Power & passion- Why women are lifting weights

Power & passion- Why women are lifting weights Vicki Webber performing a snatch lift. Picture: Peter Stoop
Nanjing Night Net

CHANGED SHAPE: It was curiosity that led fitness instructor Ebonnie Thomas to lift weights and she loves it. Picture: Simone De Peak

“It has completely changed my body shape”: Ebonnie Thomas. Picture: Simone De Peak

Vicki Webber doing a pull up. Picture: Peter Stoop

Vicki Webber and Lee McWilliams. Picture: Peter Stoop

Vicki Webber does a clean and jerk. Picture: Peter Stoop

Vicki Webber doing a pull up. Picture: Peter Stoop

Lee McWilliams doing a front squat. Picture: Peter Stoop

TweetFacebookIT is a hot, humid afternoon and a couple of floor fans are doing little to cool down the large suburban shed that is home to an Adamstown CrossFit gym. Vicki Webber bends down, picks up a chunky 30-kilogram dumbbell with one hand and thrusts it above her head as she stands. She completes 30 ‘‘alternating dumbbell snatches’’ before plunging her hands into a bucket of chalk and moving on to 60 chest-to-bar pull-ups and a stint on a rowing machine.

When Webber is done, she is covered in a sweaty sheen. The broad-shouldered 36-year-old plonks herself on the floor and stretches her legs as she explains how lifting weights has transformed her.

‘‘It’s very empowering,’’ she says. ‘‘It gives me confidence. My body shape has completely changed. I’ll show you.’’

Webber jumps up and retrieves her phone.

‘‘That’s me after I had my first child,’’ she says, showing me a photograph of a pale-faced young woman in an unshapely jumper and jeans. I cannot marry the photo, taken 14 years ago, with the woman standing in front of me in short black tights and a crop top with identical rows of abdominal muscles and enviable biceps.

The mother-of-three is one of an increasing number of women who are routinely lifting weights to boost fitness and transform their physiques. Webber juggles single parenthood with jointly managing a CrossFit gym at Belmont. She also squeezes in two hours of training a day and is a fierce competitor in the popular CrossFit Games.

In case you have been living under a rock, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that incorporates powerlifting, plyometrics, Olympic-style weightlifting, and high-intensity interval training. With its competitive, back-to-basics focus, CrossFit has been credited with boosting the popularity of weight lifting among women. Strong, as the popular saying goes, is the new skinny.

Where once the weights area of gyms was the domain of grunting men, women are now moving in. At my local gym last weekend, I watched a diminutive woman complete sets of squats with 60kilograms stacked on a barbell. There were another couple of women lifting dumbbells nearby.

‘‘It’s almost revolutionary the way women are choosing to see that being strong rather than skinny is more important,’’ says self-described gym junkie Megan Cunneen. ‘‘Women want to have a healthier shape and to do that, you have to train and eat well so women are educating themselves about nutrition. Being skinny isn’t as attractive any more.’’

Vicki Webber performing a snatch lift. Picture: Peter Stoop

Cunneen, 30, recently resigned from a public relations role in Newcastle to relocate to Tamworth to help her boyfriend manage his busy sport supplement business. She began weight training about two years ago when a ‘‘gym buddy’’ of hers started doing more lifting.

‘‘I used to be cardio-obsessed,’’ she says. ‘‘I’d do two classes a day – aerobics, boxing, step – but never actually noticed any significant changes in my body other than being exhausted all the time. Now, every time I exercise, I incorporate weights.

‘‘In the shop, we get women coming in and they say, ‘I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to bulk up’. That’s such a hard myth to shake because it’s been drilled into women that they have to do hours of cardio to lose weight. Weight training can be just as effective for weight loss, especially if you mix it up with some cardio.’’

IT is easy to spot a woman who regularly lifts because they are athletic, yet shapely. All the women who spoke to Weekender referred to the positive impact lifting has had on their physiques – and self-esteem.

‘‘There’s certainly been a shift in the fitness industry towards incorporating more weightlifting into routines,’’ says Rachelle Mackintosh, acting editor of Women’s Health magazine. ‘‘There’s been a growth in popularity of functional fitness, which is why CrossFit has taken off, and even in your standard gyms, you’re seeing more lifting.

CHANGED SHAPE: It was curiosity that led fitness instructor Ebonnie Thomas to lift weights and she loves it. Picture: Simone De Peak

‘‘Women want to appear toned, rather than skinny. And [lifting] isn’t about looking masculine; you’re looking for a more supple frame. There are the hard-core women who are doing serious body building but for the average punter, it’s about looking strong and toned, but also feminine.’’

According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, weightlifting is the best way to stay trim, as opposed to cardiovascular exercise, which includes running, cycling and swimming.

Researchers found that after monitoring more than 10,000 men aged 40-plus for weight and waist circumference over a 12-year period, those men who spent an extra 20 minutes a day weight training gained less abdominal weight.

‘‘You burn fat faster with more muscle,’’ Mackintosh says. ‘‘If you focus only on cardio, you can do a 10-kilometre run but unless you’re supplementing that with weights, you won’t build muscle.’’

It would be difficult to find a health professional who doesn’t support some form of weight training as part of an exercise regimen, especially for people aged 40-plus. Lifting weights helps to avoid the loss of joint flexibility that comes with ageing. Resistance exercise can reduce bone deterioration and build bone mass, helping to prevent osteoporosis.

Working your muscles can also inhibit the effects of sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and function. After the age of 30, there is a loss of 3 to 5per cent of muscle mass per decade, making day-to-day tasks gradually harder to perform and slowing down metabolism – increasing the risk of weight gain.

Weight training helps 47-year-old Lee McWilliams keep up with her two teenage sons and cope with the demands of running her Swansea cafe. She heads to CrossFit Lake Macquarie every morning at 5.30 and completes a weight training and cardio program. In the three years since she began lifting weights, she has lost ‘‘inches’’ off her waist and is fit and toned. She now completes 100-kilogram dead lifts.

‘‘I love that I can now keep up with the younger girls,’’ McWilliams says. ‘‘Now, I’m chasing the men.’’

“It has completely changed my body shape”: Ebonnie Thomas. Picture: Simone De Peak

McWilliams urges anyone who is interested in lifting weights to seek out a good gym and a trainer.

‘‘It’s all in the technique,’’ she says. ‘‘Once you know what to do and how to do it properly, you won’t look back.’’

It was curiosity that led fitness instructor Ebonnie Thomas to lift weights. The mother-of-two was teaching classes with a focus on cardio and would only occasionally venture into the weights room.

‘‘I didn’t really know what I was doing,’’ she admits.

Thomas enlisted the help of trainer Brooke Dunlop early last year.

‘‘She showed me the ropes and now I just love it,’’ says Thomas, 30. ‘‘I have always admired Brooke, who looks so fit and toned. I wanted to see how my body would change with weights. I’ve now got more definition through my stomach, legs, back and arms. It has completely changed my body shape.’’

Thomas trains with weights six days a week and maintains her level of cardio fitness with her instructor’s job at Genesis Fitness. She has watched her strength increase, as well as her confidence.

‘‘I remember the first time I did a training session with Brooke and she wanted me to lift an Olympic bar that weighted 20kilos with another 10kilos of weights added. I struggled. I ended up taking the weights off the bar and just lifting it on its own.

‘‘I was only able to do a few clean and presses. Now, I can lift 40kilos for a clean and press – eight reps – and my personal best was a 50-kilo clean and press.

‘‘But there are also other benefits; it’s like therapy. I’ll go stir-crazy if I miss a couple of days of training. It helps me deal with stress.’’

In September 2014, Thomas competed in the fitness section of two natural body building competitions. Her trainer also coaches women in preparation for the events, which are booming in popularity.

‘‘The competitions are insanely popular and until I started lifting, I didn’t know they existed,’’ says Thomas, who is intending to compete again this year. ‘‘Looking fit and toned is the new skinny. Everyone wants muscles now, and nice abs. I love showing my body off. I work really hard for it.’’