For my first LIFE Apps blog post, I wanted to address something that I am very passionate about. That is women and weightlifting.

Since my new blog here is called the Evidence-Based Storyteller, I will first tell you a story that really sums up my experience with women and weightlifting. I was in college studying for my Bachelor’s degree when a female roommate went to the gym with me one day. I talked her into lifting weights. We used machines and did some cardio as well. But the next day, she stepped on the scale and freaked out. She had gained a pound. She told me that because of that pound, she would never lift weights again.

Over time, I have heard many similar things from other women. Mostly, they’ve told me that they don’t want to get big. They were convinced that if they lifted weight, they would turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I’m here to tell you, you won’t. You won’t get even close to that big. Not unless you want to put a lot of work into it. On the other hand, lifting weights and keeping your muscles (and bones) strong could help you live a longer and healthier life.

I do believe every women should lift weights. Even heavy weights. I am going to go over some of the main fears women have regarding lifting weights and give evidence for why these fears are unjustified. By the end, I hope you’ll learn some reasons why women should lift weights.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults perform resistance training such as weightlifting two to three times per week, performing 8–12 repetitions of 8–10 exercises targeting all major muscle groups. They recommend that people increase the weight they lift over time “so that it feels like an 8 out of 10 difficulty“. But researchers at the CDC have reported that women participate less in resistance training than the U.S. population on the whole, with only 20% or 1 in 5 women engaging in resistance training two or more times per week.

Women seem to perceive weightlifting as difficult and time-consuming, barriers that prevent them from engaging in this type of physical activity.

But in my experience, many women are also in fear of looking like this:

Female bodybuilder. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Female bodybuilder. Via Wikimedia Commons.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with looking like this. Strong is the new sexy! Just have a look at the more than 3 millions Instagram posts with the hashtag #girlswithmuscles as evidence of this cultural shift. Women are strong. Women are scientists. Women are astronauts. Woman are anything they want to be.

But if it helps, I can guarantee that most women who lift weights will not look like this. Women who look like this are putting more time in at the gym than most of us could ever dedicate and/or are supplementing with testosterone.

Most women will not be taking steroids for bodybuilding purposes. Women also do not have the same level of testosterone in their bodies as men do, meaning that they don’t “bulk up” like men do. Total testosterone levels in men are between 240 to 950 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) (Travison et al., 2017). Compare that with women’s total testosterone levels that range between 8 and 60 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) (Steinberger, et al., 1998). That’s a HUGE difference. Women will very unusually gain the muscle mass a man can, even with equivalent amount of time in the gym.

I spend between 45 and 60 minutes in the gym most days. I lift heavy weights. I still wear a size small. I am bigger than many women my height, but I am not big. I look more athletic than bulky. Brace-Goven (2004) said, “Weightlifting can create formidable physical strength but without the visible, physical displays of body building.”

A woman must lift a lot of weight to look so bulky. For example, Becca Swanson is able to bench press a max of 600 pounds! She’s a woman with very big muscles. My max bench press was 155 pounds. Most women are not pumping 600 pounds of iron.

Another story I have about women lifting heavy weights features me just a few years ago. I was then squatting a max of 255 pounds. I needed the assistance of two spotters, usually male, one of which was my husband. I frequently had these men hold onto the weight when they were spotting me, because they thought I couldn’t do it.

There are still misconceptions about the strength of the female body, among both men and women. We women are stronger than we think. According to a scientific commentary by Ebben & Jenson (1998), women who lift weights have equal cross-sectional strength to men, if not their bulk. Stronger women feel better about themselves, too.

“Traditional gender roles and differences in absolute strength have resulted in misconceived approaches to strength training for women. Male physiology, more than hormones, explains men’s superior absolute strength. When other measures of strength are used, such as strength relative to cross-sectional area of muscle, the strength of men and women is nearly equal. Women who practice the same well-designed strength training programs as men benefit from bone and soft-tissue modeling, increased lean body mass, decreased fat, and enhanced self-confidence.” – Ebben & Jenson, 1998

“Our culture has traditionally viewed strength as a masculine trait and promoted a small, frail body as feminine. Consequently, girls have been discouraged from participating in gross-motor-skill activities and strength development.” – Ebben & Jenson, 1998

The opposite sex has a strong influence on what we do in terms of lifting weights. We frequently sell ourselves short when it comes to weightlifting because many women feel that men will not find strong women attractive (Dworkin, 2001). Frequently women will not lift to their full potential because they are worried about the perceptions of men around them.

I will say, don’t let a man hold you back from becoming strong.

Every woman should get some resistance training every week. Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Every woman should get some resistance training every week. Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Why should women lift weights, other than to become strong, more self-confident and overcome gender stereotypes? Lifting weights or engaging in resistance activity is critical to staying independent throughout your lifespan, no matter your sex. According to Skelton & Beyer (2003), women who maintain muscle mass as they get older have a lower risk of falling or becoming injured due to falls. We lose muscle mass naturally as we age, but lifting weights can help to prevent much of this muscle loss.

Lifting weights can also help to prevent bone loss (Skelton & Beyer, 2003). Loss of bone increases the risk of bone fractures in old age. Even if you are over 50 and starting a strength training regimen for the first time, there are benefits to your body including benefits to your bone density. It’s never too late to start.

Strength Training Benefits for Women, according to Ebben and Jensen (1998):

  • Enhanced bone modeling, increased bone strength and a lower risk of osteoporosis
  • Stronger connective tissues that increase joint stability and help prevent injury
  • Increased functional strength for sports and daily activity
  • Increased lean body mass and decreased body fat
  • Higher metabolic rate (you burn more energy at rest!) because of an increase in muscle and a decrease in fat
  • Improved self-esteem and confidence

I hope this article helps women to go and lift weights. We need to stop looking at ourselves as the weaker sex and work on becoming physically strong. We will not only look great, but we will also be stronger over our life course!

No one wants to be old and confined because we let our bodies atrophy. So get out there and lift!

Need help getting started? Consider attending a weightlifting class or getting help from a personal trainer or exercise physiologist to learn how to lift heavy weights safely. Check out this ACE beginner’s guide to weightlifting.


  1. Brace-Govan, J. (2004). Weighty matters: control of women’s access to physical strength. The Sociological Review, 52(4), 503–531.
  2. Dworkin, S. L. (2001). “holding back”: Negotiating a glass ceiling on women’s muscular strength. Sociological Perspectives, 44(3), 333–350.
  3. Ebben, W. P., & Jensen, R. L. (1998). Strength training for women: Debunking myths that block opportunity. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 26(5), 86–97.
  4. Skelton, D. A., & Beyer, N. (2003). Exercise and injury prevention in older people. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 13(1), 77–85.
  5. Steinberger, E., Ayala, RN, C., Hsi, B., Smith, K. D., Rodriguez-Rigau, L. J., Weidman, E. R., & Reimondo, G. G. (1998). Utilization of commercial laboratory results in management of hyperandrogenism in women. Endocrine Practice, 4(1), 1–10.
  6. Travison, T. G., Vesper, H. W., Orwoll, E., Wu, F., Kaufman, J. M., Wang, Y., … Bhasin, S. (2017). Harmonized reference ranges for circulating testosterone levels in men of four cohort studies in the united states and europe. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 102(4), 1161–1173.