We Tried This: Strong vs. Skinny

The weight room can feel like a boys club but more women are reporting to weight training classes and high-intensity boot camps.

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Courtesy of Heidi Jones

Heidi Jones (far right) won second place at her first CrossFit competition.

The weight room can feel like a boys club but more women are reporting to weight training classes and high-intensity boot camps.

Earlier this week, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) released their survey results of popular fitness trends of 2013, and strength and body weight training topped the list for men and women. Missing from the list were Pilates and spinning classes, which were favorites in previous years. So are more women taking to barbells? Is ‘bulking up’ no longer considered so bad?

As Healthland’s fitness trend junkie, I had to find out. I’ve tried unconventional fitness classes from anti-gravity yoga to ballet-inspired barre workouts. So a no-frills muscle-building session seemed like a reasonable next step.

(MORE: Latest Fitness Trends: Body Weight Training Takes Centerstage)

On a late Tuesday night, I attempted the Marine-run Warrior Fitness Bootcamp in New York City, and found myself panting, soaked in sweat and staring down a six-foot wall while my drill sergeant instructor Ruben Belliard demanded I “get over it” — and he didn’t mean my whimpering. Although I insisted there was no way my 5’2” frame was getting over the top of a wall I could barely reach on my tiptoes, he wasn’t having it. In what can only be explained as a miracle, I forced myself over with plenty of slipping and heaving.

These body-busting strength challenges are what co-owner Alex Fell says keeps clients returning. “[They] see tremendous results and they get addicted to the workout,” he says. “They’ve never done anything this intense and they’ve never thought they could do anything like this before. They’ve never climbed over walls and up ropes. Every time they come in, they overcome a new obstacle.”

Like many popular boot camps, Warrior Fitness Bootcamp is run by two former Marines, and based off their own military training. This includes circuit rounds of running, calisthenics, free weights, and of course, the obstacle course. When the instructors demanded I run up ten flights of stairs, for the second time, I knew I had met my match. But when it was over, I actually felt pretty good. I certainly never felt that tough after Zumba.

(MORE: We Tried This: Barry’s Bootcamp)

Boot camp-style classes have their own cult following, but more people — especially women — are opting for a more strength-based program. That’s where heavy weight lifting and strength training sessions come in.

CrossFit started in 2000 in Santa Cruz, catering to Marines and police academies looking for high-intensity boot camps, with weights. Since then, CrossFit has opened 4,500 affiliated gyms worldwide, and hosts the grueling CrossFit Games to crown the fittest man and woman “on earth.”

For the full experience, I’m currently enrolled in  CrossFit NYC’s six-class workshop where I and five other men perfect push-ups, squats and killer pull-ups followed by circuits of high-intensity strength training to exhaustion. Although I may be the only woman in my group, I’m definitely not the only one in the gym.

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“We have seen a huge increase in female interest,” says Joshua Newman, CrossFit NYC co-owner and trainer. “In the beginning, we were 90% male, 10% female, but our new members seem to be about 50-50.” Newman says CrossFit NYC’s initial coaching staff was all male, but they’ve hired several female coaches over the past year.

One of them, Heidi Jones, teaches the CrossFit Endurance running program and competed in her first CrossFit competition in October, winning second place. “I had never lifted weights because I, like many women, was afraid of getting big or bulky,” she says. Jones joined CrossFit after suffering a running injury while training for a 50-mile ultra marathon in South Dakota. “I think by doing [CrossFit] I’ve de-bunked the myth of ‘women who do CrossFit get big,’ and this has shown women they can do the same. In our beginner classes, I would say that on average the number of women signing up outweighs the men.”

Fell says Warrior Fitness Bootcamp is also appealing to more women; women now make up 70% of their clients. “Everyone can’t believe it, but in a twenty person class, fifteen may be women,” says Fell. “I would say that 99% of our women are tougher than the guys that come in here. We yell at them, and they respond ‘give me more, give me more.’”

(MORE: We Tried This: Jillian Michaels’ BodyShred Workout)

Jones says she’s not surprised that more women are taking heavy weights seriously. “I made a t-shirt last summer that said, ‘Strong is The New Skinny’ and it resonated with so many women,” she says. “Even women I didn’t know on the streets or in airports stopped me to take a picture of the shirt. Women get the sentiment. Women are finally seeing that skinny does not mean strong. Actually, it’s just the opposite in many cases.”

She may have a point. A few studies published this year show it’s possible to be lean and metabolically unhealthy  without exercise. Similarly, overweight people can be metabolically fit on the inside, but still carry too much outer weight. Building inner muscle and aerobic capacity is key to truly improving health, regardless of what the scale says.

(MORE: Paul Ryan’s Killer Workout: Is P90X for You?)

Jones says she now runs less than she used to during training, but her strength exercises have given her a lot of speed. “I never expected CrossFit to become the main sport of my life, since I’ve been running since I was nine, but now running has taken a backseat to this,” says Jones. “My friends hear the passion I have for the sport and how it has changed my perspective on working out, and many say they want to have that same passion about working out and many have also joined.”

I’m not totally sold on heavy weights just yet, but I will say that focusing on getting fit and being obsessed with burning calories makes working out much more fun.

MORE: We Tried This: SLT Megaformer Workout

7 comments
DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

The one thing you need before joining any of these programs is a body that won't have people pointing and laughing.  I'll assume the author of this article does.  These aren't exercises for the plants from the couch nor those whose best years are decades behind them.

What really kills me about these things is how youth/fit centric they are.  Where are the programs for seniors?  For couch potatoes?  You know, the people who REALLY NEED IT and not these slender wastrels in fashionable leotards who haven't had four grams of fat in their bodies or in anything they've eaten in five years?  Sure, I get that you have to "work up to it", but where do you START?

Fitness isn't about fads, health clubs, exercise programs or extreme leotardness...  It's about a lifestyle committed to being healthy.  These articles about impractical, over-the-top fitness fads only ever cater to the already fit fitness-minded.  They utterly fail to address the needs of the people who actually need to get fit in the first place.

 If you can DO one of these extreme fitness programs (like the one described here) without dropping DEAD, you don't NEED a fitness program.  You're healthy and fit already.  What you're doing is getting fitter - splitting hairs down to the last nanogram of body fat.  For that starchy, root vegetable on the couch...  It ain't doing a thing for them.  Chances are good they'd die of a stroke or heart attack if they DID try one of these fitness fads.

We hear so much about how America is getting fatter, then all we hear about to get slimmer and more fit are exercises fat people CAN'T DO.  For the fifteen people in the country who are into this kind of thing (hyperbole, yes, but apt), enjoy.  But seriously, how about some fitness programs that are practical, inexpensive, reasonable and that anyone can do without having to warm up the defibrillator?

crossfitholly
crossfitholly

@DeweySayenoff You bring up some good points, and one of the things we hear all the time is "I need to get in shape before I can do CrossFit"- a myth that we are constantly trying to debunk. It's easy to see why people think this way. 

 If you've watched any of the CrossFit Games, you see elite, world-class athletes with machine-like, chiseled bodies competing at levels that most average "CrossFitters" will never even come close to. They would definitely qualify as the type of people you refer to that are already in shape. And yes, may other "average" or "regular" participants are already fit and fitness minded which is what brought them to CrossFit in the first place. 

But if you study the CrossFit methodology, you will find that CrossFit is an exercise and strength program made up of functional movements - movements we perform everyday, and therefore applicable to any individual willing to commit and learn the program. It is designed for universal scalability and can be modified for elderly individuals, couch potatoes, "deconditioned"athletes, as well as professional fighters, Navy Seals, and NFL players. That's the beauty of the program - anyone can do it.

An inspiring example is CrossFit Walter Reed, an amazing non-profit, military CrossFit affiliate that trains wounded service members, veterans, their families, and care givers. In their "box" you will find above-knee, below-knee, double and triple amputees performing adapted CrossFit workouts; undeniable proof that you don't have to have a perfect body to CrossFit.

You don't have to search far to find inspiring stories of obese, out of shape individuals that dared to walk into a CrossFit gym, lost weight and through the process ultimately gained more than they lost in self confidence, motivation, energy, and inner strength. I have seen first hand with several clients in my gym.

So, if you care to take a second look at CrossFit, I hope you will, along with anyone else who thinks CrossFit is only for fit people. Hopefully you'll be surprised at what you find :)

DormanFlynt
DormanFlynt like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think it all boils down to the importance of knowing the right work out for you.

grizz281
grizz281 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I feel that the author should try out a traditional strength program first before labeling this as "Strong vs Skinny." Sure, Crossfit has elements of weightlifting in it, but it's not what comes to mind (at least for me) when describing someone as strong. However, I think there is also a stigma against weightlifting on both the male and female side because there is a bit of a barrier to actually get into strength training. It's intimidating for a guy or girl to even step foot into a weightroom because there is a fear of making a fool of yourself. This isn't even considering the perhaps millions of different strength training routines that are found in a multitude of sources, from Men's Health to Cosmo to bodybuilding magazines to hundreds of programs made by Joe Schmo's online. It's hard to actually figure out what is right for one person and if they happen to choose a program that they don't like or where they hurt themselves, they are more than likely to label weightlifting as bad and will never return to it.

Sure it's bad that women think that weightlifting makes you bulky (and a quick youtube search will completely dispel that myth, unless you look up women's bodybuilding), but it's also bad how there's such a steep learning curve to get into weightlifting. And that's a problem of both the culture of corporate gyms and the culture of our society as a whole. On the gym side, they want the most money out of you while spending the least amount of money possible. So they will skimp on both equipment and trainers that actual know anything worthwhile and basically try to get you in, get your money, and leave you with little to no support system. On the culture side, we are generally way too lazy to stick with a program for more than a month or two, if that. We always want a quick fix to our weight problems and strength training generally requires a period of time to learn each lift before we see results. That period of time will be too long and again, people will cast aside strength training due to it "not working."

 Anyway, as a note directly to the author: you should spend a little more time describing what kinds of workouts you are doing/did. Like for Crossfit, what kinds of WODs you're doing, how knowledgeable your coach is (which is a very important factor when choosing a Crossfit "box," but that's another point for another day), and generally how a typical training session is run. Also, you never fully dispelled the myth that lifting makes you big. There is a mention of it that doing crossfit doesn't make you big, but to really drive the point home, you should say that it's nearly impossible for women to get big without the use of supplements and steroids. Also the sentence "Is ‘bulking up’ no longer considered so bad?" still does nothing to dispel that perception.

I hope people do begin to realize that strength training is very good for both men and women. Not only does it promote muscular strength, but also flexibility and even bone strength. It's just that the learning the lifts properly seems to be an insurmountable obstacle to many people.

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

BRAVO for you, but some of us guys already knew this a long time ago. You gals were (ARE STILL)  just so resilient to getting so hot, sweaty, exhausted, flustered and "not at all glamorous or pretty" in front of us, in your hot, sexy and stylish stretchware. RELAX! WE'RE USED TO SEEING YOU GALS LIKE THAT, but not necessarially in the gym.!

ruraynor
ruraynor

@WilliamBarnes and opinions like this are what keep some women out of the gym-some of use don't want to be oggled and mentally undressed! I don't put on 'stretchware' because it's hot or sexy, I wear it because it's more practical/comfortable than working out in jeans and an ironed shirt.

That said, getting to the stage where you feel strong is great. Something as simple as carrying groceries home becomes so much easier. I moved house by public transport over just 3 trips, and being able to carrying half my own bodyweight without collapsing and dying made me very proud.

CrimsonWife
CrimsonWife

@ruraynor Yes, I used to belong to an all-female gym (there were male instructors and trainers but they always kept things professional) and it was wonderful because I didn't have to deal with the whole "meat market" aspect of coed gyms. Unfortunately, I moved and the only all-female gyms here are pseduogyms like Curves & Butterfly Life. There aren't any full-service gyms that are female-only :-(