In 1967 Kathrine Switzer registered for the Boston Marathon under the name of K. V. Switzer. Despite efforts by officials to remove her from the competition, she completed the race. She went on to advocate for women’s running events, created the Avon International Running Circuit, which promoted women’s running events in 25 countries, and was instrumental in getting the women’s marathon into the 1972 Olympic Games.
Switzer is just one of many admirable pioneers in women’s athletics, but unfortunately, many misperceptions still persist about the training of female athletes. For example, we have been told in high school health classes and by personal trainers at our local gyms that the main reason men are stronger than women is that men have more testosterone than women. There’s no doubt that testosterone has an effect on strength, but even so, the numbers don’t add up.
Men’s testosterone levels are about nine times higher than women’s in general, but are men nine times as strong as women? Definitely not. The absolute world record in the clean and jerk for women is 190 kilos, so if there were a fixed causal relationship between testosterone and strength, one might expect the world record in this lift for men to be 1900 kilos instead of the actual 263 kilos for men. Likewise, in women’s powerlifting the heaviest squat (with special lifting gear such as knee wraps) is 387.5 kilos, but the world record for men is certainly nowhere near 3487.5 kilos. The fact is, there are many factors that determine how strong women can become, and testosterone is just one of them.
Let’s look at five more tired myths about training women that are still making the rounds.
Myth 1. Women need to perform aerobics to lose fat. While it’s true that women in general carry more fat and store it more efficiently than men, this does not mean that the only way women can get lean is to perform low-intensity, steady-state aerobic training. In fact, in a study of female aerobics instructors, the women who taught the most classes had the highest body fat percentages (over 24 percent). If a woman wants to lose fat, and lose it fast, weight training is the exercise of choice.
Myth 2. A woman who is weak on machines will be weak lifting free weights. When it comes to lifters who use machines, studies comparing the strength of men to that of women do not reflect real-world conditions. In one study of people using machine exercises, female subjects were found to be 63.5 percent as strong as men. However, in the sport of weightlifting the gap is narrower: Across the board in all weight classes the women’s records were about 83 percent of the men’s. One reason women are able to excel in weightlifting is that their exceptional flexibility means they do not have to pull the barbell as high to get under the weight.
Myth 3. Women with hyperextended elbows are more susceptible to injury. Years ago, when women started competing in weightlifting, their coaches believed they needed to devote a considerable amount of training to upper body strength exercises to prevent injuries to the upper body, especially the elbows.
A completely different perspective comes from Bud Charniga, a former national-caliber lifter who has attended numerous international competitions and whose daughter Kelly recently placed second in the US Senior National Weightlifting Championships. Charniga says that while a few women have dislocated their elbows in weightlifting, it’s primarily men who dislocate their elbows when performing the sport, not women. He also says that among the women lifters he knows, the ones who have had such an injury usually have normal elbow anatomy, not the type that hyperextends.
Myth 4. Women should warm up for heavy weights exactly like men. It’s especially important to debunk this myth because in fact women need to take more warm-up attempts to achieve maximal lifts. There is evidence that women are not as neurologically efficient as men and as such can perform more reps with submaximal weights than men. Also, because women can relax more between high-intensity lifts, it’s often the case that they can use a higher volume of training at high intensities than men. For example, at the 2008 Olympics the starting weights lifted in competition by four of the Olympic women’s champions from China were the same as they had lifted three times in the warm-up room.
Myth 5. All elite women athletes have a certain “look.” Contrary to certain antiquated thinking, being built like a Mack truck is not a prerequisite for becoming a successful female athlete. Not all women who lift weights or who perform at a high level in sports have a predictable build.
One example is Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova. Kournikova’s stunning beauty made her a celebrity, and she became the highest-paid female athlete in the world. However, because Kournikova’s tennis career never included winning a WTA singles, people often overlook her impressive athletic accomplishments: She was a junior world champion in tennis at age 14, was ranked number one in the world in doubles and won two grand slams, made the finals in two grand slams in mixed doubles, and was even ranked as high as eighth in the world in singles. Likewise, fellow Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova is a relatively slender athlete who has won all four grand slam events and supplements her training with weight training. Also, while tennis superstar Serena Williams carries considerable muscle mass, her sister Venus has won five Wimbledon titles and carries much less muscle than Serena.
So what’s the point of exploring – and exploding – these five myths? It’s that athletes should be treated as individuals. Some women will gain a lot of muscle lifting weights, but some won’t. Some women don’t have to train hard or diet strictly to stay lean; whereas for others, staying lean is a lifetime challenge. Although a person’s DNA is set in stone, it’s also true that anyone can dramatically change their figure and strength levels by training smart.