For many years, people used to believe that weights were for men and cardio machines were for women. Luckily those times are long gone and more and more women are dominating the iron world. When I started lifting weights about eight years ago, female representation in iron sports and the weight room was scarce. Over the last few years female presence has become highly noticeable, and interest around it is peaking. Women need iron — not the vitamin but the barbell. Part of the reason women stay away from the weight room is because we have learned from a very young age that the scale should always be trending down. Society's standard of beauty also does not consider muscular physiques “beautiful.” The approach for "toning," dropping a few pounds, completely transforming your body, or getting shredded is not exactly the same, but they do have a few common denominators. The most common mistakes women make in the gym have to do with not understanding the effects of strength training on the human body.
1. Avoiding Resistance Training
The first thing any new female client tells me is that she doesn’t want to get too bulky, as if getting bulky is easy to do! There are people who spend their entire life chasing the gains and the elusive pump only to live forever #small. Newsflash: lifting small little pink dumbbells is the equivalent of doing jumping jacks to improve your mile time. Ain’t gonna work. Let’s set this straight once and for all. The only way you will end up looking “like a man” is if a) you consistently increase your calorie intake and begin eating in a calorie surplus (some people do this subconsciously, as their appetite increases along with the amount of work they’re doing in the gym); or b) you take exogenous testosterone.
Resistance training WILL:
Improve your bone density
Make you feel strong and confident
Increase muscle density
Allow you to help people move random heavy objects
Resistance training WILL NOT:
Increase your risk of injury
Make you feel bad about yourself
Make you look like a man
Turn you into the hulk
2. Doing Too Much Cardio for All the Wrong Reasons
The hope with doing so much cardio is that the cardio gods will magically help you “tone up.” Why do I keep saying that in quotations? Because I’m quoting millions of women who use that term arbitrarily without really understanding what it means. To be clear, what you actually mean when you say “I want to tone up” is that you want to add muscle mass and decrease body fat. Don’t be scared to admit that! The elliptical, the stationary bike, or the stair master are great pieces of equipment that help you to expend a ton of calories, but they won’t really shape your body the way you’re envisioning it will. Not only that, they make it more difficult for you to pack on the muscle that will make your arms and buttocks look sculpted and firm.
3. Fear of Being Intense
It’s okay to grunt, scream, sweat, and have a messy bun when you’re at the gym. Most girls make the mistake of lifting too light for too many reps, which is better than watching cartoons and eating ice cream but it’s not the most productive use of your time. Again, let me debunk another huge fitness myth: lifting heavy weights won’t make you look bulky, an excess of calories will. Moderate to heavy weights should be a part of everyone’s training plan for many reasons, but I’ll stick to the one that will likely matter to you most. Strength precedes hypertrophy. What does this mean? It means that lifting heavy weights is a necessary part of the process of building bigger muscles. So don’t be ashamed to struggle when you lift, sweat a ton, and put in work. There’s nothing more empowering than owning a heavy barbell.
4. Quitting Too Soon
We are bombarded by hundreds of thousands of before and after pics which can serve as motivation but can also make you feel frustrated. Comparison is the thief of joy. Live your own journey and accept your own body’s time frame. Not everyone makes progress at the same pace. A lot of us are impatient and lose motivation when we don’t see quick noticeable results and make the mistake of giving up or reverting back to our old ways. Building your ideal physique takes time.
My mantra throughout my athletic career has always been “keep showing up.” This means no matter the outcome of one session or one training block—no matter how you feel—you will show up ready to do the work. Consistency is the bread and butter of results. This doesn’t mean you can NEVER miss training sessions or you can NEVER make mistakes in your diet. You just need to stick with it for the long run. Make the conscious decision to get better more often than the times you choose the path of least resistance; don’t succumb to the lies your brain tells you about what you can or can’t do.
5. Frequency of Training
The idea that we need to work out seven times per week in order for training to be effective is blatantly flawed. Many are discouraged from stepping foot in the gym because they are under the impression that the results they are after require super human effort. In scientific terms, this is called “analysis paralysis” or “paralysis by analysis,” and it refers to a situation in which people are unable to move forward with a decision as a result of overanalyzing data or overthinking a problem. While some of us choose to make this a career, and some choose to sacrifice other aspects of their life to chase their athletic goals, not all of us are wired the same.
The truth is that in order to change our physique, 2-3 strength training sessions per week over time will dramatically improve the way you look and feel. To overcome analysis paralysis, I recommend you focus on progress not perfection, break your decisions down into small steps (show up to the gym 1x per week, then 2x per week when you master that, and so on), prioritize your decision to go to the gym, and put some pressure on yourself. Starting new routines and forming new habits isn’t easy. The key is to make those habits impossible to ignore. For example, leave your gym shoes at the door and your gym clothes in the trunk of your car.
Many of the common mistakes women make in the gym are a result of years of misinformation—not understanding women’s physiology and how we respond to training. I hope this clears up some of the confusion and that it gives you the knowledge you need in your journey wherever you are.