Strength training is an important part of improving your overall fitness, and for women, it can mean much more. In addition to numerous health benefits, adding weights to your routine can become a form of personal development that builds strength in all areas of life. Join us over the next two weeks as we celebrate strength training and the strength of all women, no matter their size or life circumstance.
It seems as if there’s a lot of information about exercise for women that is based on unfounded myths and even some outright lies instead of fact or scientific evidence. To help clear up the confusion surrounding strength training for women, ACE is launching the strongHER campaign to help educate the public on what is factual and what is not when it comes to strength training for women.
In this particular blog, I’ll be discussing the most common myths and explain why they are far from the truth. While it’s easy for me to write about the science behind the myths, I lack the proper genetic make-up to give a first-person perspective on how weightlifting has influenced my fitness program. That’s why I asked a few strong women to share how strength training has influenced their lives, and their observations are included throughout this blog.
Myth 1: Women should not lift any weight heavier than 3 pounds.
This myth has resulted in many women avoiding resistance training due to an irrational fear of becoming overly muscular. The reality is that women have the ability to lift a tremendous amount of weight, but do not increase lean muscle mass at the same rate as men.
Due to the physiology of the female body, compared to men women produce much less testosterone. That means that adding two days of resistance training to a weekly exercise regimen can increase lean muscle mass, but it won’t add pounds of “bulky” muscle. Strength training can cause women to produce more somatotropin (otherwise known as human growth hormone), but when you consider that growth hormone helps metabolize fat and is considered an important part of reducing the effects of the biological aging process, this is not a bad thing.
“My grandmother, suffering from osteoporosis and extreme kyphosis, told me that she wished that women of her era knew the benefits of strength training. Not only is weightlifting emotionally empowering for women, it can help us become better athletes, prevent injury and offset the risk of developing chronic medical conditions such as osteoporosis.”
-Shana Verstegen, ACE Certified Personal Trainer
Myth 2: Women should avoid using weights because it will make them big and bulky.
In more than 15 years of working in the fitness industry, I have heard this repeated many, many times as the primary reason why women are not interested in exercising with heavy weights. There are numerous media images of female bodybuilders or actresses with highly muscular physiques. It should be noted that it can take years of training, proper nutrition and "supplementation" to achieve the muscle-bound appearance of a Xena: Warrior Princess.
It can take lifting weights five or six days a week, plus a lot of eating, for women to increase their levels of lean muscle. Simply adding an extra day of strength training or grabbing the heavier dumbbells will not automatically cause a woman to become a muscle-bound she-hulk.
“I have fallen in love with power lifting and at 43 I am healthier, happier and in better shape than I was back in college. I may weigh more than I did a year ago, but I AM 4 sizes smaller.”
-Candace, a former college classmate
Myth 3: Aerobic exercise is the most effective way to burn fat.
During low-intensity physical activity, fat is the primary macronutrient utilized to fuel muscle activity, so the idea of exercising in the “fat-burning” zone is based on science. But keep in mind that you're in the so-called fat-burning zone right now while you're reading this. Traditional aerobic exercise like running, cycling or using common health club machines can be effective for expending energy and the body will metabolize more fat for energy at lower intensities. However, exercising at a higher intensity or performing short, high-intensity work intervals can lead to a greater total amount of calories being expended during a workout.
The body burns 5 calories of energy for every liter of oxygen consumed. During most traditional aerobic training, the legs are the primary muscles being engaged. Performing a full-body, strength-training circuit with exercises for both the upper and lower body can involve a tremendous amount of muscle tissue, which results in more calories being burned during a workout. When more total calories are burned from strength training, a greater amount of calories are metabolized from fat when compared to only exercising in the “fat burning” zone. Aerobic training can be an efficient way to burn calories, but it often doesn't provide enough stimulus to increase levels of lean muscle, which are metabolically more efficient because they burn calories even when the body is at rest. In addition, circuit training with heavy resistance can increase the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which means your metabolism stays elevated for a period of time after exercise and you continue to burn calories hours after the end of your workout.
Jen Sinkler, a former women's national team rugby player, is recognized as one of the most influential fitness bloggers by Shape Magazine. She responded to a question about her workout program by simply stating: "I lift weights." When asked what she does for cardio, Sinkler replied, “I lift weights faster.” Jen has turned this simple phrase into a whole platform for exercise that she promotes on her eponymous blog Thrive with Jen Sinkler.
Myth 4: A combination of light weights and high repetitions is the best way to “tone up.”
Ugh. Nothing could be further from the truth. Light weights can be useful for improving the strength-endurance of muscle tissue. However, neither light weight nor aerobic endurance training is effective for stimulating the muscle fibers responsible for growth and definition. The most effective way to create muscle growth and definition is to activate type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers using heavy weight or explosive movements.
There are different types of muscle fibers in the body: slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow-twitch fibers produce energy using oxygen and are used to sustain long periods of muscle work, such as maintaining good posture or performing endurance training. Fast-twitch fibers are capable of producing more force in a shorter period of time because they produce energy anaerobically. When it comes to muscle definition, a common goal for exercise, the fast-twitch fibers are responsible for that response. (For an in-depth understanding of how to increase lean muscle, follow this link.) Light weights can be used to train for definition if (and only if) the muscle is worked to fatigue (meaning you can’t perform another single repetition). Lifting 5 pounds for 12 reps is not enough to stimulate the fast-twitch fibers if you are capable of doing a 13th repetition.
“Strength training helped me gain confidence because I would achieve gains in appearance while losing weight. When other women find out I lift, they become curious and I love sharing the benefits. Putting the gloves on, hearing the plates stack together and lifting heavy things is one of the things I look forward to the most when I exercise.”
-ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor Teresa Ma
Disillusioned by elusive results from hours of cardio training, women are discovering the weight-loss benefits of strength training. It's not clear exactly what is responsible for this surging popularity, but one thing is clear—women have been adding more resistance training and high-intensity exercises to their workout programs.