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.

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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.

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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.’”

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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.

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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.

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