Weightlifting isn’t just for bodybuilders with bulging biceps and rock-hard abs. Slowly, the rep for reps is starting to change, says Amanda Kavanagh.
Weights make you bulky. Weights make you masculine. If you’ve heard or thought either of these, you’re not alone. It seems you can’t swing a kettlebell without hitting a myth about female strength training.
Sophie Kavanagh from No 17 Personal Training is keen to clear up this misconception: “99.9 per cent of women who weight train will only develop small amounts of lean muscle tissue, leaving them leaner, tighter and stronger. As women, we are lacking in the male hormone testosterone, so it is difficult to attain big muscle volume.”
So unless bodybuilding is your goal, you’re not going to wake up a dead ringer for Jodie Marsh by accident. Look at weightlifting fans Holly Carpenter and Thalia Heffernan, both models train with Sophie and they’re strong and lean. The benefits of weightlifting are many. Studies have shown it’s great for improving bone density, joint mobility, reducing risk of injury or back pain (as muscles strengthen), losing body fat, increasing metabolic rate and gaining strength without bulk. But the pay-off isn’t just physical.
“What I find most attractive about weightlifting is feeling strong. I love the idea that my body is able and that strength gives me a feeling of independence,” Sophie explains. “Getting out of your comfort zone and overcoming a weight is a huge confidence-booster. It’s knowing that you are not only physically, but mentally strong too.”
Medb Murtagh, a 22-year-old power- lifting champion from Dublin, agrees. “I am so much stronger, and that physical strength has influenced my personality. I feel more confident.” Yet despite having the IDFPA World Championships squat title under her belt, Medb admits she didn’t dive in right away. “I think a lot of women are intimidated by the weights room, as it can be referred to as the ‘guys’ room’. I was terrified the first time I went in, but soon I got used to it. Realising a lot of men in there haven’t got a clue what they’re doing helped. Sometimes when the gym is busy, I could be the only girl in the room with 40 men, but I don’t care!”
Eventually, it came full circle. “A guy in the gym said to my friend, ‘That girl over there is so intimidating, and a little scary’. I had a good laugh at this, since I’m five foot two and usually wearing pink,” Medb laughs.
Medb is part of a team of eight female powerlifters at ABS Glasnevin, most of whom hold national, European and world records. At 54kg, she can deadlift over twice her body weight (120kg, in fact) and can squat 93kg. There is no typical lifter, Medb explains: “In my team alone, three have children; there’s a burlesque dancer; a woman who started just to lose weight, but is now one of the top lifters in the country; an MMA fighter; and a 65-year-old woman who is currently ranked top female lifter in Ireland.”
The female powerlifting community here is growing, Medb says. “At the last competition, there were only eight less females than men competing – 75 ladies and 83 men. The women are getting stronger, so the competition is getting tougher each time.” Inspiration is never far away for Medb. She looks to her teammate, Linh Duy Nguyen. “She is in my weight class, and if I am ever as strong as her, I’ll be very happy. She has two children and yet still makes the time to come and train five days a week. Sometimes they come along with her.”
Diet, of course, plays a part, so if you’re looking to get started, some lifestyle changes may be required. Sophie gets her athletes to hydrate adequately, recommending an ounce of water for every kilo of weight, and sourcing high quality protein, especially after training sessions. Medb says, “Powerlifting requires a lot of food, especially protein, as it sends your metabolism into overdrive.”
Watch out for lifting alone. “I would advise to find a skilled training partner, team or coach. You need trained eyes to help you excel,” explains Sophie. “Be careful about wanting too much too soon. You have to be willing to put in the time and effort, skills and drills before expecting too much of yourself.” Medb adds, “Form trumps weight every time!”
Fortunately, there’s no age limit to lifting. Muscles do naturally weaken as we grow older – starting as early as 30 – but weightlifting can yield quick returns. In one Harvard study, after just ten weeks, both men and women found weight training to dramatically improve strength, power, mobility and agility, even for those in their seventies and eighties.
If you’re keen to get started, the first step is to do some research. Sophie recommends reading up and seeing what element of weightlifting excites you. Once you’ve that nailed, seek out the best coach you can to start off on the right foot. Then repeat: “Weights make you strong. Weights make you lean.”
Follow Amanda Kavanagh on Twitter @googlepuns