A friend’s client recently ask that they not use any sort of free weight (dumbbells and the like) and instead stick to working entirely with resistance bands and Bosus, these little contraptions that are essentially half a stability ball attached to a rubber platform. She figured they’d more likely give her the body she wanted: waiflike, without any imposing muscles. The request unsettled my friend for a variety of reasons, and we joked-but-kind-of-not that my friend should just make the hardest routine she could think of with the bands and Bosus.
The irony, from the trainer’s perspective, is that oftentimes women (and men, for that matter) consider certain exercises or equipment more innocuous than others, when, in fact, the effect has more to do with how you use what you have, not the equipment itself.
Consider these two pictures. Which exercise do you think is harder?
Probably the one on the left, correct? That’s a pretty intense barbell that chick’s squatting. Assuming it’s the typical Olympic bar and weights, she’s carrying about 135 on her back, perhaps close to what she weighs, give or take a few pounds. Most women I meet with would take one look at that barbell and turn the other way.
If I were to show them the second exercise, however, the single leg squat (sometimes called the “pistol squat,”) they wouldn’t bat an eye. If it’s just bodyweight, it can’t be that bad, right?
Let’s pretend both women weigh 135. Because the first woman is essentially lifting twice her bodyweight with her two legs, and if the weight is distributed evenly, each leg must exert a force of 135 pounds, or enough to move her entire bodyweight with one leg. The woman doing the single leg squat is also lifting her entire bodyweight on one leg—the same amount of force. Make sense?
And yes, that big scary barbell does require some extra upper body and core stability to hold, but the single leg squat requires extra hip, knee and ankle stability. Basically, you’re viewing two equally hard exercises—but they don’t look equal if you think only in terms of equipment/non-equipment and so forth.
When I first started working at my club, one of the things that amazed me was the number of ways we trick women into strength-training. Some of the styling has changed since we moved to a newer facility, but at the time, all the equipment save the actual dumbbells and cardio machines was jewel-toned—purple benches, pink and teal stability balls, etc. We used the aforementioned Bosus and resistance bands, plus contraptions involving pulleys and sliding boards to use the person’s own body weight for exercises, or straps hanging from the ceiling to use the person’s body weight for exercises, or strength training classes choreographed to top 40’s music and involving rainbow-colored weights. Anything to get women to do that stuff that’s good for their metabolism and bones without them relating it to the stuff that got Arnold Schwarzenegger famous before politics and Terminator.
To put it shortly, women exercise differently than men. This is not to say that we should exercise differently than men, but we do. We generally focus more on cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, avoid pushing ourselves too hard to keep ourselves from getting too “bulky” or causing injury. Meanwhile, men will throw all their effort into the weight room, forgoing good form and safety in an effort to beat their latest records.
As a result, it seems that entire subsets of exercise get viewed as more “feminine” than others. “Feminine” training can mean everything from how many repetitions of an exercise you do – lighter weights and higher reps being more popular among the female crowd—to which types of equipment (ie, pieces involving balance, like the Bosu or other stability balls, or coordination, like step-risers from aerobics classes), to mode of exercise (group exercise classes and cardio attract more women; the weight room attracts more men), and so on.
Thus, the weight room has become yet another study in gender roles. But just like gender roles in home or work, our fitness norms could end up having a sort of domino effect in our lives. Of course, the problem with these designations means that both genders end up limiting themselves. Women often avoid the strenuous exercises necessary to truly push their health to peak performance, while men avoid fru-fru work that could help them improve heart health and prevent injury.
In some sense, we’re simply continuing the gender division of labor as we close the gap economically. Some research suggests that gender inequality correlates directly with a society’s use of ploughs in agriculture. I know—you’re thinking, Kat, what the eff does cultural anthropology have to do with my workout? But consider WHY the inequalities have taken place—ploughs of yore required quite a bit of upper body strength to manipulate, far more than any woman naturally possesses, so societies that used ploughs for agriculture ended up with a division of labor where men were out in the field, providing for the family, while women were indoors, taking care of the home stuff. While it still holds true that women simply aren’t as strong as men of comparable size, those pictures above show that we can be pretty damn powerful nonetheless.
Seriously, you think this girl could wrangle a plough? I think so, too. In the days when agriculture made up a larger part of the economy, women didn’t have access to the tools to help them build strength and power, so the division of labor made sense. Now women can train against their natural weaknesses—and often do with the increasing popularity of extreme weight-lifting like CrossFit or absurd obstacle course endurance races like Tough Mudder—but still, more often than not, we go for the more traditionally feminine exercises, the ones that keeps our butts from sagging and our “turkey wings” from flapping, rather than the ones that could allow us to carry the bottom half of a sleeper sofa up five flights of stairs.
So if physical limitations aren’t reason enough to avoid certain styles of exercise, why do women stick with their tried-and-true bands and balls? That girl I mentioned in the beginning raised one concern that often comes up—women worry about the effect certain exercises will have on their bodies. Never mind the absurdity of the concern; I mean, seriously—do you honestly think any of those women in the pictures above even look remotely “mannish?” Even the most muscular ones have some pretty apparent female business going on there.
But maybe the issue isn’t whether the women look feminine in the female sense, but instead “feminine” in the conceptual sense, the yin/yang, black/white sense. Femininity as in gentleness, softness, nurturance, submissiveness. A girl who can squat her body weight on her back may be able to rock a dress with strappy heels, but the ability does seem to unsettle her femininity on a deeper level, because she does not have to be the weaker sex.
Of course, being able to squat your body weight or do a decline pushup with your feet on the bench or complete a handful of unassisted chin-ups does not actually mean that a woman cannot also be nurturing or gentle or submissive—just as none of the above mean she’s going to lose her boobs and butt and sprout impressive amounts of body hair. It’s as though one’s womanhood directly correlates to one’s helplessness.
Consider this: A study of gender roles in different cultures found that those with greater gender equality also reported a more sexually active population. The study author explains that restricting sex “make[s] the price of sex high, so that men pretty much have to make serious commitments of marriage in order to [have sex]. When women have more access to educational and financial opportunities, they don’t need to hold sex hostage as much, so they relaxed the controls they’ve put on sexuality.” His point does raise the interesting question of how maintaining certain gender roles (ie, man supporting woman financially) can end up affecting how much and the way we interact in other areas of our relationships. In this case, an act that can stem from a particular emotional connection, or that simply can be fun for both partners, ends up being a commodity to trade. If what we do in the cerebral realm can affect our physical interactions so much, then how do gender norms in what we train ourselves to be able to do physically affect us?
Of course, I don’t mean any of this to suggest that there’s anything wrong with “feminine” training styles, even in that we consider them “feminine.” Instead, I want us to consider how we limit ourselves by subscribing to particular ideals—gendered or otherwise. The best athletes have strength, endurance, speed, balance, flexibility, coordination, agility, and so on—a combination of traits developed via both “masculine” and “feminine” training. Maybe that Bosu is somehow a yonic symbol, and the barbell phallic, and maybe it’s somehow inappropriate for me to make a comment about how when they make sweet love together, they’ll produce beautiful muscle babies, but—Well, there. I said it. Let’s end on that note, shall we?