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Making Gains Illustration by Lily Padula.

Making Gains

More and more women are hitting the weight room and revelling in the power they discover at the squat rack.

THE SQUAT IS NAMED “the king of exercises.” There are back squats and front squats; there are hack, Hindu, box, pistol and sissy squats. And while there are many tenets of fitness, the holy trinity of strength training seems to be the bench press, the deadlift and the ever-present squat. Every day, in any gym across the country, dudes extol its virtues. “Do you even squat, bro?” Old-school. Hardcore. “No curls, no girls” may be a gym refrain, but “shut up and squat” is a commandment.

I’m not a dude, but I feel best about myself when I squat major weight. I like all heavy lifting exercises, but I love squatting the most. I like shouldering my way into the gym scrum and staking out my squat-rack claim. I relish in the snugness of my weightlifting belt, the smell of my worn leather gloves. Outside of the gym, I dye my hair, file my nails, carry lipliner in my purse. Inside the gym, however, sexiness takes a different form.

A good back squat starts with the barbell balanced on the nape of my neck, laid evenly across my shoulders. I grip the bar with my hands and keep my feet more than hip width apart, toes turned slightly outward. When I come down, I try to bring my hips parallel to my knees—“ass to the grass”—and keep my stomach tense, my gaze to the ceiling. When I push up, I use my thigh muscles, exhale sharply and pray that I have enough strength to re-rack.

Squatting forces me to see myself in my least coquettish moments. It makes me appreciate the symmetry of my body, the machinery that exists and functions within me—skeletal, muscular, electrical. I recognize myself as a gorgeous series of pulleys and levers. I marvel at what my body can do.

A 2004 study describes the physique and bearing of women weightlifters as “resistant, subversive femininity.” While the ideal of a delicate femininity will probably never completely disappear, women’s body shapes are slowly changing in the public eye—despite vitriol from anonymous commenters on social media, or maybe even fuelled by it. A quick Google or hashtag search brings up thousands of images of women who embody “subversive femininity.” Women are now just as gloriously narcissistic as men are—taking selfies in gym mirrors and tagging them #fitspo (short for “fitspiration”), posting photos of hard abs and quads, boasting about their new personal lifting records, flexing and measuring their biceps—and it’s wonderful. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are gradually pushing women’s physical goals from fitspo to beast mode.

WOMEN HAVEN'T ALWAYS BEEN TAUGHT that strong is sexy. Of course we know that fit is good; we see T-shirts emblazoned with Strong is the New Skinny; we see inspiring, taut pictures on Pinterest or collected in a hashtag. But rarely are we shown that bench pressing our body weight—or above—is hot, or that hitting a new deadlift one-rep maximum is attractive or aspirational. When I overhear women interacting with their trainers at the different gyms I visit, the mutual vocabulary often revolves around lifting weight to thin down, not bulk up. Research supports this: women predominantly say they want thinner bodies, whereas men focus on gaining muscle.

It seems as if a woman’s strength and her attractiveness are in direct conflict with each other; often, women who are presented to us every day—in men’s and women’s magazines, on the runway, in ad campaigns, in pornography, as beauty gurus—are all slender and slim-limbed. A muscular woman in any of these categories is considered a niche market. To make gains—to grow stronger—means that the ideal of delicate (and some would say “traditional”) femininity is obliterated. Boulder shoulders in a tank top? Forget about it. Huge lats plus a summer dress? No good. A “female fitness motivation” video posted on Facebook has a series of vitriolic comments directed at the muscular women featured. Male and female commenters both unleash: This just motivates me to look more like a woman … not a dude; I dare you to become feminine and sexy, ‘cause this is just gross; Yuck, might as well fuck a dude.

Still, I’m noticing that there are more women in weight rooms. Canadian weightlifter, yogi and bodybuilder Michelle MacDonald—also known as Your Healthy Hedonista—posts daily Facebook photos of her striated quads and abs. Through the advent of social media, muscular women such as fitness icons and bodybuilders Dana Linn Bailey, Ava Cowan and Larissa Reis are accessible to anyone.

The International Powerlifting Federation’s (IPF) statistics show that from 2004 to 2013, women’s participation in the Open World Championships in powerlifting has increased over 10 percent. In Canada, the numbers are even more encouraging. Mike Armstrong, an executive council member of the Canadian Powerlifting Union, says that when he started the sport in the late 1980s, competitions seldom had more than 10–15 percent female participants. Now that number is closer to 40–50 percent and can even go higher: “I have seen a couple [of contests] where it was more than 50 percent female … [There was] a contest in PEI this fall that will be open to only women, the first time that has ever happened,” he says.

Julie Watkin, president of the Ontario Powerlifting Association, analyzed the gender split of the group’s membership demographic. In 2005, 14 percent of members were female; in 2014, 28 percent of the members were female. “The overall number of women competing in Ontario has increased over five fold,” she says. “But we still comprise less than one-third of the membership. My own theory is that the advent of CrossFit has brought lifting into the mainstream for many people, particularly women.”

CrossFit is a competitive fitness sport that includes elements of interval training, lifting, plyometrics and strongman exercises, among others. It can be intimidating: to see a CrossFit workout in action is to watch rows of bodies doing repeated hard work; Annie Thorisdottir, the only female to win the CrossFit Games twice, is broad, strong, infinitely hard-bodied. Tabata Times, a news outlet that covers CrossFit, reports that from 2012 to 2013, women’s growth in participation at the CrossFit Games outpaced men’s—129 percent to 109 percent.

“We are absolutely seeing an influx of women coming into the gym,” my friend Holly says. Holly went to my high school; she was a year younger than me, a dancer and a cheerleader. Now a CrossFit instructor, Holly squats, power cleans and hip thrusts amazing amounts of weight. I envy her trapezoids; her biceps are awesome. “I see a lot of women becoming more competitive and wanting to take on heavier weights, which in turn has helped their confidence grow enormously.”

I agree: lifting has helped my confidence. Before learning how to lift heavy, I would have avoided the weight room at all costs. I was intimidated by the men, the tight workout wear and the territorial nature of staking out space and nabbing equipment for my own use. But urging from my mother—who was doing weekly sessions with a trainer—and the powerful effects of a bruised heart propelled me into the gym, and the first time I touched the squat rack, I knew I wanted to push myself as hard as I could. I now like the way I look in spandex pants; I have no problem asking my male counterparts how many reps they have left before I can jump in on their machine. And I find that confidence on the squat rack extends to situations outside of the gym—I feel less self-conscious on the subway, in the street, in the elevator at work. I am stronger and therefore feel more comfortable in my body.

Women have changed the focus of their training from how they look to how they perform and they’re taking on challenges they never thought possible, Holly says. It helps them gain confidence. “And in turn, friends see that confidence, family does, and the word keeps on spreading,” she says. In the two years since I started lifting weights, I’ve seen the gym culture change: on a good day in the free-weight area—a part of the gym once dominated by men—all of the racks are occupied by women.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE HURDLES down the aisle to the marriage of strength and sexiness. While some people immediately understand my need to lift, others get crinkle-faced when I tell them that squatting is a way to express my femininity and, above all, feel good. A girlfriend scrunches up her mouth: “Do you wear makeup to the gym in case there are any cute guys?” A guy I’m seeing shrugs: “Yeah, sure, women want to be strong. But don’t they also want to look good in an evening gown?” My co-worker sniffs when I tell him that I use a barbell pad to protect my neck when squatting: “Oh, you use the tampon, huh?” A trainer at my gym comes over as I’m setting up to use the squat rack: “Are you using that?” When I tell him that I am, he points at the bar, an integral part of doing a squat: “Well—are you using that?” While it’s encouraging that there are more women wielding weights, there is clearly still work to be done. The IPF’s research shows that the number of nations that send women to world powerlifting competitions has stayed steady, even decreased from 2004. Furthermore, women make up only 29 percent of IPF committees and commissions.

Buff Dudes, two brothers who post their weightlifting tutorials on YouTube, recently branched out into female-specific videos. The title of their first effort? “Women: Best exercises for sexy thighs and butt.” I watch their videos on the regular; I like their no-nonsense approach and the way they concisely demonstrate proper form. Still, something about this video doesn’t sit right with me, especially the thumbnail, which has a lithe woman in a deep, weightless air squat while one of the guys sits beside her.

That’s when it hits me—I want to feel sexy through getting stronger on my own; I don’t want to be told that what I’m doing makes me sexy. Squatting—and weightlifting in general—isn’t a team sport. It’s a solitary activity, one where I can clearly notice my own progress. I don’t need back-up; I don’t need someone beside me, validating me. The power and self-realization comes from within, because I, alone, am responsible for all my gains and breakthroughs.

WEIGHT TRAINING SEEMS to be good for self-image. A 2001 study found that college students who completed a course of weight training reported an increase in body strength, lower physical anxiety and general improvements in body satisfaction, while concurrent aerobic exercise was found to have no effect on body image. Research from 2005 suggests that high-intensity weightlifting is an effective treatment for older patients suffering from depression. A 2004 study in which sixteen female weightlifters were interviewed about their experiences rendered some interesting sound bites: the women stress that, despite some backlash from family members, friends and men, they feel good when they lift weights—emphasis is placed on feeling in control and moments of epiphany where these women realize how valuable feeling strong and powerful can be. These women “resist the feminine apologetic;” they deal with flak, but still love what they do because the positive emotional ramifications outweigh the negative ones. There is still work to be done—a great deal of research focuses solely on men and body image as related to weightlifting—but the payoffs are starting to become clear.

Squatting is a lesson in the complex and exquisite strength of my body, in finding the depth of my power, the borders of my determination. The back squat works my glutes, my quads, my hamstrings, my calves, my abs, my spinal erectors. It makes my heart race. It makes me tremble. It makes me doubt myself in the brief, hair-thin moment between resting in the bottom position and moving upward. And when I think I’m going to die—that I’m going to get stuck or be humiliated—my legs defy all sense, my brain kicks in and I rise, glorious and sweaty and wild-mouthed.

The day I finally squat my body weight, I feel the most feminine I’ve felt in a long time. When I push up on my third rep, I want to throw my head back and cry out. Maybe I’m tapping into some vestigial skill set; maybe I just like being strong. Maybe I subconsciously revel in subversive femininity. Whatever the case, in the pivotal moments, there is only me and my female body. The curve of my calves and buttocks. The white noise of the blood in my arteries, the roar of my muscles. My proving ground. This queen of exercises.