Many people, men and women, feel intimidated by the weights room in the gym. With testosterone flying around and sweat-drenched muscle-heads in tight vests emitting some seriously OTT grunts – it’s no wonder that so many of us avoid the free weights like the plague.
If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, being faced with endless rows of dumbbells, kettlebells and barebells can be really daunting and off-putting. But weights and strength training should be an integral part of any workout – particularly for women.
So it’s time we all got over our lifting hangups. Strength training doesn’t always mean lifting mega weights. Depending on your fitness level, ability and age, you can push your muscles using lighter weights or even just your own body weight.
There are plenty of variations and modifications to make strength work accessible. Yanar Alkayat is a branded content editor at Hearst and self-professed health and fitness geek. She spent her 20s and 30s running religiously and only discovered weight lifting in her mid 30s.
She says strength training has revolutionised her own relationship with her body and given her confidence she never knew she had.
‘I’ve always been into fitness, ever since I was a child, and in my 20s and 30s I ran a lot but I’ve never been a strong girl,’ Yanar tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I’ve always been light and slim, and I did a lot of cardio to keep the weight off. I was honestly, a bit of a weakling. ‘In my mid-30s I realised I could smash out a four-hour marathon but didn’t have the strength to do a full push-up.
‘With the next decade just around the corner, I decided I had to lay stronger foundations for the future, especially with a family history of osteoporosis and knowing women’s muscle mass shrinks with age.
‘I was determined to go into my 40s with a strong physique and say goodbye to my child-like body. The quest to build all-over body strength led me to Royal Docks CrossFit where I learnt how to move well with weight bearing and bodyweight exercises.’
CrossFit is all about ‘constantly-varied, high intensity training’. It incorporates barbell and Olympic lifts, gymnastics skills and functional movement – Yanar fell in love with it. ‘After just a few sessions I was hooked – not just on the adrenaline of heavy workouts – but on the systematic, thorough coaching that engaged my mind as well as body. It opened up a whole new world of training.
‘For the next few years I would wake up without hesitation at 5:30am, at least three times a week for class and train at the weekends. ‘Having something to work on and seeing improvements kept me there. Plus the workout changes daily so I never got bored.
‘When I first started CrossFit four years ago I couldn’t even overhead press a 15kg empty barbell. Now I can deadlift 100kg, snatch over 40kg and squat clean 60kg, all at 55kg body weight. ‘But building strength and skills has been a long, gradual process.
‘Coming from zero strength means I’m super proud of my journey and it still amazes me today that I can do these things. I never forget where I started.’ The benefits of getting stronger haven’t been purely physical for Yanar – it has changed her perspective and supercharged her mental focus as well.
‘Learning to train and lift – not just work out – has transformed my body and mind,’ explains Yanar. ‘I had no idea the gains would be mental as well as physical.
‘In a nutshell, weight lifting has lent me super strong mental focus, an abundance of confidence and positivity (the IRL type not just on IG), the body acceptance I’d been lacking all my life, a sense of pride and satisfaction in what I can do, and the small wins to celebrate along the way, a healthy hobby that makes you feel naturally really good.
‘I no longer have to wait for the weekend and go out to feel like I’m having a good time. I can just pick up a barbell and do a really good workout or training session. ‘The endorphins are through the roof.’
So what are the benefits of weight training?
Yanar has found some serious joy in the weights room – but will it work for everyone?
‘Whether your goal is to get stronger, fitter, leaner, gain muscle mass or become more functionally active; weight training is an essential element to your training plan and is so versatile,’ says Melissa Weldon, master trainer at Sweat It London.
‘It can initially feel a little intimidating walking into the weights area of a gym; but the fitness industry has made great leaps towards making it more inclusive for all – especially with the emergencies of group training boutiques, which give you all the benefits of strength training with a trainer who can help you with your form, technique and give you the confidence to push much harder.’
Five benefits of strength training Improved functional fitness, i.e. you will be able to move more efficiently.
Reduced risk of injury. With an increase of muscle, your joints and ligaments will be supported in movement. This helps to reduce the risk of injury when performing higher impact movement; like running or HIIT.
An increase of muscle mass, leads to a higher metabolism. If lowering your body fat is part of your fitness goals, this is a great advantage (it means you can eat more).
Decreased risk of osteoporosis, also known as brittle done disease. One in three women and one in five men are affected by osteoporosis in later life. Weight training helps to increase bone density which can greatly reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Weight training can be a great mental release and helps to increase confidence as you become stronger. ‘The benefits of weight training tend to be pretty universal; except the osteoporosis benefit which effects almost double the number of women than men,’ explains Melissa.
This is why it is so important for women to maintain and build on their strength as they age. Women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men, particularly if the menopause begins early, or if they’ve had their ovaries removed.
It can cause significant weakness in the bones, making them much more likely to break.
Yanar wants other women to feel as empowered as she does when she walks into the gym. She says it’s normal to feel nervous – put if you can push past that, the rewards will be enormous. ‘It might feel difficult or even awkward at first – I definitely spent the best part of my first six months at CrossFit having no idea how to move a barbell and feeling clumsy and weak – but eventually it clicked,’ she says. ‘Most CrossFit gyms are friendly and most weight lifting classes, especially ones for women, are full of the nicest people who are all there to support and cheer on each other.
‘Don’t forget, everyone was a beginner at some point, so stick to it and keep practicing. The more energy, time and attention you give it, the more rewarding it is.
‘Doing something you never expected your body could do will send your confidence soaring. It’s a natural and free happy pill.
‘I also want women to breakdown their own perceptions of what they think can do and achieve. ‘There are no limits – what is heavy or even impossible one day, will be normal some day in the future so don’t get too frustrated with what you can’t do. Focus on learning how to improve it.’