Yes, women lift weights, too

Women’s weightlifting club addresses gender disparity in the sport

Fourth-year student Sriya Donthi founded the CWRU Womens Weightlifting Club with a friend in her sophomore year with the aim to create a supportive environment for women interested in the sport.

Courtesy of CWRU Women's Weightlifting Club

Fourth-year student Sriya Donthi founded the CWRU Women’s Weightlifting Club with a friend in her sophomore year with the aim to create a supportive environment for women interested in the sport.

Puneet Bansal, Sports Editor

Lifting weights is nothing new for humans. Ancient civilizations around the world used the practice to build strength and incorporated it into their cultural traditions. For the ancient Greeks, exercise was a pillar of their societies; soldiers, athletes and even women regularly participated in stone lifting, calisthenics and simple dumbbell training. In India, wrestlers and soldiers swung heavy mace-like clubs, a practice linked to battle preparation and to Hanuman, the Hindu god of strength and perseverance. The early Egyptians most popular lifting technique was sack swinging, an exercise analogous to today’s clean-and-jerk Olympic lift.

Research has shown that weightlifting and resistance training has numerous health benefits. Building muscle mass through strength exercises increases metabolic rates, which causes the body to burn more calories throughout the day and results in fat loss. In addition to the obvious strength gains, weight training improves mood and sleep, enhances the immune system, increases energy levels and helps develop proper posture.

Since weight training also improves bone, tendon and ligament strength, it is extremely critical for rehabilitation from sports injuries. That’s how Sriya Donthi, a fourth-year Case Western Reserve University student, first tapped into this fitness discipline.

Donthi attended high school in Dubai. During her senior year, she injured her knee in the first varsity basketball game of the season. While going to physical therapy to rehabilitate the muscles around her knee, Donthi’s trainer recommended some weight training exercises she could try out at the gym to assist in her recovery. Taking the advice, Donthi started going to the gym regularly to lift weights.

“What was cool about the gym that I went to was that the upstairs floor was for anyone and everyone, [and] there was a second floor at the bottom that was a women’s only gym, just to respect the cultural preferences of Dubai. So sometimes, I would go down there just to get access to machines. I thought it was really cool to be surrounded by women in a space that I always saw as being super male-dominated, just by nature. I think that kind of planted a seed in my head.”

Donthi’s observation that the weightlifting domain is primarily seen as a space for men is not an isolated phenomenon. Over the last century, women have become increasingly more involved in strength training and women’s weightlifting has even been a feature of the Olympics since 2000; however, the gender disparity in the weight room persists. If you walk into any gym today, the free weights and machines sector will almost always feature more men than women. Why are women still avoiding weight and strength training when it is rising in popularity and has been deemed essential for long-term health?

The crux of the issue lies in mainstream gender norms.

“I’ve had male friends, acquaintances and classmates, whether it was jokingly or actually, make comments like ‘Girls should just do cardio and then do ab exercises. That’s what girls tend to do,’” Donthi recalled. “And so I remember [asking myself] why is that the case? Why can’t [women] go down to the weight room and do compound lift movements? Why is that seen as weird? 

This stigmatized perspective is incredibly ingrained in our communities. “Even women say ‘I don’t want to get too bulky. I don’t want to get too dense in muscle.’ I think that just comes from a place of misinformation and misunderstanding,” Donthi said.

A study conducted by Jessica Salvatore, then affiliated with Amherst College, and Jeanne Marecek of Swarthmore College found that there were three main factors that contributed to the disparity: the cultural feminine body ideal, the perception of weightlifting as a masculine activity and the concern over lack of competent lifting technique. Many women saw muscularity as an undesirable outcome of strength training. College women especially felt discouraged to use the weight room because it was “a male preserve.” Additionally, bystanders watching in the gym raised women’s anxieties about appearing as a novice user and lacking the strength and skill to train.

The paper claims that the confluence of these factors results in self-perpetuating cycles in a women’s relationship with weight training. Women tend to avoid the weightlifting areas of gyms since they are considered masculine spaces. Thus, the absence of women in the weight training scene confirms the gender codes of the gym, thereby causing women to avoid them. The ubiquitous notion that weightlifting is a masculine activity is again reinforced by the small number of women that partake in it. Furthermore, if women rarely lift weights, then they will be unable to acquire the necessary skill and technique. This lack of aptitude only contributes to the initial concerns over low proficiency and the judgement from onlookers at the gym.

Misinformation, as Donthi mentioned, is another crucial factor that deters women from the weight training scene. When people hear the term “weightlifting,” images of super sculpted individuals with Hulk-like figures and burgeoning muscles pop into their heads. These people are in fact thinking about bodybuilding, not weightlifting for strength. The two disciplines are incredibly different, with the only similarity being that they both require using weights.

 Bodybuilding is centered on the aesthetic rather than strength. Muscle size, symmetry and proportion are prioritized. The training style also differs tremendously. The workouts target muscle hypertrophy with the goal of creating microscopic tears in the muscle. This forces the body to repair the muscles and expand their capacity, which in turn causes muscles to grow in size. Bodybuilders also follow a stringent high-calorie diet with emphasis on protein consumption with lower fat and carbohydrate intake. 

Weightlifting for strength, on the other hand, is all about the strength. The size and shape of muscles do not matter, and the goal is simply to increase the amount of force the muscles can produce. The training involves lower repetitions using higher weights and focuses on improving muscular strength, reinforcing joints, hardening bones and developing stronger connective tissues. Unlike bodybuilders, strength trainees have a higher body fat percentage, relatively smaller muscle size and are not as perfectly chiseled. However, they do have more functional strength and endurance than bodybuilders.

Moreover, what women may not realize is that women who weight train for bodybuilding may train excessively, consume performance-enhancing drugs and devote their entire lives to the sport.

Cara Heads Slaughter, weightlifting coach and owner of CH Fitness and Performance in Virginia, emphasizes that naturally, “women don’t have the hormonal makeup that supports excessive muscle growth.”

“The female body will only transform to the extent that you put the hours and the work, the volume, the weight [and] the repetitions into it, but we’re limited by our hormones,” says Slaughter. 

Donthi sees weightlifting as an avenue to do more than simply obtain a desired figure. “There’s just this stereotype that women have to be lean and [have] washboard abs while men can have biceps and [pectoral] muscles. But people don’t see that it’s not one or the other. You can exist in a space where you are strengthening yourself and getting stronger mentally and physically and doing what feels good to you without having to attain it to some physique.”

The seed of a community of women in weightlifting that was planted in Donthi’s head during her senior year of high school blossomed into the CWRU Women’s Weightlifting Club, which Donthi currently serves as the president of.

When she started college at CWRU, Donthi’s interest in weightlifting had transformed into a passion. During the fall semester of her sophomore year in 2018, Donthi and her friend decided to start this club to fill a niche that had yet to be addressed on campus. The idea came to fruition in spring 2019.  

“The main goal [of the club] is to create a supportive and educational environment for anyone who identifies as a woman [to explore] the potential weightlifting has and all the benefits it can bring to each person mentally and physically,” said Donthi.

“[In addressing] stigmas, it has been this idea of battling the notion that women should just do lots of cardio or work on their abs, or that weight training will make you look bulky or muscular, none of which are true. You get to use fitness as a tool to make it what you want to be and women should feel empowered to use fitness as a tool to make themselves feel good, nothing more, nothing less. And I think that message is what we’re really trying to put out. All we’re trying to say is that weightlifting is one way you might be able to explore that. It’s not for everyone and it might be for you, you won’t know until you try.”

Before the pandemic, the club held bi-monthly meetings where members would check-in with each other. Early in the semester, the meetings focused on setting goals beyond the traditional ones and developing strategies to hold yourself accountable to them.

 “[The goals don’t] have to be something quantitative. It doesn’t have to be ‘I want to lose this weight or gain this weight.’ It can be ‘I want to feel stronger. I want to max out on three of my compound lifts. I want to get in the gym and lift five times a week.’ We gave that variety and inspiration to the members so that they could step away from the idea that it has to be weight-oriented fitness goals.”

Members also connected with each other over a GroupMe chat. There, people could link up with other members to go to the gym in a buddy-system fashion and workout together. Many women appreciated this because it not only was a great way to make friends, but it also made the workout more fun.

The club also held a few group workouts every week that were led by the executive board. During these sessions, an executive board member would talk about their personal workout plans for the day. The other members could follow along if they wished or pursue their own training plan.

Donthi and her fellow executive members realized their own teaching limitations, as they were not certified trainers. To fill this void, the club partnered with One-to-One Fitness and sometimes had professional trainers lead weightlifting bootcamps that focused on specific compound lifts or exercises for different parts of the body. These were great learning experiences that helped new members learn the proper form and allowed more advanced lifters to hone their skills.

Unfortunately, the pandemic interfered with the club’s routine. Since there was no safe way for members to meet in-person at a local gym, the executive members led some resistance training workouts over Zoom. In the past few months, the club has been trying to figure out the best way to continue workouts. 

The future of the club, however, holds a lot of exciting things in store. Deepak Sarma, a professor of Indian religions and philosophy at CWRU, was recently named the new faculty advisor for the weightlifting club. A competitive bodybuilder and weightlifter, Sarma has many connections to amazing women in the Cleveland weightlifting community, and he will bring his own passion and knowledge to the club.

Though some concerns were raised about having a male faculty advisor for a women’s weightlifting club, Donthi and the rest of the executive board ultimately chose Sarma, who they felt was highly experienced in the discipline and valued the women’s voices.

“It’s about having the male population in the weightlifting community support and respect women who want to be heard in that community. That’s also a really big step, so we really appreciate him being a part of the organization moving forward,” said Donthi. 

For Donthi, weightlifting serves as an escape from the other pressures in her life and she is proud of the community the club has fostered. 

“Weightlifting is a chance to show up for myself every single day and work on myself in a consistent way. So even when everything [else] feels chaotic and hectic, there is always this one place I can go back to, which is focusing on strengthening my mental and my physical health. Most of it is a mental game: Can you do that one last rep? Can you go to that higher weight? You push yourself and you realize that even if you thought you were at your breaking point, you weren’t. That mentality can really do wonders in approaching life … For the club, I want to share that feeling with my peers and empower them to find that within one another and see that there is a community out there.”