As I walk into the SPAC weight room, my heart beats rapidly. Unfortunately, my elevated heart rate has absolutely nothing to do with exercise. I scan the room quickly to see if there are any available benches. Aha! I lay my towel across the bench, effectively marking my territory. Careful not to make eye contact with anyone, I hurry over to the rack of weights and reach for the 10-pound dumbbells. Crap! Nowhere to be found. I reach for the 15-pounders, and pause halfway. On a good day, I can handle 15 pounds. But what if today isn’t a good day? Do I really want to risk dropping the weights in front of all these guys?
To my relief, I spot the 10-pound dumbbells abandoned in the corner. I shuffle self-consciously over to the weights and scurry back to my bench. My eyes dart right and left. Is it my imagination, or is everyone staring at me? I turn my iPod up over the loud male grunts, breathe deeply, and begin my strength training routine.
Once again, I am the only girl in the weight room.
I chalk up the dearth of women to several factors: first, the SPAC weight room is scary. Few women can help feeling at least a little intimidated walking into a room full of men lifting weights.
“I’m not opposed to lifting weights,” said Communication freshman Elizabeth Miller, “but every time I look in there there’s all these big guys and it’s kind of like, um, maybe I’ll just stick with my running cardio machines.” Most of these men aren’t ordinary Northwestern men. They might as well be a different species. Some are large, sweaty and buff. They curl 50 pounds like it’s nothing and bench press more than many women weigh. They stare at themselves in the mirror and make horrible grimaces as their veins bulge out of their arms. And they’re loud. Clearly they have never taken a class with Linda Gates or they would know that making loud noises while lifting weights puts an unhealthy strain on their vocal chords.
But it’s more than just the intimidation factor. The design of SPAC contributes to the reluctance of women to lift weights and the general inhospitable feel of the weight room. If you’re looking for five- or eight-pound dumbbells, you have to specially request them from the desk downstairs. Many students are totally unaware that this lighter equipment is available, as there is no obvious sign of its existence. After surrendering your WildCARD to sign them out, you then have to lug the weights back up the stairs and precariously balance them in order to have a free hand to open the glass doors. The problem is compounded if you plan on using both five- and eight-pounds – you need to trek up and down the stairs twice, unless through some Herculean effort you are capable of carrying all four weights at once. Returning the weights is a similar nuisance. For busy students with limited time to work out, the extra trips are an annoying hassle.
Additionally, the light dumbbells are brightly colored, while the dumbbells kept on the rack are a uniform metal gray with black rubber. If you do venture into the weight room with the light weights, the bright coloring highlights your lesser strength. The “serious” coloring of the weight room dumbbells render the pastel coloring of the lighter dumbbells frilly and foolish, or at least that’s how they make me feel. Who ever came up with the idea of pink and baby blue weights in the first place? Does someone think we want to match the dumbbells to our outfits? By blatantly distinguishing the lighter weights, both by coloring and by location, from the heavier weights, is SPAC implying that those who would use the lighter weights do not belong in the weight room? Because the majority of people who use these dumbbells are female, women in particular may be discouraged from using the weight room.
This raises the question as to why SPAC isolates the lighter weights. Lo and behold, at Blomquist, the five- and eight-pound weights rest right beside the 15-, 25-, and 50-pound weights. And the coloring is identical! Is there a reason SPAC relegates them downstairs, behind lock and key? Is there a Northwestern bandit with a specific penchant for colorful five- and eight-pound weights?
According to Northwestern Director of Recreational Sports Dan Bulfin, the lighter weights “grow little feet and walk out of the building.” While he did not expressly mention theft, the lighter weights do “tend to disappear.”
Although Blomquist presents a friendlier environment for women to lift weights, many women still do not regularly strength train. Many women, especially those trying to lose weight, forego strength training because cardio burns more calories. However, by discounting weight training, women miss out on a slew of benefits, including weight loss.
Weight training helps women lose weight and burn fat.
By adding muscle, women increase their resting metabolic rates. For every pound of lean muscle mass, women burn an additional 35 to 50 calories a day. According to a study performed by Dr. Wayne Westcott from the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, a two-month regimen of strength training two to three times a week results in a two-pound gain in muscle and a four-pound loss of body fat. And muscle takes up less space than fat. So without even losing a pound, your clothes will fit better.
Weight training gives women a sexy, toned body.
Contrary to popular belief, lifting weights will not result in increased bulk for women. Women have 15 to 20 times less of the hormone (namely testosterone) that causes muscle hypertrophy than men have. The frightening-looking women in body building magazines spend hours a day lifting and consume obscene amounts of protein. There is no reason to stay away from heavy weights, because heavier weights result in increased muscle strength, not significantly increased muscle size. As women lose body fat, the developed muscle underneath is revealed, resulting in definition.
Weight training results in a multitude of health benefits.
The benefits of strength training are numerous: It decreases the risk of osteoporosis by increasing bone density, lowers the risk of heart disease by increasing the levels of good cholesterol (HDL), decreasing the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and reducing blood pressure, decreases the risk of diabetes by improving glucose utilization and lowers the risk of chronic back pain and arthritis by strengthening joint tissues.
Even though I know how important strength training is for women, SPAC’s weight room, and the men who work out there, continue to intimidate me. Do the men purposely try to keep women out, I wondered. When approaching WCAS senior Bruno Barbic, who works out “almost every day,” for an interview for this article, I confess to shaking in my cross trainers. I realized that, although I work out next to big, burly men all the time, I have never actually spoken to one. But when I asked him what he thought about the few women who actually use the weight room, he replied, “I think it’s great. I’d like to see more of them.” Despite his words of assurance, I still question if all the men at SPAC are as open-minded as he is.
SPAC has already taken some steps to encourage women to work out. “We have two full time exercise physiologists on staff who are female. We have our own crew of personal trainers, the majority of which are females as well… Students can ask questions of the exercise physiologists, and we moved their office up to the second area to make it more accessible to the people, including women,” said Bulfin.
But if Harvard can ban men from one of its gyms for a couple of hours every week in order to accommodate female Muslim students, certainly SPAC can institute a few minor adjustments to make the weight room environment more comfortable for Northwestern women. Moving the lighter weights into the weight room is an easy first step. Even better would be replacing the “girly” weights with five- and eight-pound dumbbells that match the heavier ones. By making accessibility to the lighter weights convenient and less embarrassing, more women are likely to work out. And with more women in the weight room, the only reason my heart rate will spike will be from exercise.