katharine

Anonymous said...

Endurance is worthwhile, isn't it, if what you are aiming for is not a competitive weightlifting scheme but activities of daily living? Seems that both strength and endurance are useful in real life.

I have been doing 2 sets 8-10 reps, working up to 3 sets 15 reps, before heading to the next weight. Sensible? 

Posted by NancyP

Anonymous said...

I don't do weights yet, but I work in a library and people here are remarkably squeamish about women lifting. I carry as many books as I can safely. It get severything done quicker, and (ahem) I'm rather smug about it as well. I think I look debonaire hefting.
I get shouted at a lot for it (loud protests that I need to get a man, which often startle me and make me drop books - twits). Even now I've been here for a year and I'm clearly physically able to do it without injury.

Anyway, my main observation is that the librarians are mostly white middle class women, and don't lift much. The security blokes are mostly working class, black men and they do all the lifting. Aside from the fact that this is freaky in itself, in addition, I'm not sure that there isn't a sense that the manmuscle is just more disposable than the women staff. Because they're being paid less, it's less whether they're capable of lifting, more that if they throw their back out, they're easier to replace, and paid less for their sick leave. This is really  unpleasant.

Anyway. Have been lurking for a while, and enjoying your blog. Thought I'd add.


Posted by Ex