The 3 Main Fears Around Barbell Training and How To Conquer Them
The majority of our demographic are women from middle to late life with no previous athletic experience. I've introduced a lot of women to the barbell training program at our gym and I've noticed that many of them are afraid of trying it. In fact, a lot of the women react with fear to seeing the weight room. They say things like, I can't weight lift. That's too heavy for me, or that's for guys, I don't want to bulk or I'm scared of weights. With all of the information coming out in the media of all of the tremendous benefits of strength training for women, what is it then about women and barbells that makes them so scared of trying something that's so obviously good for them? Well, I think that this fear has three components.
The first component is that women underestimate their own strength. They always tell me, “I'm not strong enough to weight-lift”, in comparison to men who will need to be pulled back in the gym a little bit because they overestimate their strength.
The second component is that failure is an obvious reality. In other words, it's clear from looking at the barbell on the ground that it may not go up and that brings out fear of failure in people. It's not true, let's say, in running where if you fatigue you can easily slow down your pace or shorten your distance. In fact, you can run your whole life without ever feeling like a failure. But under the barbell strength becomes quantifiable. And those of us who do it know that you don't get stronger without failing. It's part of how you program around your limits and you can only know your limits if you've an experienced failure. And this scares many people because they equate failure in the gym the same way that they do in their personal lives.
The third element of fear in women around barbell training is its association with masculinity. Women perceive the barbell as a piece of equipment only for men to use. They see it as a masculine tool, similar to what women must've thought about, let's say basketball, over 50 years ago when nobody played the sport, but men and boys. Well, these days if I said that to someone that my daughter was on the basketball team, they wouldn't think twice about it and little girls always reach for the basketball in the park. That's because enough women have done it and played the sport over the past few decades that the stigma of it is gone.
How do we address each of the elements of women's fears so that they can participate in barbell training? How do we solve the first problem of women underestimating their own strength? Well, I think as a coach you have to tell them to just do it. You have to confidently tell them that they can complete this workout or this set because they're going to underestimate themselves and that will affect their decision making process.
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I've had a lot of women come for a regular training session prepared to squat only two and a half pounds more than they had a couple of days ago and they can't even complete one rep of something that they had done for three sets of five. Meaning, they'll take the weight out of the rack, step out, be prepared to squat and not even try it, walking it back in the rack, telling me it's too heavy for them. What do we do as coaches? I think you have to firmly encourage them to do it. Almost command them to do it so that they can have confidence in you because right now they don't have confidence in themselves and we need to help them build it. I think that once the women get through the first set, do you know what they're going to say to you? They're going to say what they always say to me. “You know, that's a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.”
You see, this will help them appraise more realistically what their capacity is and they'll understand that they're capable of a lot more than they thought and won't have to underestimate themselves the next time. How do you make women more comfortable with failure or the possibility of failing a lift? How do we avoid having women quit when they feel that failure is around the corner? I think in that moment you have to counsel the women and explore what it is that makes them feel like failure is dangerous here. Many times, failure in other parts of their lives, whether it's personal or professional, will have bigger implications than it does in the gym, but they can't distinguish the difference because people are not used to failing. You have to explain that it's part of the process and let them know that this is what's accepted here to grow.
The beauty about learning to fail is that you learn how to grow from your mistakes and you learn how to do better. This experience carries over to your personal life and your professional life. I find that the women who stay with the program become more confident, less fearful of failure, and are more willing to take on greater tasks in their regular life. And that has very big implications for everything that you do outside the gym. No fear of failure? You're unstoppable!
I’ve talked a lot about the fears surrounding barbell training and women, but the flip side of this is that the benefits extend just as deep as the fear.
Until next time, I'll see you under the bar.
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