Women embrace extra weight - in the gym

More women are switching from cardio to strength-based workouts, and finding a new sense of empowerment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 October, 2014, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 October, 2014, 5:14pm

Only a few years ago the gym weights room was largely the testosterone-filled domain of the muscle-bound male, a place where women were rarely seen.

But times have changed. Women are ditching time-honoured cardio workouts in droves in favour of lifting weights. And not lightweight dumb-bells either, but Olympic barbells with dead lifts, squats and presses on the agenda.

Twenty-two per cent of American women reported lifting weights as at the end of 2013, up from only 17 per cent in 2004, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. CrossFit - the weightlifting meets gymnastics meets high intensity interval fitness trend sweeping the world - has 10 million self-described devotees in the US. A surprising 60 per cent of them are women, according to the American Council on Exercise.

In Hong Kong, the rising popularity of the rigorous women-only Bikini Fit programme demonstrates the dominance of strength-based workouts among the city's women. Known for its punishing weightlifting regimen, the programme has grown to seven daily groups of up to 40 women each in just two years. And Hong Kong's nine CrossFit affiliates boast a similarly high proportion of female followers to their American counterparts.

Unlike most fitness trends, it's not just the promise of a taut, pert physique that's driving the uptake. Instead, it's the mental gains that keep women striving to lift more. "Girl power" takes on a whole new meaning.

"There is so much empowerment in being able to lift and move heavy things - especially if it's more than your body weight," says Bikini Fit head coach Tricia Yap. "Putting fears of failure aside, attempting something one might not otherwise dare to do, and then achieving it - it's a powerful thing that our community of women can apply to other aspects of their lives."

Kristen Johnson, 27, a coach at Hong Kong's CrossFit 0260, agrees. "When you're able to lift a barbell and control your body, you know you can achieve whatever you want," she says.

A power lifter since age 12, Johnson has had muscles for as long as she can remember. "Back then it wasn't socially acceptable for young girls to have muscle mass. Boys were always intimidated," she says.

Now, however, she believes there's a seismic change in the way women view fitness - and themselves. "Strong is now considered beautiful. It's okay to have muscles and look fit."

The change in perception is also apparent among Asian women. Johnson has observed that CrossFit is becoming increasingly popular with the local female population.

"I've seen many local [Hong Kong women] coming in, terrified of the barbell at first, and then doing things they never thought they could do, like moving 75 kilograms in a squat and in snatches and cleans."

Lifting heavy things is strongly rooted in the testing of male prowess. A 5,000-year-old Chinese text tells of prospective soldiers having to pass lifting tests, and ancient Greek sculptures also depict lifting feats. Weightlifting was included as an official sport in the first modern day Olympics held in 1896 - for men only.

As the fitness and health movement gathered momentum in the 1970s, increased emphasis was placed on the bulging male physique, thanks to the bodybuilding phenomenon espoused by Mr Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger. Women, meanwhile, aspired to the slender aerobic-bopping Jane Fonda.

Women have long shied away from the male-dominated arena of weightlifting for fear of getting "bulky". It wasn't till 1987 that the first women's international world championships for weightlifting was held, and women's weightlifting was only introduced at the 2000 Olympic Games.

But women are learning that regular weight and strength training does not make you muscle-bound. "Unless you considerably change your diet or train extensively, you're not going to bulk up," says Johnson.

Case in point: Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, the "fittest female on earth" and winner at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games, is only 157 centimetres tall and 59 kilograms.

Women's hormonal and muscular make-up means it take them longer to build muscle than men, explains Tom Summers. The strength and conditioning coach at Pinnacle Performance, who trains theHong Kong women's cricket team and Valley Women's Rugby, says just over half his members are female.

"Men have a greater capacity to gain muscle mass than women. Developing muscle is never easy but it's going to take years of training and overloading for women to achieve the same physical shape as men," says Summers.

"For most women it's virtually impossible to have the same quantity of muscle gain as men, even with significant changes to diet or increasing training time. Women need a much longer phase of muscle hypertrophy (growth) as they produce a far lower amount of testosterone than men."

Summers explains that strength training can get you leaner much quicker than doing cardio. "Muscle burns more energy than fat. Increasing your lean muscle tissue will increase your metabolic mass. Muscle burns calories even when idle, whereas fat just idles all the time."

Laurena Law discovered first hand the benefits of a radical overhaul of her training regime. A self-confessed gym addict, Law used to spend up to two hours a day in the gym. Instead of getting leaner, she seemed stuck at 28 per cent body fat.

An anti-ageing doctor by profession, the 38-year-old began conducting tests on herself and found that her metabolic system was slowing down as she got older, she had developed food intolerances and there was a lot of inflammation in her body caused by her body-stressing workout.

"I knew that going from my 20s to my 30s there was going to be a change, but I was wondering whether I was going to really accept that I was just getting older, or search out something different?"

Two years ago she embarked on a strength-training regime and radically altered her diet, dropping her body fat to 21 per cent. The results were not just physical - her sleep, energy levels and metabolic processes all improved.

"While aerobic training is important, I believe everyone should incorporate some form of weight training into their exercise routine, as a well-structured weight session is an efficient and effective way to train," says Law.

It can go too far. Exercise is meant to make you feel good
Hattie Boydle, weightlifter

Women who have embraced the weightlifting trend have inspired a wave of "fitspiration" on social media. Waif-like supermodel idols have been replaced with strong, fit women.

But are women simply swapping one form of self-flagellation for another?

Hattie Boydle, an Australian personal trainer and professional weightlifter, cautions that while the lifting trend is positive, women should not exchange one negative behaviour for another.

"Like any obsession, it can go too far. Exercise is meant to make you feel good and not be a punishment," says Boydle. She believes, however, that lifting can help women overcome damaging problems, such as eating disorders. For example, among her clients, she says training goals have changed from 'I want to lose weight' to 'I want to get stronger.' The result: women are starting to see food as fuel, not as good or bad.

A long-time sufferer of anorexia and bulimia Boydle, 25, has shifted to a more positive body image through weightlifting. "When I first came to the gym it wasn't about what I had to change in the mirror. It was about getting that weight off the floor or going heavier than last time."

CrossFit helped Joey Lee, 35, recover from injury and shed stubborn weight after having a baby. She was such a fan of the regimen that she eventually became a CrossFit coach and now co-owns 9Dragons Fitness with her husband. They have two CrossFit gyms, in Central and in Tung Chung. 


Women and men are not created equal

Just because women should utilise resistance training like men, doesn't mean they should lift the same. The risk, says Pinnacle Performance's Tom Summers, is that women are biomechanically different from men, and need to consider their lifting techniques to avoid injury.

"Notably, women have wider hips than men, which often results in an inward angle of the thigh towards the knees. There is a risk of knee joint instability, and more susceptibility to injuries of the ACL, MCL and other issues with knee mechanics. This is particularly so in sport, and in movements like running and jumping.

"Women often report lower back pain and knee pain in everyday life. The biomechanics of the skeleton can't be changed, so the way females recruit the muscles and train their hips and lower body are essential to ensuring safe technique.

"While everyone should ensure proper technique when lifting, it's more relevant to women, who are often less structurally developed than men, and traditionally have less training history behind them," Summers says.