What Changed About Women and Strength (with Liz Plosser)

Today we’re talking to Liz Plosser, the Editor in Chief of Women’s Health. Liz is one of the fitness industry’s head honchos when it comes to content, but journalism definitely wasn’t the first place her career started out. And ending up at the top of Women’s Health’s content was far from an overnight success story. Today, Liz and David Thomas Tao discuss careers in health and fitness journalism, along with how content is marketed to women — and how that has changed dramatically over the last few decades.

Liz Plosser BarBend Podcast

[Related: Listen to our podcast with Haley Shapley, author of “Strong Like Her.”]

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Liz Plosser about:

  • Liz’s career, from finance to the top of Women’s Health (2:00)
  • A zig-zagging path in journalism, and how content producers can develop — and overcome — content blind spots (5:30)
  • The biggest change in how fitness is marketed to women over the past two decades (9:00)
  • What Liz has learned from Women’s Health‘s audience — and why people can be so obsessed with glute work (12:56)
  • Female athletes as role models of all types (20:00)
  • What it means for a journalist like Liz to share her own fitness journey, in this case the road to multiple pull-ups (22:10)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

I probably have many haters out there, but I’m owning it. I hope that I can inspire women to set their own goals and to put their heads down, chase them, and go break through ceilings. I’ll keep putting it out there in the hopes of inspiring women.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to Liz Plosser, the Editor-in-Chief of “Women’s Health.” Liz is one of the fitness industry’s head honchos when it comes to content, but journalism definitely wasn’t the first place her career started out. Ending up at the top of Women’s Health was far from an overnight success story.

 

Today, Liz and I discuss careers in health and fitness journalism, along with how content is marketed to women, and how that has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

 

Liz, thanks so much for taking the time to join us. We’re recording today, you’re actually in the Women’s Health office which is a bit of a rarity during the time of COVID. Congrats for that. It’s always a trip from Brooklyn into Manhattan to go back into an editorial office, kind of a rare treat these days.

 

I’m curious, and for folks who might not be so aware of what you do, what was the professional path that you took to become the editorial director of Women’s Health, such a storied, famed fitness brand? What got you there?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Hi, David. It’s great to connect with you. Yes, I am currently in my sunny, beautiful offices in Columbus Circle area in Manhattan. You’re right, I don’t get up here very often, so it’s an extra special day to be on your podcast and also to be in my office building.

 

To answer your question, I had a bit of a zigzag path to this position overseeing Women’s Health, and that includes our print magazine, our social channels, video, and the digital website as well.

 

I would say the one constant has always been my passion for health and fitness. That was a huge part of my life from a very young age. I grew up playing sports as a kid in the Midwest.

 

I’ve always been interested in how to get my body to perform at its peak, whether that’s through training or the food I eat, through meditation and mindfulness, all the things. It wasn’t until I was 24, and in year two of my first job out of college as an analyst at an investment bank, that I realized you could make a career out of your passion.

 

It was a lightning-bolt moment, which serendipitously happened while I was training for my first marathon, probably something I decided to do because I knew I wasn’t in the sweet spot and the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was looking for an outlet for my energy, and thoughts and feelings about that.

 

It was over those long training runs that I began saying out loud to strangers who became my friends, my training partners, my running partners, how much I loved health and fitness and nutrition, and writing and editing and reading magazines. These people, who just were getting to know me, were like, “You should go chase that dream.”

 

That’s when it all began. Now I’m 41, so a bit ago. Through a series of magical events, a lot of networking, a lot of hard work, I got my first job in magazines as an editorial assistant at “SELF,” and worked my way up the ladder there, did a little detour in Chicago while my husband was getting his PhD.

 

I worked at a weekly magazine called “Time Out Chicago,” overseeing all of our wellness content, came back to New York, which was such a unicorn move, not very many people do that, especially having had kids along the way, and continued on this trajectory. I did step outside of the media space for a bit.

 

I went to SoulCycle, where I oversaw all of their content, which means words and storytelling across every channel from the signs in their windows to the emails that hundreds of thousands of writers would get. Then I went to “Well+Good,” which is a wellness and lifestyle digital-focus brand.

 

The one constant beside my love for the health space was also that I kept getting dream job after a dream job. I always stayed open-minded and connected to amazing humans in my universe. As people scattered and opportunities arose, I got the call to chat with the folks at “Hearst” about the job at Women’s Health as editor-in-chief of overseeing the brand.

 

I’d say this from my heart of hearts, I was a super fan of the brand. I remember vividly when it launched more than 15 years ago, and seeing it on the newsstand. It was truly a dream come true to score this job and to be in the role that I am.

 

I do think I’m glad for that zigzaggy path because it’s given me such a 360-degree point of view on how women engage with this type of content, how they’re consuming it, what blind spots are, and growth opportunities are. It was a long way of saying, living the dream. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Thank you for going into that. I think that sometimes it’s fun to be reflective on your journey, but could also be a little bit scary. Especially, if you’re in the editorial space and you’re in the content space like you and I are. You realize some of it was serendipitous, and some of it was luck. It was just remembering this person, this person happened to know who you are.

 

Imposter syndrome is a real thing. It’s a real thing for a lot of people. In the digital content space, things move very quickly. I appreciate you sharing that, it’s something when folks have asked me about my own journey, I’ll clam up. I won’t be able to give that 10,000-foot view.

 

I’m curious because your move into the editorial space and to wellness content has coincided with a renaissance in many ways of fitness and a diversification of fitness outlets. Nowadays, you can do more than just bodybuilding and running. It seems, in the early 2000s that was what dominated newsstands oftentimes. Get skinny, get beach-ready, get muscular or running content.

 

Now we have so many options, strength sports, the proliferation of strength sports is why BarBend exist. I’m curious what trends have really stood out to you over your 15, 16, 17 years in fitness content as hugely impactful, and is really game-changing for how we cover fitness?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

That is such a great point. I do think, you and I, having seen the evolution of this space over the past couple of decades, it’s just mind-boggling. How much bigger it’s gotten? How much people have learned? How many modalities are covered these days? I can remember my very early days, as an editor, back when I was 24.

 

One of the toughest parts about my job was sleuthing out the newest, coolest, best stuff. Now, it’s quite the opposite. The big piece of my job as an editor, and that many of my editorial team members take on every day, is curating all the clutter that’s out there. The problem is almost there’s so much stuff.

 

We see our job as, one, being people who live and breathe fitness and wellness, which means that we are actively trying everything and learning about it and putting it through its pieces on our own.

 

Secondly, that we’re bringing in experts, doctors, researchers, PhDs, the latest science, all those studies that are out there, to put that lens on these topics so that our readers are making informed decisions about what they try and don’t try.

 

That’s not to say, a fad training, modality, or nutrition, something or other isn’t going to be something that we would neg or tell readers to walk away from. We want them to have the evidence and the education to make that decision for themselves. There’s that piece of it too, I agree with you it’s gotten so much bigger than running and strength training.

 

I would say one of the biggest flip flops I’ve seen, is the way people are now talking about how important strength training is, and that it’s not all about burning as many calories as you can on a run.

 

I feel like for so many years that was a big part of my job was convincing women to pick up weights, and that…I remember this, but before I worked at Women’s Health many years before when I was in Chicago freelance writing, I pitched a story to Women’s Health. It was called “Cardio versus strength training” because I wanted to dig into the science and understand which was better.

 

I felt that was one of the burning questions at the time. The answer is, as you know, it’s complicated, it depends, etc. etc. I do think that was an inflection point. When the world woke up, thanks to brands and content and enough people talking about it, to understand that running — and I love running, I’m a runner — is not the be-all end-all.

 

What else? I would say just in the very recent past, and this was definitely something gaining momentum before we came into the pandemic, but just the rise of virtual fitness.

 

I joke sometimes that I feel like I’ve earned a PhD in digital fitness at this point. I’ve tried everything out there, all the platforms, all the equipment. I worked on projects before people had adopted it, and this was like part of our norm.

 

To see those early days, when we were trying so hard, I worked on a platform called Cosmo Body, back when I worked at “Cosmopolitan” magazine, which was literally streaming fitness content, like highly produced amazing workout videos with exceptional trainers. Honestly, it didn’t take off, but this was back in 2014. It was like ahead of its time.

 

Now you look at the way the world is. Whether through sheer force of momentum or because of the lockdown orders and for everybody’s health and safety, virtual fitness is like, just absolutely exploded. Those are just a couple of examples that come to mind.

David TaoDavid Tao

I want to dive into the very recent past and over the course of your time at Women’s Health, what have been some of the reader patterns or interest patterns you’ve seen? Because I get a feeling that your team is a little like my team and that we can get really data-oriented.

 

We love looking at search trends, what’s resonating with readers, what’s falling flat, and why it’s falling flat. That’s almost the worst thing. You produce a bunch of content on something that you think is going to really hit home and no one really engages with it. You have to figure out why.

 

What have been some of the things that your readers, maybe not just in lockdown, but even before COVID, your readers have really started to grab on in ways that might have surprised you?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Great question. You’re exactly right. We are obsessed with the data too, not just because we’re geeks, but also because we want to make sure [laughs] that we’re serving up content that our readers want to be reading. What’s the point if it’s just sitting there, and nobody cares about it?

 

To that point, I think one thing I have noticed is that our readership, they tend to be incredibly busy. They’re high performers in all parts of their life, so they want their work-out to be efficient, and effective. That means that a lot of our articles that we write about 10 minutes or 15 minutes, short but hard spurts are things that really resonate with them.

 

Another big takeaway we have from our audience is that, layer on different modalities, whether it’s weights or resistance bands, or kettlebells. There are certain body parts that they’re particularly interested in, and for our audience the butt is the biggest one.

 

People are looking for stronger glutes. People also want stronger cores, call it an abs workout, call it a core workout, but they’re definitely looking to power up their powerhouse center. Then I would also say arms workouts are highly trafficked on our website.

 

Then there’s just the pulses of what’s trending in the universe. I would say right now kettlebells is a really big thing. I’ve personally gotten really into them during lockdown. It’s funny, I tried to get my hands on a second kettlebell, and it took months. I finally found one at Target.

David TaoDavid Tao

Good luck.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

[laughs] I know, right? They’re like, it ebbs and flows. It’s like this secret society. If you can find out who’s got a kettlebell in stock right now, then hurry and get on and grab it. That was so fascinating to me because as I personally was trying to stock up my kettlebell equipment, at the same time, those stories were really taking off on our website.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m interested when it comes to the body parts’ specific stuff, or workout specific stuff. We see that on BarBend too. We’re much newer brand. We’re four-and-a-half years old as opposed to 15 years old.

 

Brands operate differently, sites operate differently when you have a legacy of over a decade of content. Whereas, I see us now, we’re not one of the new kids on the block anymore, which is kind of weird to think about.

 

Glutes, that’s the hot thing right now. You write an article about glute training, whether it’s for serious hardcore strength athletes or the general population, that’s such a hot thing right now. It hasn’t always been the case in fitness content. Why do you think that is?

 

Do you think that’s because people, maybe women, maybe not just women, are more accepting of adding mass these days? Not everyone’s just working out to be skinny. What do you think might be behind the trend there?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

I think you hit the nail on the head. Speaking of inflection points or trends that we’ve seen over the years, for sure, this is in my mind, one of the happiest trends. The waving goodbye to those headlines and cover lines that were about getting a beach body in two weeks and, lose 10 pounds in 10 days, gives me the shivers and the cringes even thinking about it. I’m very glad those days are behind us.

David TaoDavid Tao

Mostly behind us, we should say.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Mostly behind us. They aren’t at Women’s Health, I’m proud to say. Those type of cover lines were sunsetted by my predecessor in our amazing editorial team, and I was very happy to carry the torch on in that realm and to even take it further.

 

Yes, I do think there has been an enlightening, particularly among women, that heavyweights does not equal masculinity or building bulkiness. Thank goodness, that we’ve finally reached this point.

 

Yeah, I think there’s all of that. Then the peach emoji that everyone uses on Instagram…

 

…I’m laughing, but more power to women. That’s awesome.

 

I think at Women’s Health, what we try to be careful about is one, we would never shame you or judge you or chide you for wanting to look a little cuter in your jeans if that makes you feel healthier and happier from the inside out. Two, we are always going to spotlight the amazing benefits of that, that are also inside and outside.

 

That you’re going to be able to push off with every step on your run with less effort and a smoother gait and ultimately run faster and easier, and feel happier during your workout. We try to highlight those positive benefits as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk a little bit more about women and strength training. I can point to a lot of different things over the course of my time in digital content. This is coming from a male perspective. We can only speak to our lived experience at a certain point, even as journalists, which is always something that I wish more people kept in mind.

 

Do you think that…I mean, this is kind of a toss-up question, but I have something else I want to get to. Do you think the female reading population right now is more accepting of strength training than it was early on in your career, and if so, how much of a difference is there?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Yes. I’m just taking a pause because I’m thinking about what comes after the end, but the answer is unequivocally yes. They are more accepting, they are searching for it.

 

Having worked in fitness, on creating fitness content in the early 2000s to where we are now, it’s almost like a different world. Also, I should say, I’m speaking in very broad strokes. I want to recognize that it’s not like the entire female population woke up overnight and understood this.

 

I don’t want to oversimplify it or sound…I understand that people have different levels of comforts and knowledge about it. In many ways, I think of it almost as a spectrum from those who are curious to those who are very confident, and you fall somewhere along that spectrum.

 

I do think that that spectrum has included many more women who are curious about strength training and know that there are benefits and just want to learn more about it. Did that somewhat answer your question?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah. I also should have done a better job couching that. I don’t mean to imply that prior to the year 2003, for example, there weren’t women who were strength training. There is a long history dating back literally thousands of years.

 

In BarBend, we work with a lot of strength sports historians. That’s an actual thing, that’s an actual job, by the way, you can be a strength sports historian, of women really pushing the envelope on human performance. Not just women’s performance, but human performance when it comes to strength, even dating back to ancient times.

 

In the past century, you have women like Abbye Stockton, who were creating the first sanction weightlifting meats for women in the ’40s, all the way up to the women who broke a lot of boundaries competing in weightlifting at the 2000 Olympic Games.

 

A lot of people are shocked when I tell them that weightlifting wasn’t a women’s Olympic sport until the year 2000, which is kind of shocking if you think about it.

 

Who do you think are some women, along your own journey and viewpoint since you’ve been on the editorial side of things, who have made a positive impact as far as bringing strength training to the masses? Anyone stick out to you in your experience?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

That’s a great question. The first thing that pops in my brain is how many amazing female athletes that are out there as role models. Whether it’s the US Women’s National Soccer team, gymnasts, tennis players like the Serena’s and Venus’s, and even runners.

 

We were talking about running, but fantastic long and short distance runners who are setting new records. One of the commonalities they all share is that they are strong proponents of how lifting weights has been total game-changer in their athletic performance.

 

In some ways, it’s organically built into who they are and the great heights and achievements that they’ve all reached.

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes sense. CrossFit released this video a few years ago in response to someone posting. I don’t know the exact story this might be. I might be getting it slightly wrong, but someone published an article. It wasn’t Women’s Health, that women shouldn’t do pull-ups or shouldn’t work toward pull-ups. It’s a point…

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

I’m going to take issue with that. I don’t know if you know about my pull-up journey. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

This is a segue. I did this purposely. CrossFit, which had an internal media department at the time released this video about like, “Oh, women shouldn’t do pull-ups.” Then every member of their media department who was a woman started banging out pull-ups on the video and…

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

It was awesome.

David TaoDavid Tao

Pretty cool to see. Then you think like, “OK, women doing pull-ups.” High-level gymnastics has been a thing for a long time, and what they’re doing is a heck of a lot harder than a pull-up. You show me an elite gymnast who can’t bang out 20, 30 strict pull-ups, I’m going to be shocked.

 

It’s not like we didn’t know that women were capable of these things. It has to do with more of an acceptance or a realization that these limits are often false. Women shouldn’t do pull-ups, that shouldn’t be a rule. That doesn’t make any sense. We’ve seen women doing pull-ups for decades and decades and decades. Things that are a lot harder than pull-ups.

 

I am curious on the pull-ups front. This was all an excuse to get me into the segue.

 

Are you sharing your own pull-up journey because it’s something that we don’t often see in this space. We see people who are well known in the strength community or the fitness community on the journalism side, it’s easy to hide behind that, not that we’re doing that purposefully.

 

You share a lot of your own journey as someone working toward these strength goals. Why was pull-ups such a big thing for you to share?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Oh man, pull-ups. The truth is there’s a lot to unpack there.

 

[laughs] There’s a lot to unpack including how much of myself I share. I probably have many haters out there, but I’m owning it. I hope that I can inspire women to set their own goals and to put their heads down, and chase them, and go break through ceilings.

 

I’ll keep putting it out there in the hopes of inspiring women. I’m not an elite athlete, I’m just a normal human with a few kids, a job, and I’m trying my best like everybody else.

 

Hopefully, if there is a tiny bit of inspiration another human can take from my social, then that makes me happy. To answer your question specifically about pull-ups, I had always thought it looked so cool, badass, hardcore and wouldn’t that be amazing.

 

What would that feel to get your chin above the bar, even as a kid. I try doing them here and there throughout my life. I’m eking out an inch up nowhere even close, it’s like a mountain distance away to get above the bar. I articulated to a good friend and excellent trainer Angela Gargano, she’s an amazing athlete…

David TaoDavid Tao

We had her in the podcast actually.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

She’s an American Ninja Warrior finalist, just an all-around awesome human. When I told her about my farfetched dream of getting a pull-up, this was in late May of 2019. She was instantly like, “You can do pull-up, you can do this.” I was like, “I don’t think you understand, I’m so far from that.” She’s like, “Let’s see you do one.”

 

She filmed my first pull-up. It’s great that because we have the proof of where I started and where I ended. It’s just as I described it, I was just floundering, etc. I learned so much about myself in that journey.

 

Doing a pull-up, yes, it does require core strength, upper body strength, specific muscles that you accrue, but it’s also about breaking down that movement and drilling specific mobility exercises, and understanding how the body’s muscles work together to smoothly pull you up to get you up.

 

To me it felt like a microcosm of life in many ways. You’ve got to break something apart and get really got at each individual step and then practice, practice, practice putting them all together.

 

You don’t get better at pull-ups necessarily by trying to bang out as many pull-ups as you can. Sure, eventually, you will get better but there is a much more efficient productive way. In truest fashion, ones I’ve put it out there and she said I can get one, I was like, “OK, that’s it.” In my editor’s letter that were shooting in 17 days, I want to do a pull-up. [laughs]

 

I don’t necessarily recommend giving yourself a deadline. Though as an editor perhaps, that’s part of my MO. I worked my ass off to get to the point where we are at that photo shoot and they have amazing crew that put it all together, brought in a pull-up bar that I was going to be able to get my pull-up that day. I did, but it was lot of work.

 

Then in early 2020, back in January, I put it out into the universe that I have this secret goal that have been brewing ever since I got the first one, and then I got two or three. That I wanted to get 10 in 2020. Which felt like this peculiar number to me.

 

Man, David it’s been a ride. The happy headline here is that I got my 10 a couple weeks ago. I did not know that in the meantime that I would break my sacrum skiing way too fast, we would be in the middle of the pandemic and I wouldn’t have access to the gym and pull-up bar, and all the tools I needed.

 

Three, that I would suddenly get scheduled for this surgery that I have been putting off for a long time and only have until November 9th to get the 10 pull-ups. Between all of those things, I got my 10 pull-up and I couldn’t be happier. I’m here to tell you.

 

Probably, your listeners know this because they’re all superstars in their own right but it does feel pretty freaking awesome getting above the bar each time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Hitting any personal goal is amazing and I love that when I was growing up, I distinctly remember my first memory of a woman doing a pull-up was Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in the second “Terminator” movie and not to give anything away.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

So badass, yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

So badass, I don’t know if you see that — it didn’t get great reviews, but the most recent Terminator movie — she was still badass. She’s still in amazing shape. That shows how big of a nerd I am that I’m thinking back to “Terminator 2,” early ’90s.

 

For a long time, that was all that we had seen outside of gymnastics of women doing pull-ups in media. The good news is you don’t have to look like Linda Hamilton to do pull-ups. I think that created this weird cognitive dissonance for a lot of people. It did for me.

 

That’s like, “Women can do pull-ups, but they have to be under 10-percent body fat and look like badass mom Sarah Connor.” You can be a badass mom, not look like Sarah Connor and still do pull-ups.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

100 percent.

David TaoDavid Tao

Very few people listening to this podcast will ever be that level of ripped and have guns like that. Kudos to you for putting it out there and for sharing that journey. Also, kudos to you for getting to 10 in far less than a year. Were you doing pull-ups on your fire escape? Was that what I saw?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

 [laughs] Yeah, that’s what I eventually started to do. I have a little postage stamp-sized backyard spot in my apartment in Brooklyn, and we have a fire escape that hangs down. It is not ideal.

 

It’s too narrow. I wish you could come over. Maybe after we get through the pandemic, I’ll have you over. We can do a pull-up workout together, swing some kettlebells together. The grip, it’s not super comfortable. You know what? It looks very cool and gritty with the white brick behind it. You take what you can get these days.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s very Rocky-esque, like the fourth “Rocky” movie. I’m just going to keep on with the pop-culture references, like training with what you’ve got.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

[laughs] I love it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Just to clarify, like myself, I believe Liz lives in a garden-level apartment. When I say doing pull-ups off a fire escape, it wasn’t like she was on a tall building…

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

[laughs] Oh, God, no.

David TaoDavid Tao

…hanging off her fire escape for dear life. I realized I didn’t paint that picture very clearly. That is one way to motivate yourself to do a pull-up, I guess.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

It’s funny. Many people DM me on Instagram. It’s incredible what people are out in the world doing. Angela, Ninja Warrior-style women, who are perquering off or scaffolding or doing pull-ups in crazy places, they’re all like, “Is this your next site?” I’m like, “Uh, no.” I’m very much inspired by these superhumans.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Look, if you ever want to do a Women’s Health and BarBend collaboration on the Urban Ninja, we can a 100 percent do that. We’ll make that work.

 

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Let’s do it. I love that.

David TaoDavid Tao

We should get that URL before we release this podcast.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

We should.

David TaoDavid Tao

We should definitely get to grab that.

 

Liz, what is the best place besides Women’s Health, of course, for people to keep up to date with the work you’re doing and your efforts to…I say your efforts in fitness, but I’m sure you’re going to have some more goals in 2021. Where’s the best place for people to keep up to date on that?

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

Probably, my Instagram. My handle there is @lizplosser, L-I-Z-P-L-O-S-S-E-R.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today, sharing a bit about your journey in fitness content…

 

…your journey in fitness and your view on what is a rapidly changing landscape in this space. I appreciate that.

Liz PlosserLiz Plosser

It was a pleasure talking to you, David. Thank you for having me.