Photo: ViDI Studio (Shutterstock)
As a woman who exercises, I find it strange to constantly come across recommendations about the best exercises “for women.” The lists are always full of unweighted exercises like bird dogs, and lightly-weighted ones like overhead presses with cute, tiny dumbbells. Meanwhile, when I work out I just…lift a thing? Maybe run or bike? Am I doing femininity wrong? I mean, probably, but that’s a different story.
Men, women, and people of all genders have access to the same toolbox of exercises and fitness techniques. Imagine the girliest girl and the bro-y-est dude. Both can do a bird dog. Both can lift a barbell. They might have different backgrounds or levels of comfort; in our example, the woman is more likely than the man to be seeing a barbell for the first time. But the exercises that will benefit each person are equivalent.
After seeing my umpteenth article about the best exercises for women, I thought I’d google “best exercises for men.” Here’s what the Internet tells me men should be doing:
- Bench press
- Bicep curls
- Farmer’s walks
- Kettlebell swings
And here are some of the common items on lists of the best exercises for women:
- Jumping jacks
- Squats (illustrated without any added weight)
- Leg raises
- Pushups (the only thing that consistently makes both lists)
- Single-leg deadlifts (with tiny dumbbells)
- Glute bridges
- HIIT intervals
Right off the bat, women are getting shortchanged. The men’s list is a workout; the women’s list is the stuff I do for warmups.
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Nearly every list I found of “women’s” exercises does the moves unweighted or with the smallest of dumbbells. At first I was excited when I found a list that included what they called a “military press,” but my face fell when I saw their video demonstration of a woman raising her arms repeatedly overhead with no weight in them at all. What, then, is she pressing?
Weight load is important
My complaint here isn’t just that heavy weights are fun and I prefer them. Honestly, if you enjoy doing calisthenics, you can build a ton of strength, muscle, stability, and health that way. You could work toward pullups, pushups, pistol squats, handstands, and more. But that’s not what we see listed as “women’s” exercises. We see stuff that is drastically under-loaded.
As a beginner, this is fine. If you aren’t ready to work with weights yet, you can learn the movement of a military press with empty hands, then try it with dumbbells before working your way up to a barbell. But this isn’t a women’s workout, it’s a beginner workout. The lists for men don’t do this—they simply show the move weighted, and provide a few tips on how to begin doing it with lighter weights if you need to.
There’s a difference between doing beginner-level things with an understanding that you’ll shortly move on, and doing beginner-level things with the implication that this is what’s appropriate for you forever. Even Jane Fonda did better, recommending three-pound weights at first but telling you in the same breath that after doing the tape for a while, you’ll need 10-pounders. After all, strength requires appropriately challenging exercises.
More consequentially, strength is important for health. If you train for strength during your whole life, you’ll enter old age with a lot more muscle mass, which makes it more likely that you’ll be able to keep doing more things for yourself as you get older. Prescribing nonsense busywork to women while recommending weighted exercises to men is just the wage gap all over again, but with muscles instead of money.
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