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Making the Weight Room a Place of Equality is Essential

By Lisa Myran-Schutte, CMAA on December 20, 2021 hst Print

Editor’s Note: Peg Pennepacker, a member of the High School Today Publications Committee and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on Title IX, also contributed to this article.

Have you ever walked around your school and tried to view things from the perspective of a young female? Perhaps you bring your niece into the building for the first time – what are her comments that stand out? Your district spent a lot of money to have a state-of-the-art fitness center or weight room. But what does she see when she walks in? A digital football countdown and weightlifting records for the football players. Her comment is, “Do boys only lift weights?”

Making a high school athletics weight room an inviting place for all genders is essential. Consider your school’s weight room from the perspective of young females. What needs are not being met? How can you create an environment where all levels of strength are not only accepted but celebrated? Females in high school sports are still evolving even after 50 years of the implementation of Title IX. Look at your weight room and find ways to make it better for all students.

One way to make the weight room better for everyone is to offer a meeting or class for females. Teach the techniques and allow them to get familiar with the area. Allow girls to be empowered in knowledge.

At Pine Island High School in Minnesota, we offered a FAST summer program – Female Athletes Strength Training. This took place three times a week in one-hour increments where the weight room was only open to female students. A coach planned the workouts and introduced the process and techniques. Once the summer was over, the coach still went into the weight room during open hours and encouraged the girls to join her. This was also when various football players were there. Everyone was focused and the girls were relaxed because they had knowledge and felt ownership – not only of their own strength but of also the weight room.

Male athletes and female athletes can work out together, but guidance needs to be given for both groups to be supportive and empowered. Taking the time to be purposeful and to maintain an environment that is encouraging and supportive is key. The weight room supervisor needs to have expectations and enforce them.

When looking into the details of the weight room, be mindful of the smaller student-athlete. Many times, the smaller athletes are females and there are not a like number of smaller males in the school. Lighter lifting bars need to be available. The free weights need to be addressed to ensure the smaller-sized student has something to lift. The goal is to not just meet the needs of the 300-pound football player, but also the 130-pound cross country runner who needs to build strength.

If you are looking into expanding options in the weight room, consider adding a machine. Sometimes, the lighter weights on a machine are less intimidating than 13 benches with free weights. Again, either system is fine and many schools use both, but be mindful of creating options for the beginner to have space away from the 250-pound running back trying to bench his personal record.

When you walk into your weight room, do you need to walk past all of the benches and platforms to use the dumbbells? Imagine how intimidating that may be for a beginner. Consider rearranging the location of some of the equipment. Creating inviting access to the medicine balls, dumbbells, ropes and sandbags would allow for less confident weightlifters to choose the weight and continue without intimidation. The flow of the weight room is a key to making it inviting for everyone.

Weight Room Expectations
Many weight rooms have a countdown to when football starts. Instead of taking it away, add to it. Add a countdown for the winter sports season, and another for the spring season. Record boards are great motivation for those who can achieve a record bench press or deadlift. However, create a record board for females. Maybe it is not the same lifts as the boys record board, and that is OK.

Everything in the weight room should create motivation. All the signage should be positive and uplifting for all athletes. It is time to celebrate the small athlete alongside the strongest athlete. Students are expected to be encouraging to one another. One way to boost this is a PR bell. When a student reaches a personal record on a lift, that student can ring the bell. And that bell should be rung whether that personal record is lifting a bar or adding 10 pounds to the bar or benching 180 pounds for the first time. All accomplishments are worthy to be celebrated.

Set aside time for individual teams. Ensure that no team gets all the best times or dominates all of the times. Look for discrepancies and be careful of exclusivity of use. Coaches have different philosophies on what they want the weight program to be and that is fine, but ensure that opportunity is available for everyone to be involved. Set open times for all student-athletes. Mornings before school and after school are a great way to entice as many students as possible to work out in the weight room.

Strength Training Coach
Many schools are working with strength training coaches in the weight room. The key component when having a designated coach for the weight room is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to train with the coach. This person needs to work with each coach and provide guidance and encouragement.

In the end, it is all about culture, and the weight room will reflect that. The weight room can be a place where the culture can be changed and embraced, encouraging one another in all accomplishments. That culture should state that no one team is more important than another by creating a schedule for use of the weight room. The culture should empower the female student-athlete to feel strong and accepted and allow all athletes to push hard alongside their peers.

Changing the culture of the weight room should be purposeful. Coaches showing up in the weight room during open hours is really effective while working out alongside the athletes. Coaches in the weight room are able to correct details in lifts, even if it is not their athlete. Simple encouraging words from a coach have immeasurable impact on an athlete. Be mindful in your weight room. When was the last time you walked through the weight room with a female or smaller student’s perspective? Be better. Be purposeful.