There is no doubt that lifting weights has become more and more popular with women in recent years, especially with the CrossFit phenomenon creating a growing interest in weight training by making it more accessible. But the topic of woman and weights is still subject to its fair share of misconceptions about becoming ‘bulky’ or ‘masculine’. So we asked PT and Strength and Conditioning Specialist Tom Mans to de-bunk some of the myths and explain why strength training is so important to a healthy, athletic, well-balanced physique and a confident you.
In the last 2-3 years weight training has become more popular with my female clients, and rightfully so. Weight training has many health and fitness benefits for everyone, particularly women, and, done correctly, none of the drawbacks often assumed.
1. Weight training is key to losing fat
When it comes to fat loss the single most important factor is making sure you burn more calories than you consume on a day-to-day basis. Being in a calorie deficit in order to lose fat is a scientific fact. The first law of thermodynamics states ‘energy can be neither created nor destroyed…only changed from one form to another’. And a calorie is a unit of energy equal to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. A calorie is a unit of heat and the body is a heat machine.
Most people still default to traditional types of cardio such as running and cycling to burn calories and lose fat, and both have their place, but there are drawbacks: Neither will build muscle; running can be tough on your joints as each step brings about a force of 2-3 times your body weight, and this build up of force on our joints can lead to injuries.
Weight training is key to building and developing lean muscle. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue where stored muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) and body fat is burned and used as energy. Therefore the more muscle you have the more calories you’ll burn over the course of a day, even when resting. Weight training also offers a massive range of exercise variability, which you do not get with cardio training.
2. Weight training does not mean you will become big and bulky
I completely understand why women think weight training makes you bulky and muscly. Indeed, it isn’t a complete misconception; with specific training and an adequate diet to match, it can do. Lifting weights is the first thing every man takes up to get bigger and grow muscles.
However the main reason women won’t get big and bulky is because of basic biology. On average, testosterone levels in men are about 7–8 times greater than in women (2), and testosterone is the main hormone that builds muscles.
Another main factor for why it is hard for women (and also men) to put on muscle is you need to eat more calories than you are burning each day (refer to the first law of thermodynamics). You need to be in a calorie surplus to increase muscle mass. For someone who is very active this can be challenging. An active 65kg 35-year-old woman will need to be eating in excess of 2200 calories/day to put on muscle and gain weight.
But with the right training and nutrition woman can build muscle, and this need not be something to be fearful of. Get the program, technique and nutrition right and you can achieve the toned limbs yet feminine proportions you desire.
3. Lifting improves bone density and strength
When our bones are put under stress from the force of resistance training over an extended period of time, they grow stronger and increase in density to withstand the extra load and force. Resistance training increases bone density and therefore decreases the chances of women (and men) developing osteoporosis later on in life. There has been a huge amount of research into the beneficial effects of exercises on bone density and strength, with research indicating that ‘resistance training may have a more profound site specific effect than aerobic exercise’.(3)
4. How improving your strength can help your confidence in other areas
A lot of women find weight training empowering, with that feeling of growing strength and athleticism leaving you with more energy and more confidence in other areas of your life.
The gains and improvements you get in strength through weight training are clear and obvious. The stronger you get the more weight you can lift. It’s a very simple. Unlike fat loss, which takes a lot time and patience, strength in the gym can increase on a week-by-week basis. Especially in the first 5-6 months of training. It’s a great feeling when you can see real and quick progress, which will improve your confidence and self esteem. My female clients get a massive confidence boast when they know they are can lift more than many men of the same age in the gym.
5. It makes you more athletic
I have trained a range of athletes in the past from professional rugby players at Bath Rugby Club to Tri athletes to Motor GP 2 racing drivers. For all of these athletes, having a solid strength base helps improve many other elements of athleticism (power, speed, agility, endurance and muscle mass gains). Strength training and weight training will help your body adapt to the forces it will face during sport and through everyday life.
6. You’ll look and feel great
The mantra ‘strong is the new skinny’ has been gaining ground online for years, with 5M plus posts on the ‘strongnotskinny’ hashtag, signaling a move towards hopefully more achievable, more “real” bodies, and away from the ideal of thinness for the sake of it. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has also collaborated with British Weight Lifting, and done an enormous amount to break down barriers, change attitudes and boost confidence.
Size zero is being eschewed for a more athletic, toned and stronger physique. You do not need to grow your muscles to the size of a body builders’. By adding strength training to your workout routine, together with sensible nutrition, anyone can achieve a toned and athletic body, to the feminine proportions that are right for you as an individual. Not only will feel better physically but emotionally too. Ultimately building lean muscle mass through weight training will make you look and feel great.
In Summary women should weight train because:
- It helps with fat loss, and is more effective on this than cardio
- It does not make you big and bulky
- It increases bone strength and density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis
- It makes you physically stronger and helps with confidence
- The more athletic you become, the more you’ll be able to do
- You’ll look your great, with a proportioned, toned, well-balanced physique
References 1. Yingling VR, Yack HJ, and White SC. 1996. ‘The Effect of Rearfoot Motion on Attenuation of the Impulse Wave at Impact During Running. Journal of Applied Biomechanics’, 12, 313-325. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics) 2. Torjesen PA, Sandnes L. Mar 2004. ‘Serum testosterone in women as measured by an automated immunoassay and a RIA’. Clinical Chemistry. 50 (3): 678; author reply 678–9. 3. Layne JE, Nelson ME. 1999. ‘The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review.’ Med Sci Sports Exercise. 1999 Jan; 31(1):25-30.