If there is a comment I am beyond sick of hearing it would be the ‘but you will look like a man’ in response to me voicing my weight lifting endeavours! Unfortunately this is a stigma that’s hard to shift when it comes to women and resistance training…the very thought seems to conjure up images of she-hulks in the minds of many women and men. I’m hoping this article can start to dispel some of these myths and ease the minds of my friend that seem to think I’m going to morph into some kind of monster with whom they will no longer want to be seen with.
Firstly lets look at the fears or misconceptions that leave most women spending far to much time in the cardio rooms burning both fat and muscle (or wasting their time if they do weight train).
1. Fear of getting ‘bulky’
This is the most common comment I hear about why I shouldn’t lift weights….and it often leaves my blood boiling.
Let me make it perfectly clear- most women do not have the testosterone or growth hormone levels required to create a dramatic increase in muscle mass! In fact we have in average approximately 17 times less testosterone than the average man! Testosterone is an androgenic sex hormone that directly drive anabolism (or muscle growth) and masculine traits.
Whilst testosterone levels are known to increase in males that weight train, there has been no shown increase in women.
Women also have less ( 60-80%) of the muscle size (or cross sectional area) to begin with, so any gains made with weight training will be smaller overall (Folland & Williams, 2007).
So all the points combined show that even if you want to make significant muscle gains you are going to have to work much harder than your male counterparts in the gym- as it’s just not in your DNA!
Not only would it take a lot of physical work, as a women you are unlikely to take in sufficient calories (especially protein) to support significant muscle gains .
Before you start with the stories of the pictures you have seen of bodybuilding women…2 options= very rare genes or artificial help (steroids!)
This one I completely get! The weights room, full of men with their sweating, grunting and occasional interest in anything with boobs (only when they aren’t checking themselves out in the mirror, is a scary place for a lady that’s spent the majority of her gym time slaving away on a treadmill or cross trainer. When I first signed up for the lean and strong program I was relieved I could do most of it in the women’s only area of the gym and would often schedule my workouts for quieter times so there were less men around. As I became confident with what I was going, those men were less intimidating and more ‘in the way’.
So my advice to you is get confident before you enter the weights room- knowledge is power!
-Get a PT to show you how to use the equipment or do the exercises on your program.
– Find a workout buddy (male or female)
– Use the net-YouTube is full of how-to videos with hints and tips how to avoid injury
– or create your own gym with some simple equipment (post coming soon on this!)
3. Fear of muscle turning to fat
Another all to common ridiculous myth! Trust me- fat an muscle are microscopically different tissues. You can no sooner turn muscle to fat then you can turn water to gold! It’s just not possible!
I know, I know- you’ve seen that previously ‘ripped’ male/female put on the pounds. That’s probably because that same person has stopped training but is still eating the same amount that their previously sky high metabolism let them. Same calories in with less calories burnt will always equal weight gain.
4. Using high reps of light weights for ‘toning’
Most of us will have at some stage owned ‘barbie weights’- you know those neoprene covered 1-2kg dumbells? I’m afraid to say…we were wasting our time.
Muscle tone will only occur if you have adequate amounts of muscle mass under low levels of body fat. This is called myogenic muscle tone and will only be increased by increasing the density of your muscles through hypertrophy (or growth). Whilst training at high reps with lighter weights may increase the fluid component of muscles (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) this will not give the same overall appearance as myofibrillar/functional hypertrophy (ie growth of the muscle fibres themselves). High repetitions of light reps will build muscle endurance, whereas the look you are after will require sufficient muscle overload to promote muscle growth (ie low reps, heavy weights)
5. Not seeing changes on the scale
It is said time and time again- muscle weighs more than fat. Technically this should be 1kg of fat takes up more space than 1kg of muscle. For some reason most women seem to forget this when they first make the transition from cardio-bunnies to lifters and keep checking the scales for changes. You are likely losing fat but you are also gaining muscle- meaning you may end up weighing the same or even more than when you started. Is this a bad thing? No! Look for non scale related changes- do your clothes fit better? What does your body look like? What’s your body fat percentage? Don’t focus on the numbers on the scale this is not a true indicator of your progress or your hotness for that matter!
Now we have dispelled the myths that have been holding you back…now to give you the facts that WILL get you into the weights room.
1. Increase your metabolism
I suspect I could finish the pros list here and you would all be converted but let me continue. An increase in muscle mass will increase your basal metabolic rate (that is the calories your body requires to survive, excluding any used in activity/exercise). At rest each 1kg of muscle requires 77 calories per day, and this is increased with exercise. To put it as plainly as possible: increased muscle -> increased calorie expenditure -> increased metabolic rate -> increased fat loss! This was proven in a 1994 study which showed after 3 months of resistance training subjects lost 1.8kg of fat despite increasing their calorie intake by 15%! These subjects also gained an extra 1.4kg of muscle (that’s over 100cals more they could consume per day!)
2. Get that ‘toned’ look you’ve been after
I touched on this one above. Unless you increase your muscle mass you can not increase your myogenic tone or muscle density. This ‘toned’ look you have been after all these years requires doing that one thing you feared- lifting some heavy weights!
3. Counter age related bone and muscle loss
From the age of 20, we will lose 2.2-3.2kg of muscle each decade (read above for just some of the implications of this on your metabolism, let alone on your participation in daily life). One study showed that participants who did 25 minutes of weight training once a week for 8 weeks increased their muscle mass by 1.4kg. (I know at this stage you want to run to the gym and get started, but keep reading there’s more reasons to come!)
Weight bearing exercises reminds your bones they are needed. Resistance training has been shown to counteract age related bone loss.
4. Reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease
Muscles remove both glucose and triglycerides from your blood stream, and therefore maintaining your muscle mass is important to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and artherosclerosis/cardiovascular disease.
5. Lower your blood pressure
Studies have shown that your blood pressure will lower for 10-12 hours after each weight lifting session! This means less load on your heart and other organs that may be damaged by a high blood pressure. The mechanism of this lowering is not completely understood but it likely related hormonal and nervous system regulation.
Ok so before you get dressed and ready to get this body transformation started here are some tips!
1. Warm Up! Doing 5-10 minutes of some cardio or light resistance training will increase your muscle elasticity and reduce your risk of injury.
2. Avoid using the wrong weight! Generally they say women should lift 10% heavier and men 10% lighter, but now that you are ready to go here’s some tips to choose the right weight. Generally you want to choose a weight you can lift 8-12 times max with good form. Obviously when you are starting out and learning proper technique you may want to start with 12 reps of a lighter weight to avoid injury. As you progress you should increase your weights and probably reduce your reps accordingly. Generally you will make some significant strength gains in your first 2-3 months of weight training as your nervous system is also learning to be activated, this however may plateau after this stage as you then rely on muscle strength gains alone.
3. Avoid poor form! My biggest piece of advice would be to get a pro to show you how it’s done. If that’s not possible- do your research. As I said earlier YouTube is a wealth of information. Avoid using momentum to lift the weights and don’t use weights too heavy that they compromise your form. Moving slowly will mean you require more muscle force meaning better gains in the end.
4. Rest or alternate muscle groups between sets. Give your muscles time to recover before repeating the set. You can do this by resting, working on separate muscle groups or doing short bursts of cardio.
5. Mix it up! The reason you build muscle with resistance training is because your muscles are trying to adapt to the demands you are placing on them. Unless your mix it up by increasing the load accordingly or trying different exercises that use the same muscle groups your gains will plateau.
Ok so if you want a higher metabolic rate, some muscle definition and of course improved functional strength…it’s time to get to the gym!