How Does Strength Training Actually Make Women Feel?

We’ve all seen the headlines: “Don’t Worry Ladies! Strength Training Won’t Make You Bulky!” but here at Snatch Magazine, we have always been a proponent that bulky is not the worst thing a woman can do to her body, and it shouldn’t be talked about as such.

In my quest to dive deeper on how women who strength train actually feel about their bodies, I set up a series of questions using Instagram Story’s poll feature. Of course, many of these questions are significantly more nuanced than the dichotomy of a Yes or No answer, so keep that in mind when reading over these answer breakdowns, but hopefully this can begin to help us unpack what kinds of social dilemmas we face as strength athletes. This poll was up for 24 hours and was voted on by over 500 women (and a few men- whose votes have been discounted for the sake of this reporting- sorry guys).

97% OF WOMEN REPORTED IMPROVED BODY IMAGE AND SELF CONFIDENCE FROM STRENGTH TRAINING

Probably the most important two questions of the series were: “Did your body image change for the better when you started strength training?” and “Did your self confidence change for the better when you started strength training?” Both had less than 5% of responders say that their body image or self confidence had not improved.

This, I believe, is where it all needs to start. When we continue down the list of questions, we see that many women who are strength training are still struggling with body image and self confidence, but it’s important to identify that women in strength sports are already miles ahead of those who have never touched a barbell before. What’s the biggest takeaway from that? Bring your girls to the gym.

SELF-PERCEPTION

The first series of questions had to do with self-perception. 88% of women reported being proud of their bodies in the gym, but only 51% of responders reported that pride carrying over into their relationship with their reflection, and a staggering 74% said that those feelings about their bodies change when they are in the “real world”.

IN THE LINEUP

We spend all this time in the gym to get stronger, we know this. But how do women in strength feel about themselves when lined up with non-athletes? 51% said they felt self-conscious when around non-athletes and even more than that, 77% said they are self-conscious when lined up with other athletes. Of course, no one ever lines us up and measures our bodies against one another, but there certainly is some degree of self-sizing when you’re around other people that shouldn’t be ignored.

VISIBLE MUSCLE

More than half of the respondents said they did not feel their body reflected the athlete they perform as and 81% said they were not satisfied with their amount of visible muscle tone. This speaks to the fact that despite our pursuit of the barbell improving our self efficacy, we still are susceptible to ‘the grass is always greener’ mentality and constantly chasing a projection of what we expect our perfect bodies to be.

In strength training we often talk about how we are focusing on improving our strength rather than how we look in the mirror, and yet 67% of women said they still do not feel like they have successfully separated their strength goals from physique goals. So how do we figure out how to forge that rift between the two? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that, but I believe that the first step to figuring it out is acknowledging and giving space to the problem.

BEAUTY & THE BEAST

This one came out of pure curiosity for me. I wanted to know if most women felt compelled to add some feminine identifying marker to their training outfit, which the majority (62%) did not. On the other side of a similar coin, I asked if their strength had ever been unwillingly linked to aggression. In my personal experiences, this often comes out in one phrase: “You could probably beat me up.” It’s the first utterance of intimidation that comes out of someone who has never met a girl in the strength world before after you tell them that you lift. I’ve gotten it from complete strangers, potential employers at an interview, random people at parties, and even some of my college professors. Many of these were inappropriate contexts and it often felt like I was being tokenized for my strength and that since they suddenly knew this fact about me, they could no longer see any of my other attributable qualities. I’m simultaneously disgusted and thrilled that I am not alone in this one- 87% responded yes- someone has said something to them like this.

FEELINGS OF OTHERNESS

My theory on feelings of otherness is that I believe the women who work office jobs or non fitness industry jobs are going to struggle the most with this. I have no basis to back this up other than my personal experience but I’d be curious to go back and investigate further. 65% of respondents said they have felt out of place because they strength train, but a little over half (58%) felt that they had two versions of their identity for the real world versus inside the gym and had to alter themselves in some way to fit into the real world. Similarly, 53% reported their relationships with non-athlete women friends were strained because of their goals. While it’s easy to look at the numbers and note how it’s only half, this is still over 200 women reporting these feelings of otherness.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So what’s the takeaway on this? Obviously, these are just numbers and I’m only one person breaking them down. This wasn’t a controlled study done by professionals, but I think there still is a lot of value in these numbers, if only to help us start to understand ourselves and our peers as athletes. My primary hope is that the women who reported these numbers feel less alone, and that the coaches of any and all women get to take a look at this and be able to improve their skills from this as well.

I still believe the most important one is the overwhelming majority who cited strength training as having a direct improvement on their body image and self confidence is the biggest piece of information we should take going forward! We have seen improvements in ourselves, and we all know at least one woman who is not strength training and is struggling more than we are. Bring her to the gym.

Thanks for reading, happy snatching!