Empower yourself ladies. Use a barbell. Part I.

“The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have had on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”
C. JoyBell C.

About one month ago, I emailed a few of my ladies who train with me and a couple ladies whom I know who train with a friend of mine to tell me why they choose to strength train over other activities. I wanted to write a post about how women should strength train and why it is important, but I wanted it to come straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  I kind of knew what they were going to say because they would talk to me off and on about how great they felt after a session or class, how much easier it was to carry groceries and do yard work, pick up their kids, etc. However, I really was not expecting what I did receive from them. Let’s just say that I could not write  in a million years what they actually said. It is honest. It is sincere. And if their reasons for why they train this way doesn’t make you want to run out of your Zumba or Pilates class screaming for “More kettlebell!” then I don’t know what will.

Below are their responses:

Jane, age 40

“When people ask me what kind of athletic event I am training for, I tell them ‘retirement.’ I am reshaping my ideas about how a sexy, feminine shape should look as I mature….it is satisfying to know that I have achieved measurable success by training consistently. How I feel about my reflection in the mirror is affected by a host of factors that are sometimes out of my control. But the fact that I can press more, carry more, or do more push ups today than I could last  month gives me a tangible reference point for the positive things I am doing for my body. I can still feel good about being strong, even on days when I can’t be rational about how I look.”

Sunni, age 46

“Now that I am in my 40’s, I’ve started to notice the NEED to do more! After much research, I decided to give strength training a try. The new sexy look for women is strong so I decided that’s the look I want to achieve. My love affair with strength training began in June ’11 and I have never looked back. After each session, I feel stronger, leaner and more energized. I sometimes feel I can take on the world. I like the reaction I receive from men when I tell them what type of exercises I do. I like the reaction I receive from women when I tell them I don’t do Zumba. I swing [kettlebells] and carry sandbags.”

Lauren, age 54

“When I approach that bar, it is between the two of us and the bar is not going to win! There is no better feeling of accomplishment than nailing that last set of five. I never fathomed I could lift or press this amount of weight, do a chin up or swing a kettlebell like I am….what makes me continue to strength train are the other wonderful folks that lift with me. It is a great ego-less community that encourages and helps one another. When someone doesn’t show up for a workout, we need to know why and if they are okay….because we all care for each other…Strength training can erase a bad day at work, ease whatever may be weighing on your mind and clear your head….it’s therapy.”

Susan, age 41

“I strength train so that I do not need to ask my husband for help starting the lawn mower. Let me at that pull cord!”






Michele, age 23

“I lift because I enjoy feeling strong, knowing that my whole body – not just my legs from running or my back from swimming­ – is strong. In an everyday sense, I strength train so that when I am traveling by myself with luggage, I can say “no” to the kind person that offers to help me lift a heavy-looking suitcase up onto the overhead rack or up the stairs. I like the repetition, the discipline, and the mental struggle of getting through a session. Instead of just mindlessly going through the motions, it is critical that your mind is engaged and your whole body in control of the technique of whatever set you are trying to complete. I also really like the fact that I only strength train 75 minutes – from warm up to warm down – 4 or 5 days a week and it makes my body feel as thought I spend double the amount of time working out. Overall, physically and mentally, I feel better when I strength train regularly.  It just feels good to feel strong.”


Shannon, age 40

“For quite a few weeks I had been feeling like I wasn’t seeing my weights increase as they had in the past few months. During one workout while thinking about it (and getting a little depressed by it too), I stopped and thought about why I like lifting weights so much.  Simple, I feel strong and powerful!  Then I started remembering…growing up the youngest of 4 I frequently felt left out and inadequate.  One of my older brothers would (almost daily) decide to make me his unwilling wrestling partner.  He would pin me down while I screamed for my mother (or anyone) to help me.  Yet, no one came.  My childhood is full of similar memories of being overpowered, and feeling frightened, weak and helpless….Now as a grown woman and mother of 3 I have taken control of my life and these feelings and focus on being positive.  Does doing pushups make me feel strong? Sure.  Chin ups? You bet.  110 lb squats on my 120 lb frame? Oh yeah!!”


Jen, age 33

“Lifting gives me an enormous sense of empowerment and self-confidence. Squatting over 1.5 bodyweight or deadliftiing close to 2.5x bodyweight and routinely putting my own bodyweight and more overhead in a clean and jerk is more than just physical strength to me. It’s a mental challenge that makes me draw strength from within as well as from my body. I love this challenge and overcoming self-esteem issues that have plagued me since childhood is huge for me. The Olympic lifts and snatching in particular, I enjoy because they require careful implementation of technique and focus as well as strength [and] because the lifts require so much focus, my workout sessions can also be a great release from daily stresses…the platform is a place for me to focus solely on myself for a few hours. Lifting makes me feel strong, independent, empowered and in control. I work hard in the gym and the reward is my strength – physical, mental and emotional. Ha! And let’s face it – squats have done wonders for my ass!”

Trena, age 44

“Because I can. Because Candice made me do it. Because I love the challenge. Because I can ‘slam’ my son. Because it is all me. Because I just feel GOOD! Because there is no whining. Because I want Michelle Obama’s arms. ;-)”



Sally, age 37

“I train to feel strong and to feel better about my body….I have better posture, my clothes fit better, my butt looks awesome and my body feels great. I can do more things in a better way…It really helps that, in addition to a great coach who happens to be my husband, I also have a training partner for our early morning sessions. I have to be there for her and she is there for me.  I like that I can work hard. I value that quality in myself. Working out and getting stronger plays into that very nicely. I like to lift more than I could before. Plus, deadlifting is a hell of a lot more fun than running.”

Julie, age 46

“I strength train for a better me! A better me leads to a better mom, a better wife, a better friend, a better professional. In addition to running, strength training has given me the best overall results with regard to my body, mind and spirit. Like most young girls, I always struggled with body image even though I was very petite and had been an athlete. It was never good enough. The strength and tone that I am re-establishing has changed not only the way I look but also the way I feel about myself both physically and mentally. Attending with friends has been a huge motivation as we all encourage and applaud each other…My husband and my boys are also pretty impressed with my dedication to strength training. I am proud to show them that I can be strong to.”


“I strength train because I really like it. I like that I can carry one trash can in each hand out to the curb. I like the way my abs peek out at me when I dress and undress in the mirror. I like the friendships I have forged as a result. I like that I really think I can take you. 😉

March 31, 202
Candice, age 43 - December 26, 2011








June 23, 2012.Well, now it's a little black dress....



I like the example that it sets for my children and their respect for my exercise time. But the main reason I strength train is because I LIKE THAT I CAN NOW FIT BACK INTO MY GREEN DRESS!

(On a side note, Candice now no longer “fits” into the green dress which she was planning on wearing for her boyfriend’s 50th party in June. She was “forced” to buy a new smaller dress, which she, of course, wore instead.)



Anne, age 43 & Lucy, age 11

“Because if I can recover from one brain surgery at age 14 and three abdominal surgeries at ages 31, 34 and 37, then I can pick up something heavy. Maybe the most important reason why [I strength train] is because I have a daughter who is 11 years old and entering a very precarious stage in life. I want her to know that she cannot control the size of her breasts (short of surgery), or the width of her hips or whether she’s naturally slim or naturally heavy. She also cannot control what society has to say about girls and women being too skinny, too fat, too flat chested, too large breasted, too blonde, to whatever. But she can control how SHE FEELS about her own body and the way to that is to keep it strong. She can exercise and lift weights and eat well and her self-confidence will grow with her and that is more important than what ANYONE ever tells her about the way she looks. It is my job as her mom to love her to the ends of the earth, to give her all the tools I can, and to teach her how to love herself. Exercising with her is one excellent way to achieve that goal.”

What do all of these women have in common? THEY LOVE GETTING STRONG. They love being a little sore at times. They love the new challenge they face each time they walk into the gym, whether they are approaching the platform, learning how to swing a kettlebell or simply learning how to hold a plank. They are mothers, working women, wives, fiancees, girlfriends. And over the years, they’ve tried it all. Aerobics. “Slim in 6” videos. Yoga. Pilates. Running. The stairmaster. Body pump. P90X. Hell, I’m right there with them because I’ve tried it all too. Yet nothing they have ever done has given them that feeling of empowerment like strength training. “I feel better,” they all tell me. “I am a better person because I am stronger.” “I am in more in control.”

Rough hands. The way we like it.
More pushups.

What is it about picking up a barbell or a kettlebell or learnig how to squat correctly that makes these women so happy? What is it about carrying a heavy set of dumbbells around the room until their grip gives out that keeps these women coming back for more? “You are the first person who has ever taught me how to squat correctly,”  one of my clients informed me the other day after she finished a set of medicine ball squats. “Thank you,” she said, smiling. Why do they love it so much? Their hands are red and dry from the chalk. Their arms ache.  Callouses are growing where there used to be smooth skin. And yet they keep coming back for more.  And each time, they want to be able to lift more. Carry more. Press more. They have started to notice that their bodies are changing, almost as a side note. Their pants fit them better. Shirts that they bought a month ago are now too big for them. All they are worried about is how much more weight is on the bar from last week to this week.  How soon before I can use that kettlebell, they ask. Are we doing barbell glute bridges this week? Those swings are getting easier now….can I use the 20 kg bell? Sometimes I have a hard time keeping up with them. 😉

So, you may ask, why don’t more women train this way? Why does the myth that women will get huge, big, ginormous from lifting weights continue to rear its ugly head? As a woman who has only gotten smaller from heavy lifting, not bigger, I really have no idea. I shake my head each time a woman tells me that lifting weights will make her too big. Don’t get me wrong. I am seeing WAY more women turning to strength training and using real weight, not Tracy Anderson weight.  Thanks to Girls Gone Strong, Rachel Guy and other strong women in the world of lifting, more women are reaping the benefits of training this way.

It’s great that I am starting to see more and more articles about strength training for women and explanations about why it is important, but when I google for pictures of women lifting weights,  I always see this: See smiling woman below. 🙁

Oh no.

I want to roll my eyes and scream and pound the walls shouting “Why????”  My 4 year old nephew can press 10 pounds.  He did it just the other day. No grown woman should “strength train” with 3 or 5 pound weights. It is just embarrassing. I would rather a woman do only bodyweight squats for two weeks before I hand her any weight less than 10 pounds. It just looks so wrong to see a 35 year old woman hold a five pound dumbbell do goblet squats. Seriously? Ladies, we are stronger than this so let’s train to get stronger. Let’s train smarter….and harder.

Many of my ladies were honest with me when I asked them to write down their feelings about why they strength train. They told me that, at first, they really did think they were going to get big from picking up weights. I can’t blame them. They are all misinformed…and by no fault of their own.

Squatting 115lbs. She weighs 120lbs. Where is the "bulk?"

They read crap like this: “No woman should lift more than 3 pounds.” What the??? We have celebrity “trainer” Tracy Anderson to thank for this. Oh, the B.S. But I digress. This is for another day. Noooooo woman gets really big, really fast from squatting with weight unless she is taking some serious drugs. It just doesn’t work that way. All of my ladies have since changed their minds about this as none of them look like Arnold. In fact, not ONE has ever come to me since they have started working with weights (barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell) concerned about getting too big. In fact, I have received emails from them saying just the opposite:

“Hi Emily, I haven’t had a chance to tell you that in the last month I’ve noticed a distinct change in everything about my physical self.  I feel (and in my opinion look) better than I have since before Lucy was born.  I feel stronger and more confident.”

“Thanks for noticing my butt progress! My daughter just commented tonight that I have a lot of “meat” on my butt, which I advised her was a good thing.  I had been meaning to thank you anyway, because I have a pair of jeans that cost, honest to god, $300, which I bought this one time when Jon whisked me off for a surprise getaway without any luggage.  I had to buy these jeans, which have always been way too long for even myhighest heels.  Last weekend, I was able to wear them with my tall boots because I finally fill out the butt enough so that they are not ridiculously long.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that building muscle is GOOD and aside from helping you get back into your “little green dress,” the self-esteem and confidence that one develops as a result of moving heavy weight around is overwhelming. As I read through each story, I paid careful attention to how many times I read the words ” more confident,” ” feel better,” “self-esteem,” “camaraderie,” “independent,” “feel strong,” “empowered.” They all wrote about feeling better, feeling strong, sleeping better, feeling more energized, being more confident and more outgoing, having tangible goals, setting goals, seeing carry over into their daily lives. Some talked about having tried other forms of exercise and that nothing has given them the satisfaction nor helped them make real changes in their body and mind like strength training. As one of my ladies wrote, “No such thing as a bad day when you can deadlift and squat.”  I have to agree 500%.

Badasses ready to rumble!

As a result of their new found love, a few of my clients and I signed up for our first Rebel Run race back in March. We completed the race this past Saturday in 103 degree weather and LOVED every minute of it. 😉 We climbed over logs, scrambled up a rope ladder, crawled through a tunnel and marched our way through lots and lots of mud.

Rebel Race 2012



The “Bad ASS Factor” (thanks Rachel Cosgrove for the inspiration!) bit us all in the “ass” and now we are hungry to do even more. Train harder. Achieve something we never thought was possible let alone something we would have even considered doing a year ago. “I am addicted to the Bad Ass Factor,” one of my ladies told me. “There is never a dull moment with strength training.  Each day brings new opportunity to be stronger, leaner and more Bad Ass.”


Next up! Part II of “Empower Yourself Ladies.” This post is about one of my special ladies who discovered lifting this past year and has not looked back since. Her story speaks to every woman out there. She was not looking to train for anything special. She was simply looking for a program that would make her feel better about herself. And she found it.



23 thoughts on “Empower yourself ladies. Use a barbell. Part I.”

  1. Thank you so much for this post! Sometimes I feel like I am the only woman out there (well at my gym!) that believes in weight training for more than the physical results…but also the mental. being able to see myself grow stronger with each session is the most empowering feeling out there!

    1. Thank you!!!! I am so glad you enjoyed the post. When my ladies approach the bar or their kettlebells, you can see the concentration on their faces. There is no fooling around when we lift. I love it. Keep it up!

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  3. Hi Emily,

    This post is just awesome! One I will share for sure. Great messages from real women.

    And you, ma lady, are doing a great job at encouraging this mind-set… Keep doing what you’re doing, because your passion really shines through.

    ~ Marianne 🙂

    1. Thanks Marianne. 😉 I am so glad you enjoyed the post….I was floored by their responses to my simple question – why do you strength train? These are real women, doing real work. They are happier than they have ever been and I am so honored and proud to know each and everyone of them. Thank you for you and Girls Gone Strong. I have never felt this empowered or confident either. We all work together to keep us motivated and strong. 😉

  4. Ah wow, that actually brought tears to my eyes reading it. Powerful, beautiful piece of writing – thank you, and all your contributors, for creating it! So much to related to within it, and such a great message to pass on to women still labouring under misconceptions about strength training.

  5. Beautiful badass women, all of you, and every one of you my sister in training. You made me cry. You made me proud. Thank you for this post.

    1. Tracy,
      I just left a comment on your blog. Thank you for the reference and the shout out! I am so happy to have met you. I will be following you from now on… 😉

  6. Thanks for writing this article. From a guy’s perspective, it’s great to see ladies in the gym, working hard and getting stronger. I see friend-girls spending way too much time focused on yesterday’s boyfriend or yesterday’s anything. Focusing on self improvement, goal setting and achieving and health is much more productive and empowering. Keep doing what you’re doing, real men appreciate a strong, confident, capable beautiful badass over a dainty Polly pocket.

    1. Thanks Marshal. I think the guys who lift with my women appreciate them too. 🙂 They watch them in awe as they squat, press and drag sleds around. They don’t even think twice about it. 😉

  7. Loves me some barbell and kettlebell! Mark Rippetoe is my hero, and so is Marianne.
    I did StrongLifts 5×5 for 2 months, it was grueling, but oh so worth it!
    I also highly recommend joining Fitocracy.com, a great community!

  8. Love it all. AND there is no reason why a woman cant be strong and powerful and still love dancing her ASS OFF!!! It is not either or. The dynamic sense of embodiment and joy that come from dancing, not matter what the form, is a beautiful compliment to strength training. Motion hrough space, in place -speed, control, power, rhythm and grace are all components of a healthy happy woman!

    1. As a dancer, I 100% agree. 🙂 In fact, the whole reason I started lifting was to fix my body so I could continue to dance. I perform with a modern dance company here in Baltimore and at 37, turning 38 this year, I am stronger than I have ever been and my dancing shows. Strength is contagious!!

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