Are You a Female Strength Athlete? Are You Judged and Disrespected for It?

Professional strongwoman, Tracy Stankavage, and strongman Coach, Quint Zambon, discuss the issues facing women in the world of strongman and strength training.

This has been an article I have wanted to post for a myriad of reasons. But mostly to bring to light the difficulty of being a female in the fitness industry, what may make things more difficult for us and a way to vent my frustrations. What was an idea that started out to be a short informative piece has now evolved into a two part essay covering a much wider range of topics.

I asked my boyfriend and gym owner Quint Zambon to help me for two reasons (and being my boyfriend was not one of them). Even before I knew Quint, he was always an avid supporter of females in the sport of strongman, A.K.A. strongwoman, and had several females compete in NAS contests. This is coupled with the fact that Quint works with a more balanced male and female ratio and always seems to have an impressive group of young female athletes that he works with.

Part 1 of this interview is about several of the frustrations that I encounter on an almost daily basis. And in Part 2 is a discussion of thoughts on the females we work with.

Quint: When Tracy came to me and asked for my input on this article I said, “You phrased that like I actually had a choice.” I really liked her idea and I have been very fortunate over the years to work with some amazing female athletes and females in general.

What are the issues that inhibit Women’s growth in strength training: Woman to Woman?

Tracy: Getting through all the negative connotations that already go with women strength training or in strength athletics is hard enough; we don’t need other women making it worse. I have enough trouble lifting in a weight room dominated by men without other women making it feel like we are doing something unnatural and wrong. This is something that has to stop. Women have to stick together in the weight room. One negative female can ruin the whole bunch. Does this always happen? No. However, chances are there aren’t many other females lifting to help defend one another in that circumstance.tracy18

Quint: The gym I operate out of does not have “regular” members and the females and males alike are there because they want to be. My clientele is at least (if not more than) 50% female. Male high school athletes are more likely to be mandated to their high school weight room, females are more likely not to even have a program in place, and their strength training is going to be completely up to them. I have had females take leadership roles in my group classes and act as a captain in the weight room; this is not a role I assign to them, it has to do with the respect they receive. There is no dominating sex in my gym and there is respect throughout for anyone in there. So this is something I have not really encountered and don’t have to worry about.

“You are going to hurt yourself”

tracy16Tracy: This phrase absolutely kills me. No matter where I am or what I have accomplished when I walk into a weight room, the guys typically think I am a beginner. I’m not walking in for the first time ever and putting 400 pounds on the bar. If I walked into the gym and starting running the first of 6 miles on the treadmill because I was training for a marathon, no one would blink an eye or offer advice on what I was doing wrong. But because I am doing something that is not always considered feminine, I am an assumed beginner. I follow a program, I am committed and I work hard. This is weird to most outsiders, yet if I was putting the same effort while I was in a pool swimming, I wouldn’t even exist to most gym members.

Quint: You hear this a lot from parents. That is a good thing when a parent comes to you and says they are aware of the injury risk from strength training so they want their daughter to learn how to do it right. I still hear “is she too young?” or “Is she going to get hurt?” I see it as the parents realizing there are people out there that know more than they do in this particular field, so they want to make sure their child is safe. You will get these parents also giving you the “I don’t want her to get too bulky” or “Does she really need to be lifting that heavy?” I never understood why parents don’t hesitate to think their sons should be strength traiing heavy, but it is somehow more dangerous for women. I have six females I can think of off the top of my head who can deadlift over 300 lbs and none of them weigh more than 150 lbs. What they have in common is that they are the top college and professional athletes I work with. I have found that while seeing this makes the parents nervous, it seems to make the females put their trust in you. So then I just have to do my job well.

“Lift with your legs not your back.”

Tracy: I hear this phrase all the time and 99% of the time it is from someone who doesn’t even know what he or she is talking about. What irks me is if a guy does the same thing, he won’t or wouldn’t even say a word. We have all seen World’s Strongest Man on TV, hell my mom has seen it, your mom has seen it, and your mom and my mom have probably watched it together. Without fail when I go to lift those “cement balls” everyone can tell me how to do it, or what I am doing wrong. It is not limited to this, but Strongwoman is a sport even most gym rats won’t understand. There are things you do in strongwoman that are the opposite to what you are supposed to do in barbell training. But instead of asking questions, it is just assumed I am doing something wrong because my back is rounded as I pick up a stone. These gym-guy-strength gurus offering me advice wouldn’t be able to budge the stone I have been throwing around. I am one of the top trainers at my gym and I have my own and my clients’ safety in mind. I can guarantee you there is nothing you can show me on a movement you have never done. I am not above asking for help, I just won’t be asking Mr. Triceps Kickback. I am not above thinking there are not better coaches than me that can offer me help and make me better. I just wish guys could see females in the same light.

tracy8Quint: Oh I love unsolicited advice. I used to let it bother me, but now I usually have fun with it and mess with the muscle magazine addicts. I am also glad Tracy brought up the stone loading. She hit the nail on the head in more ways than one. I always tell people that while there is a wrong way to do strongman events, there is not a “right” way. But I have actually witnessed what she described to you, and her description is spot on. When she is training stones that is exactly what happens. On the contrary, when I am training stones it is almost guaranteed someone will come up to me and ask if they can try it, or if I can teach them, or ask me to explain how it is done. This is ironic. I am not the best stone loader in the world or my weight class or even my gym. In fact, when Tracy and I were nothing more than friendly, I reached out to her about helping me improve my stone loading technique. Why her? Because of all the strongman contests I have seen in all the weight classes of both sexes, no one better dominated an event at the national level than Tracy had for two consecutive years. If I was going to learn, I wanted to learn from the best.

How do non-weight lifting women feel about female strength athletes?

Tracy1Tracy: This is a male dominated industry and we have come so far to change that. So many strong women out there getting the respect they deserve. Females like Kristyn Whisman, Stephanie Tropea, Maya Winters, Jill Mills, and many others are all positive influences who reach a great number of female athletes and grow the sport of Strongman and bring awareness of strength training in general. It is a shame that sometimes it is not the men that make things difficult, but the negative women. How dare a random female in the gym look down on me because I lift weights? I don’t look down on them and the majority of females for only doing cardio on the elliptical machine. I have been inside the locker room to witness women trash talk about other women for lifting weights–even when the woman being talked about was 10 feet away so they knew she would hear them. I have even experienced other women criticize me for the way I dress when I train. I wear tight fitting clothing but not because I want everyone to notice me, but because one time I almost crushed myself with the bar when cleaning and the bar caught on my shirt. I am not ashamed of my body, but women are so quick to jump to conclusions and always assume my attire is to attract attention not for safety and comfort.

tracy13Quint: This is something I do see, regularly and at all ages. What it all boils down to is jealousy or envy. Most women are not unlike most men. They want a lean and muscular frame. They are not as obsessed with size, but they do get the same joy out of getting stronger. It makes me laugh that the women who come in to reach certain goals in their appearance all of a sudden “don’t want to look that big” when they see a women who is already at their desired fitness level. Suddenly it becomes “too much muscle” when a women (and this is true for men too) in peak physical condition becomes the talk of the weight room or was able to reach a mutual goal first. When an entire training facility stops to watch a 130 lb women squat 200 lbs for high reps with what looks like minimal effort, it can start a little jealousy as to why other women don’t get that attention. Everyone wants to have that attention; everyone wants to be the top dog, but what sets those who get (and earn) it apart is that some are willing to work for it, and some just want to make excuses.

The Strongwoman to the novice woman:

tracy7Tracy: Drawing off the issues mentioned above you will notice it doesn’t go both ways: women who lift heavy generally promote, help and go out of their way to help the other women out there who don’t have experience or knowledge on what they are saying, doing, or what they are interested in giving a try. Not only do they/we help, but we are there for you when you get frustrated about not knowing what an exercise is or how to set up equipment. WHY? Because we have been there too. Everyone starts as a newbie. Nobody comes out of the womb knowing how to lift. We all have made mistakes. Ladies, we need to stick together. We get enough flack from men about lifting heavy weights. The majority of men see the weight room as “their room,” and let’s face it: as women, more often than not, we are going to be seen as outsiders in the weight room. We need to stick together and not tear each other down.

tracy9Quint: Agreed. I have been involved in sports my whole life. Played just about everything growing up and played two sports through college. No sport is even close to Strongman when it comes to supporting and helping novices, or even fellow competitors. We really are one big family, we are accepting to all. It doesn’t matter if you are strong or weak, never lifted or have been lifting for 20 years. Tall or short, white or black. In fact, the only race strongmen and women don’t like are the ones you have to run.

Strongwoman to Man

tracy12Tracy: This is simple: I have been lifting for over 10 years now (learned in high school at a strength and conditioning facility) and I started strongwoman/lifting heavier since June 2012. I have my CSCS, an education, and a track record of success with my clients and myself. Being a woman with a CSCS is hard to find–as I have only met a handful across the country. It’s so frustrating that when I suggest help in the weight room or try to help somebody in general at the gym, they don’t listen the first time. It seems to be an impossible thought that I might know more than someone else. My male counterpart will say the same exact thing and he gets thanked and high praise with no questions asked. It doesn’t make sense at all. I’ve literally had guys and girls tell me they didn’t listen to me the first time because I’m a woman, and had them admit later that I was right. I’m not above myself, I do believe there are better coaches out there than me for sure, but it’d be nice to be given the same respect as men in my field.

tracy11Quint: I could go on this one for days. It is again something I have seen first-hand and even got involved defending or fighting for equal respect for others. Good strength coaches are hard to come by, that is true if you are man or a woman. I know a lot of good ones and I know a lot of terrible ones. Tracy is one of the best. I tell her time and time again that there is no doubt in my mind she will one day be the far superior coach to me. So guys, when someone with her track record offers you advice, take it. If she is having her clients do something, don’t tell her she is wrong because of some article you read in a magazine. It is insulting to the women who are more than qualified to give that advice. Especially if you are an uncertified, uneducated, and unqualified gym rat who reads body building magazines and does spin class for cardio.

Have you felt discriminated against for being a strong woman or witnessed discrimination against women who lift weights? Let us know in the comments section.