Barbie Doesn’t Play Sports

How can you get female athletes to embrace their weight-room workouts and throw away their desire to look like thin fashion models? The keys are to listen, understand, and educate.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim “Red” Wakeham, MS, SCCC, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University. He is starting his 10th year at Michigan State and can be reached at:

Training & Conditioning, 15.4, May/June 2005,

“Do you want to be a runway model or a healthy competitive athlete?” I have asked this question to many female athletes. I ask the question because, when I listen to their words, they say, “I want to be strong and explosive.” The problem is that when I listen to their actions, some say, “I want to look like a thin fashion model.”

One of my goals as a strength and conditioning coach is to inspire my athletes to do progressively more work in the weight room. The combination of progressive overload with the genetics of most competitive athletes eventually results in a small increase of lean body mass. Research suggests that increases in lean body mass begin around week six. But it is common for the female athletes I coach to stop by my office for a meeting long before week six.

Meetings usually start with, “Red, I am worried that I am gaining weight and getting too big.” I sometimes want to smile because I know that a majority of women do not have the genetic predisposition for Ms. Olympia-size muscles, and certainly they won’t be showing increased muscle mass by week three. I don’t smile, though, because I know that body weight and cosmetic shape are no laughing matter for most females.

The conflict between the duty of strength coaches to increase lean body mass in female athletes and many females’ desire for social acceptance through thinness can be a difficult issue. How can strength coaches deal with this tug-of-war? In this article I’ll offer some specific strategies I use at Michigan State to motivate our female athletes to embrace improvements in lean body mass.

When it comes to most issues, the more communication you can share, the less the conflict. Communication on this issue starts with the strength and conditioning coach acknowledging how focused many females are on slender shape and social acceptance, as opposed to physical competitive readiness.

Listening to female athletes over the years has been an interesting education for me. The biggest surprise has been how much time and energy they spend thinking and talking about food, diet, body weight, and cosmetic shape. For some women, these topics are a constant preoccupation. Based on my experience, I believe that if four female athletes went out for lunch to discuss a team issue, each could recount what the others ate and how they looked in their clothes with greater clarity than the topic discussed.

This may seem silly to a coach who thinks about body shape, oh, maybe once a year when he has to put on that suit and tie for the year-end awards banquet, or who comes from a football background where bigger is better. That’s why it’s important to commit to hearing and understanding females’ thoughts and feelings regarding their desire for thinness. This is the first step to making a connection from which they will listen, trust, and commit to our goals and plans.

Along with listening to my athletes and acknowledging that they may constantly struggle with body image issues, I try to teach them why this problem exists. Females are taught from a very early age that attractiveness, acceptance, personal happiness, and self worth are based on a very thin shape. The message is simple: If you are thin, you will be confident, well-liked, and successful. They see it in every advertisement, women’s magazine, and celebrity photo shoot.

I educate my athletes that they are being sold this unrealistic body ideal by marketers pushing products. The diet, fashion, and cosmetic industries take advantage of female body image insecurities through the promotion of an “ideal” body shape. The ideal shape is usually small muscled and thin. This distorted social norm is then linked to an extensive list of products to make your “perfect body” dreams come true. It is important to teach female athletes awareness about this deceit and how they are being manipulated.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon for fashion models’ and celebrities’ pictures to be digitally altered. In 2003, GQ magazine buffed, trimmed, and altered actress Kate Winslet’s photos in order to flatten her stomach and thin her legs. Winslet said the editors reduced the size of her legs by a third. Cover and photo shoots are often the culmination of weeks of personal preparation—along with professional lighting, make-up, costume design, air brushing, and computer manipulations.

It is unrealistic and unwise for women to use these fantasy advertisements as role models. This is especially true for athletes, whose goals are health and triumph, not product sales. But the reality is that it’s extremely hard for females to ignore all these images.

So we talk about the issue. I listen attentively to the female athlete who wants to talk about her fears, no matter how many times I’ve heard the same story. I try to empower each young woman by educating them on how the body image phenomenon has arisen. And I try to teach them that confidence and acceptance comes from within.

At the same time, I tell them not to give themselves permission to succumb to these unrealistic social pressures. Rather, they should embrace their genetic gifts and physically prepare to dominate. Changing their focus is their challenge, and I tell them I believe in their ability to do so.

When women are afraid that strength training will cause them to bulk up and dramatically change their body size, one of the best things I can do is provide them with scientific evidence that this is probably not going to happen.

I start with this: Studies show that over a nine-week period, most women who engage in resistance training gain a little over one pound of lean body mass, while experiencing a corresponding decrease in body fat of just under two percent. I usually repeat that. A mere one pound!

Females who weight train may see muscular size increases of 20 to 30 percent, depending upon body type and other genetic factors. However, increases do not appear to meaningfully affect external girth measurements, because they simultaneously lose body fat. Of two studies reviewed, one showed no overall change in girths and the other showed less than a quarter of an inch.

Research clearly shows that a majority of females will gain muscle and lose fat while staying close to the same body weight and size. For most females, the meaningful result should be a more shapely and taut physique.

I also tell them about the benefits that can be derived from weight training. A properly designed and implemented weight training program may contribute to increases in strength, speed, endurance, and flexibility. Further benefits include a decrease in the chance and severity of musculoskeletal injuries and increases in psychological well being. Finally, because muscle is a metabolically active tissue, small increases in lean body mass through weight training may lead to a higher metabolic rate (more calories expended during both exercise and recovery) and potentially less body fat.

Many female athletes who are afraid strength training will make them too big also fear that eating adequate calories to fuel their workouts will lead to unwanted weight gain. So another important method of ridding female athletes of their fear of gaining weight is to give them a constant flow of nutrition education.

We talk a lot about the benefits of eating a variety of wholesome foods throughout the day and immediately following exercise. I explain how doing so can provide a constant flow of energy, delayed onset of fatigue, enhanced healing of injuries, faster recovery from illness, improved concentration, and enhanced athletic performance. Ultimately, the benefits of healthy eating probably give athletes a competitive edge without spending more time practicing.

To assist with nutrition education, we recently hung four 32-inch flat screen television monitors in our weight room. We have the monitors hooked into a computer that continually runs a nutrition PowerPoint presentation throughout the day. Each slide then answers one nutrition question or presents one important nutrition fact. For example, one slide answers the question, “Why shouldn’t you restrict caloric intake?” while another explains how to make great food choices. The PowerPoint idea has worked extremely well to educate our athletes without taking up any extra time.

We also educate them about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy eating in a psychological sense. Because we want to avoid disordered eating, we teach them what it means to have a balanced approach to meal planning.

For example, smart eating can include refined sugar and foods with fat. Many dietitians suggest eating your favorite “fun” foods in moderation as part of a balanced, nutrient-wise plan and as a strategy to keep from binging.

An example of an unhealthy eating attitude is the habit of labeling foods “good” or “bad.” Female athletes should not shudder at the offer of a cookie or small bag of chips. High-caliber female athletes should feel relaxed and comfortable eating a wide variety of foods. Calories from the “bad food” list have no greater influence on weight than do the low calorie items from the “good food” list. A calorie is a calorie—weight gain results from going over your total caloric needs. What is needed is balanced meal planning.

I encourage balanced eating through both motivation and education. I motivate by first establishing a relationship of trust and loyalty to both the person and the athlete. The women I coach know that I care about them personally and am passionate about their athletic goals. They know this because I show up, inquire, listen, and try to understand them personally before professionally solving and leading. Then, I try to motivate them by sharing exchanges about the joys and purposes of eating. When the athletes and I talk there is little judgment, just education and some laughs.

I also try to demonstratively celebrate those who are healthy eaters in front of the group. I tell stories about champions and championship teams I have worked with who committed to purposeful eating and benefited because of it. I also remind athletes of the times they were successful because of proper fueling or failed because of their lack of healthy eating. Furthermore, I practice what I preach. The women know that I generally fuel myself with healthy foods, but they also know that my “fun foods” are Little Debbies and Gummies.

When I hear athletes say, “I am having one brownie after I get done eating a balanced plate that consists of a rainbow of wholesome foods … and, yes, I did eat breakfast!” I know we’re making strides. I give them a high five and a big smile.

At the same time, we make it clear that our goals in the weight room are to increase their strength and lean body mass. We acknowledge reality around body image, but we also invoke standards and apply them through consequences and rewards.

Because many females are not that excited about the prospect of lifting weights and getting stronger, they tend to need more incentives than male athletes. Many females want to start with five pounds on each side of a bar or machine and progress by just two and a half pounds. This would mean we wouldn’t arrive at a challenging resistance or improve body composition until a week before they graduated.

To ensure that our females are challenging their muscles, I assign the standards of “DF” meaning “demonstrated fatigue” and “NF” meaning “not to fatigue” next to all of the prescribed exercises. The effort level assigned to each exercise depends on the degree of technique involved. Low technique exercises have an NF assigned to them instructing athletes to stop when the goal repetition is achieved or technique significantly breaks down. DF means female athletes must continue to lift until they achieve demonstrated fatigue. Demonstrated fatigue means continuing until exercise technique is significantly affected or the player cannot achieve a repetition without assistance from her partner. DF’s inspire trainees to start with a challenging weight load so they don’t have to lift a weight 50 to 100 times before they reach DF and are allowed to stop.

Progressive improvement on both DF and NF exercises is also a measured standard. If athletes fail to meet these standards after being taught, reminded, and reinforced, they are told to leave the weight room for the day and their name goes on a “Throw Outs” list that is posted in the middle of the room. Those who do attain the standards are demonstratively celebrated and treated like the heroes they are.

Just as it is important to individualize strength and conditioning prescriptions, it is sometimes important to acknowledge aesthetic demands of the sport and how this affects body image. For example, if we are working with a naturally muscular and strong gymnast (mesomorph), we may decrease weight training volume and address higher priority rate limiting factors like explosiveness or flexibility. Additionally, if we are working with a slightly stocky wide framed diver (endomorph), we may decrease total quantity of weight training and add anaerobic conditioning to address the aesthetic requirements of her sport.

But, for the majority of the athletes we train, we build bodies with the goals of enhanced performance potential and reduced chance and severity of injuries, and we don’t worry about whether or not the body is attractive. We empathize and work with those females who feel dissatisfied with their bodies. However, we do not compare athletes to the standards talked about in the general public, and we do not try to solve the “my muscles are too big” problem unless it legitimately exists.

To explain our focus, I sometimes tell a story about one female non-athlete and one female athlete who were eating at a local restaurant. When the non-athlete female was asked what she was doing she replied, “I’m eating lunch.” When the female athlete was asked, she replied, “I’m building a champion.”

Selfless commitment to team victory is our main focus. To accomplish it, we individualize sport-specific programs so that our athletes can safely and dominantly perform their sports skills. To this end, we listen, learn, educate, and lead.

At Michigan State, exercise is a tool for fitness, fun, health and victory, not weight control or body downsizing. To the Spartans, the weight room is a place to experience the joy of team interaction, connection, and accomplishment—a place to celebrate the strong, powerful, fit female.

For a list of references that accompany this article, please visit:

Most of the athletes I work with respond to the approach I describe in the mainbar of this article. Some are even enlightened by it and gain new confidence. But a handful do not hear what I’m trying to say no matter how much we talk. So I also am constantly on the lookout for athletes who have begun a cycle of disordered eating.

At the end of a hard week of training, I once asked an exhausted female athlete, “What have you been eating this week?” She replied, “Cereal.” When I said, “Cereal and …” She replied, “Milk.” That’s right, she ate nothing but cereal and milk for five days straight.

Disordered eating often starts with restricted caloric intake and includes bizarre eating habits. Restricting whole food groups is an example of disordered eating, as is making very strict rules about what or where one eats. Other examples of behaviors that set off alarms include having an intense fear of weight and size gain, a constant preoccupation with food and thinness, a perception of being overweight when nothing could be further from the truth, significant weight loss, denial regarding significant weight loss, infrequent or absent menstrual periods, constant guilt regarding eating, always eating alone, and excessive exercising.

Disordered eating can create a variety of secondary problems, including insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals, low energy, impairment of immune function, reduced strength, poor motor control, fatigue, menstrual irregularities, or the loss of menstrual periods altogether. If untreated, loss of menses can lead to poor bone health, stress fractures, and premature osteoporosis.

Eating disorders can take the forms of anorexia and bulimia. Dangers associated with these situations can include loss of teeth and hair, heart conditions, kidney dysfunction, liver trouble, and even death.

People who have reached this point of being at war with their body don’t need to be blamed. They simply need help in the form of professional guidance and treatment. When I see any signs of disordered eating, I communicate with our sports medicine department, which has an outstanding system of professionals in place to help athletes with eating disorders. The sooner a person can be treated, the more quickly she can overcome the issue.

For a look at previously published articles in T&C on disordered eating in athletes, search “eating disorders” on our Web site, at:

Last year one of my women’s teams asked to do less work at a point in their off-season training. They said they were not physically recovering and were feeling mentally burnt out. I believe in listening and responding to the troops, so I did lessen the workload.

However, the team asked for less volume multiple times. I started getting frustrated because I secretly wondered if they were doing their part. Were they being responsible eaters for the goal of recovery? Did they have a rejuvenation plan? I suspected they were eating for appearance and not being professionals regarding their mental rejuvenation. In response, I researched and wrote a two-part test that I now hand out to people who ask to do less. If they can answer yes to at least 80 percent of the questions on both parts of the test, I consider reducing the volume of training. If they score less than 80 percent, I do not lower the planned workload. Below are the test questions:

Part I: Physical Recovery Test
• Do you eat breakfast every day?

• Do you eat and drink every three hours regardless of whether you are hungry or thirsty?

• Do you rest, via night sleep or a combination of night sleep and naps, between 7.5 and 8.5 hours every day?

• Are a majority (60-65%) of the foods that you eat carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits, vegetables)?

• Do you eat a balanced variety of foods to ensure adequate levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, and iron (bananas, meats, milk, cheese)?

• Is the color of your urine always light yellow?

• Do you drink at least two cups of water or sports drink two hours before and immediately after practices and competitions?

• Do you drink at least eight 8-ounce cups of caffeine-free nonalcoholic fluids every day?

• Do you drink one-half to one cup of water or sports drink every 15 minutes during practices and competitions?

• Does a majority of your dining plate look like a rainbow (filled with red, orange, yellow, and green foods)?

• Because alcohol affects metabolism, sleep, hydration, and your need for certain vitamins and minerals, do you abstain or strictly limit your frequency and amount?

• Do you consume calories during practice (one-quarter or one-half piece of fresh fruit, 3-4 pieces of dried fruit, 10-12 Teddy Grahams, 5-6 vanilla wafers, one-half an energy bar, one-quarter cup sports drink)?

• Do you eat a combination of both carbohydrates and protein within 15 minutes of cessation of activity (practice and weight training)?

• Do you choose more wholesome and natural foods rather than heavily processed and refined foods?

• Do you increase the amount of food you eat per day during times of increased training?

• Are you menstruating? If you are not, is there a valid medical reason?

If you cannot answer “yes” to at least 13 of the 16 listed questions, we do not want to lower the frequency or volume of your training. Our experience demonstrates that you are choosing to do less than is your responsibility in order to win consistently. Organize and commit yourself to smart recovery strategies in order to fully ignite your talents and abilities. Stronger energy management skills can be the difference for you, your team, and your dreams.

Part II: Mental and Emotional Recovery Self-Test

• Have you planned and taken mini vacations that allow you to “disconnect” from your sport personality and “reconnect” with other parts of who you are (your creative, adventurous, and fun sides)?

• Have you planned and used daily “time-outs” when you can relax your mind and calm your emotions? Common time-out activities include naps, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

• Do you have a list of activities that help you totally disconnect from your sport so that you are able to come back to it refreshed and hungry?

• Do you implement some of your disconnect activities as part of your daily, weekly, and monthly rituals? Positive rituals are more successfully implemented when they are scheduled at the same time and on the same day every week. This way, you do not have to try to squeeze them in. Your positive rituals should be as common as waking up and brushing your teeth.

• Do you keep a daily schedule to help you manage your time?

• Do you delegate authority and responsibility to those around you?

• Do you have realistic goals?

• Do you exercise patience in your expectations of results?

• Do you focus on success?

If you cannot answer “yes” to at least seven of the nine listed questions, we do not want to lower the frequency or volume of your training. Our experience demonstrates that you are choosing to do less than is your responsibility in order to win consistently. Organize and commit yourself to smart rejuvenation strategies in order to fully ignite your talents and abilities. Stronger energy management skills can be the difference for you, your team, and your dreams.