THE BLOG
02/28/2013 05:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

High Heels and Barbells: The Changing Psychology of Fitness

For years, experts have been touting the value of weight training for women, but the shift from cardio machines to barbells has been slow. Women have long held that weights are for getting bigger and cardio is for getting smaller. But we know that isn't so. Early indications from CrossFit, boot camps, and private training programs are that some women are catching on and getting results. Could they know something you don't? Are wrist wraps and lifting gloves in the same gym bag as lipstick and Lululemon the new norm?

Over the last decade, trends in the fitness world have come and gone, but here to stay is the changed attitudes toward gender-specific exercise. Overwhelmingly, fitness experts believe in the benefits that both men and women get from strength training. While men get muscled up, women are leaving weight rooms with curves in all the right places and leaner than they've ever been.

Boot camps and private training featuring strength routines have been appealing to more and more women. CrossFit has abandoned mirrors and amenities in favor of hand chalk and barbells, openly encouraging scaled competition between the sexes. And it's been almost 10 years since NBC first aired The Biggest Loser featuring men and women pushing, pulling, and lifting to lose weight. Women are finding they look even better in high heels after extra sessions in the weight room -- and they don't need help with heavy groceries anymore.

Strong is the new sexy:
After years of mathematical calculations, the ladies have finally correlated the link between big bad lifting and a smooth, round, gravity-defying gluteus maximus. The bodies that most women see and desire in magazines and on TV aren't built on the treadmill anymore. They belong to strong, athletic women unafraid to lift weights and keep up with the boys.

Additionally, more women are unwilling to settle for merely "appearing" fit. With broader exposure to strength training, I see more of my female clientele taking pride in outgrowing what they presumed were their personal boundaries. They're able to lift greater loads, move with more grace, and are becoming stronger than they ever thought possible. Note to the guy waiting his turn on the squat rack: The ladies are here to stay!

Couples turn up the heat by training together:
With the trending co-ed exercise that includes side-by-side strength training, couples are finding programs they can do together. This time it's different however: The guys aren't just humoring the girls, and the girls aren't showing up in full makeup and hair. The girls have figured out just how strong they really are and are showing up ready to work. Often they out-do the guys in stamina and compete in strength-based lifts with impressive numbers. The chemistry and feel is totally different. It's more aggressive, it's more competitive, and it's sexier. Girls are finally getting the results they've wanted, and the guys are being inspired by their girlfriends, wives, and female co-workers.

The decision to strength train:
Unlike the TV-facing wall of cardio machines at the gym, using weights takes a level of skill. Don't let that scare you off; the buy in isn't too steep. Starting gradually and enlisting the help of a skilled coach will help you maximize results and minimize the risk of hurting yourself. Women usually fall into three categories when weighing the decision to train with weights:

Novice: No history of strength training or competitive sports? Weight training is the perfect way to add the intensity you need in your workouts. Your body will respond by firming, lifting, and over time accentuating your natural hourglass shape. Don't be concerned you'll transform into the Incredible She-Hulk. That would be like refusing to travel by car for fear of accidentally overshooting your destination by a thousand miles. It's never going to happen. You're at no risk of waking up in the morning looking like Madea from the Tyler Perry movies.

Over 40: Many women over 40 believe that getting fit is all about reaching a number on the scale, but find that their old strategies for getting there aren't working anymore. As we age, our bodies change, and maintaining muscle mass becomes more and more important: It's our metabolic engine and, in many ways, the engine of youth. A few pounds of muscle may keep the post-40 woman slightly heavier than in her college years, but the improved body composition and faster metabolism is well worth it. Many women find they're able to reach a lower body fat percentage, fit into smaller sizes, and generally feel more vigorous by adding weight training.

Weight loss: Hitting the weights causes us to burn more calories over the 24-48 hour period following a workout. Include aerobics between strength training sessions and, when possible, select a form of strength training that keeps you moving vigorously throughout the entire workout. You've got to work hard: A slow and easy workout won't cut it -- intensity is the key. Remember, no matter what type of training you do, if you're eating too much, your body mass is going to keep increasing. I've said it before: You can't out-exercise a bad diet.

Sugar and spice and everything nice:
Ladies have typically approached weights worrying more about the number on their scale than the number on the bar and some had grown accustomed to considering themselves physically weak. But things are changing. More women are gaining mastery and acceptance over all the numbers in their life -- the scale, their age, dress size, etc. -- while taking pride in their bodies and abilities at each point of their journey. Weight training is giving women yet another tool: strength. And it looks good on them. As long as women continue to step up to the bar without preconceived boundaries, there's no limit to what they can do.

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