Yay! Welcome! I love you!
I’m so happy you are getting ready to take that step! Strength training can be a truly transformative and empowering experience. It also may have a steeper learning curve than getting into cardio as many of us have little to no experience with it before we decide to make it a part of our fitness routines. So, if you’re totally new at this and unsure where to begin, I want to give you some love, some encouragement and enough information to help you have the confidence to walk over to that section of the gym and pick up some weights.
First things first: let’s acknowledge the unfortunate reality that you may be the only woman lifting weights. You might not know any other women who do this kind of activity. Not having fellow women to talk to, look up to and to claim space with can be a huge mental barrier. And, in my experience, while most lifelong gym bros are very friendly with women who lift, the sorts of dudes who come out of the woodwork around New Years can be more toxic and more aggressive. Thankfully, their ignorance also tends to be their downfall, and in my experience, you won’t have to deal with most of them by spring break. So, if you’re feeling an unfriendly vibe, hang in there. Use this time to figure out your routines, and keep reminding yourself that you belong there, too.(1)
If you’re feeling intimidated just starting out, find a way to reduce as many barriers as possible that might keep you from lifting some weight. It’s ok to start with only using the machines or to do dumbbell and cables workouts while you’re figuring out what you can do and what you enjoy. Barbell was the most intimidating for me, but it’s also the most fun, so there’s room for finding some balance there for yourself. Maybe you try out barbell bench pressing but skip the squats, deadlifts and overhead press for now (or whatever works for you). It’s ok to wander around and just try things out, see how they feel, and then go from there.
Speaking of wandering around and trying things out, I want to encourage you to let go of your fears that you’ll hurt yourself lifting weights. Yes, it’s possible to hurt yourself. You could drop a heavy weight on your toes; that risk isn’t going anywhere. But the kind of fears I hear less experienced lifters express are less acute and more along the lines of “if I learn to do it wrong, I will hurt myself.” Unfortunately we’ve been taught to think this way, but it’s not based on science. It’s a cultural myth from folks who were biased against weightlifting, and it sadly persists. Not to say that someone absolutely can’t hurt themselves by lifting something wrongly, but what is wrong is not as clear cut as we are taught to believe. As the Barbell Medicine folks frequently discuss, our bodies are flexible and adaptive, and we will adjust to the stressors we put them under, as long as we give our bodies time to make those adjustments. So, you’re lifting wrongly when you make a sudden movement change with more weight than your body is adapted to move in that way. If you’re worried about hurting yourself, take it slowly, try things out maybe first with bodyweight, then some dumbbells, then with an empty bar, etc., and listen to your body along the way.
I think the real risk of injury comes from folks who take on a new routine with a sense of panic or urgency, like if they don’t push really hard, really fast, right now, then their efforts are wasted. So my final bit of mindset advice is to do your best to let go of timelines. Let go of the expectation that you should be able to lift a certain amount of weight, or you should lift for a certain amount of time or so many days a week or whatever other rules you’re carrying around inside your head. For a new lifter, twice a week is fine to start out, and three times a week is plenty to see progress. Thirty minutes will give you a taste of the work and give your body enough to adapt to. You can always add more time later. Your first goal needs to only be showing up and doing it consistently week after week. None of the other timelines matter. Make it a habit, make it part of your schedule, learn to troubleshoot the barriers that keep you from being consistent and get really good at reliably doing the thing. Once it becomes that thing that you do, then you can begin to figure out what programming works best for you, how to do the lifts more efficiently, or how to attach the safety arms to the squat rack.
I admire folks who are willing to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. I only look down on lifters who do stupid things while looking like they think they’re the shit. Cocky, arrogant, God’s-gift bullshit makes me want to accidentally-on-purpose drop a plate too close to their lifts. But someone coming in and trying to figure out what works best for them, puttering around and giving it a go–I got no problem with that. We all used to be new. And you can’t tell what challenges someone is dealing with or overcoming by looking at them. If you’re a woman who is ready to start lifting weights, you’ve just leapt over a major mental barrier into the wonderful, exciting and empowering world of increased strength and independence. I’m so happy for you and can’t wait to support you in this new endeavor!
Are you thinking about getting into lifting and need a little push of encouragement? Leave a comment below! Are you old-hat and think I missed something important about having the right headspace to get started? I want to hear that too! You can also find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook and join the conversation over there. I look forward to hearing from you!
(1) Every time I write about my experiences with male-dominated lifting, I get a handful of responses from women along the lines of, “I’ve never been treated this way. Everyone has always been very welcoming and encouraging of my lifting.” So, apparently that’s a possibility, and that means maybe this won’t be a thing for you. However, that has not been my experience, and the more “gen pop” my gym, the less welcoming and more overtly aggressive the male population has been. When I can afford to go to more specialized lifting gyms with a more educated population, my overall experiences have been significantly less testosterone-laden.