body image · fitness · weight lifting

A feminist perspective on barbell training (Guest post)

by Fran Mason

Women in parts of the world have been training hard and testing their physical abilities recently, in larger numbers and more systematically, than ever before. You can find stories and photos of women athletes and bodybuilders going way back in time (here’s a list of some women’s sports), but competitive sports were rare for women. Women training for strength were controversial at best. For example in the 1940s at Muscle Beach, at least a few women trained with weights and competed in meets, even though “People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant,” said Abbye Stockton, pioneering female weightlifter. (See past post on Abbye Stockton here.)

In recent decades, increased opportunities for women in athletics didn’t erase the demand that girls grow up to be traditionally feminine women. Femininity was and still often is pretty narrowly defined. In my gym, my most rewarding work is teaching women to lift barbells and to lift heavy. But even today in 2015, it is common for women to resist the idea of lifting “real” weights because they might develop visible muscles (“bulk up”). It’s even more common for women to say they want to be thin, and to use “skinny” as a compliment.

I’ve been training women in CrossFit since 2006, so I’ve heard these expressions a lot. These women are sophisticated, empowered, up to date, educated, whatever you’d call it, and they love to exercise hard. But thinking that thinness is something to strive for through exercise, using “skinny” as an extra-special compliment, and failing to know that “toned lean muscle” (desirable) and “bulking up” (undesirable) are virtually the same thing — these are straight out of Fifties Frumpy Femininity just like the Stockton quotation above.

The bottom line(s) — keeping in mind that Strength Is Desirable:

  • If you achieve toned, lean muscle, you have gained muscle (a good thing) and lost fat, and you have a metabolism (hormones) that, at the moment, allowed that to happen.

  • If you adopt the most efficient type of strength training (barbell lifting), you may or may not get visibly bigger muscles than you gained from a different type of exercise, for example, big arms. But you’ll definitely be stronger and more resistant to injury (a good thing). And if you do get visibly bigger muscles… it’s a good thing. This is very healthy.

  • Lifting heavier weight requires fewer reps, and won’t usually bulk a person up; people who want to bulk up dramatically lift very differently than the type of strength training I recommend.

  • If you are naturally trim, you will probably stay that way, but get stronger (a good thing) — maybe even a lot stronger (a good thing) — and look a bit more broad-shouldered and tight-waisted.

  • If you are naturally heavier, you will probably already be stronger from the outset (a good thing) than the slender person, and you’re more likely to gain relatively more strength in the long run (a good thing).

  • If you are naturally heavy you might never be “skinny” even if you lose some weight, and that’s a good thing too. Skinny is weak, and weak is not healthy. Skinny is not a compliment. As a heavier person, if you adjust your nutrition the right way for you, and if you stick with barbell lifting, you are likely to develop a tighter waist enhanced by broad shoulders and good posture (from strength — a good thing), visible hamstring muscles that look awesome in leggings, and a tighter, muscular butt. (All good things, because they came from strength.)

  • If you start lifting weights and you haven’t been doing ANY kind of strength training, your appearance may change more dramatically than I’ve described here, because you’ll be starting with less muscle-size at the outset.

I can’t even express how much I love to look around my gym and notice the different body types and how every single one of them has improved their strength and fitness. This is the new femininity. As a feminist strength and conditioning teacher, I long for the day when women walk into my gym and say, “I want to learn to lift heavy weights because I can’t wait to see how strong I can get!”

Truly, humanity doesn’t know the physical potential of women. Now that it’s being explored, trained, and tested in larger numbers in methodical ways, we’ll learn more, and beliefs about women’s capabilities will keep changing. Our physical achievements are starting to be acknowledged in some of the toughest places.


Bio: I’m very proud to be, as a woman of age 51, helping adult women and men learn to train their bodies. I’m a Level 2 CrossFit Trainer, a Starting Strength Coach (barbell lifting), and a personal development coach. I’ve also been a writer, a project manager, a helpdesk technician, a gardener and homemaker, a genealogy hobbyist, and an avid reader of books: mainly literary fiction, business biographies, history, and self-improvement.

8 thoughts on “A feminist perspective on barbell training (Guest post)

  1. It’s still very difficult for me to get out of the “skinny = good” mindset (and the flip-side of that… “fat = bad”). Scary to admit, but true. When I started running and exercising more regularly, I had to buy bigger jeans because my thighs got bigger and more muscular… and it’s still hard for me to convince myself that this is a good thing, it means I am stronger! So, thank you for posting things like this, to remind me that building muscle means I am stronger than before (which IS a good thing, and means I will probably continue to be stronger and healthier when I’m in my 60s or 70s and my body will be more prone to injury).

    1. Honestly it’s hard for me to stay out of the usual mindset sometimes too. But weight lifting and teaching lifting to others has really helped me see my body and others’ bodies in a very different way. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. This post really resonated with me. Coming to weight training after trying all sorts of other things was a real epiphany. For the first time, my strength was a positive. I really, really liked how you framed different body types. Naturally heavy as a descriptor is the first time I have seen my size and body type framed as a good thing. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for reading! I am so glad to hear you’re benefiting from weight training. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I love that this post clears up so many of the misconceptions about women and weightlifting. I keep seeing more and more friends of mine get into weight lifting or CrossFit, and I love it. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people find a kind of exercise that they enjoy and that empowers them.

    I did balk at the “skinny is weak, and weak is not healthy” section (which is, in part, due to my thin privilege, of course). But I wouldn’t say skinny is weak. Skinny can be a different kind of strength– endurance athletes come to mind. I will agree that “skinny” isn’t a compliment. It’s just a descriptor. I can’t really describe my appearance as anything *but* skinny (low body fat, low muscle mass), but my arms have powered me through many miles in the pool, and I like to think I’m reasonably healthy, despite my skinny arms and (probable) sub-standard bench press.

    1. You’re right — wiry endurance-gifted people who are “skinny” possess a different kind of strength. I wanted to do two things — one, talk about a specific measurable type of strength, the kind that trains the most muscle through the fullest range of motion, and two, emphasize that being heavier can have its advantages. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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