Why are so many women still scared to lift heavy weights?

“Strong is the new skinny.”

That was the slogan on the poster outside my local gym recently. I’m usually not one for motivational one-liners, but that advertisement really made me think how attitudes to health and fitness in Ireland have changed over the last couple of years. Even so, many Irish women are still under the illusion that weight-lifting is not a necessary part of their workout.

Growing up, I always believed that skinny was healthy, but while living in South America after college, I had my first experience with a personal trainer. Under her guidance, I began to weight-lift and train regularly. Like many Irish women, I’d always feared that lifting heavy weights would lead to wide shoulders, huge muscular arms and a general, shall we say, manliness.

What I didn’t realise until then was that to be in any way “toned”, a lady has gotta lift. To be honest, the term “toned muscle” doesn’t really mean a whole lot. What it actually refers to is a lean, well-developed muscle.

In order to achieve washboard abs, the answer is not to subsist solely on black coffee and apples with the odd sit-up thrown in. The answer, in fact, is to build strength by lifting heavy weights and working hard, and to eat lots of healthy, clean meals to reduce fat and water resistance. When you see a picture of a celebrity looking effortlessly slim and “toned” on the beach, what you’re actually seeing is their relaxed but well-developed muscles. You don’t have to worry about looking like Hulk Hogan… unless you’re planning on taking testosterone supplements!

Many women believe that doing the same upper arm exercises with a set of 2kg dumbbells at every workout will result in gorgeous, defined biceps. While lifting light weights is great as a starting point, be sure to slowly increase weight every couple of sessions, to prevent your muscles getting lazy.

Next time you head in for your workout, ask one of the trainers on hand in the gym for a consultation and an exercise programme. Most gyms offer this as a free service so it’s a great way to get expert advice. Also, check out online fitness fanatics like the Belfast-based Peanut Butter Girl for health and fitness tips that are tough but get results.

It might seem daunting to make your way into the “heavy weights” area of the gym, especially if you’re the only woman there, which can sometimes be the case. But don’t stress out. Everyone’s there to work out, just like you. Hold your head high, pick up those dumbbells and get going. Your body will thank you!