Stop exercising to be smaller. Get stronger instead

Because of a fear of “bulking up,” many women avoid strength training altogether. Big mistake.

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Woman weight lifting
Photo, Movie Pix/Getty Images.

When I was 11, I measured five feet seven inches. My boobs didn’t arrive for another six achingly long years, but I was young, I was big, and my tiny Irish-Catholic relatives took notice. “You’re almost as tall as your dad!” they would tease. “Do you like basketball?” my teachers quipped, before plunking me dead centre in the back row in class photos.

I’ve never had any particularly insidious hang-ups about my weight, but as a tall woman blessed with her dad’s thighs, I am plenty aware of the institutionalized shrinkage foisted upon women of every age. We’re supposed to be small enough to be dragged around a dance floor and to sport heels without towering over our partners. We attend exercise classes that promote lengthening over strengthening. And under absolutely no circumstances are we to be the “big spoon.”

Make no mistake: This notion of mandatory smallness goes well beyond physical size. When we talk about women being afraid  to speak up, to lead, to make demands, we are talking about a fear of taking up space.

There’s no better place to start changing the way we think than the gym. If we took our cues from what I call “pink workouts” — barre classes, Pilates — we’d risk becoming so willowy, we’d blow away. The idea of training to become strong has been left languishing on the mats.


Related: Why women should lift weights and three rules to get started


The health benefits of weight training are well-known: Recent studies have linked resistance training and weight-lifting to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in women, increased protection against osteoporosis and a lower incidence of age-related brain shrinkage. Plus, the “afterburn” associated with resistance exercises leads to a prolonged metabolic spike well after you put down the dumbbells. But because of our collective Schwarzenegger-sized fear of “bulking up,” many women avoid strength training altogether.

The fact is, even when you train to build strength, the likelihood of having your biceps bust through your blouse is almost nil. Geoff Girvitz owns Bang Fitness, a Toronto gym with a substantial focus on weightlifting. Unsurprisingly, fear of bulking up is something Girvitz hears a lot from his female clientele. “If it were that easy to get muscular, every 14-year-old boy in the country would be jacked,” Girvitz says laughing, noting that women have to work very hard to put on a single pound of muscle in a year of consistent training. “No woman has ever said [to me], ‘I’ve become too muscular and I don’t like the way it looks.’ Not one. ”

Christine Persaud, 35, is a competitive powerlifter and one of Girvitz’s clients. She can deadlift twice her body weight and says that, for her, the benefits of weight training extend well beyond skin deep. “It’s really inspiring to see the other women who go to competitions and can lift a lot of weight,” she says. “People say, ‘Do you need a man to help you with the heavy lifting?’ It’s nice to know that I can hold my own.”

Imagine carrying your groceries without cursing your weak arms. Or lifting an air conditioning unit out of your window without buckling underneath it like the Wicked Witch of the West. Better yet, imagine your body as a well-built machine carving a path through the world, and imagine feeling like every part of you —  even the biggest part — belongs there. There is more than enough space for all of us. We should take it.

Related:
Why women should lift weights and three rules to get started
5 practical fitness tips from the stars of Cirque du Soleil
The most efficient exercises for a total-body workout

Watch: 3 moves to strengthen your hamstrings