Any woman can be strong. I don’t just mean strong in the metaphorical sense — I mean simply being able to exert force against gravity. You may think that strong women are born, not made. You may be thinking of Olympic weightlifters straining to clean and jerk dozens of kilos over their heads, or of bodybuilders in bikinis posing and flexing. Several of the women I interviewed for this article thought that way before they started to lift barbells. “People who did stuff on TV, who were bulky. And I wasn’t interested,” said one. But strength is not just about appearances. It is a requirement for everyday life. Strength is what you need if you are hoisting your carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment on a plane. You need to be strong to be able to pick your screaming toddler up off the floor and not hurt yourself. And, most of all — especially as you get older — you need strength simply to be able to stand up without falling over.
As we age, we progressively lose muscle mass, which studies have shown can lead to loss of bone density and, in general, make us weaker and more frail. In everyday terms, the actions we take for granted become more and more difficult — going up and down steps, picking up something heavy, even standing up from a seat. And with less dense bones, it becomes more likely that on the day you miss that step, or simply lose your balance, it will end with you breaking your arm, or your leg, or your hip. But while ageing is inevitable, building muscle through strength training offers the possibility of slowing down the creep of frailty. According to medical studies, it could also help alleviate some of the symptoms of other conditions of ageing, such as osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.
Barbell lifting can appear intimidating if all you have seen of it is heavily muscled bros benching at your local gym. A programme that is becoming more and more commonly used is Starting Strength, which was invented by coach and former powerlifter Mark Rippetoe. The basic Starting Strength programme is composed of four different lifts. There is the squat, where you place weight on your shoulders, squat down until your hips are below your knees, and then stand up again. There are two kinds of presses: the bench press, where you lie on your back and lower weight to your chest and then raise it; and overhead press, where you hold the weight in front of your upper chest while standing up, then raise it over your head. Lastly, there is the dead lift, where you pull the weight up from the floor until you are standing upright.
Trainees learn these lifts linear progression. Most people begin to learn the lifts using an empty bar, which weighs 20kg (44lb). Three times a week they perform three of the lifts (squat, either bench press or overhead press, and dead lift). If they are successful in a session, they rest to allow their muscles to recover and adapt to the weight, and then add 2.25kg (or 5lb) at the next session. A little more than two kilos does not sound like much, but if trainees can complete a full month of sessions successfully, they will have gone from being able to squat 20kg to being able to squat 47kg. Another month, and they are up to 74kg.
But what if even a 20kg bar is too much? Katherine Bickford, co-host of the More Female Strength podcast and a Starting Strength coach, describes in an episode how she could barely squat down to a low stool with a plastic pipe on her back the first time she attempted to lift in late 2014. But the coach who was teaching her looked her in the eye and said: “You could one day be very strong.” That was enough to make her keep trying. Four weeks later, she successfully squatted with the empty bar. Less than three years later, her personal record for a squat is 100kg (220lb) over the bar’s weight.
Liz, 39, a civil servant, came to barbell lifting after a long struggle with injury and disability. She was diagnosed with a rare adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy in her late 20s that weakened the muscles in her shoulders, hips and glutes. She turned to strength training in the hope that it might build muscle to compensate for what she was losing to the disease. When she began, she couldn’t squat because her muscles were so tight; it took weeks of work to be able to perform the lift. For Liz, the most noticeable changes were to simple, everyday tasks. “I was able to go up and down the stairs at the train station a lot more easily, carry groceries, and even put things on the tallest shelf on my closet without difficulty,” she says.
Everyday tasks are also easier for senior lifters. Helen and Katie, both 74, and Debbie, 65, came to barbell lifting after having largely given up on other forms of exercise as they aged — they got injured too easily, and recovery would take a long time. “I only started to lift to make my son happy,” Helen says. Her son Owen had taken up the Starting Strength programme and enjoyed it, and encouraged (you might say nagged) his mother to give it a try. “But I knew I would do it for two to three months and then I’d have to give it up,” says Helen. “I had zero hope.” But after training for a while, she noticed big changes. “When I visited my daughter, if her baby needed something, I could pick the baby off the floor with confidence.” Debbie says that lifting helped her favourite hobby: “I love gardening and now, when I go to work in the garden, I check my posture and I know how to lift things properly.” And Katie says: “I helped some people move recently. I could be the strong person that was needed.”
But barbell-lifting doesn’t just offer physical strength; it also gives women emotional and mental confidence. Liz and Bickford both describe a sense of being liberated from feeling guilty about their bodies. Liz says: “I finally found a sport that doesn’t look at my body shape as an impediment.” For Bickford, learning to lift barbells was about “how good I felt existing in my body and making that better”, rather than punishing herself for having the wrong kind of body. It translated to feeling stronger mentally. “The way I deal with my feelings and external obstacles has been strengthened,” she says.
Katie’s daughter Gwyn (48, who happens to be my weightlifting coach) was a ballet and modern dancer from the age of six until she was 32, and after retiring from dance still experienced the body dysmorphia that came with the art’s stringent beauty standards. She lost her self-consciousness after seeing the range of body types among women who lifted. After a while, she thought: “I don’t think I’m fat any more. In fact, I think I’m kind of scrawny!”
No matter how you feel about your body, you can always become the strongest version of yourself. As Katie says: “I didn’t realise how much you could change what you had in terms of strength. I’ve never been as strong as this. Never.”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Sarah Chamberlain is a columnist.