Fixing women's fitness: Strength training for a healthier body image

Story highlights

  • Women don't need to make aesthetic goals the aim of their fitness routines, Dana Santas writes
  • Athletic goals and strength training can provide a boost to body image, she says
Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She's the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

(CNN)Look at the fitness section of any magazine rack and you'll find men's publications splashed with words like "get more" and "gain" and "build," while women's magazines feature directives like "fix" and "slim" and "lose" and "tone." Notice the difference?

My interpretation is that, if I don't look like the ultra-thin or impossibly curvy Photoshopped cover model, I am somehow broken, overweight or flabby -- requiring "fixing." This may seem extreme, but countless studies point to the media's impact on body image for women.
In 2008, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Michigan analyzed 77 previous studies. They found that exposure to this type of media significantly increases women's dissatisfaction with their bodies and their likelihood of developing unhealthy behaviors, like eating disorders.
Thankfully, increasing awareness of the media's influence on women has prompted positive campaigns like Always' #LikeAGirl. The success of female athletes like Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams is helping project another view of health and beauty, driven by athletic performance rather than aesthetic goals.
Boston-based strength and conditioning coach Tony Gentilcore, who works with clients of both sexes, from pro-athletes to stay-at-home parents, is a big proponent of shifting women's fitness motivation away from appearance. "Rather than having my female clients focus on media-fed goals like losing 10 pounds or wearing a sleeveless dress, I try to get them to buy into more of the performance side of things, particularly from a strength-training perspective," he says.
Gentilcore wants women to aspire to strength goals because feeling stronger in your body promotes a stronger body image. And, by increasing muscle mass, they are increasing their metabolic rate, which results in more calories burned throughout the day -- not just during the exercise, as is the case with cardio.
"Those appearance goals they've been trying so hard to achieve ... happen, despite the fact that they weren't the focus," Gentilcore says.
Over the past decade, numerous studies have backed up the correlation between strength training and enhanced body image among women of all ages, from college to post menopause. Yet many are still averse to lifting weights due to the perception it will make them "bulky," even though women don't naturally produce enough testosterone to build voluminous, masculine muscles.
The misconception is fueled by depictions of women holding 5-pound, pink dumb bells while touting the latest regimen of high repetitions with low weight for a "feminine figure." But shouldn't a "feminine figure" be functional in the broader spectrum of women's lives, which might include carrying heavy weight as part of their careers or recreation, or simply lugging kids and groceries?
Gentilcore thinks so, which is why he believes there are four primary strength-training moves every woman should aspire to do, if they want to feel better in their bodies and stronger in their lives. We've outlined the rationale and instructions for the moves below. These are all exercises I've included in my own strength and conditioning program for years because they work your whole body through primary functional movements: pulling, pushing, hinging and squatting.

Training to build a strong body

Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately, if you experience pain. If you are new to strength training, employ the assistance of a qualified trainer to help you perfect your form and integrate these moves into an appropriate program for you.
Chin up
Pulling movement that promotes strength in the arms, shoulder girdle, upper back and core.
Goal: Perform at least one unassisted, full range-of-motion, chin up.
Using an underhand grip on the bar, start with your arms fully extended and ankles crossed. Think about placing your shoulder blades into your back pockets. Pull up until your elbows are at your sides and your chin clears the bar. Lower with control.
Modify to progress: If the full movement is not possible initially, modify using a tension band attached to the bar. Place one or both feet into the band, depending on how much assistance you need.
Push up
Pushing movement that promotes strength in the arms, shoulder girdle, back and core.
Goal: Perform 5 to 10 unmodified pushups with perfect form.
From a plank position with wrists under the shoulders, lower your entire body down by bending your arms until your elbows, shoulders and hips are level. Keep the elbows in at your sides. Avoid arching your back. Maintain lumbo-pelvic control by keeping your ribcage down and core engaged. Push back up, moving your entire body in one motion.
Modify to progress: According to Gentilcore, not only is the term "girl pushup" demeaning, the modification it implies (knees down) is not effective. If regressing the movement is necessary, create an accomplish-able range of motion by elevating the upper body on a bench or using a TRX.
Deadlift
Hinging movement that promotes strength in your posterior chain (the back of your legs, glutes and back).
Goal: Deadlift body weight for five repetitions.
Establish your starting position with feet hip-distance apart and toes pointed slightly outward. Squat down, pushing your hips back to sit lower than the shoulders. Grasp the bar with a closed or alternated grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, outside of your knees. Position the bar directly in front of your shins and over the balls of your feet. Keep your back neutral with your chest lifted and chin tucked. With your arms straight, lift the bar by extending your knees and hips to stand. Do not let your hips raise before your shoulders. Return to starting position by pushing your hips back and down, descending with control.
Modify to progress: Practice perfecting your form using only the bar. Add weight progressively in increments of 5 to 10 pounds.
Squat
Squatting movement that promotes total-body strength with a particular emphasis on the legs and core.
Goal: Squat your body weight for three repetitions.
Position yourself under the bar, letting it rest across the tops of shoulders. Remove the bar from the rack and step back to stand with your feet a little wider than hip distance and toes angled out a bit. Sit back and push the knees out slightly while bracing your abdominals. Keep your chest up and back neutral. Squat as low as you can without discomfort or your back rounding. Push through your heels to come back to standing.
Modify to progress: Practice perfecting your form using only the bar. Add weight progressively in increments of 5 to 10 pounds. If bar squatting is too difficult at first, begin with the goblet squat.

Women don't need to 'fix' their bodies

Although I'm a yoga mobility trainer by profession and yoga is a big part of my lifestyle, strength training is an important aspect of my personal fitness program. As a 5-foot-2-inch, 105-pound woman working in male pro sports, I can't afford to be perceived as weak. I have to exude confidence and power to command attention. Being the best at what I do is essential in the competitive world of sports, but there's another level of respect and rapport that's built on being able to "walk the talk." Why should a 350-pound NFL lineman take training direction from someone who can't carry in her own supplies?
Even more importantly, I strive to set a positive example for my daughter to model, and my sons to form their perception of women. Strength training empowers me to be a better mother. At night, I relish carrying my 6-year-old to bed without hesitation or concern that I'm not strong enough. And, although these are benefits -- not goals -- yes, I also feel attractive in a sleeveless dress and eat dessert without guilt!
Women don't need to "fix" their bodies -- it's the media that needs fixing. It's time for a paradigm shift in women's fitness from negative, superficial motivation to empowering goals that take a page from the men's publications: Get more strength. Gain self-respect. Build confidence.