3 Strength Training Myths Girls Still Believe: What I Learned From The Women's World Cup

I was tweezing my eyebrows when the US Women’s National Soccer Team scored their first goal in the final match of the Women’s World Cup last week. Maybe I am not alone in this? Maybe some of you, like me, thought you had some time to kill while the game gained momentum, and simply did not anticipate such a quick score—a rookie mistake. My fiance starting screaming, and I ran out of the bathroom to see the US up on Japan 1-0 in the third minute of the match. After celebrating such an exciting early lead, I headed back to my bathroom mirror, thinking, “Surely they won’t score again before I’m done with these eyebrows. That would be crazy…” But, almost immediately, my fiance was yelling like a wild goat and I ran to the living room to see that I had missed ANOTHER goal, this one in the fifth minute, and the US was winning 2-0.

“I can’t believe you just missed TWO goals!” he squealed, jumping up and down and spilling his Dr. Pepper.

“I KNOW!” I said. “Do you think I should keep plucking my eyebrows?! It seems to be working!”

I decided that, although my eyebrow-mojo game was strong, if I missed yet another US goal I would feel pretty silly, so I gave up the grooming and stayed to watch. And I was glad that I did: ten minutes later, I witnessed Carli Lloyd shoot from the halfway line and score her third goal of the match, earning the earliest hat trick in Women’s World Cup history and, later, the Golden Ball award for best player. By the end of regulation, my eyebrows were still lopsided, but the US had won 5-2 and the World Cup was coming back to the States.

What.

What.

What does all this have to do with strength training? As I was watching the US women give what can only be called a dominating performance on Sunday, I was thinking about how strong they are. These athletes are fast, agile, and powerful, able to out-sprint and out-skill the other team. They can jump high, change directions quickly, head balls without snapping their necks, and even take the occasional elbow or shoulder without blinking. I look at Carli Lloyd and I see more than a Golden Ball winner: I see a well-developed posterior chain; a developed ability to exert force into the ground quickly to accelerate; and healthy, mobile ankles and knees that absorb the impact of quick cuts and funky landings with integrity. And ALL of this has everything to do with strength training. Because when I look at the US Women’s National Soccer Team, I see anything but “bulky,” “manly,” or “slow”—traits that are (somehow!) still associated with lifting weights. Here's some of the USWNT athletes training for the Women's World Cup:

As a strength coach and sport performance specialist, my vocation (and passion) is to help people learn how to move and perform well. Strength training is an essential component to proper biomechanics, injury mitigation, and corrective movement therapies—lifting weight, as part of a well-designed training program, is the best way to develop this necessary strength. It is unfortunate that even in 2015, in the age of strong women challenging cultural expectations for girls, female athletes are still apprehensive about lifting weight.

I train women ages 14 (a high-school kickboxing aficionado) to 85 (a two-time cancer survivor), and ALL of them, without exception, lift weights. The next time a girl tells you one of these three strength-training myths, be sure to set them straight.



1. It Will Make You Bulky.

While it is true that training on a muscular hypertrophy protocol (medium-high loads for 8-12 repetitions) will stimulate muscle growth, there are a couple caveats to this. First, when girls tell me they are afraid of looking “too bulky” from lifting weights, what they are really referring to is a high muscle volume in combination with a layer of body fat. Muscle tissue, as many of you know, can only grow or shrink: it cannot be “toned” or “lengthened” in the way that pilates marketing ads claim. Let’s say you have an average female body fat percentage of 25%. As you begin a weight lifting program, your muscles respond by growing in size and strength. But if your body composition—your BF%—stays the same as you build muscle, your muscles will appear much larger. But it is not the muscle itself giving a “bulky” appearance—it is the layer of fat OVER the muscle. To achieve what many women refer to as a “toned” or lean look, you should INCREASE your muscle mass and DECREASE your BF%. If you think avoiding the weight room will help you build the muscle that gives a lean, athletic shape to your body, think again. It is body fat that is the culprit when most people talk about “bulk”—NOT muscle. (To read more on this, check out my blog post on the misperception of bulkiness.)

Illustration of increased muscle mass and decreased fat mass after adopting a strength training regimen.

Illustration of increased muscle mass and decreased fat mass after adopting a strength training regimen.

The second caveat to muscle hypertrophy (or growth) is biological: muscle growth is stimulated by testosterone secretions, and women just don’t have the same hormonal profile as men when it comes to T. Adult men produce about 20 times the T that adult women produce—so their muscles are able to reach a larger size than ours. If you’re worried that strength training will make your female frame bulky, your biology is here to assure you: unless you are rocking some serious ‘roids, your body simply cannot support the same muscle growth as our male counterparts, for better or for worse. 

2. It Will Make You Slow.

On the contrary: lifting weight, as part of a properly designed training program, will make you faster—down to the cellular level. Each skeletal muscle in the body is made up of bundles of individual muscle cells (somewhat-confusingly called fibers). These fibers are cylindrical and long, some running the entire length of the muscle belly, and each one is smaller than a human hair. When the brain wants a muscle to contract, it sends a neurological signal to motor neurons, which stimulate individual muscle fibers (one motor neuron innervates many single fibers). So, the stimulus reaches the motor neuron, which then recruits its innervated muscle fibers to produce contraction.

Let’s say you’ve never lifted a weight before. If you begin a strength training program, the first change your body will experience is a better neurological connection from your brain to your muscles—a smoother connection for that action potential signal to reach the muscle fibers. I like to equate it to drinking the same milkshake out of a larger straw: better neuromuscular communication equals more contraction equals more milkshake in my mouth. (Let’s make it an Oreo milkshake, just for kicks.)

What in the world does this have to do with speed? Hang on, I’m getting there. When a single motor neuron is stimulated, it will only produce contraction in the muscle fibers connected to that neuron. But when many motor neurons are stimulated at once, many fibers contract—producing a stronger contraction. And because motor units (a motor neuron and the fibers it stimulates) are recruited in order of smallest to largest (and slow-twitch to fast-twitch) as contraction increases, improvement in the rate of firing of this neural stimulus will result in faster, more forceful contraction. This is a secondary adaptation to resistance training.

So, after you have been strength training for 6+ weeks, your muscles will experience this increase in rate firing frequency. Put simply, the ability of your muscles to contract quickly and with force improves with strength training. And this, my friends, translates to speed.

The common fear that lifting weight will make you slower is simply unfounded. Muscles don’t just get larger with strength training; they get more efficient at producing force. Watch Jadaveon Clowney run a 4.53 40-yard dash weighing 267 lbs and you’ll see what I mean.



3. It Will Make You Masculine.

This one just pisses me off. I’ve talked before about how weight room gender roles are shifting, but not fast enough, in my opinion. Girls who don’t lift weight in fear it will make them “gross and manly” (an actual quote I heard recently) have got it all wrong. Lifting weights doesn’t make you inherently masculine or feminine—much like driving a truck doesn’t make you a man, or having a drink with an umbrella in it doesn’t make you a woman. These are simply tasks or behaviors to which we’ve assign gendered characteristics. So unless you can prove to me that my love of baggy sweatpants makes me masculine—or Volt's male employees' affinity for French hair products makes them feminine—this argument is ri-dunk-ulous.

THE TAKEAWAY

This is something Volt is working very hard to change, this assumption that weights are for boys, and that girls must be waif-like and weak in order to remain feminine. This is why we have male and female athletes in all our photo shoots. This is why the US Women’s World Cup championship is so important. Women and men are different—and that’s a good thing!—but the way we train for sports shouldn’t be. The weight room is a place for everybody; as the National Strength and Conditioning Association motto states, “Everyone Stronger.” If women (myself included) continue to perpetuate the “bulky,” “slow,” “manly” myths associated with strength training, we will not see another Women’s World Cup victory. Although I do not know for sure what their training program looks like, there is no way that Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambauch, and the other athletes on the US Women’s National Soccer Team played like they did without a background in strength training. We have a chance to change how our students, our athletes, our teammates, and our daughters see themselves in the world of athletics: not as women clinging to a constructed definition of “femininity,” but as strong, powerful athletes. It kind of makes you never want to pluck your eyebrows again, doesn’t it?


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye