Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Three Things a Novice Female Lifter Should Know

by Jen Smith | October 12, 2021

female lifter locking out a competition deadlift

Let me start by acknowledging that there are plenty of smart, savvy, strong female strength trainees out there who understand the biomechanics of lifting, the psychology of coaching, and the nature of competing. I’m just not one of them. I am a woman in my forties who discovered barbell training two years ago and am still navigating this brave new world of iron and chalk. And though I’m still learning (always), my time in the gym has taught me a few things that might be valuable to you, my fellow female lifter who is confronting the barbell for the first time.

So here’s three things to remember as you step off of the treadmill and onto the platform:

1. Strength is your goal.

Not losing weight. Not getting “lean.” Not looking “toned.” Those might be worthy goals to meet after you build a base of strength, but you can’t achieve any of them until you build a base of strength. You can diet for free and forever, but right now you are paying a strength coach to help you get strong. Let them. This means piling up all the myths about fitness, diet, and body image that you’ve spent a lifetime collecting and dumping them in the trash with your fitbit and yoga mat. Your coach can’t get you strong if you’re secretly trying to get thin.

This is a tough mental shift, especially for women. In fact, when your coach asked you what your goals were, you probably said “I want to get strong” when what you really meant was “I want to look good.” (It’s okay. I said the same thing and I meant the same thing.) I only got interested in strength training because my weight had reached an all-time high, throwing me into enough of a panic to finally break down and hire some help. I’d read plenty about how muscle burns calories, so I figured I’d build just enough of it to boost my metabolism, melt some fat, and get some desperately-needed compliments. I only wanted Strength to serve the higher good of Thin.

My coach put me on NLP and suggested I increase my protein. I was nervous about having a fitness goal other than “losing weight;” I had never exercised for any other reason. (I did not yet understand that I would be training, not exercising.) But I worked hard in the gym and practiced common sense nutrition – most days. I adhered to the 80/20 rule, which is healthy eating 80 percent of the time and lenient eating the other 20 percent. (Okay, so maybe it was more like 70/30. 60/40? Whatever.) I was making progress under the bar and excited that for the first time in my life I was actually seeing some muscle on my frame. I figured the pounds would drop eventually and in the meantime I was achieving my stated goal: to get strong.

But what about my secret goal: to lose weight? Well... 6 months into training I stepped on the scale to find that I weighed exactly the same as I had when I’d started – the most I’d ever weighed in my life, the weight that had sent me running to a coach. So, 6 months of grueling work, decent eating, and I hadn't lost an ounce?

But what I had lost was four inches off my waist, two inches off my hips, and a full pants size. And that was without strict nutrition (because my eating was really more like 50/50, who am I kidding?). Even better, keeping those inches off was fairly easy because I’d done it through gaining muscle, not dropping pounds. As long as I kept lifting and didn’t eat (exactly) like my teenage son, my smaller measurements held.

Pull out a tape measure and see how long 4 inches is. How severely would you have to diet to lose 4 inches off your waist? How many pounds would you need to lose – 10, 15? How many calories could you eat per day to lose them – 1200, 1300? At first, maybe. But with no muscle development, you’d eventually have to go even lower, and stay there. And who can live like that? Not me. I’d rather build the muscle, eat the food, and drop the inches. Weight loss means nothing; inches lost means everything. That is where the fat is “melted,” that is what will make you look “lean” and “toned.” This is why strength – not weight loss – is now your goal.

2. Run Away from the Cardio

Especially on your rest days. Not only will intense cardio slow your physical recovery and adaptation, it will loom over you like a dark cloud when you’re grinding through your lifts. “Even if I make this squat,” you’ll be thinking, as your glutes shake and eyes water, “I still have to go running tomorrow.” That’s enough to make a grown girl cry.

Look, I get it. I am a recovering runner. I started running in college and didn’t stop until I found Starting Strength. Running was my emotional outlet, my physical therapy, my quiet alone time or chat time with a friend. I found a great community of other women runners and felt like a rock star when I finished my first marathon.

I loved running – until I hated it. Because I woke up one day and realized that I had been tired, sore, and hungry for a decade, with no visible difference in my physique to show for it. But like so many cardio queens, I figured hunger and exhaustion were the sad truths of adulthood and the price of female fitness (if you could call my worn-out body “fit”).

Cardio burns calories while you’re doing it. Strength training burns calories while you’re not doing it – the other twenty-three hours of the day. This is why cardio offers little other than keeping weight gain at bay (and even that’s debatable). We have limited time and energy, so we have to make a choice: will we spend it on cardio to burn a few calories today, or invest it in strength training to burn numerous calories tomorrow, and the next day, and the next?

When I first started lifting and despite my coach’s counsel, I insisted on running during my rest days (I was virtuous!). As my lifts became heavier and I needed those days to recover, I would instead run right after my lifting (I was dedicated!). Today, I don’t run at all. If I need some fresh air and movement I walk, which is more fun and doesn’t strip my hard-earned muscle. Of course some cardio can fit into a long-term lifting routine. But for now, harness all of your time and energy into building muscle, which will lead to fat loss, which will lead to weight management, which will lead to better health and a better physique and more confidence and more food and more fitness and for the love of all that is hard and heavy ladies, please: step away from the cardio.

3. Track your progress – not hers

We’ve all had our jaw drop at videos of seventy-year old women deadlifting three-hundred pounds or thirty-year old women squatting twice their body weight. That may even be what inspired you to get started; I know it did me. I watched those strong, accomplished women lift copious amounts of iron and thought, if she can do it, so can I. But I couldn’t, and I can’t – not like her, not yet. My illusions of grandeur in the weight room quickly smacked against the harsh reality of how hard it is to move heavy stuff around all by yourself.

So many factors determine our progress, and yes, hard work and consistency will always be chief among them. But hard work and consistency guarantee that you’ll meet your potential, not someone else’s. And even your sweatiest sweat and grindiest-grind might yield progress that is slow, steady and unspectacular. But remember: the woman online who’s lifting three times what you are follows the same program as unremarkably as you do – one hard and lonely rep at a time. Her spectacular finish came only after the mundane middle. Yours will too.

The only useful comparison to make is between where you started and where you are now. Look back at your numbers on Day One and again on Day One Hundred, and you’ll find the impressive results you’re looking for. Track your progress – not hers.

The world of strength training can be intimidating, especially for us cardio-committed women, so applaud yourself for the courage it takes to even enter it. It would be so much easier to stay in Zumba, but we’ve left that for lifting because we understand that easy doesn’t work. Strength is the foundation for lifelong health and fitness, and strength is for everyone. Even for you and me – especially for you and me.        

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