A good friend casually commented to me the other day, “I often look at people who lift heavy and wonder why they do that. Why do you work that hard?” Unlike many who wonder this sort of thing, there was no judgement, just genuine curiosity. I felt like my friend’s sincerity in asking the question deserved a thoughtful answer, so I gave it a shot.
The most obvious first response to me was that in order for any training to be effective, to elicit change, a trainee needs to encounter significant resistance, to “work that hard”. The notion that someone can come into the gym and repeatedly do what’s comfortable and still see progress runs counter to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and the Principle of Progressive Overload. If the work feels easy, our bodies have adapted and no further progress is being made. In order to see improvement or change, one needs to work on the edge of one’s comfort zone. But even as I responded with this, I realized that the purpose of exercise is not the same for all people. My initial response probably applies more to individuals with an athletic or competitive mindset, to people who are looking to improve their performance either in relation to the performance of others or in relation to their own previous bests. For many people and under many circumstances, this is not the point of going to the gym. Many people exercise because it allows them to decompress and handle stress. Many people want to maintain a certain level of fitness and overall health and are not concerned with adding more weight to the bar or with change. Totally valid reasons for exercise and ones that were more in line with the way I had been working out for the past ten years anyway. So while my initial answer might hold true for people focused on change and progressive training goals, for me, the answer felt incomplete.
Another answer to the question that might come to mind for many people is that women train with weights to achieve a certain look. But this is a different type of lifting, a different mindset, a whole other animal called bodybuilding. When people lift weights to build a particular appearance, the focus is located externally. For many women that look is based on an image of beauty that is promoted by media, “sorta strong but mostly sexy”. That’s how you end up with photos of lean women, shiny and tan, tosselled hair, in tiny shorts and sports bras, lifting a weight in some kind of bent over position designed to draw attention to their booties and boobs. Achieving this appearance can take on a competitive dimension for many women. For some women it’s subtle and interpersonal; for others it translates into participation in bikini and physique competitions. Either way, the measure of success is based on a subjective image of “perfection” generated by an outside source.
For the women that I’ve encountered who train purely for strength, neither of these explanations provides an adequate answer to the question of why they train like they do. Their answer often has much less to do with how they rank in comparison to another’s performance or in comparison to a desired appearance, and much more to do with what strength training adds to their sense of themselves; it has to do with the positive impact that strength training has on the way they view themselves and their abilities. While our culture is more supportive of strong women now than it was in the past, many people still have the notion that while strength in a woman is ok, a woman shouldn’t be “too strong,” and often these people feel perfectly entitled to express that opinion. Sometimes they make comments that are blunt and direct: “Her/your muscles are almost TOO big. I don’t like the way that looks.” Sometimes their comments are subtle, indirect, and whispered: “What does she think she needs all those muscles for anyway?” The assumption in these cases is that the woman training strength should be concerned about the other person’s opinion of the appearance of her body. However, women who train for the primary goal of strength or athleticism rather than aesthetics have already taken a step outside of cultural expectations for female appearance. Rather than focusing on their looks in relation to others or on others’ opinions of what “looks good”, most of the strong women I’ve met or read about have found that training strength allows them to focus on something internal, essential, and personal. Training physical strength allows them to develop a deeper sense of personal strength, of confidence, and of self-worth that transcends their training sessions. Training heavy lifts has the potential to teach patience, humility, resilience, perseverance, determination, and a myriad of other useful character traits. While these lessons can be learned through a variety of other mediums, because powerlifting and strongwoman competitions are still somewhat outside of the cultural expectation for women, these types of events allow women to develop a sense of physical and personal strength that is unique to the individual, that doesn’t necessarily conform to a pre-packaged image that others have bought into. The question of why women train for strength often can’t quite be answered to the satisfaction of others, because the answer in many ways defies the opinions of outsiders. The answer boils down to something as simple and personal as “I do it for me.” When I first started training at Fivex3, Emily told me she thought I’d enjoy strength training because I seemed to be someone who appreciated being different and unique. That appears to be a common current in women who train for strength. They don’t mind standing a little bit outside of expectations. It seems to me that if you meet a woman who is training for strength, not “working out” or training for appearance, you can be fairly sure to have met someone who is engaged in the process of finding her own answers and who is not trying to measure herself by someone else’s standards.