Courtney Samway thought she would never be active again when she ruptured two discs in her back hoisting a heavy load of firewood into her Jeep. For most people, the pain would be unpleasant enough, but for Samway, the injury was also emotionally hard.
“I was always athletic,” she said. “I did every sport there was—backcountry skiing, skiing, snowboarding. Athletics were always part of my life.”
Until she ruptured the discs in her back, of course. After a few years of constant, chronic pain, Samway’s brother Kyl, a certified CrossFit trainer, asked if he could try to help her heal her body.
CrossFit is a high-intensity workout style that combines body-weight exercises such as pull-ups and pushups with jumping exercises, rope climbing and heavy weightlifting. Samway said she was skeptical at first, considering the extent of her injury.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy!’” she said. “I couldn’t even lift 30 pounds without pain.”
Now, she can lift more than 200 pounds without pain and is a certified CrossFit trainer herself, working with her brother as a coach at Boulder Mountain CrossFit in Hailey. And, despite her “lifting heavy,” as she calls it, she said women should not be intimidated by high-intensity workouts or weightlifting—no matter how out of shape they feel.
“I hear a lot of people who are intimidated to try it,” she said. “[But] when I started, I could barely move.”
Samway is not the only heavy-lifting women in town by far, but female fitness gurus in the valley say myths about how strength training affects women and what type of workout women should be doing could be preventing more from joining their ranks.
Liz Clark, health and wellness director at the Wood River Community Y in Ketchum, said the reason more women don’t lift heavy weights is because they’ve never done it before—men, she said, are more likely to have been on a sports team in high school or college where they were instructed in that type of workout.
As a former basketball player both in college and professionally overseas, Clark said she grew used to organized team workouts that combined strength training and cardio, but not all women have had that experience.
“When you talk to someone, it turns out they just don’t know how to do it, and that’s what makes it intimidating,” she said. “A man probably played football at some point and learned to do deadlifts—even if they’re not doing it right.”
Women, she said, tend to stick with running or using the elliptical machines, a low-impact machine that simulates the motion of running.
“Cardio just seems easy,” she said. “Running, biking—those are pretty basic things. Everyone knows how to run, so it’s an easy little thing.”
She said that at the same time, women tend to enjoy activities and workouts that are more social, such as going for a run with friends or joining an aerobic workout class. Clark’s kettlebell class at the Y has gotten a good response from women, she said—a class in which participants use bell-shaped weights instead of dumbbells to strength train.
Clark and Samway agreed that more women are coming to CrossFit and other high-intensity workouts. However, they and High Altitude Fitness co-owner Holly Mora said they all run into one prevailing myth—women think that if they do too much strength training, they’ll get bulky instead of slimming down.
“Women think that if they lift heavy, they will get huge,” Mora said. “The girls in our gym that work out, work out really hard and lift heavy. They all look like women, trim and fit.”
Samway said she hears from her clients that they don’t want to “look like a man,” assuming that if they begin lifting heavy weights, they’ll end up looking like the bodybuilders they see in magazines, with huge, bulging muscles and a bulky shape. Ending up looking like that by accident is impossible, she said.
“People don’t understand that there is a difference between CrossFit and body-building,” she said. “Body-building is when you work out to develop a certain shape. We want people to be able to lift heavy and run fast, to jump high and do a thousand pull-ups. You’ll get stronger and you’ll get toned, but you won’t bulk up like a weightlifter.”
Mora said women might also prefer cardio because it feels good, releasing endorphins and relieving stress. But she convinces women to start strength training by starting with light weights, then gradually moving them up as they start to see results.
“Lifting heavy increases bone density and increases metabolism,” she said, promoting the body’s fat-burning efforts. “The more lean mass you carry [i.e., muscle], the more efficient you are at burning calories.”
Clark said women might be mistaking muscle development—especially at first—for bulkiness, as muscle is built without all the under-skin fat being burned off. However, she said, if women stick with strength training, they will start to see more muscle definition and that bulky feeling will fade.
“It’s pretty rare that a woman will bulk up,” she said. “It’s a pretty specific style of training. You’d know if you were training for that.”
The three women agreed that high-intensity training can benefit just about anyone who is otherwise athletic. Mora said she worked with an endurance runner who has seen improvements in her speed since starting strength training; Clark said all athletes, including women, should use strength training to complement their activities.
“To complement your sport, you should work out,” she said. “Fitness and exercise support recreation and sport. You could do all those activities without exercising, but you’ll be better at them if you’re working on fitness.”
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org