More women are discovering the health benefits of weightlifting at the gym

More women are discovering the health benefits of weightlifting at the gym
  • PublishedJanuary 30, 2024

When the 18-year-old started strength training about two years ago she could only deadlift 20kg.

She has come a long way.

“I can deadlift 120 kilos at the moment,” she says.

“Last I checked, I could squat 90 kilos.”

That’s more than one and a half times her own weight.

To get there, she worked out in a traditionally masculine environment.

“It’s very intimidating initially, because there are all these super muscular men who are walking around,” she says.

Talullah Clarkson curls dumbbells while one man practises squats and another does pull-ups
Talulla now feels right at home when she strength trains at the gym. ( ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

She no longer feels out of place. 

“This is my space,” she says.

Strength training gains popularity among women

These days, Talulla is more likely to be joined by other women at the squat rack.

“Now you go into the gym and I’d say there’s a decently even split of women to men,” she says.

Data from the Australian Sports Commission shows this is part of a wider trend. 

The number of women participating in amateur weightlifting grew fivefold between 2016 and 2022, while the number of men almost tripled.

Barbell weights hang on a rack at a powerlifting gym
Women of all ages are taking up strength training. (ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Over the same time period, the number of women taking part in CrossFit – a high-intensity strength and conditioning workout – doubled, while men’s participation stayed relatively static.

Mandy Hagstrom, an exercise scientist at the University of New South Wales, says she has noticed a massive increase in women of all ages showing an interest in strength training over the last decade.

“It’s so fantastic to see this increased growth,” she says.

She says it became more common to see women with athletic, muscular physiques as CrossFit grew in popularity after its founding in 2000.

“The change in culture around the acceptability of females with athletic physiques is fantastic,” she says.

No, you’re not going to bulk up (unless you really want to)

That’s not to say a few sessions pumping iron at the gym is going to turn you into the Incredible Hulk.

Talulla still has young women tell her they worry that if they start lifting weights, they will bulk up.

Talullah Clarkson looks at herself in a mirror as she curls two dumbbells.
Talulla says building muscle mass takes a lot of hard work for women.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

“If that’s what you want, then you’ll get there, but if that’s not what you want, you have that control,” she says.

Dr Hagstrom explains most women find it hard to gain muscle mass.

Her research has shown that following a three-month strength training program, females gain about 1.5 kilograms of muscle and lose at least half a kilogram of fat.

In her experience, most women are happy with their new musculature.

“They’re also happy because they feel empowered,” she said.

Girl power 

Nothing illustrates that empowerment better than the increasing number of women signing up for powerlifting competitions.

Sean Muir, president of the Australian Powerlifting Union, says increased interest from women has changed the culture of the sport.

He’s been involved in the powerlifting industry for nearly 30 years and says he used to see twice as many men as women competing at the Australian Powerlifting Championships.

A young woman stands with her hands gripping a barbell weighted with 80kg as she prepares to perform a deadlift
Female powerlifters are changing the game for everyone. (ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

“It’s nearly equal now in Australia,” he says.

He’s noticed that as more women have taken up lifting weights, gyms have become a friendlier and more accepting environment for everyone.

He says that’s great for the sport itself, and benefits both men and women.

As for what women gain, he believes the biggest benefit is improved confidence.

It’s not about how you look

The benefits of women taking up the sport or picking up weights and resistance bands in the gym could have long-lasting effects.

Weight training not only strengthens muscles.

It also helps stabilise joints and improves bone density, all of which reduce the risk of fractures later in life.

A woman bends over a powerlifting bar as she prepares to lift 20 kilos of weight.
Dr Hagstrom says weight lifting can help women through menopause. (ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

As women reach menopause they often lose bone density, so the stronger their bones are going into this phase, the better they will fare.

Dr Hagstrom says strength training is the gold standard for preserving bone mineral density and offsetting muscle mass loss through menopause.

In her view, it’s never too late to pick up weights.

If you feel uncoordinated or sore when you first start lifting weights, she recommends sticking with it as those feeling will pass.

She suggests you don’t start training with the dream of changing how your body looks.

“If you focus on what your body can do, you are more likely to stick to it long term,” she says.

Talulla Clarkson agrees.

A young woman holds up a heavy powerlifting bar at the gym.
Talulla stays focused on what her body can do.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

One of the reasons she enjoys weightlifting is because it helps her focus on what her body can achieve, not what it looks like.

For her, lifting heavy weights is about challenging herself.

“You go from wanting to be smaller and wanting to be petite to … I want to be stronger,” she says.


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