In the world of women’s sports, we’ve moved far beyond the days of basketball, softball, and tennis. Weight lifting sports have not only expanded to include women, but we now have a variety of iron-based sports to choose from. Because the concept of lifting is such new territory for some, it's easy to want to mesh every sport that uses a barbell into the same category. But just as with football and futbol, figure skating and ice hockey, long distance running and sprinting – one sport may have commonalities with another (equipment/environment), yet be entirely different (execution/goal).
Let’s take a general overview at the difference between four popular women's lifting sports:
Crossfit– This Reebok Sponsored event has catapulted in popularity over the last decade. The goal of Crossfit (CF) athletes is to be prepared for anything: “the unknown, and the unknowable.” It combines a variety of strength and conditioning exercises such as deadlifts, pistol squats, kipping pull ups, overhead squats and hand stand pushups with bouts of cardio (rowing, running, swimming, etc). WOD’s, or workouts of the day, are the “bible” of Crossfit and give athletes their game plan for their daily workout. Official WODs are done in a CF “box,” led by a CF accredited coach. Most workouts are done for time — not reps, like most typical strength training — though the occasional 1×1, 3×5, or 5×5-type WOD will make an appearance to enhance strength gains. This sport can be very fast-paced, requiring both speed and precision in execution/form of basic strength and Olympic lifts. Because of this, a strength base is typically well-established before entering Crossfit (top CF athletes often cross over from being a top athlete in another sport). CF athletes strive for a high anaerobic capacity, and train their bodies to hit their lactate threshold (you know…that pukey HIIT feeling? LOL) at any given time. Winners of the increasingly popular “Crossfit Games” are crowned with the title of “The fittest (woman) on earth.”
Strongwoman– If you’re familiar with the sport of Strongman, then you’re mostly familiar with Strongwoman (SW) – though you may not realize it. Since Crossfit seems to have put women's lifting “on the map” – it can be easy to assume that the average Strongwoman is a CF woman. Though a SW can (and many do) perform a WOD with little difficulty, the competition training for this event and the equipment used varies from that of CF – mainly in it's specializations. This sport also involves strength, muscle endurance and distance events. However, women compete with each other doing exercises such as sled (or truck ;)) push/drags, bag carries, tire deadlifts, atlas stones, farmer’s walks, log pressing, etc. These exercises all require excellent cardio condition and ability to handle large amounts of weight in often unbalanced situations. This sport is medium-paced, depending on the event taking place, and winners are deemed the “strongest” (woman) in the state/nation, etc.
Powerlifting– Most forms of lifting borrow from the three main compound lifts that come together in the sport of Powerlifting (PL) – bench press, squat and deadlift. Though PL women will often dip in to all rep ranges and may participate in a variety of physical activities/lifts, the sole focus of this sports' competitions is strength in the main lifts. So as comp season nears, the conditioning and endurance levels built in other phases are put to the test as they train for record breaking strength feats. PL ladies compete by weight class and get three attempts at each lift, ideally increasing the weight with each lift. Proper form is essential, and a competitor must get two white lights (signaling good form/a good lift) out of three lights total (red lights occur when form is improper or commands aren’t adhered to). This sport is definitely on the slower side, as you need adequate rest between each heavy attempt.
Bodybuilding– While CF may be getting all of the recent media coverage, women’s bodybuilding (BB) has been around for decades, and is often the term that comes to mind when someone first hears of a woman wanting to “lift weights.” Unfortunately, the image that usually pops into mind with this term is often negative, and based on only one division of this sport (bodybuilding). Women's BB actually consists of four different divisions: bodybuilding, physique, figure and bikini — each having a separate set of aesthetic requirements for competition (which I will address in the next part of this series). BB athletes can and do participate in all types of lifting activities in their off-season, though most training utilizes some form of periodization that leads the desired look for their event. These women train with traditional forms of weight lifting — using both compound and isolation movements — to aesthetically enhance every muscle in the body. Preparing for this sport involves manipulating various training variables (food/rep ranges/types of cardio) to first maximize muscle mass gains, and ultimately to achieve abnormally lean results for a brief period of time (as per specific division requirement). These competitions are purely based off of appearance and stage presence, sort of like a beauty-pageant style event for women who lift. Though properly trained BBers are plenty strong, actual strength is irrelevant to the competition, as you are judged solely off things such as musculature, symmetry, tan, hair, makeup, suit, etc.
Society still presents some degree of hesitation when it comes to ladies being more than the stereotypical “weaker sex,” and many ladies still hesitate to join the movement. Nevertheless, with the popularity of programs like P90x, more sculpted bodies gracing women's magazine covers, and the recent explosion of Crossfit, ladies are making a breakthrough in the lifting scene. Many women now take pride in developing higher levels of strength, and increasing levels of confidence to take on the competition scene. Though the various sports are often lumped into one category, the lifting revolution shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
In part 2 of this series, we'll break down the different divisions of bodybuilding. Til then, go out and lift
a barbell, dumbbell, your body, a truck…something heavy! ;)