“You play ball…like a GIRL!”
Does anyone remember that quote from The Sandlot? That moment really hurt my feelings when I was ten years old. It’s not just what he said–it was the reaction it elicited. The horror on the faces of those boys made me realize what a shameful thing it is to be
compared to a girl. Maybe that’s when my Women’s Studies career was born. The worst insult someone could possibly come up with was to compare them to…me? So please recognize that I am not quick to use that phrase—and yet, if you’ve ever trained with me you may recall that I’ve told you, “hey you’re throwing like a girl again—focus on your big muscles.” What do I mean by this?
I borrow this phrase not from the insult but from an essay by Iris Marion Young (1977) in which she breaks down what it really means to throw like a girl and why women often have trouble with things like opening jars. Young points out that because we are taught to sit with our legs together, keep our arms close to our bodies (how many women drive with their arm extended over the passenger seats?), and not take full advantage of our lateral space, we confine ourselves to using only our small muscles. Men, on the other hand, have not been taught to limit their movements in this way and therefore take up as much space as they please; the result is that they learn to use their larger muscles. Essentially, men “put their backs into it,” while women tend to use only our wrists when opening jars or throwing a ball.
I have built on this idea in my own occupation to explain why women struggle with squatting, pull-ups, rows, and other compound movements. I have observed over and over that male clients jump up on a pull-up bar and naturally recognize it as a back exercise and do pull-ups easily, while women try to curl themselves up and fail. This same observation applies to rows, pulldowns, etc. I see so many personal trainers whose clients aren’t anywhere near proper form, and I suspect that it’s not because the trainers suck and failed to teach the proper form. I think it’s that they tried and eventually gave up because they never understood what was holding the client back in the first place.
Women who are uncomfortable in a gym but decide to give weight training a try naturally gravitate toward dumbbells. And my gosh do they do some ridiculous stuff with those dumbbells. I am not judging, so don’t take offense! But I am observing which exercises seem to feel comfortable for women and which don’t, and sometimes it just blows my mind! How is balancing on a bosu ball and doing half squats while curling more comfortable than an actual squat?!
Is it a coincidence that dumbbells are easy to keep close to the body, or that “comfortable” arm exercises simulate womens’ habitual use of small muscles, instead of taking full advantage of the larger, stronger back and leg muscles as the compound exercises would? I think not.
By sticking with dumbbells and shying away from barbell training, you are holding yourself back on many levels. Not only will you most likely not come anywhere close to your fitness goals, but you will also never fully develop the confidence that you deserve. You will never know how strong you are, how capable you are, or what kind of person you’d have been if you hadn’t been forced to keep your knees together in a skirt. Forgive me, but that is some profound @#$%.
If you look at my client training programs, you’ll probably notice a trend: there is almost always some variation of the squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift. My plans almost always involve barbells. Why is this? Well, I’m trying to brainwash all women into getting bigger, stronger, and more masculine so that I can start a converse-wearing, feminist army and take over the world. Duh! Or, maybe it’s because I believe very strongly in the MANY benefits of training with compound exercises, and I feel that barbell training should form the foundation of anyone’s understanding of weight training. Too many people think the barbell is step 2 and for more advanced lifters, but I believe the opposite is true.
Simply put: before we talk about squatting on a bosu ball and adding in a dumbbell curl, we should break that down and learn proper form. And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is with a bar on your back. It naturally draws the shoulders back, brings the chest out, and allows you to form the beautiful arch you’ll need for almost every exercise thereafter.
If you know darn good and well you should be training with bigger weights, or that you should be incorporating barbells and compound exercises (squats, bench, deadlift, rows) into your training, but you’re shy, intimidated, or just plain lost, HIRE A PERSONAL TRAINER. And look, that’s expensive–I understand and it’s the bane of my existence. Ideally, you’d hire someone for at least the duration of a program (anywhere from 4-8 weeks), but if you can’t afford it then do what you can! A couple of sessions to teach you how to do the exercises may be all you need. I’m not recommending that you make a long-term commitment to paying an arm and a leg for someone to stand next to you with a clip board. The truth is, even as a trainer I see way too many people sticking on with a personal trainer for way too long. On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the gym who clearly should have let someone help them but never did, and now they have big egos and crappy workouts. Let us help you get on your feet, get past a hurdle, or achieve a goal, but then go on about your business of kicking ass on your own!
Stop throwing like a girl. Use your big muscles. You CAN do pullups, I swear. The barbells aren’t going to crush you, and you won’t “bulk up” unless you want to. Trust me, there are plenty of men who ask me for advice on how to do this—for women, it’s much more difficult and can’t be done accidentally. Whether you think I’m “too big” or “just right,” remember that it has taken me five years, tons of HEAVY training, and a lot of eating just to get what I have now—and I’m still growing. If you need help, hire a trainer even if only for a few sessions. I can recommend some great ones who live all over the country, so don’t hestitate to ask!
In the next post, I’ll discuss the benefits of compound exercises, how they actually help with fat loss, and why women really really need them.