For years, people mistakenly believed that weights were for men and cardio machines were for women. When I started lifting weights about eight years ago, female representation in iron sports and the weight room was scarce. More recently, however, women's presence in the iron game has become hard to miss.
Part of the reason women historically stayed away from weights is that they were taught from an early age that the number on the scale should always be trending downward. What's more, society's standard of beauty simply didn't accommodate muscularity.
This brings us to the common mistakes women make in the gym, most of which have to do with misunderstanding and underappreciating the effects of strength training on the human body.
Mistake 1: Avoiding Resistance Training
The first thing most new female clients tell me is that they don't want to get too bulky, as if getting bulky is easy to do! There are people who spend their entire lives chasing the gains and the elusive pump, only to live forever small. Lifting little pink dumbbells to gain strength is the equivalent of doing jumping jacks to improve your mile time. Ain't gonna work.
So, let's set this straight once and for all. The only way you will end up looking bulky is if you consistently increase your calorie intake and begin eating in a calorie surplus, or if you take testosterone, the male muscle-building hormone.
Resistance training will:
- Improve your bone density
- Make you feel strong and confident
- Increase muscle density
- Allow you to help people move random heavy objects
Resistance training will not:
- Increase your risk of injury
- Make you feel bad about yourself
- Make you "look like a man"
- Turn you into the Hulk
Mistake 2: Doing Too Much Cardio for All the Wrong Reasons
The hope with a lot of cardio is that the cardio gods will magically help you "tone up." Why do I place that in quotations? Because I'm quoting millions of women who use that term without truly understanding what it means. What they actually mean when they say, "I want to tone up," is that they want to add muscle mass and decrease body fat. Don't be scared to admit that! The elliptical, stationary bike, and StairMaster are great pieces of equipment that can help you to expend a ton of calories, but they won't really shape your body the way you're envisioning they will. Not only that, but they make it more difficult for you to pack on the muscle that will make your arms and buttocks look sculpted and firm.
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Mistake 3: Fearing Intensity
Most women make the mistake of lifting too light for too many reps. That beats watching cartoons and eating ice cream, but it's not the most productive use of your time.
Lifting moderate-to-heavy weights should be a part of everyone's training plan for many reasons. It's a necessary part of the process of getting stronger and building bigger muscles. It's OK to grunt, scream, sweat, and have a messy bun when you're at the gym. There's nothing more empowering than owning a heavy barbell.
Again, lifting heavy weights won't make you look bulky; an excess of calories will.
Mistake 4: Quitting Too Soon
Women are bombarded by before-and-after pics on the internet and in women's magazines. This imagery can serve as motivation—"Hey, if they can do it, I can do it"—but it can also lead to frustration. Comparison is the thief of joy. Live your own journey and accept your own body's time frame. Not everyone makes progress at the same pace. A lot of us are impatient and lose motivation when we don't see quick, noticeable results, and make the mistake of giving up or reverting back to our old ways. Building your ideal physique takes time.
My mantra throughout my athletic career has always been, "Keep showing up." No matter the outcome of one session or one training block, no matter how you feel, you will show up ready to do the work. Consistency delivers results. This doesn't mean you can never miss training sessions or make mistakes in your diet. You just need to stick with it for the long run. Make the conscious decision to get better more often than the times you choose the path of least resistance; don't succumb to the lies your brain tells you about what you can or can't do.
Mistake 5: Thinking You Have to Train Every Day
The idea that you need to work out seven times a week in order for training to be effective is blatantly flawed. Many are discouraged from stepping foot in the gym because they are under the impression that the results they are after require superhuman effort. In scientific terms, this is called "paralysis by analysis," and it refers to a situation in which people are unable to move forward with a decision as a result of overanalyzing data or overthinking a problem. While some of us choose to make this a career, and some choose to sacrifice other aspects of their life to chase their athletic goals, not all of us are wired the same.
The truth is that 2-3 strength-training sessions per week over time will dramatically improve the way you look and feel. Focus on progress, not perfection. Break down your decisions into small steps. Prioritize your decision to go to the gym, and put some pressure on yourself to follow through. Starting new routines and forming new habits isn't easy. The key is to make those habits impossible to ignore. For example, leave your gym shoes at the door and your gym clothes in the trunk of your car.