As we head into awards season I got thinking, if they handed out Oscars for the most ubiquitous line overheard in a female locker room, it would go to ‘like, I wanna tone but I don’t want muscle’. Can you see the paradox here? If not, allow me. You see, toning is a product of muscular development, you cannot tone without muscle, it’s like saying you want long hair without the hair part, get it?
There’s a reason God created two sexes and whether females choose to believe it or not, we are not men, we don’t have some of their organs, nor can we physically look like them if we lift weights. So why are the majority of females so averse to the weight room, when the opposite sex live for the pump?
In many ways, this goes back to evolution. Our cavemen ancestors had clearly defined roles; men were the hunter gatherers and women protected the offspring. It’s easy to see how men got a head start on the strength game. Biologically speaking of course men are stronger than women; I’m not here to debate that. What I question is how we have evolved to associate strength predominantly with the male species, even though we live in a world where women have equaled their counterparts in board rooms, politics, space exploration and much much more. What is wrong with packing on some muscle girls?
Since I began weight training two years ago my body has changed for sure, but do I look like the Incredible Hulk? Negative. If you ask me to choose between 126lbs Sukhey at 23% body fat versus 142lbs Sukhey at 20%, it’s a no brainer (142 just to clarify). The scales alone cannot be used to determine health and fitness, I have friends who weigh 125lbs and have body fat percentages in the high 30’s (fyi anything over 30% is considered obese). There is also the fact that muscle weighs more than fat, but my dress size remains the same and I haven’t really outgrown my wardrobe. So all in all, I increased strength, look and feel better and have only waved goodbye to two Blazers from Zara (thats ok they ain’t Ralph tho). In reality, if a female did want to build muscle to the point she could be mistaken for a guy, it would take steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). Unfortunately, this scientific fact isn’t what the majority of females think about when you present them with anything greater than a 10lb dumbbell. Instead, they think of broad shoulders, bulging biceps and a big back should they be within five feet of that thing. Sad but true.
Intrigued as to why females fear muscle, I conducted a little survey. The photo on the left is Christmas Abbott: One of Crossfit’s most celebrated female athletes, and on the right is a random model on a runway (couldn’t find the name so no credit). I asked a sample of twenty people (ten male, ten female) which body type is more attractive, and with the exception of three (female) respondents, the group opted for Christmas. Bear in mind Crossfit is an extreme form of training, they are lifting heavy weight at high speeds with little rest in between. Christmas trains seven days a week, hours each day, but eighty five percent preferred her body type. Is this woman on steroids or HGH, NO. Does she lift heavy weight and lot’s of it, YES.
If only these results could encourage more women to lift, but sadly it will take more than a survey to shift the mindset of every female who beelines to the cardio section or a ‘pump’ class at the gym. So what else can be done?
Let’s start with the word ‘Tone’. It really has no place in fitness and according to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tone it has twenty nine definitions in order of relevance. Muscle tone was number twenty eight. Instead, focus on muscular development, it is far more relevant and doesn’t compete with twenty eight other meanings.
Education: Fitness videos of the nineteen-eighties have a lot to answer for with Jane Fonda leading the way. Jane released her first video in 1982 and it was the top-selling video of the time. I applaud her for getting people into exercise, but her workouts only told half the story. In reality, cardio based workouts only burn calories during the course of the workout (Jane, you never told us that!) where as weight training continues to burn calories up to two days after. The post workout burn delivered by weight training is irrefutable, you have worked your muscles so hard to the point they need energy to rebuild and energy is … calories. When we talk about more bang for your buck, it doesn’t get any louder than weights for weight loss.
Media: A key driver behind the female fear of weights is mass media. Just look at the infomercials advertising miracle pills that work faster than the speed of light to burn fat. Society can’t get enough of it, how else are these entities still in business. And with social media taking over there’s a plethora of misinformation out there, and ideologies based on zero evidence which young teens are sadly buying into. The so-called ‘Thigh Gap‘ trend a few years back is a prime example of a look that females aspired to have without any consideration to the consequences of being that thin. If it’s trending it must be accurate right?
With that said, the tables are starting to turn. In a 2015 article from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, it was reported that in 2011 only 0.9% of women took part in weight training. Even though I couldn’t find a more recent statistic I’m pretty confident this number has risen. Even at my midtown gym (Murray Hill is home to the 20 something Tory Burch shoe girls) I have noticed the number of females getting under the bar has risen. I asked one of the trainers who is also a personal friend, whether this was actually a real thing or just my imagination, fortunately it is legit. To quote, ‘..most clients of mine just know their goal of weight loss and will do whatever I tell them they need to do to get there whether it be cardio, strength, run around naked….But I think they are way more open to lifting heavier weights..’ Who knows, maybe running around naked and it’s thermogenic effects will be the next big thing?!!
Why the increase? One obvious reason is of course Crossfit which to it’s credit has done a lot of good in this space. As a form of exercise, it offers teamwork, camaraderie and jacked bodies. It’s bad-ass in ways a Pilates class just can’t compete. Social media has also been instrumental, and though it has drawbacks, nobody will deny how the surge of progress pics and #flexfriday selfies of everyday people who transformed themselves has opened the gates for everyone – male and female, to get under the barbell and SKWAAT! Another reason which flies under the radar, is joint health. A female relative recently told me she was informed by her doctor to begin lifting weights to help with lower back issues she had been experiencing. This was sound advice because lifting weights increases bone density which is crucial for longevity and long term health. Who wants to be in surgery getting their hip replaced at 48?!
There is hope out there and I am confident we will see more female lifters in the years to come.
To round things off here is why I lift. Firstly, this is a way of life and I love walking onto the gym floor, ready to give it my best shot and I’m always excited for the next squat, deadlift or bench day. My wrist is still injured right now so I’ve been out of action the last few weeks; which has been mentally quite tough, when something so habitual is taken from you in a snatch. I do however take comfort in knowing that time is the only obstacle in my way before I’m back doing what I love, and therefore I’m grateful in being taught the virtue of patience. Secondly, from a physical standpoint, I love the way I look and I love seeing definition in places I’d barely heard of (they say Traps are the new Abs and I ain’t mad at mine). Thirdly, I can’t deny that I love to geek out on Kinesiology and will gladly chat to anyone about bracing the core, tucking the pelvis or driving the hip (just ask my brother, I bombard him with texts all the time). Last but not least, weight training has been instrumental in my life outside of the gym too. It has taught me what dedication can do when you’re truly consistent in your work. It has also taught me the relevance of when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. When I lift, I don’t do it for the gram, the likes or the attention, I do it because it forces me to push hard and overcome any self doubt. I came from a very content way of looking at things, but since going hard in the gym, I now strive for the same success in my career and personal life. It is my hope that females reading this can take something from my experience and feel the way I do.
On my last birthday I received a super cool necklace from a close friend which said ‘Strong is Beautiful‘, and you know what, it sure is.