What Women Need to Know About Barbell Training
Juliette Gonzalez, RDN
The Strength Co.
Strength training for the first time as a woman can be quite intimidating. I remember my first time walking into my gym’s weight room quite vividly. I walked in, immediately felt intimidated and walked straight to the cardio room.
As a registered dietitian, barbell coach, and a lifter for over five years — I think it’s important to dispel the misconceptions that women have about barbell training, and more importantly explain what it can do for your body, your confidence, and your overall health and wellness.
I Wanted To Look Good
I wanted to lift weights for one reason, to look lean, toned, and feel good about my body. I originally thought about barbell training but it scared me. I was scared it would make me less feminine, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it right and I was worried it would make me gain weight (that I definitely did not want).
Me Learning to Squat
I remember going to the gym and looking at the female trainers, I wanted their bodies. I wanted their confidence. I wanted to have a nice physique, not be bulky, and still have muscle definition.
I tried all sorts of female workout programs, downloaded templates online, and spent most of my time in the gym doing cardio and lifting light dumbbells. But there was no change. I also didn’t know how to eat well back then so I was constantly trying to burn more calories than I was consuming. I wasn’t getting the muscle tone I wanted. Or the leanness. I was just running in circles.
I was after real results. The idea of lifting something heavy appealed to me — but at the same time I was still scared it would make me bulky, look less feminine, or make me so hungry that I would eat too much. I continued my search and eventually found the book Starting Strength. I liked it because it was a blueprint for exactly how to do the exercises, I thought to myself, maybe I can do this. So I found a barbell coach and got started.
I Was Scared
As I began working with my coach I was really nervous. I met him at a big gym with weights being clanked around. I felt completely out of place. He told me not to worry and brought me over to the squat rack. I was worried I wouldn’t do it right and was immediately ready to call it quits.
But then he taught me to squat. We started with really light weights, actually we started with no weights. He broke everything I was worried about down for me. He showed me where to put my feet, told me when to breathe and encouraged me as I did a squat for the first time. I liked it. He made me feel comfortable and confident while learning for the first time, and the next thing I knew the bar was on my back. I was lifting weights! And he was giving me cues in real time – it turned out I could do this right. I felt like I knew what I was doing. This was great. He taught me the rest of the lifts and away I went. But this isn’t the end of the story.
Every woman has a picture in their mind of how they are supposed to look. Reminders of modern beauty standards are everywhere. A common belief for some reason is that if women lift heavy weights we will instantly become bulky.
Coaching the Deadlift
In reality it’s really really hard for women to gain a lot of muscle by lifting weights. This took me a long time to figure out, but now having lifted for six years, I’m 5’ 5” tall and weigh 140lbs and I am more confident with my body than I have ever been. All the women I coach are not muscular-freaks either, just normal people who are stronger and more confident than the day they started.
You see, I originally thought I wanted to lift weights to look good but, what I also wanted was the confidence that I felt fit-women had. Once I found barbells, I realized that the mental benefits of strength training outweigh the focus on body image. Strength training builds confidence in your capabilities and develops empowering feelings as a woman.
So I continued to train with my coach, I followed a simple lifting program adding a little bit of weight to the bar each time with proper form. My squat, bench, press, and deadlift all started to get heavier. I found it really exciting!
I Did Not Want To Gain Weight!
But then one of my other fears came back. As my lifts started to get heavier and I started to worry I was going to gain weight. I didn’t want to gain weight! My coach reassured me that lifting weights won’t cause weight gain on it’s own. He also taught me not to focus on the number on the scale and instead focus on my strength capabilities and how I felt in my body. He was right.
This is probably the biggest concern I come across as a Registered Dietician and a barbell coach with new female lifters — the fear of eating more food. Weight training does require adequate nutrition for recovery, so protein and carbs are important. Newer female lifters are often scared of carbs and the thought of frequent protein triggers “fullness”, “bloating” and weight gain.
Trust me when I say that I get it! That was me too!
I used to think eating large salads and restricting carbs was the key to remaining “thin.” This was a hard mental habit to break. As women we are always looking for the next fad diet to help keep the weight off. But more often than not it just leads to repetitive yo-yo cycling with weight.
Most of us will follow a diet, but then the diet ends and there are no habits in place to keep the weight off. Diets are easier, you’re told what to do, when to do it and the weight comes off. But what is actually needed is a lifestyle change in dietary habits. Not a crash course diet. Instead of counting calories, avoiding certain foods, or going on a fourteen day cleanse, it’s much better to make healthier choices that you can stick to daily.
Dinner Last Night
Here are some easy examples to start off with basic dietary habits while lifting:
1. Have a portion of protein for every meal – I always say start with 3-4 oz per meal
2. Fill your plate with veggies to get a variety of nutrients
3. Have carbs!!! YES! If you want to have proper energy to lift add a portion of your favorite carbs with your meal.
4. Learn how to eat balanced and consistent meals throughout the week/weekend
5. Learn how to dine out – standard things: order dressings on the side, maybe skip the appetizer if you’re having a large entree. Lastly, You do not have to eat everything off your plate. It’s okay to be intuitive and allow yourself to stop at “comfortably full.” This means – eating enough to where you have room for those “last few bites.” You’d be surprised how full you become after 20 min.
6. Be patient. It takes time to learn how to eat right! Have fun in the process and focus on getting strong. You’d be surprised how your body will mold over time!
Weight Training Made Me Confident
The longer I have lifted weights the more comfortable I have become in my own skin. After lifting with barbells for over five years I have built so much confidence that carries over into other areas of my life.
I’ve learned not to give up when things are hard, and to keep going even when I don’t want to. I even achieved my goal of being lean, and while I’m still not sure what “toned” means, I’m happy with the body squats and deadlifts have given me.
— Juliette Gonzalez (@jules_be_liftin) March 1, 2020
And on top of all that, I’m happy I found barbells because it paved the way to me becoming a barbell coach. The men I was scared of in the big gyms I now have the confidence to coach in my gym. I’ve realized that everyone is worried they are not going to do it right, not just women – you guys are scared too sometimes ;).
If you are a woman and are avoiding the gym because you are scared, I would suggest finding a coach to help guide you through the process. You won’t become bulky, and when you find yourself capable of heavy deadlifts you’ll have a new confidence. Confidence in how you look, feel, and what you’re capable of doing.