Maximal Strength Training as a Pathway to Positive Body Image: A Qualitative Exploration of the Experiences of Female Powerlifters

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Erin L. Kelly Discipline of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (UCRISE), University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia

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Michelle Minehan Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (UCRISE), University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Discipline of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia

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Kate Pumpa Discipline of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (UCRISE), University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia

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This study considers the potential relationship between maximal strength training and positive body image by exploring the lived experiences of female powerlifters. Semistructured interviews were conducted with eight female powerlifters from Australia, and data were analyzed thematically. The study identified five themes related to positive body image and participation in maximal strength training: (a) appreciation of the functionality of the body, (b) embodiment, (c) rejection of societal body ideals and self-objectification, (d) self-compassion and body image flexibility, and (e) being surrounded by a body-positive community. These findings are consistent with existing literature on positive body image and participation in activities that promote embodiment. There is value in further investigation of maximal strength training as an intervention to develop positive body image in women.

Maximal strength training is a form of resistance training centered on increasing physical strength via a progressive overload of strength-based exercises, such as squat, bench press, and deadlift. Research has shown that regular strength training prevents chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes (Nikander et al., 2010; Strasser & Pesta, 2013; Strasser & Schobersberger, 2011). Furthermore, strength training is associated with positive effects on psychological and neurological health, such as improving cognition in older adults (Northey et al., 2018), reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression (O’Connor et al., 2010), and improving body image (Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009; Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006; Reel et al., 2007; Santa Barbara et al., 2017).

Body image is a multifaceted concept that involves an individual’s personal and subjective perception of their physical appearance, which includes aspects such as size, shape, and physical features (Cash & Pruzinsky, 2002). Negative body image has been associated with a variety of issues, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and disordered eating behaviors (Bluett et al., 2016; Cash & Fleming, 2002; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006; Paxton et al., 2006; Stice, 2002). Previous research exploring the relationship between body image and strength training has predominantly concentrated on reducing negative aspects of body image (see Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009; Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006; Reel et al., 2007; Santa Barbara et al., 2017). These studies have typically employed measures that focus on physical appearances, such as the Body Shape Questionnaire (Cooper et al., 1987) and the Body Areas Satisfaction Subscales (Cash, 2000).

In recent years, researchers have shifted their focus toward positive body image, which is characterized by a holistic love and respect for one’s body, independent of societal norms or ideals (Tylka & Wood-Barcalow, 2015; Wood-Barcalow et al., 2010). Positive body image has been linked to improved well-being, increased self-esteem, self-compassion, and overall life satisfaction (Becker et al., 2019; Wood-Barcalow et al., 2010). Although negative and positive body images are often viewed as opposite ends of a continuum, research has shown that they are distinct constructs that can coexist within an individual (Avalos et al., 2005; Andrew et al., 2016). In other words, an individual may hold negative feelings toward their body while still loving and appreciating it, regardless of its appearance, size, or shape.

Strength training has the potential to influence body image in a number of ways. When evaluating the impact of strength training on body image, it is essential to consider how strength training affects body image. While some studies suggest that strength training improves body image by reducing negative feelings toward one’s body, research indicates that it can also directly nurture positive body image. Walters and Heffernan’s (2020) qualitative study examined the impact of resistance training on positive body image in women aged 35–50 years. The findings reported that resistance training allowed participants to develop greater appreciation and acceptance of their bodies, and they became less fixated on weight and size, instead focusing on their physical strength and power. Despite continuing to harbor negative feelings about certain body parts, the participants expressed positive feelings and appreciation toward their body’s physical abilities.

It is crucial to recognize the different types of strength training, each with unique training goals, approaches, and motivations. Maximal strength training prioritizes physical strength over physique, potentially providing a stronger pathway to positive body image than other training styles. In addition, maximal strength training demands concentration and communication with how the body moves and feels during each lift. This experience accentuates the body’s functionality, encouraging participants to appreciate and respect their bodies for their physical capabilities and reducing the emphasis on esthetics. Strength-based physical activities may be particularly beneficial for women as they allow them to experience their body’s strength and power (Brace-Govan, 2002). This experience challenges the traditional stereotype of female physical weakness, opposing the cultural pressure for women to view their bodies as objects to be viewed and used by others. This, in turn, can result in the rejection of self-objectification and increased levels of positive body image (Menzel & Levine, 2010).

A potential pathway between positive body image and functionality is via embodiment. According to Piran’s Development Theory of Embodiment, the experience of embodiment relates to experiences on five continuous dimensions: body connection and comfort, agency and functionality, experience and expression of desire, engagement in attuned self-care practices, and resistance to self-objectification (Piran et al., 2020). Embodied individuals experience their bodies as integral to their self-expression and power (Mahlo & Tiggemann, 2016). This experience leads to the integration of the body and self, empowering women to resist societal pressures to view their bodies as ornamental objects to be viewed by others, reducing self-objectification and promoting positive body image (Tiggemann et al., 2014). Various studies have shown that embodiment promotes the integration of the body and self, reducing self-objectification and promoting positive body image (Mahlo & Tiggemann, 2016; Menzel & Levine, 2010; Tiggemann et al., 2014).

Embodying activities encourage awareness and attentiveness to the body and involve deep absorption in the physical process (Piran, 2016). Numerous physical activities have been identified as embodying activities, including yoga, belly dance, and martial arts (Daubenmier, 2005; Impett et al., 2006; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2018; Piran & Neumark-Sztainer, 2020; Tiggemann et al., 2014; Velija et al., 2013). Menzel and Levine (2010) argued that the concentration, strength, and coordination required by athletics athletes result in a state of mind–body integration leading to feelings of body awareness and appreciation and decreased self-objectification. Maximal strength training has the potential to act as an embodying activity as it demands concentration and communication with how the body moves during each lift. This leads to mind–body integration, which is central to the experience of embodiment (Piran, 2016).

Agency and functionality are important dimensions of Piran’s Development Theory of Embodiment. Body functionality refers to holding love and gratitude for what the body can do, including physical abilities (e.g., walking and dancing), internal processes (e.g., healing and breathing), creative pursuits (e.g., painting and dancing), body senses and sensations (e.g., sight and touch), communication (e.g., speaking and body language), and self-care (Alleva et al., 2015). A systematic review reported that interventions encouraging women to appreciate their bodies’ functionality significantly increased facets of positive body image (Guest et al., 2019). Influential interventions included writing-based exercises, as well as other activities such as exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy. It appears that a variety of activities have the potential to increase positive body image, when they focus on increasing awareness of body functionality. For physical activity to positively affect body image, it must be focused on functionality, not physique. For instance, women who participate in sports that emphasize leanness or are appearance-focused, such as gymnastics, are more likely to report body dissatisfaction (Varnes et al., 2013). Maximal strength training offers an ideal context for increasing functionality appreciation as it lacks objectifying features, and success is measured purely by physical strength.

Although there is existing literature on women’s experiences with different forms of strength training and their body image (see Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009; Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006; Santa Barbara et al., 2017), the authors are not aware of any research specifically investigating the connection between maximal strength training and positive body image among women. Consequently, this study aims to explore the experiences of women participating in maximal strength training and identify any potential links with positive body image.

Methods

Research Design

This study explores the female experience of powerlifting from a constructivist epistemological stance. This perspective acknowledges that individuals construct their understanding of the world through their experiences and reflection on those experiences (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). This epistemology recognizes that knowledge is subjective and arises from the interactions between individuals and their environment. The authors consider the participants as active co-constructors of knowledge, as they believe their experiences are crucial for shaping their understanding of powerlifting.

The authors adopted a pragmatic ontological stance, which strategically combines components of established qualitative research approaches, allowing for flexibility in exploring content. This approach permitted the authors to delve deeply into the participants’ experiences without imposing preconceived ideas of what constitutes their reality. Overall, the authors’ epistemological and ontological stances prioritize the participants’ subjective experiences and acknowledge that the knowledge generated is situated within the social and cultural contexts in which it was produced. The study’s central focus was the experiences of female powerlifters, which were explored through semistructured interviews. This interview format allowed the participants’ voices to take center stage while enabling the researcher to probe significant themes further.

Participants

The research sampling utilized purposeful and snowballing sampling techniques to identify and recruit participants from local strength and powerlifting gyms. Eight women who self-identified as powerlifters and strength training at least three times per week were interviewed for the study. Information on age, education, training frequency, and ethnicity was collected to describe the population. The participants were aged between 25 and 67 years. All the participants identified as White. Their powerlifting experience ranged from 1.5 to 5 years. See Table 1 for more information. Pseudonyms have been used when referring to the participants. The University of Canberra Human Ethics Committee approved the study (HREC 1659). All participants provided verbal and written informed consent before their interview was conducted.

Table 1

Participant Demographic Details

AbbieCarrieDaisyKatieLindaMeganPetaTammy
Age2527312967253224
EducationBDBDBDBDGCBDBDY12
Durationa (years)23325552
Frequency (per week)44645445
CompetingYesYesYesYesNoNoNoNo
LocationSGSGSGSGCGSGSGSG

Note. BD = bachelor’s degree; GC = graduate certificate; Y12 = Year 12; SG = strength gym; CG = commercial gym.

aDuration of strength training.

Procedure

Data were collected via semistructured one-on-one interviews. An interview guide was used to structure the interviews (see Table 2). Open-ended and probing questions were designed to explore the participant’s experiences, practices, and beliefs regarding the sport of powerlifting. Questions focused on five key topics: (a) motivation for participating in powerlifting, (b) role of the gym community and environment, (c) if and how powerlifting impacted body image, (d) role of gender in maximal strength training, and (e) barriers and facilitators in participating in a maximal strength training program. The interview guide did not dictate the direction of the interviews. Rather, it guided the interview and provided prompts when necessary. As such, the interview guide evolved parallel to data collection, allowing for unanticipated themes to be explored in more depth. At the end of the interview, participants were given an opportunity to provide any further information they thought would be relevant to the research.

Table 2

Interview Guide

Example interview questions
 1What inspired you to start powerlifting, and how did you first get involved in the sport?
 2Can you share your experience as a female powerlifter?
 3What do you enjoy most about powerlifting?
 4When you first started powerlifting, what were your goals?
 5Now that you have been powerlifting for X years, are your motivations and goals similar of have they changed?
 6How does the gym and training environment affect your experience as a powerlifter?
 7Have you faced any specific challenges or barriers as a woman in powerlifting. If so, how have you overcome them?
 9Does powerlifting influence the way you view your body? Can you tell me about this?
10Do you feel powerlifting has changed any other aspects of your life, either positively or negatively?
11What do you think could be done to encourage more women to participate in powerlifting, and what changes would you like to see to improve the experience for women who do strength training?
12Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience as a female powerlifter that you think is important to discuss?

The interviews were conducted by the first author (E. Kelly) at a time and location that best suited the participants. The first researcher had direct maximal strength training experience and was familiar with the culture of powerlifting before the data collection took place. This allowed the first researcher to establish trust with the participants through shared experiences. All interviews were face-to-face and audio-recorded with the interviewee’s permission and lasted between 45 and 90 min. Participants completed consent and background information forms prior to the interviews. Interviews were transcribed verbatim by the first author and reviewed by the research team.

Data Analysis

Interview data were analyzed using thematic analysis following Braun et al.’ (2016) six-phased process. Thematic analysis was chosen because of its flexibility in aligning with the researcher’s epistemology and research (Braun & Clarke, 2019). The first phase involved the independent and repeated readings of the interview transcripts by two of the authors. The aim of this first phase was to optimize familiarity with the data. Memos were written onto the transcripts, and an initial list of descriptive codes were generated and then organized into initial themes. Once initial codes and themes were identified, the authors came together to discuss and review their findings and collectively refined and regrouped themes to ensure consistency.

An extensive range of topics were covered in interviews. Once all the key themes were identified, further analysis was conducted to identify the key themes that relate to the specific aims of this study. As a result, this data analysis stage employed a more deductive approach. Throughout the analysis process, the researchers remained open to revisions and reinterpretations, which helped ensure the findings’ accuracy and validity. If any discrepancies or inconsistencies were identified, the researchers revisited the data to ensure that the themes accurately represented the experiences and perspectives of the participants.

After finalizing the key themes, the authors chose direct quotes from the interview data representative of each theme and the participant’s voice. These quotes were then used to support the findings and provide concrete examples of the experiences and perspectives of the participants.

Methodological Rigor

Throughout the research process, the lead author reflected on how her position and experiences influenced this research. All authors identify as White cisgender females. The lead author (E. Kelly) has 6 years of experience in maximal strength training. From early in her training experience, she noticed an absence of women in the weight rooms of commercial gyms and was interested in the reasons why. This observation led to this research to explore the lived experience of female powerlifters, a population of women who have overcome the barriers to participating in strength training as a female. M. Minehan and K. Pumpa are experienced academics and sports dietitians who have worked with elite athletes for over 20 years. Both have some awareness of practices in powerlifting but appreciate that every athlete is different and were interested in developing a deeper understanding of the experience of participating in this sport.

Trustworthiness was optimized by following Shenton’s (2004) strategies. Well-established research methods and procedures were adopted during the data collection and analysis process to demonstrate credibility. Further, the lead researcher was familiar with the culture of powerlifting before the data collection took place. This allowed the lead researcher to establish trust with the participants through shared experiences. To help ensure honesty, participants were given the opportunity to refuse to participate in the project, ensuring that only those who were willing to participate and offered data freely were included. To ensure that the data reflected the participants’ experience rather than the lead researcher’s views, other research team members reviewed the themes to confirm and interrogate the lead researchers’ findings (Shenton, 2004).

Results

Five key themes relating to positive body image and participation in maximal strength training were identified. These themes are presented below.

Appreciating the Functionality of the Body

An increase in appreciation for the functionality of the body was a core theme. Participants reported that participating in maximal strength training increased their gratitude for their body’s physical capabilities. For example, Peta acknowledged that maximal strength training had changed her body composition compared with when she was competing in the bikini division of bodybuilding, but she now took pride in her body’s physical strength “I definitely have more shape than say a bikini competitor would, but I’m so proud of what my body can do now.”

Other respondents discussed appreciating the independence and freedom that their physical strength gave them. Carrie described feeling empowered by being able to move heavy items without assistance: “Being stronger genuinely is great like day to day. Like around the house and that sort of thing. I feel really empowered because I know that I can move any of my furniture.” While Linda discussed appreciating that physical strength gives her the confidence to continue to enjoy social and recreational activities into retirement:

Another friend who’s not too unfit, this is very recent where she and I’d gone off to have a little picnic along the edge of the lake. And we had a rug and I’d spread that out, we were just going to sit on the rug and have our food. And as she got down, she said, we’re gonna have to think about how to get up again. That’s not a thought that I ever have, that kind of I won’t be able to move to get up or get down or whatever it is. I like the strength that I have. I just know my whole body works and that I love that.

Appreciating the functionality of their bodies coincided with participants reframing their bodies as they focused less on their weight and being small and instead desired muscle and strength. Tammy stated, “It started to be less about losing body fat and building muscle and more about building strength.” Participants spoke of shifting their focus from numbers describing their weight and size to “the numbers on the bar.” Women spoke about being less concerned about their physical appearance and became more aware and appreciative of their body’s functionality:

I’m just getting older and I’m like what is that, I have a wrinkle in my hip, that wasn’t there a year ago kind of thing. But you kind of look at it like cool it’s wrinkles on my hip. This body squats 120, this body lifted 140kg deadlift, this body loves my husband, and it gets me to work every single day. (Peta)

Participant’s motivations for beginning maximal strength training varied. The women identified that they started maximal strength training as they were actively seeking an alternative to weight loss-focused training programs, “I was sick of training for looks. I wanted to see what I was capable of” (Lisa). Similarly, Peta, who came from a background in competing in the bikini division of bodybuilding, was searching for a training style that was not esthetically driven:

I wanted something that would allow me to train that just didn’t have anything to do with how I looked. I was so sick of trying to fit a standard at that point, and there had to be something different.

For others, their initial training motivation was centered around weight loss but later their training motivation pivoted from weight loss toward physical strength.

When I started having a coach and doing weight training, my main motivation was to lose weight, so that was probably my biggest motivation. But then as I started to progress and get stronger and just see what I was capable of, that really was the biggest motivation. (Katie)

Respondents reported that changing their focus from their physical appearance to physical strength improved their overall mental health and well-being:

When I started focusing more on the numbers on the bar, the weights I could lift, as opposed to scales, centimeters on my waist it’s really helped with the relationship I had with myself, so it’s much better. (Daisy)

Embodiment and Mind–Body Connection

Participants described how maximal strength training demands a high level of concentration and communication with their body. The women discussed the importance of “knowing what each lift should feel like” and responding when movement patterns diverged from this standard. This required being consciously connected and in tune with their body during training sessions.

Focusing on how the body moves and feels under the weight of the barbell requires blocking out irrelevant and distracting thoughts, and for participants, this was a meditative experience. For example, “I think that’s what I like about it, is the complete focus to do the lift. To me, it’s a form of mindfulness. You have to be in there, if you’re not there, then you’re probably dead” (Linda). These descriptions align with the concept of embodiment. Some women described how the embodying experience was amplified due to the heavy weight they were lifting.

When I have that weight on me, it forces you to be focused as well. So, there’s something sort of almost meditative about that side of it. You can’t zone out when you’re holding a hundred kilos. Just having that weight on me and like always calms me down. I always feel good after training. (Carrie)

Rejection of Societal Body Ideals and Self-Objectification

Participants raised the discrepancy between social attitudes toward females and males participating in strength-based sports. For example, Abbie acknowledged, “There’s always gonna be some men who were like all women shouldn’t do strength sports, it’s bad. And you also get some women who are like women shouldn’t do strength sports, it’s bad.” While participants expressed frustration with this gender stereotype, it did not limit their pursuit of physical strength. Tammy explained, “You know what, we don’t have to be women that have to look a certain way, or we shouldn’t be scared that we can lift heavier weights than some men. Why should we?” For Carrie, pushing back against social gender norms was an empowering experience, “I find focusing on what my body can do and how strong it is. I find that really empowering. I think it really goes against what a lot of society wants of women.”

For the participants, the act of rejecting social body ideals allowed them to moderate objectifying experiences, leading to decreased self-objectification and better body image overall. For example, Peta commented, “Powerlifting changed my life. It made me see myself, or my body. My body wasn’t my value, it was the vehicle that I was in to execute whatever it was that I was executing in life.”

For Abbie, the rejection of self-objectification enabled her to reframe her body from an object to be viewed to a physical process, which resulted in a better body image overall.

I had some, you know, body image issues in high school, but who doesn’t, and teenagers are the worst. But, honestly powerlifting has made me feel a lot better about it. When I first started off training at [name of gym] I’d always wear a singlet under my t-shirt. I very rarely wore shorts, and if I did, they were like relatively long ones. And like these days it’s just like ratty old t-shirt tiny shorts, who cares. I don’t go to the gym for other people to look at me, I go to the gym to lift. So yeah, it’s probably like improved my body image.

However, for other women, the transition away from self-objectification was more challenging. Peta, who entered the powerlifting community after several years competing in the bikini division of bodybuilding, experienced a more extended adjustment period.

The whole shape of my body changed like I went from being very little, very straight up and down. I suddenly had a back. I physically took up more space in the world, and I had to learn how to deal with that. I was becoming more muscular, I was holding shape in a different way. So, it was also redefining what feminine meant to me because I associated femininity with bikini body, and I had to learn that this body is actually sexual, it is feminine, it is strong, it’s just a different way of looking.

Self-Compassion and Body Image Flexibility

Another key theme that emerged was self-compassion. Within all interviews, participants spoke of treating themselves with compassion, especially as it related to their physique. They acknowledged experiencing periods of body dissatisfaction. For example, Katie explained, “Most days I’m pretty happy with how I look, but I definitely still have negative body image days,” but Katie also displayed flexible thinking concerning body image. She recognized when negative body image thoughts arise and acknowledged them without rumination, understanding that they were only temporary, “I think you just go through stages.” Peta shared a similar experience of self-compassion and body image flexibility arising from her maximal strength training experience:

I think every woman has those days where they are not happy with how they look. For whatever reason or they’re just not feeling good. But strength training has given me the ability to be grateful for what my body does and so I can move past those negative thoughts a lot quicker rather than dwelling on them like I used to.

Having self-compassion, especially related to body image, allowed the participants to question their own negative body image thoughts. In this example, Tammy redirects her desire for thinness back to her physical strength:

Sometimes I’ll go out to work, and I’ll see the girls, and I wish I was as slim as them, but now I’m like hang on, you don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life, you’re strong, and to me, strength is more important.

Being Surrounded by a Body-Positive Community

All the participants described the powerlifting community as being body positive. This was primarily attributed to the community members collectively training to increase their physical strength rather than being driven by esthetics. “It’s not really focused on how you look. It’s more about the number you can lift” (Katie). Carrie shared a similar sentiment:

Powerlifting is not about how you look, it’s about how strong you are. No one cares what you look like if you’re really strong. It’s just not about that which I find really exciting and empowering.

Being surrounded by a community of women who were not training to improve their physique gave the women permission to accept their own bodies. For example, Katie commented on the positive impact that being in a body functionality-focused community had on her self-image:

I feel a lot more positive and happier in my skin, I think that is because of the way that it has changed physically. But then also the mental side of surrounding yourself people that don’t really care what you look like because they’re interested just how you lift.

For Tammy, this community contrasted with her previous experience of the female gym culture and standards:

It wasn’t totally fixated on that, you needed to look a particular way or fit into a particular category of a gym person. It wasn’t your stock standard, you need to be a size eight, you need to be wearing Lululemon. It was just women coming in for a purpose, knowing their goals and meeting those goals and expectations.

Respondents raised concerns about the effect of social media (i.e., Instagram) on the community’s body positivity ethos “I think that with Instagram and stuff, that it’s potentially shifting more toward esthetics as well as being strong” (Katie). However, by acknowledging and recognizing this growing trend, the women were able to filter social media information in a body-protective manner. For example, Carrie was conscious of the increased popularity of powerlifting on social media and actively filtered images and messages that she felt endangered her body image:

With how big powerlifting is on Instagram now, there’s maybe a bit more pressure to look good as well as being strong, which I’m not a huge fan of. I used to follow a lot of powerlifters on Instagram, and I just follow hardly any anymore because I found myself starting to compare myself to other people and stuff, and I was like, that’s not why I’m doing this.

Discussion

This qualitative study explored the experience of powerlifters participating in maximal strength training. Five main themes connected to positive body image were identified. These themes are consistent with existing literature on positive body image and participation in embodying activities. The results from this study suggest a link between maximal strength training and positive body image.

Central to the relationship between maximal strength training and positive body image is the appreciation of the functionality of the body. All the women interviewed described how maximal strength training drew their attention to the functionality of their bodies. The experience of physical strength reduced their emphasis on physical appearance and instead led participants to focus more on muscle and strength. Participants reported transitioning from being less concerned with their appearance and more focused on their physical abilities, such as how much weight they could lift. This shift in perspective is consistent with other literature considering influences on more positive body image (Alleva & Tylka, 2021).

Moreover, maximal strength training has the potential to provide a sense of physical accomplishment. By increasingly adding more weight to the bar, participants have an objective indicator of their growing strength, which can contribute to their sense of mastery and control over their bodies. This is consistent with other research that concluded that participating in physical activities with objective measures can enhance the positive effect of appreciating functionality on body image (Richardson et al., 2022; Walters & Hefferon, 2020). For instance, a recent study examining the influence of strength training on positive body image revealed that female participants’ measurable gains in strength led to a heightened sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy (Walters & Hefferon, 2020).

Piran’s Development Theory of Embodiment offers an explanation for why maximal strength training benefits positive body image. Embodying activities promote a deep connection to the body, resulting in mind–body integration. Maximal strength training offers an ideal context as an embodying activity as it demands concentration and communication with how the body moves and during each lift. This leads to mind–body integration, which is central to the experience of embodiment (Piran, 2016). Integrating the mind and body can reduce self-objectification by protecting against taking an external perspective of the self. For instance, Mahlo and Tiggemann (2016) found that practicing yoga is linked with higher levels of positive body image and reduced self-objectification. The authors propose that the embodiment experienced through yoga acts as a defense against adopting an observer’s perspective of the body, ultimately resulting in a more positive body image, underscoring the potential of embodying activities to promote positive body image and reduce self-objectification.

Respondents described being highly attuned to their physical state, often using cues to ensure they are focused on their breath, body position, and movement patterns. This results in a heightened state of body awareness and responsiveness, nurturing the embodiment experience. Positive embodiment counteracts the societal pressure for participants to value their bodies as objects to be used and viewed by others, reducing self-objectification and positively influencing functionality appreciation (Mahlo & Tiggemann, 2016; Menzel & Levine, 2010). The results of this study are consistent with Menzel and Levine’s (2010) suggestion that competitive athletes exemplify embodiment activities. They argue that the strength and coordination required create frequent states of mind–body integration, which is key to the experience of embodiment.

Significantly, this study identifies a link between female participation in traditionally “masculine” sports and positive body image. Maximal strength training is a sport that contradicts societal expectations of women. Historically, women are socialized to appear submissive, small, and not too loud or assertive (Brace-Govan, 2004). The present study argues that maximal strength training allows women to display physical strength and power, an action that directly opposes societal expectations for women. For many respondents, pushing back against societal expectations was an act of rebellion against restrictive gender norms, empowering them to reject unrealistic body ideals and the objectification of women, further enhancing positive body image. To date, bodybuilding has been the focus of research into women harnessing physical strength and muscularity. Debate exists among feminist scholars as to the true understanding of the muscular female body. For some, it represents resistance against traditional ideas of femininity and acts as an empowering feminist activity. For others, it is another example of female compliance, with proponents drawing attention to the body image pursued by women influenced by judging standards that centralize cultural norms of feminine beauty (see Choi, 2003; Hockin-Boyers et al., 2020; Martin & Gavey, 1996; Richardson, 2008; Shea, 2001). Like bodybuilding, maximal strength training involves lifting heavy weights to develop muscle mass and strength. However, unlike bodybuilding, maximal strength training is not an appearance-focused activity. Instead, success is determined by the quantity of weight lifted. This study suggests that maximal strength training’s lack of focus on esthetics potentially bypasses the adverse effects of bodybuilding while still serving as an act of resistance.

This study reports participants filtering and redirecting negative body image thoughts. As Tylka and Wood-Darclow (2015) highlighted, high levels of positive body image do not negate feelings of negative body image. In keeping with Tylka and Wood-Darclow’s findings, participants reported experiencing “negative body image days.” However, they recognized these feelings as temporary and protectively redirected their thoughts to what their bodies could do (e.g., physical strength). Interestingly, the protective filtering strategies discussed by the participants in this study align with the tactics discussed by Evens et al. (2021). In particular, Evens et al. (2021) reported that women who self-identify as having a positive body image questioned the legitimacy of the societal body and beauty ideals and refocused their awareness and gratitude on the functionality of their bodies. Our research findings are inconclusive regarding whether participating in maximal strength training directly led to an increase in participants’ ability to redirect negative body image thoughts or whether they were already inclined toward this path before joining maximal strength training. Nonetheless, study participants reported being part of a training environment that prioritized enhancing their strength and performance. Women were encouraged and celebrated by other women for their strength gains instead of focusing on reducing body size. These factors could foster greater resilience to negative body image. Further investigation is required to determine which aspects of the training, or characteristics of the trainer and environment, are more influential.

The results from this research suggest that the role of the community is important in developing positive body image. The powerlifting community celebrates the strength and functionality of women’s bodies rather than physical appearance, empowering respondents to do the same. Participants reported that being part of the community switched their exercise mindset from appearance-focused to function-focused, consequently improving their body image overall. All the participants described the powerlifting community as body positive. They discussed the powerful influence of surrounding themselves with women who exercise to increase their strength rather than change the appearance of their bodies. These findings support a recent study by Waring and Kelly (2020) that shows that a woman’s ability to hold positive feelings about their body varies depending on their social relationships. In particular women reported feeling more body positive when surrounded by people who are less body-preoccupied and more body-accepting. Overall, the women’s responses highlight the significance of finding a body-accepting community for fostering and maintaining positive body image.

To conclude, women participating in maximal strength training reported a number of themes related to positive body image in women. Participants’ description of their experience with maximal strength training aligns with descriptions of embodying activity. Consistent with Piran’s Development Theory of Embodiment, maximal strength training may increase functionality appreciation and decrease levels of self-objectification. For women, activities focused on increasing physical strength may be particularly beneficial as experiencing physical strength and power may equip women with the cognitive tools to counter the cultural pressure to value their bodies as physical objects to be viewed and used by others. In this way, maximal strength training may further reduce self-objection and lead to higher levels of positive body image overall.

Limitations

There are several limitations to this study. First, women with high levels of positive body image and who appreciate the function of their body’s application may be more likely to engage in physical activity, especially strength-based sports. Although several women self-identified as having disordered eating or preoccupation with weight prior to starting powerlifting, suggesting this may not be the case. Further, specialist gym memberships and coaching have a high financial cost, creating a self-selecting social–economic category. Also, it is essential to acknowledge the lack of sociocultural diversity within the sample, with all the participants identifying as White. Consequently, the results may not represent women from more diverse backgrounds.

Future Research and Practical Implications

This study suggests there is value in developing a maximal strength training intervention to enhance women’s positive body image and embodiment. To maximize the effect on positive body image, the training program should be designed to increase physical strength and draw participants’ attention to the functionality of their bodies. For example, training programs should emphasize functional movements that simulate daily activities, such as squats and deadlifts. Trainers can illustrate the practical applications of these exercises, such as lifting heavy objects or standing up from a chair, to help clients understand their relevance. Practicing mindfulness during strength training can also enhance body awareness by focusing on breathing, posture, and movement. In addition, coaches should prioritize providing function-focused feedback over appearance-focused feedback during training to promote positive body image and reduce the negative effects of self-objectification.

In addition, the results from this study highlight the importance of nurturing the development of a body-positive community within the group. A mixed-methods evaluation of future maximal strength training interventions is warranted. A qualitative evaluation will determine the participants’ lived experience of the program. The use of validated surveys, such as the Body Appreciation Scale-2 (Tylka & Wood-Barcalow, 2015) and the Functionality Appreciation Scale (Alleva et al., 2017), should be used to support the qualitative data. Future research should use sampling strategies that support the recruitment of a more diverse population.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Andrew, R., Tiggemann, M., & Clark, L. (2016). Predicting body appreciation in young women: An integrated model of positive body image. Body Image, 18, 3442. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.04.003

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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This study provides unique insight into the female lived experience of maximal strength training and how it might cultivate positive body image.

Findings suggest that maximal strength training could be used as an intervention to improve body image in women.

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  • Expand
  • Alleva, J.M., Martijn, C., Van Breukelen, G.J.P., Jansen, A., & Karos, K. (2015). Expand your horizon: A programme that improves body image and reduces self-objectification by training women to focus on body functionality. Body Image, 15, 8189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.07.001

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Alleva, J.M., & Tylka, T.L. (2021). Body functionality: A review of the literature. Body Image, 36, 149171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.11.006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Alleva, J.M., Tylka, T.L., & Kroon Van Diest, A.M. (2017). The Functionality Appreciation Scale (FAS): Development and psychometric evaluation in U.S. community women and men. Body Image, 23, 2844. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.07.008

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andrew, R., Tiggemann, M., & Clark, L. (2016). Predicting body appreciation in young women: An integrated model of positive body image. Body Image, 18, 3442. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.04.003

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Avalos, L., Tylka, T.L., & Wood-Barcalow, N. (2005). The Body Appreciation Scale: Development and psychometric evaluation. Body Image, 2(3), 285297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.06.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Becker, C.B., Verzijl, C.L., Kilpela, L.S., Wilfred, S.A., & Stewart, T. (2019). Body image in adult women: Associations with health behaviors, quality of life, and functional impairment. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(11), 15361547. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105317710815

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bluett, E.J., Lee, E.B., Simone, M., Lockhart, G., Twohig, M.P., Lensegrav-Benson, T., & Quakenbush-Roberts, B. (2016). The role of body image psychological flexibility on the treatment of eating disorders in a residential facility. Eating Behaviors, 23, 150155. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.10.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brace-Govan, J. (2002). Looking at bodywork: Women and three physical activities. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 26(4), 403420. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193732502238256

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brace-Govan, J. (2004). Weighty matters: Control of women’s access to physical strength. Sociological Review, 52(4), 503531. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2004.00493.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(4), 589597. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Weate, P. (2016). Using thematic analysis in sport and exercise. In B. Smith & A.C. Sparkes (Eds.), Routledge handbook of qualitative research in sport and exercise (pp. 213227). Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Campbell, A., & Hausenblas, H.A. (2009). Effects of exercise interventions on body image: A meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(6), 780793. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105309338977

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cash, T.F. (2000). The multidimensional body-self relations questionnaire. Unpublished Test Manual, 2, 112.

  • Cash, T.F., & Fleming, E.C. (2002). The impact of body image experiences: Development of the body image quality of life inventory. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31(4), 455460. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.10033

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cash, T.F., & Pruzinsky, T. (2002). Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice. Englishread.

  • Choi, P.Y.L. (2003). Muscle matters: Maintaining visible differences between women and men. Sexualities, Evolution and Gender, 5(2), 7181. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616660310001632554

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, P.J., Taylor, M.J., Cooper, Z., & Fairbum, C.G. (1987). The development and validation of the body shape questionnaire. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 6(4), 485494. https://doi.org/10.1002/1098-108X(198707)6:4<485::AID-EAT2260060405>3.0.CO;2-O

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Creswell, J.W., & Creswell, J. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (5th ed.). Sage Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Daubenmier, J.J. (2005). The relationship of yoga, body awareness, and body responsiveness to self-objectification and disordered eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29(2), 207219. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00183.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Evens, O., Stutterheim, S.E., & Alleva, J.M. (2021). Protective filtering: A qualitative study on the cognitive strategies young women use to promote positive body image in the face of beauty-ideal imagery on Instagram. Body Image, 39, 4052. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2021.06.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guest, E., Costa, B., Williamson, H., Meyrick, J., Halliwell, E., & Harcourt, D. (2019). The effectiveness of interventions aiming to promote positive body image in adults: A systematic review. Body Image, 30, 1025. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2019.04.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hausenblas, H.A., & Fallon, E.A. (2006). Exercise and body image: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Health, 21(1), 3347. https://doi.org/10.1080/14768320500105270

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hockin-Boyers, H., Jamie, K., & Pope, S. (2020). Moving beyond the image: Theorising ‘extreme’ female bodies. Women’s Studies International Forum, 83, Article 2416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2020.102416

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Impett, E.A., Daubenmier, J.J., & Hirschman, A.L. (2006). Minding the body: Yoga, embodiment, and well-being. Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, 3(4), 3948. https://doi.org/10.1525/srsp.2006.3.4.39

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mahlo, L., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). Yoga and positive body image: A test of the Embodiment Model. Body Image, 18, 135142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.06.008

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Martin, L.S., & Gavey, N. (1996). Women’s bodybuilding: Feminist resistance and/or femininity’s recuperation? Body & Society, 2(4), 4557. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X96002004003

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