There’s a bit of a misconception in the training realm that women shouldn’t lift heavy weight, or pursue the development of strength. It stems from the whole ‘weights for men, cardio for women’ logic, and is responsible for a lot of what is wrong in the way we train women at the moment.
For most trainers, or even women heading into the gym for a session, the design of the program goes a little like this – warm up on the cardio machines (maybe with some stretching thrown in), then proceeding to do x-amount of minutes on the elliptical/bike/treadmill, maybe (and it’s a big maybe) hitting the weights section for some light dumbbell or machine-based work, and then it’s off to yoga or pilates.
This is a mistake.
If this sounds anything remotely close to what you do now, for the love of God, please stop!
The fork in the road telling us to go down this path for training women and down the other men needs to be changed. It needs to be goal-orientated, not gender-orientated.
Are there some differences, and considerations that need to be made from programming for women versus men? Absolutely.
But they’re the minor adjustments that need to be made from one individual to another, anyway. The nuts and bolts are pretty much the same – we all need to move well. We all need injury prevention. We all need to be the strongest and the most physically (and mentally) superior version of ourselves.
At the end of the day we’re all built from the same mold – the same DNA, the same muscles, and the same adaptive ability. And if we’re exposed to stimuli, we respond in a similar manner.
And then benefits we garner from strength training are exactly the same. In fact, I’d go as far to say that women should have a greater focus on strength training than men do.
Well mostly because you’ll have a harder time building it, mostly due to hormonal reasons.
What Are The Benefits Of Strength Training?
And why is it that you need strength training? Well that’s a loaded question, but here are just a few reasons –
- What builds muscle keeps muscle. Strength training allows you to lose body FAT, without wasting precious lean muscle mass. This is crucial for the maintenance of a healthy metabolism (this means that the more muscle you have on your frame, the less likely you are to get fat from eating because muscle burns calories throughout the day, even while you sleep!)
- Strength training builds strength (who would’ve thought?). Being more functional will give you the more freedom, and the ability to do those things that you were previously unable to do (like open that jar, or lift your 4 year-old child).
- Increased blood circulation – this means less cellulite on the bum and thighs!
- A balanced physique – one of the often over-looked issues with a lot of ‘beginner’ female exercisers is that that have a disproportioned amount of size in their lower bodies when compared to their upper bodies. Strength training can help balance this out, improving the overall ‘visual-appeal’ of the body
- Strength training increases bone density and decrease joint pressure. This aids in the prevention and possible reversal of osteoporosis.
- Strength provides the foundation for ALL other athletic qualities – without it, you will never reach your full potential. It is of vital importance for any female athlete, or any female wanting to be more athletic (or have that athletic look).
- Injury prevention – there are a few factors that subject females to being more prone to injuries, of particular note are ACL injuries. While this is a whole post for another time, strength training can provide women with that extra bit if resilience that could make the difference between a messy injury (and possible surgery), or walking away from an incident unscathed.
So really, strength training for women isn’t just beneficial, it’s essential!
But Won’t Strength Training Make Me Big & Bulky?
Of course, no discussion entailing the words women and strength training would be complete without talking about women becoming too big or bulky.
Personally, I think of the ‘I’m going to get too big or bulky’ phrase originated as another way of saying either ‘I have no idea what I’m doing in the weights area’ or ‘I’m too lazy to train hard, so I’m going to do what I feel comfortable with and never push my boundaries…but here’s my B.S. excuse of why I’m doing it’.
From there it has really spiraled out of control, and given birth to a tonne of terrible programs, diets and exercise-equipment that have been designed with the idea to make a quick buck, more so than to help people.
But as it is genuine concern of a lot of women reading this, let’s address it head on…
The truth is that is very hard for women to build muscle in the first place, let alone build enough to look huge.
In order to build muscle, you must first give the muscle a supportive environment that will nourish its growth. To achieve this, there are a number of things that the needs to be present. If one of these aren’t ideal, it can cause a screeching halt to muscle gain.
These factors include –
- Enough mechanical stress placed on the muscle in order to force it to adapt and grow – i.e. you need to be lifting a heavier weight, or for more reps, or with less rest, each and every time you go into the gym
- This stress to be placed on the muscle frequently – at least twice per week for most people, for most muscle groups
- A surplus of calories each and every day in order to provide the nutrients required to grow – your body isn’t going to use calories to grow the body if there isn’t enough to maintain day-to-day functions in the first place. This means that you need to eat more calories than you burn in a given day – for women trying to lose body fat (who are generally in a calorie-deficit) this would make it near-impossible to build large amounts of muscle, that is, unless you are doing things wrong.
- Little to no metabolic (i.e. cardio) training during the week – traditional cardio training conflicts with muscle-building training, so more often than not these sessions will detract from your muscle-building efforts. Sure, there are Hybrid programs that you can use to achieve both, but they are few and far between.
- Ideal hormonal environment – this means an abundance of the hormone testosterone (the hormone from which analbolic steroids are derived) available to maintain and optimal muscle-building environment. As, on average, men produce ten times the amount of testosterone than women, you can see how this alone will make it difficult for women to build muscle.
- Time & consistency with this approach – it can take a male (with high testosterone levels, a great program and a lot of food) a year or more to put on 5kgs of lean muscle mass. To think that a woman can do it any faster than that with less than optimal conditions is ridiculous.
And even if you were under those circumstances it’s not like you would suddenly wake up one day, look in the mirror, and come to the horrible realisation that, while you slept, you’ve grown into a grotesque, protein-devouring beast who scorns cardio and egg-yolks alike.
World renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin, put it best when he said that, generally, female trainees tend to develop most of their hypertrophy during the first six weeks of training. Then it plateaus dramatically, so that strength gains come mainly through neural adaptations.
As someone who trains many women for a living, this is what we want. An initial gain in lean muscle mass to really give the metabolism a kick in the backside, speed up the fat loss process, give us a significant increase in strength (allowing us to train harder) and to also provide that toned and defined look that almost all women want.
Here is a great, real-world example, taken from another great strength coach, Joe DeFranco. First, check out the pictures below –
Now, these two pictures are of the same girl, taken 3 years apart. What you probably can’t guess just by looking at the two photos is that she is actually a full 13.5kgs heavier in the second image! Yet she looks so much stronger and sexier carrying all of that extra muscle – not big, bulky or hideous at all!
If you’re still not convinced, check out these women, all of whom train with heavy weight regularly – and all of whom have A LOT more muscle than you do!
Long story short, unless you’re a female who is taking anabolic steroids, lifting weights will NOT make you look like a man!
So next time you baulk at the idea of grabbing that Olympic bar and getting after it in the gym, just think about all of the women whose physiques you admire, and all of the time they’ve spent under a heavy barbell in order to build it.