Laurel Walzak felt calm as she waited backstage among her fellow competitors at the GNC Live Well Fouad Abiad Championships, a regional bodybuilding contest in Ontario that qualifies winners for provincial-level competitions.
“But when the emcee called the name of the first woman in my group and she walked onstage, I got very nervous,” recalls Walzak, an assistant professor who teaches sports media at Ryerson University in Toronto. “So I took a deep breath, mentally walked through all my poses and told myself, I worked so hard for this [and] I’m going to enjoy it and own my moment on the stage.”
She owned it, all right. Walzak won first place at the May of 2015 competition in Mississauga in the women’s masters tall category – an impressive feat considering it was her first time competing as a bodybuilder and she had been weight training seriously for just a year.
She’s in good company. Walzak is among the growing number of women who are picking up barbells and getting on bench presses in the gym to build strength and muscle – a departure from the typical female workout routine that focuses heavily on cardiovascular-based activities such as running or aerobics.
“We are seeing in the last 10 years a huge increase in women who are taking up weight training,” says Nastasia Genova, vice-president of fitness at Steve Nash Fitness World and Sports Clubs, which runs 22 fitness centres in British Columbia. “As women have become more active, they’ve also started to incorporate weight training into their workouts.”
The trend is hard to miss; at bodybuilding competitions, more women are signing up and their rising interest in the sport has led to the creation of new categories in recent years. At Canadian Bodybuilding Federation competitions, for instance, women account for a majority of competitors each year.
“In the early 1990s, we introduced the figure category for women who wanted to build muscle and compete, but didn’t want to look like bodybuilders,” says Debbie Karpenko, a Winnipeg-based vice-chair of judging for the federation. “But then we started to hear from even more women who wanted to compete but didn’t want as much muscle as needed in the figure category, so in the mid-2000s we introduced the bikini category.”
Women’s growing interest in weight training goes beyond bodybuilding competitions, though. In recreational gyms across the country, more women are pumping it up, naturally and free of drugs, to improve their health and tone their bodies. This isn’t strictly a Canadian phenomenon; a survey last year of female Gym Group members in Britain found close to 95 per cent have added resistance training, including the use of free weights and strength equipment, to their workout routine, and almost half named free weights as their favourite gym equipment.
Genova attributes this trend to a better understanding of how weight-bearing exercises can help fight conditions such as osteoporosis, being overweight or obese, and perhaps even cognitive problems such as dementia. At the same time, she says, women are increasingly realizing they’ve got greater physical strength than they had previously imagined.
“The fitness industry has done a great job of educating women on weight training,” says Genova. “We also got better at creating weight training programs for women and empowering them with tools that will allow them to feel comfortable going to the gym, which used to be seen as a male domain.”
Liliana Borda certainly never imagined she’d be pumping iron six days a week at GoodLife Fitness gyms in Mississauga. Two years ago, as she was trying on dresses in a store’s fitting room, Borda decided she needed to lose weight, so she started lifting weights at home as part of her health kick.
A trial membership to GoodLife – along with coaching from a male friend who was heavily into bodybuilding – got Borda hooked on weightlifting.
“My friend showed me all these exercises I could do with the weights and machines and I said, my God, I should really get into the gym – there’s more equipment here than what I could ever get in my home,” recalls Borda. “So I joined the gym, did my research to build a plan around my weightlifting and nutrition, and got into a workout routine.”
Working largely with dumbbells and barbells, she started with relatively light weights and gradually moved to lifting heavier weights as she became stronger.
“Now I can lift 45 pounds with one arm and I can do between 15 and 17 reps depending on the exercise,” says Borda, a single mother of two young kids. “When I started I could only do 20 pounds.”
Borda worried at first that lifting weights might make her look masculine. Sydney Shead, a personal trainer at a downtown Toronto GoodLife gym, says that’s a common concern among women – but one that’s unlikely to come to fruition.
“Yes, you are going to build muscle, but it takes a lot of food and lot of really heavy lifting to gain that kind of bulk,” she says.
Shead says women who want to lose weight will actually find it easier to achieve their goal because increasing muscle mass boosts metabolism; after a strength workout, the body continues to burn calories for 72 hours, compared to just 24 hours after a cardio workout, she says.
“That’s why it’s important to eat at regular intervals throughout the day so your body doesn’t start eating muscle,” she says. “The great thing is when you do lift, you have more room to play in your diet because your body needs more fuel.”
Not just any fuel. Like any workout regime, strength training is most effective when it’s accompanied by a healthy diet. For Chyann Garrick, a 24-year-old Toronto model and business owner, this translates into plenty of protein, vegetables, fruit and whole grain.
To avoid feeling deprived, she treats herself to a “cheat meal” – usually one that includes French fries – once in a while, but she is careful not to overindulge.
“If you lift heavy weights but still eat crappy foods, you’re just going to put a bunch of muscle on top of fat, so you’ll end up looking bulky,” says Garrick, who has competed, too. She placed seventh in her category last year, for example, in a competition hosted by World Beauty Fitness and Fashion Inc., a Toronto-based event organizer focused on fitness, sports and fashion.
“For me, weight training is a lifestyle that goes deeper than just wanting to look good. It’s more about having a healthy body.”
The right diet is especially important for those who do competitive weight training. In the week leading to her competition two years ago, Walzak says she tweaked her diet each day to achieve a specific result.
“The day before competition you stop drinking water to see your veins and muscles pop, then you eat sweet potatoes to fill out,” she recalls. “It was amazing to see my body transform every single day in that last week.”
Two years after her 2015 victory, Walzak, who turns 43 in September, is thinking of signing up for another competition, this time at the provincial level. Her advice to other women who want to get into strength training?
“Don’t hesitate – sometimes women are afraid to go into the weight room because it’s predominantly men in there, but I can tell you from experience that they are usually helpful and supportive,” she says. “I recommend working with a trainer or using a buddy system with a friend, and celebrate every milestone. And it doesn’t matter your shape or size because when you are physically strong, you go through your life also feeling strong and confident.”