Ladies Who Lift

Why Weight?

26th April 2013

Whether they’re under your arms, around your middle or providing extra padding on your behind, wobbly bits are notoriously difficult to shift. Most of the time, when we make the decision to try and lose a few inches (a resolution so often made in the dark hours following a fruitless search for a pair of skinny jeans that don’t leave you winded every time you sit down), we diet. And sometimes we run, too. But ask the professionals about the most effective route to a better body and they’ll tell you to stop running and start lifting instead.

By the general public, lifting weights is typically considered a pastime for body builders or elite athletes, but it has real health, fitness and weight loss benefits for everyone – and for women especially. Personal trainer and weight lifter Sally Moss explains that if burning calories and losing fat is at the top of your agenda then weight training is just as important as the popular traditional cardio exercises such as going for a run or a swim. In fact, she contends, it may be more important.

“While you might get all hot and sweaty when you go for a run, once it’s over, your workout has finished,” she says. “What you’re doing with weight training, though, is increasing your lean muscle mass, which in turn will increase your metabolic rate (how much energy/calories you use over the course of a day just to keep your body functioning). So you’ll be burning more calories even when you’re just lying down watching TV.”

Sounds brilliant, right? So why do most women react with a rigorous shake of the head when they’re asked whether the weights section of their gym features in their fitness routine?

The fear, that’s why.

The fear, for most women, is that they’ll suddenly grow biceps bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and thighs to rival those of Sir Chris Hoy. But it’s a fear without any basis in reality according to Moss. “It’s actually incredibly difficult for women to get big and bulky from lifting weights,” she explains. “We don’t have the raw materials. Women have anything from a 10th to a 20th the amount of testosterone in their circulation than men, so we can’t build the same kind of muscle mass. If you’re lucky, you might gain one or two kilos of lean mass spread all over your body in a year.”

What we can do though is create toned, shapely limbs that we’re not afraid to leave poking out from a short sleeved top or skirt when (if) the temperatures begin to rise. “All the women I’ve trained and all those I know who train with weights actually get smaller,” says Moss, “because you get leaner and start losing fat from those stubborn areas. Your waist goes in, your legs get smaller and you’ll drop dress sizes.”

Once you’ve overcome the fear, there’s only one more obstacle; the intimidation factor. There’s no getting away from the fact that the weights areas of most gyms are male-dominated. Said males gather in groups – grunting and groaning their way through a session before finishing off with a quick flex in the mirror to see how much muscle they’ve grown in the past 30 minutes.

Moss assures me, though, that there are ways to become immune to the ‘boys’ own’ atmosphere. “Women just need the technical knowledge that will give them the confidence to go into a weights area and feel like they know what they’re doing, what all the equipment is and how to use it. They need to feel confident that when they do the exercise, people aren’t going to look at them thinking, ‘she’s doing that all wrong’. Women tend to want to do things right, they don’t just want to wing it.”

One of the reasons Moss first started running her Ladies who Lift classes was to pass on her own knowledge to other women, although she says that good advice is now widely available. All you need to do is ask for it.

“Over the years I’ve been lifting,” she observes, “I’ve found that the big scary-looking guy in the corner who’s lifting the most weight is usually the most helpful and the most knowledgeable. They’re obviously there taking it seriously, love their lifting and they like nothing more than someone genuinely interested in knowing how to do something.”

Gym staff are also there to help out, and should know their stuff so it's always worth asking if you're not sure about anything. “There are some really good websites out there too that have lots of useful instructional videos.” As well as Moss’s own site (gubernatrix.co.uk), she recommends girlsgonestrong.com and stumptuous.com – “all great at giving you ideas for things to try in the gym.”

If building a leaner, stronger body is not enough to tempt you into the weights room then consider this: as we age, we lose muscle density which in turn causes our metabolism to slow down. But it can also contribute to things like brittle bones and joint problems, says Moss. “So simple tasks that we take for granted now – like picking things up off the floor or lifting things overhead – in a few decades' time might become impossible. People find it hard to think several decades ahead, but the earlier you start, the better.”

As new role models like the Olympic heptathlon champ Jessica Ennis and weightlifter Zoe Smith emerge, the world is finally realising that strong women are to be admired, not ridiculed. Both are strong, toned, beautiful and look as at home on the cover of a glossy magazine as they do among the barbells, dumbbells and groups of men gawping at them in the gym. It seems that strong is the new sexy… so spend a little bit less time running, a bit more time lifting and those wobbly bits will be replaced with something altogether firmer and more shapely, in no time.

Sally Moss is a personal trainer at Ultimate
Performance gym (upfitness.co.uk)

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