Why your size has nothing to do with your strength
Strength has no gender, as Serena Williams would say. Strength also knows no size.
Take Tia-Clair Toomey. The 23-year-old is just 1.58 metres tall and weighs 58 kilograms.
Despite this she came second at the 2015 and then 2016 Reebok World CrossFit Games and, after only 18 months of serious weightlifting training, made her debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the pint-sized Queenslander snatched 82 kilograms and lifted nearly double her body weight (107 kilograms) in the clean and jerk.
“I’ve definitely been one of the smaller athletes,” Toomey says. “It definitely is very daunting going up against bigger girls who look stronger and have a bit more muscle definition. But, I was brought up to know that looks don’t matter. It comes down to determination and I’m a pretty determined person.
“Now I know that if anything I’m probably stronger than some of the girls who are bigger than me.”
When people underestimate her, Toomey sees it as an advantage.
“Not a lot of people would expect such a small athlete to have so much strength. It’s a weapon because I can be a bit of the underdog,” she says.
“Strength and size don’t got hand in hand,” says trainer and founder of Strength Elite, Kevin Toonen. “You can be small and very very strong and you can be big and weak.”
Toonen says he has six female clients who are all lifting in excess of their body weight during squats, if not double their body weight.
“All of them have one thing in common, they are strong not big. And none of them look ‘big’,” he says. “Its a myth that strength and size go hand in hand. They do cross over, but the benefits you get from being strong are untold.”
Amelia Phillips, co-founder of 12WBT and newly launched Voome, says whether size and strength go hand in hand depends on genetics, nutrition and the type of training a person is doing.
Some people gain muscle more easily than others, she says.
“If you have someone like me, who’s an ectomorph [naturally leaner] and someone who’s a mesomorph [naturally more muscly], doing the exact same training our bodies would respond differently,” Phillips says. “People who are out there who say women don’t bulk up from doing weight-training, it’s just not true. Some women absolutely bulk up.”
Some women also love seeing their strength translate into size, to look as powerful as they feel. Others want to feel the strength but not necessarily see it, which is entirely possible, Phillips says.
“There are different types of workouts you can do. So, if you’re someone who is prone to bulking up or doesn’t like that look of being quite muscly, then you’re much better off doing faster movements at a lighter weight – a pump class is a great example, it’s lighter weights at a higher repetition,” she says, adding that strength training alone won’t lead to definition. For definition, there needs to be tweaking of nutrition and higher intensity exercise as well.
“The other tip for people wanting to gain strength but not necessarily size is to do body weight stuff and another one is to do a full range of motion, so full squats, full push-ups, taking the joints through their entire range of mobility and what that does is evenly put pressure on the entire muscle.”
This sort of training, without necessarily using any weights, or at least heavy weights, can get you “super-duper strong”, Phillips says.
“In fact, I would argue you can get more functionally strong. If you’re out in the park and you see your child up on the top of the slide and they go to fall off the slide and you can do a full wood chop movement and catch your 15-kilogram kid, that’s where your functional training kicks in.”
For Toomey, half the fun is in the heavy lifting. When she first started lifting it was, she says, “actually quite a weakness of mine”.
“I love it when I have weaknesses that I need to improve on because it opens a whole new avenue of how you can be better,” the Reebok ambassador says.
Whether it’s visible or hidden strength that we develop, its benefits extend beyond the physical.
“It’s a mental game,” Toomey says. “It’s the satisfaction of being able to go out there. I don’t think it’s lifting specifically, it’s chasing your goal. When you successfully achieve that goal, the adrenalin and excitement is so rewarding. It picks you up as a person and you realise all your hard work has all paid off. It’s those little goals that mean more to you than winning something.”
Why strength train?
Preventing injuries: “It protects all your joints. The biggest example is glutes stability and your hips and lower back,” Phillips explains. “Weak glutes cause a whole array of problems from lower back pain to osteoarthritis in your hips to knee pain and ankle pain. Sitting on your butt all day, your lower back muscles and hip flexors get tight, our abdominal muscles and our glute muscles get weak.”
It’s anti-ageing: “The biggest thing that impacts ageing is a change of your body composition, so body composition is bone, muscle and fat,” Phillips says. “The changes triggers an ageing effect on the body.” You can slow down this process by amping up your training.”
And it’s really fun: “I think strength training now is a lot more sexy, a lot more fun. I think it has evolved to appeal more to women,” Phillips says. She suggests two strength and two or three fat-burning workouts a week. If you can only fit in three workouts, she suggests one pump class, one session of half an hour of strength and a half-hour of cardio and one cardio session.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
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