Women: Fear of the Barbell

If your workout tends to include a lot of bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, dumbbells (sometimes) and a couple of exercise machines than this is the blog post for you. For those of you who already know your way around a barbell…carry on. 

Now, you might be saying to yourself a variation of the following 1) "I don't want to use a barbell" 2) "I don't want to put on muscle" (because of bulking myths) and 3) "I'm not an athlete" (because of the misconception that training is for only for athletes).

If you're totally against using a barbell for your own personal reasons I'd love to hear them, but for the mean time I'm not here to convince you to get on board. You have to decide that you want it for yourself. BUT, if you're the girl who is sneaking peeks at the other girl who is banging out a barbell workout...with dare I say admiration and interest?? Than this post is right up your alley.

Let's start things off with a little exposure therapy. We have to break you out of your fear of the weight training room.Take a look at the picture below. Really take it in. Look at all the equipment. Picture yourself working out in there. 

High Performance Training Centre @ U of M (I fell in LOVE when I was there)

High Performance Training Centre @ U of M (I fell in LOVE when I was there)

Get a little uncomfortable? Now, ask yourself if that is because of a total disinterest in learning how to train with this equipment OR if it is perhaps due to FEAR?  I truly believe that if everyone understood how amazing they could feel once they'd learned how to dominate a barbell that there would be no disinterest, which leaves us with fear. Fear that you'll be terrible at it. Fear that you'll look stupid while learning. Fear that people will watch you. Fear that it's not attractive (because you heard the brutal 'women shouldn't lift more than 3 lbs' myth).

Fear of the barbell runs rampant among women.

As a personal trainer I'm reminded of this with every new female client that starts to train with me. I've had many versions of the following conversation:

Me - "So, what do you typically use at the gym?

Her - "I use the treadmill, those bands, the medicine ball…"

Me - "Have you ever used the squat rack? Ventured into the free weights area? Or used this?" *pointing to a barbell*

Her - "…like the guys' area?!...uh, no…and I've never used that…"

Side note: My male clients have never skipped a beat when introduced to a barbell. They confidently throw around a barbell (even when they have no clue what they're doing).

Women have learned this fear over time. It's ingrained. We're taught to be tiny. To not take up space. We're taught to be cautious and delicate. Men are the ones who get to bang around heavy weights, sweat like pigs and pound their chests. Now, don't get me wrong...there are plenty of men who support women lifting weights, but there is a vibe when you're a female lifter. There are things that are said about a female lifter. Things like ..."she's intense"..."she takes lifting so seriously"..."she can beat you up"...but if a guy trains the EXACT SAME WAY he's...well...being a guy. 

Even as someone who is comfortable with weight training I've had people say things to me that have made me uncomfortable. I'll try to minimize what I'm capable of.  Why is that? Why are women so uncomfortable with a heavy workout. 

Google Research (better than Wiki)

I conducted a study (haha). A study that took me all of 1 second thanks to good ol' google. I searched "men lifting weight" and "women lifting weight". Here is what it looks like:

Do you see a difference? Look at their faces. Look at their equipment. (P.S. Ever tried smiling while doing sit-ups?? Disastrous.) Here are some words you might use to describe these pictures:

  • MEN LIFTING WEIGHT - Intense. Committed. Driven. Powerful. 
  • WOMEN LIFTING WEIGHT- Smiling. Having fun. Pretty. Girl time. 

Let's try another google search...."women barbell" and "men barbell". 

Good lord! Women don't even get a real barbell. No words needed to describe this one! 

The issue is society's portrayal of women working out. There's no wonder that women are fearful of using a barbell. Magazines barely show women lifting (unless you read niche magazines), celebrities promote wacky workouts and women have the added struggle of combating the neat little box they're meant to fit into. How can women become comfortable with something that they rarely see? Or when they do see it in social media it's either a) masculinized (ie. people saying "you're too manly") or b) it's sexualized (a search of Instagram will suffice for examples on this one) by others. 

Unfortunately, women miss out on the benefits of rocking a barbell workout. Nevermind the physical benefits (which I could go on and on about), let's just hone in one of the big mental benefit of overcoming your fear of the barbell. Improved self confidence. This will trickle into all aspects of your life. You'll be able to look back one day and see how much you've improved and accomplished. Your current mental barrier is keeping you from growing. 

Now, if you're a female lifter and you've made it this far into this post you might be thinking "but I AM comfortable with a barbell and my friends are too." Congratulations! Unfortunately, you are not the masses. You have immersed yourself with other lifters. Just because everyone you know is a lifter doesn't mean that that's what the masses are doing.

My Own Client's Story

I recently had a client who joined me for a one on one session with the intent of reviewing one of her workouts. When we met I explained that the workout was meant to be done with a barbell (45 lbs). She quietly nodded and turned her attention back to the smaller, lighter EZ-curl bar that we would be using. Disinterest in a barbell is my cue that a client is not ready to try it. I know that it's something we'll have to work up to. I proceeded to add 15 lbs to each side of the EZ-Curl bar and show her how to do everything. She started the workout cautiously....quietly moving the weight, clearly not wanting to draw attention to herself. I have to commend her though - as the workout got harder she brought out her fight. I could see her movements become less restricted. She allowed the weight to bang. She allowed herself to breathe heavily. She allowed herself to reach failure.  She was energized when she completed the workout. When I told her that what she'd used was only 5 lbs lighter than the barbell her eye lit up - I saw the flash of excitement. A flash of pride. She had overcome something that was scary and intimidating. 

Here is the best part - and she doesn't even know it yet - I went back and weighed the EZ-Curl bar. She was actually moving 45 lbs. The same weight as a barbell. Welcome to the bro weights, girl!

How To Get Over Your Fear

  1. Get a personal trainer and learn how to properly move a barbell. 

  2. Immerse yourself in a lifting culture. No, you don't have to become a powerlifter. Just get comfortable with seeing other women lift. Get comfortable with struggle. Follow athletes.

  3. Start with just the barbell. You can only go up from there. 

  4.  Self-reflection. Does being red-faced, sweaty and frizzy-haired TOTALLY FREAK YOU OUT??! Please become aware that you are restricting what you're capable of based on what others will think of you and how you look. What a shame.

  5. Track your weights in a workout journal. This will help you learn the weights that you use and will serve as an awesome comparison for a year or two down the road.  

  6. Just do it. Trust me. You will gain so much confidence in all areas of your life once you've taken on this one!

If you're the girl I mentioned earlier who curiously watches other female lifters while they work out... I beg of you -  please go ask her for some pointers! I can guarantee you that she has been where you are. She will GLADLY give you some pointers. Heck, you might even gain a lifting partner. 


Thank you for reading!

Feel free to comment and give your feedback. Happy Sunday! :)