The Strength Part of the Gym Is Not Male Exclusive

Sometimes I do weird stuff in the gym. I stare (to learn new moves), I make badass psycho faces (to amp myself up), and I mouth the words to almost every single song I listen to (because it’s fun). But today, I think my weirdness reached a new level: I walked around the gym and counted people.

There were 27 people doing cardio work. 20 of them were women.

There were 19 people doing strength training. 2 of them were women.

Are men & women really that different that our bodies require completely different forms of exercise? Absolutely not.

I watch a lot (read: all) of The Biggest Loser for a number of reasons, and something that I have been recently paying attention to is that the workouts that the trainers put the men & women through are essentially the same. You don’t see Bob screaming, “Ladies–ellipticals! Men–squat presses!”.

I’m not a fitness professional, but it’s easy to see that both strength work and cardio work are crucial for fitness. Strength work  builds muscle, and cardio work uses muscle — they balance each other out. If your muscles are stronger, they’ll be more effective during cardio.

I mentioned that I watch people at the gym. I like to see what the fit people are doing & copy them so that I can become more fit sans-trainer.  Today I noticed that the majority of the people doing strength work looked pretty fit (read: muscly), and while most people on the ellipticals were trim, they didn’t look as fit to me — I suppose they were just less muscled & sculpted. But there was the one guy who was switching between pull-ups, upside down sit ups (he was dangling from his knees), and sprints on the treadmill. So he was obviously fit. But, what I’m getting at is that most of the people who look the most fit (and the people with workouts that therefore seem to be worth emulating) are in the strength section for at least a portion of their workout.

And when I say that someone “looks fit,” I don’t mean that he or she has muscles bulging out of every place possible. I mean he or she is trim, but to a healthy point, and there’s subtly visible lean muscle on the arms and legs. I’m ignoring meatheads.

Ladies, I know that the strength area is not often the most attractive bit of the gym. People make much meaner faces and grunt a lot more when they’re doing strength work than when they’re ellipticalling. Sometimes men go around in packs, seeming to simply watching each other lift things up and put them down, making grunts of approval. The equipment can be intimidating if you don’t know how to use it. There are fewer TVs. Plus, it’s possible to look cute on an elliptical, but not so much when you’re pushing weights around with your legs or also picking things up and putting them back down. Who cares?

But none of that is really important. Here’s why you should strength train:

1. It’s really really good for you.
2. Strength training has more measurable results than cardio does.
3. It keeps workouts fun & fresh
4. You’re not going to look like a meathead
5. No one cares what you look like when you’re working out
6. You’ll be able to do badass things

I shall elaborate. Keep in mind that I just learn from google, experience, talking with people, and being that creep in your gym.

1. It’s really really good for you. 

Strength training burns more calories than cardio alone. On the elliptical, I keep my heart rate between 145 and 155, and guess what–when I’m strength training, it’s in the same range, so both cardio and strength workouts can burn comparable numbers calories. But after the workout, my body burns calories to repair and rebuild the muscle. Strength training burns calories outside of the gym, but cardio burns calories mostly during the workout only (but there is a little bit of after-burn).

Muscle requires more calories to operate on a day-to-day basis. Fat is stored calories. Even a rest, muscles are burning calories.

When your muscles are stronger, they have more cardio endurance. Cardio uses muscles, so stronger muscles allow longer lasting cardio workouts. I cannot WAIT for bike season.

Strength training improves your balance, which is nice.

2. Strength training has more measurable results than cardio does. 

In cardio, the main measurable results are speed and endurance, but those build up slowly and are boring to watch. In strength training, you notice yourself getting stronger because you can do more assisted pull-ups, hold planks for much longer, or suddenly pick up a dumbbell and double check the weight because it seems too light. It’s easier to stay motivated to keep on doing something if the results of your hard work are clear.

3. It keeps workouts fun & fresh

As you get stronger, your workouts change more than just increasing speed or elliptical resistance.

After my charming foot injury, I had to change my workout regimen because standup cardio machines were banned. Previously, my workouts used to be at least 60 minutes of cardio (running, biking, or at the gym), perhaps followed by some crunches, planks, pushups, or squats. I was enjoying working out outside (so running or biking), but I wasn’t having a blast in the gym at all. 60 elliptical minutes are boring, regardless of the magazine, tv show, or music. And working out shouldn’t be enjoyable because of any media that you consume during the workout — media can be consumed in many places other than an elliptical. If you enjoy the act of working out, it becomes a much more permanent part of your lifestyle.

Now my workouts are generally 15 minutes of cardio to warm up, 30 minutes of strength training (either upper, core, or lower), and then 15+ more minutes of cardio. Every time I go to the gym, I aim to do something that I haven’t done before. This varies from using a different machine, doing a higher number of reps, using a different amount of weight, or just doing things in a different order. It can’t get boring, because it doesn’t stay the same– as I get stronger, more options open up for me. I also now clearly steal moves from people — if I see some guy do something neat with those pulley things (I haven’t learned the lingo, nor do I intend it), I give it a shot pretty immediately, not concerned whether or not he notices that I’m plagiarizing. I’m having a ton more fun at the gym than ever before.

4. You’re not going to look like a meathead

Building massive amounts of muscle requires a lot more than 30 minutes of strength training 4-5 times a week. People who get jacked do so intentionally. They’re eating like 300+ grams of protein, and lifting insane amounts very frequently, often following some workout plan. Adding strength training to your workout regimen will change your body, but it won’t change your body into that of a body builder. I promise.

5. No one cares what you look like when you’re working out

 Yes, I am generally either the only or one of 2 women in the strength training area, and I don’t always know exactly what I’m doing, but who the hell cares? No one worth impressing ever thinks, “wow, look at that stupid girl trying to pretend that she fits in in this testosterone driven weight room.” They don’t think, “ugh, I HATE when people who aren’t already wicked fit workout — it’s so obnoxious.”

Healthy & fit (and nice) people want other people to enjoy health and fitness. When I first started running, I was terrified that people would laugh at a fat girl on a treadmill. But most people are way more caught up in their own self, worrying about whether or not people are judging them to at all pay attention to the people around them. Chances are, if people at the gym are watching or judging you, it’s because, like me, they have the best of intentions & are trying to learn & plagiarize. Or they have a blog.

6. You’ll be able to do badass things

I made this visual a few weeks ago– now I do 4-5 reps of 1 minute each, among other badass things.watch out, baby seals.

Not sure how to get started with strength training? Watch people! Play around (just don’t be stupid–use small weights until you’re comfortable in the different moves). Google things. When it comes to your body’s health & functionality, don’t be timid. This stuff is important, and also a lot of fun. Plus, I want to do a real pull up one day, and I’m not going to get there just by biking.

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7 Comments to “The Strength Part of the Gym Is Not Male Exclusive”

  1. I totally agree; my sister was always worried that if she used heavy weights, she would inevitably become “huge.” It took her awhile to realize that diet has something to do with how big we get as well, not just heavy lifting. Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you:))

  2. I love weight lifting and strength training. I do a lot of circuits, so my weight training IS cardio. I’m working hard, and my heart rate stays up the whole time.

    Most guys I see in the “testosterone area” (as I call it) are doing single joint exercises – bicep curls, bench press, etc. I am a big proponent of multiple-joint exercises and staying moving – squat press, wall balls, planks.

    I’ve been working hard for years, and I lift heavy weights – I can clean 115 lbs. and squat press 100 lbs. – but my muscles are not very noticeable unless I make you feel me flex, which I admit I do way too much. I WISH weightlifting made me look big. I want more attention for my muscles.

    I’d like to add one more suggestion – write it down! Write down your workouts and the weights you did in a little book so you can look back and see your progress! If you are lucky enough to work with a trainer, write down your workouts so you can do them again on your own.

    Have fun ladies!

  3. I love strength training too—I want you as my personal trainer, Sarah!!!

  4. Picking things up and putting them down is my favorite part of the gym! Gym-based cardio is mind-numbing, I think. I’m taking a weight lifting class this semester and am the only woman. Most of my classmates are on the football team and the instructor is the head football coach. Some of my classmates did look a little askance at me when I first showed up but that didn’t last long once they could see I was serious about things.
    Squats are my fav and benching makes me feel like a bad@ss. (Though pull-ups steadily elude me. My goal this semester is to learn to clean and jerk.

    • Ack, fat fingers on a touch screen!
      Anyway, I’ve definitely seen and heard other women’s dubiousness about lifting any amount of weight countless times. But thus far I’ve successfully not become a man while simultaneously becoming a much stronger woman. Seems like a win-win.

  5. First of all, personal portrait is hysterical with your curly hair and all. Second, balancing on the two medicine balls is so badass. Good for you!!! Third, I completely agree that cardio and strength training should go hand in hand. It’s the complete balance our body needs to actually all come together. Excellent post as always. I’m glad you were a stalker at the gym or we wouldn’t have been so well informed. Keep the blog coming!!!!

  6. FANTASTIC article! I am going to add to this:

    1) When I worked out with a trainer we basically did strength training the whole hour and threw in a little cardio here and there. My weight stayed the same while I built up muscle and lost fat (sort of an equilibrium) for a few months and then the weight started just melting off–without a lot of cardio.

    2) Going hard core on the elliptical or treadmill means (especially if you’re still newish and trying to build up your gym routine) that by the end you will be huffing and puffing and sweaty and having to take a few minutes just to get your breathing fully under control again. And when I did that, it made me never want to get on the elliptical again. Strength training means you’ll work up a sweat but won’t be dying for oxygen, so you feel like you got a workout without feeling like you’re killing yourself every time you go to the gym.

    3) Elliptical machines mean the weight comes off suuuuuuuperrrr slloooowwwwwww and you (I) quit before I even got started really getting into a habit because who wants to waste their time on something that doesn’t feel like it’s working? With weight training, you are going to feel AWESOME when you see that little muscle in your arm show up JUST WHEN YOU’RE BRUSHING YOUR TEETH!!

    I’m sure I could think of more of this later, but, really, strength training is the way to go and all the girlies on the ellipticals should join you in the meaty section of the gym!

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