Women and Weights: Why Strength Training is a Must
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
Despite the increasing number of women hitting the weight room, there are two common misconceptions that prevail: strength training will make you bulky and the only way to lose weight is through aerobic exercise. Time and time again I have women who are looking to drop some pounds tell me that they don’t want to add strength training to their exercise routine until they have lost some weight. This is rooted in fear of making themselves look larger than they already are and in the belief that they won’t lose weight as efficiently as they would with aerobic exercise alone.
There are two things to clarify before proceeding to bust those myths. One is that you cannot, and I repeat CANNOT, rely solely on the scale when you are trying to lose weight and increase your fitness. The scale does not accurately reflect FAT loss, only POUNDS lost. What does this mean exactly? It means that if you are building muscle while losing fat, the scale will not change as dramatically as you expect. Despite this, your body fat percentage will be going down. Because a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat, you will start looking smaller in the mirror and your clothes will fit better; which, in my books, is much more gratifying and important than a number on the scale!
While some women do put on muscle easier than others, the risk of looking “bulky” from lifting weights is slim to none (no pun intended). Women who do appear to have bulky muscles have likely worked extremely long and hard for those muscles. The average woman incorporating 2-4 days of strength training into her routine is not at risk of turning into the hulk. Trust me on this.
Now that we have clarified that lifting weights won’t inhibit fat loss or make you bulky, here are some additional benefits of incorporating strength training into your routine:
1. Increased Strength I think this one goes without saying. After all, weight lifting is considered a form of STRENGTH training. In addition to giving you a more toned body and allowing you to squeeze into your favorite dress with more ease, building muscle will allow you to function better in your day to day life. Everything from lugging groceries to carrying your kids will become that much easier!
2. Confidence This one is probably my favorite. It is impossible to become stronger and look more toned without getting a major boost in confidence. In addition to the functional and aesthetic benefits, lifting weights causes a shift in your body image. Rather than focusing on the size of your body, you start to focus more on what your body can do. Appreciating your body’s abilities will set the stage for a healthier relationship with yourself – something we all need to work on.
3. Weight loss This is where a lot of women go wrong. Weight lifting and other forms of strength training are often ditched in favor of aerobic exercise due to the belief that aerobic exercise will be more effective for weight loss. While you usually will burn more calories during a session of heart-pumping aerobic activity, the effects are short lived. Strength training, however, is more effective at increasing something called “post-exercises oxygen consumption,” or EPOC (1,2). This is more commonly known as the “after-burn effect” and refers to the increase in your metabolic rate following a given exercise session. In general, strength training is more stressful on the body than aerobic exercise and takes longer to recover from. This equates to more calories (and fat) burned in the hours following your workout. I do want to point out that effect is modest and does not give you a free pass to gorge on cupcakes after your weight lifting session!
Another point to consider is that muscle is more metabolically active than fat. This means that muscle burns more calories at rest. So, the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn in a given day- even if you are having a Netflix binge on the couch. Muscle tissue represents approximately 20% of total daily energy expenditure, while fat tissue only accounts for a measly 5% (although this value depends on a given person’s body fat percentage) (3). It is estimated that 4.5 lbs of muscle increases the metabolic rate by 50 calories per day (3). Even though this number doesn’t sound overly impressive, it does help to narrow the gap between how much energy is expended in a day and how much energy (food calories) are consumed.
4. Mood improvements While we often think of the “high” that we get from working up a good sweat is only possible during aerobic exercise, strength training has also been shown to have a positive effect on mood and can be useful in the management of mood disorders such depression and anxiety (4,5). Obviously, the confidence boosting and weight reducing effects of weight lifting have a lot to do with this, but the endorphins released during a session also play a role.
5. Bone strengthening Women are at a greater risk of bone loss than men as they age due to the dramatic estrogen lowering effects of menopause. This makes it even more important for us women to do everything that we can to both build bone mass in our premenopausal years and preserve it once menopause occurs. Incorporating regular strength training sessions is an excellent way to do this (6,7) and can help to reduce the risk of developing osteopenia and osteoporosis as we age.
6. Cardiovascular benefits A common assumption is that aerobic activities are the only way to boost heart health. After all, it is called CARDIOvascular exercise. Strength training actually has its own unique, positive effects on the cardiovascular system and, in some ways, can be even more beneficial than aerobic training. In addition to helping with fat loss (which, as a consequence, benefits your heart health), it can significantly lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels (8). Interestingly, strength training’s favorable blood pressure effects may be more pronounced in hypertensive women versus men (9).
7. Blood sugar control In addition to its positive effects on heart health, strength training improves blood sugar control and can therefore be an effective way to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For those who already have type 2 diabetes, it can serve as an adjunct to diet and medications in the management of their disease. The improvements in metabolic health seen with strength training are due to a combination of factors including a reduction in visceral fat, a decrease in inflammatory makers, an increase in skeletal muscle glucose uptake, and improvements in insulin sensitivity (10). With all of this being said, it’s important to find an approach to strength training that you enjoy. Throughout this post I have been using the term “strength training” to imply lifting weights. However, strength training comes in many different forms and can involve everything from body weight exercises to resistance bands and medicine balls. You don’t need access to a gym or a rack of weights in order to get an effective workout. That being said, you should consider finding a way to incorporate some weights if you are serious about increasing your strength and building muscle. I personally alternate between body weight exercises and workouts centered around free weights, medicine balls, and kettle bells. You can check out our “Fitness Favorites” page for the specific workout programs that both Jaci and myself love and use daily!
In terms of duration and frequency, a general rule is to complete a 20-30min session that addresses all of your muscle groups 2-3 times a week. This does vary depending on your specific fitness goals and I encourage you to seek the help of a trainer to guide you in developing a personalized program if you are new to strength training. Also, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions regarding this blog post!
Continue to follow your gut,