Weight Training for Women
When most women think of physical activity for weight loss, they imagine themselves slaving away over endless hours of cardiovascular exercise and burning themselves out with “just one more session” on the elliptical machine.
While cardiovascular exercises are certainly a crucial component of female physical fitness, strength training is of equal importance. In fact, regular strength training has some unique benefits that are simply impossible to achieve with cardiovascular type exercises alone.
- “Focus on cardio exclusively if you want to lose weight”
- “Women who strength train only become bulky and manly”
- “Training guidelines for women are vastly different from training guidelines for men”
These are all myths that have been perpetuated by misinformed media outlets and well-intentioned “female health experts” who have failed to examine the actual science behind strength training.
In reality, a combination of cardio and strength training is best for weight loss, strength training will not make the female body bulky and massive, and the training guidelines for women are not so different from the ones suggested for men.
As a woman interested in improving your own health, fitness and well-being, you owe it to yourself to make strength training a regular component of your life. Although strength training is challenging, it comes with rewards that would be otherwise impossible to gain.
Weight Training Benefits for Women
Many studies conducted in recent years have indicated myriad benefits for women who regularly strength train. At the same time, many women – especially those whose main goal is to lose weight – continue to spend all of their physical activity time on cardiovascular exercise, ignoring all forms of resistance training entirely. Although cardio is indeed an important component of any physical exercise plan, it only represents one piece of the puzzle. In order to achieve the full benefits of physical activity, women must incorporate some form of strength training into their routines.
Some of the unique benefits of strength training for women are listed below:
Reduced body fat percentage. Women who weight train build muscle mass while burning off unwanted body fat. As your muscle-to-fat ratio improves, so too will your metabolism, and so too will your body’s ability to burn even more fat. In fact, studies have shown that you’ll burn up to 50 additional calories per day (even at rest) for every pound of muscle mass you add to your body.
Improved muscular tone and definition. Strength training will give your muscles a toned and shapely appearance. Although your muscles will increase in size to some degree, you’ll never achieve the level of muscular bulk seen by male strength trainers. This adds up to an attractive, lean, feminine physique.
Improved athletic performance. If you participate in virtually any type of sport, you can expect your performance to improve as you strength train. This holds true for virtually all types of athletes, ranging from skiers and cyclists to golfers and soccer players. Strength training specifically assists athletic activity by boosting power and endurance, among other things.
Reduced osteoporosis risk. Studies have long shown that regular strength training improves bone density by up to 13% in just six months. By regularly weight training and ensuring adequate levels of calcium in your diet, you’ll greatly reduce your risk of osteoporosis, a bone disease that often leads to fracture.
Reduced risk of back pain and injury. Regular strength training improves joint stability and strengthens the connective tissues of the body, subsequently improving your back’s ability to support the weight of your body. This leads to reduced lower back pain for most women who strength train.
Improved physical strength. Although women don’t develop the same level of muscle mass as men through strength training, they do develop their strength at roughly the same rate. In fact, moderately intense strength training can improve your strength by up to 50% so long as you stick with your routine. Having more strength will make it far easier to perform all daily tasks, ranging from household chores to outdoor recreation.
Reduced risk of heart disease and heart attack. Multiple studies have shown that regular weight training lowers levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol while raising levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, and lowers blood pressure as well. These benefits can be amplified further by adding cardiovascular exercise to your routine.
Reduced risk of diabetes. Studies indicate that weight training can increase your body’s utilization of glucose by 23% with just four months of regular training. This, along with the weight loss and muscle-building benefits, means that strength training will make women far less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
Improved mental clarity and attitude.. Regular weight training will improve your overall confidence and self-image for multiple reasons. You’ll feel better about your body as your appearance improves. You’ll also prove to yourself that you’re capable of setting goals and meeting them, all while participating in an enjoyable and challenging activity. This will help to clear your mind, improve your attitude and even fight depression. In fact, a study conducted by Harvard University indicates that 10 weeks of strength training is more effective than 10 weeks of counseling when it comes to battling clinical depression.
Will Weight Lifting Make Me Too Bulky and Massive?
Many women shy away from strength training, believing that performing a regular weight lifting routine will cause their bodies to become large and bulky. Although this is certainly true of men who strength train with regularity and intensity, especially with the help of specially-designed diets, it is simply not true for women.
The reason for this simple: testosterone. The hormone testosterone, which is largely responsible for the vast increases observed in lean muscle mass, density, and strength in men who consistently strength train, is much more abundant in the bodies of men than it is in women.
Normal men typically maintain testosterone levels ranging from 200 to 1,200 ng/dl, while female testosterone levels typically range from just 15 to 70 ng/dl. In other words, average men have at least 16 times more testosterone than women.
Without the hormonal support provided by testosterone, it is impossible for women to reach the level of muscular bulk achieved by their male counterparts. At the same time, you’ve probably noticed some female bodybuilders who have an extremely “manly” build and high levels of muscular mass.
Barring the presence of abnormally high but naturally occurring testosterone levels, these women typically achieve this appearance by using testosterone supplements and/or anabolic steroids. These women also tend to develop other male traits aside from increased muscle mass, including a deeper voice, male patterns of fat storage and hair growth on the body and face.
Obviously, women who are looking to strength train as a means of improving their overall health and physical appearance are unlikely to take steroids or testosterone boosters. For this reason, you should never worry about putting on excess muscle mass as a result of weight training. Instead, you should only look forward to having a more toned, sculpted and shapely body, which you’ll achieve through regular strength training.
The Importance of Combining Strength Training with Cardio
Women often ask the question: “Am I better off devoting my physical activity time to cardio or strength training?” The answer is that no sound workout program is complete unless you include both. Some of the benefits of strength training and cardio overlap, while others are unique to one type of exercise. At the same time, you can maximize many of the benefits of each by incorporating both into your weekly workout schedule.
Just a few of the specific benefits of cardio are listed below:
Improves functioning of the respiratory and circulatory systems.
Decreases resting heart rate.
Improves circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body.
Makes the body more likely to burn fat as a source of energy.
Efficiently burns calories, reducing non-lean body mass (fat).
Improves balance, posture, coordination and flexibility.
Improves muscle tone.
Helps you to lose weight.
Reduces blood pressure.
Raises good and lowers bad cholesterol levels.
Alleviates stress and produces feeling of well-being.
For obvious reasons, cardio will be especially important to your overall fitness routine if your primary goal is to lose weight. In fact, adhering to an overall program that includes weight training, cardio and a calorie-conscious, whole-foods diet is perhaps the single healthiest and most reliable way of achieving an ideal body weight and maintaining that body weight, permanently. If you’ve already achieved a healthy body weight, continuing to perform both strength training and cardio is a great way of ensuring that you keep it.
One way of combining strength training and cardio into a single activity is by performing a circuit routine. This means performing several different weight training sets with very little rest in between. By performing each set with intensity and moving on to the next set quickly, you’ll keep your heart elevated and maintain an aerobic effect. This will maximize the fat-burning potential of a workout that’s otherwise targeted at improving strength and building muscle mass.
At the same time, you should feel free to separate your cardio and strength training sessions into separate workouts. This will give you the freedom to choose from an enormous variety of cardiovascular activities, including ones that can be performed indoors and outdoors and ones that are better suited to the gym. Examples include jogging, running, cycling, rowing, tennis, soccer, basketball, and using cardio machines such as ellipticals, stairclimbers and stationary bikes. By mixing up the types of cardio you perform, you’ll prevent boredom, maximize motivation, and force your body to respond to a wide variety of challenges. All of this means that you’ll achieve the results you desire faster and more enjoyably.
Women who truly want to maximize the fat-burning potential of their exercise routine should consider high intensity interval training (HIIT), a form of cardiovascular exercise often recommended for bodybuilders. Studies have shown that high intensity interval training allows the exerciser to get more physical benefits in a shorter exercise session. This means more fat burning and more muscle toning with less time spent exercising.
In order to perform HIIT, you must exercise intensely for a short time and then exercise at a more moderate pace for another short time, repeating this cycle throughout your workout. If you’re biking, for example, you can automatically incorporate HIIT into your workout simply by riding up and down hills. If you’re exercising on flat ground, you’ll need to intentionally increase and decrease the intensity of your workout as you’re performing it.
Differences in Male and Female Strength Training
Common strength training advice for women suggests that female weight lifters should stick to rhythmic exercises, or ones that involve a relatively small amount of weight and a large number of repetitions. The theory behind this advice is that lifting a heavier amount of weight with fewer reps will result in an overly bulky and massive appearance.
As explained earlier in this article, this simply isn’t true because females have far less testosterone than males, which is required for massive muscle growth. In reality, you can perform sets that have a small, medium or large number of repetitions. Your decision will largely depend on your specific strength training goals. For example:
Sets with 12 or more reps are ideal for building endurance
Sets with 6 to 11 reps are ideal for building muscle mass
Sets with 1 to 5 reps are ideal for building strength
In other words, if your primary goal is to improve the appearance of your body by adding lean muscle mass, performing sets that include approximately 6 to 11 repetitions would be ideal. You’ll want to lift heavy weights that thoroughly fatigue your muscles by the end of your session in order to maximize the effectiveness of the exercises. If you don’t feel like you’re close to or at the point of failure by the end of each set, you probably need to add more weight to the bar.
Once you achieve a basic level of structural strength and lean muscle mass, you’ll also want to focus on high-rep, low-weight sets as a way of increasing muscular definition and adding variety to your strength training program. Performing these types of exercises with little rest in between sets will help to enhance the fat-burning potential of your workout by helping you to achieve an aerobic effect.
As such, many studies have found that male and female strength training techniques are actually extremely similar. The only real difference is that you’ll be unable to build massive amounts of muscular bulk, no matter what types of exercises you perform.
Nutritional Needs for Women Who Strength Train
Similar to with the differences between male and female strength training, the nutritional needs of female strength trainers are actually very similar to the dietary needs of their male counterparts. This is due to the fact that men and women share most of the same metabolic traits, with a few minor but notable exceptions.
One exception is the way that men and women utilize fat and carbohydrates. Female bodies are slightly more efficient at burning fat and not so efficient when it comes to burning carbs, while the exact opposite is true of males. As such, women who are incorporating a strength training routine into an overall fitness program for the purpose of enhancing weight loss may want to consider a reduced-carbohydrate diet. They should also be more wary of simple carbohydrates, for example, than fats – particularly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (examples of essential fatty acids), which reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Since women have an easier time of burning these fats off through their metabolism, they’re less likely to be stored as excess body weight.
At the same time, most female strength trainers shouldn’t drastically alter the ratios of carbs and fats they consume each day, and are generally better off following the same nutritional guidelines as men, with one major exception: caloric intake.
Women who strength train require fewer daily calories than men who strength train. This is because men have more lean muscle tissue and a smaller body fat percentage than women. In comparison to fat, muscle requires more calories in order to be sustained. As such, a body with a higher ratio of lean-to-fat body mass will require more calories just to maintain its current state.
For this reason, you’ll need to consume fewer calories than what’s recommended for male strength trainers, on average. However, your actual ideal daily caloric intake will depend on your fitness goals. If your goal is to lose weight, you’ll need to consume fewer daily calories than if your goal is to enter a bodybuilding competition, for example. Of course, there are points between these two extremes, such as if your goal is to burn a moderate amount of excess body fat while developing a moderate amount of lean muscle mass. This should be the ultimate goal for most women beginning a strength training routine.
As you can see, there are actually very few differences between strength training guidelines for men and strength training guidelines for women. In fact, women can work out in virtually the exact same way as men and expect to gain strength, endurance and toned and shapely muscles, if not extraordinary amounts of additional muscle mass. This is because women have far less testosterone than men, which is required for high levels of muscular hypertrophy. As such, women can safely engage in intense strength training workouts without fear of “bulking up” or taking on a more masculine appearance.
Strength training or cardio – which is better? The real answer is that both are necessary components of any solid physical activity program. Even if your goal is strictly to lose weight and burn body fat, it would be foolish to only choose one at the exclusion of the other.
Many of the benefits of strength training and cardio overlap and support one another, while other benefits are unique to only one type of exercise. In order to experience a full range of physical activity benefits, you must engage in a full range of physical activities.
If you’re still uncomfortable with strength training as a woman, you’re not alone. Many women hate the idea of a visiting a male-dominated gym and being intimidated by the bulky male strength trainers, and often relegate themselves to cardio as a result. Forget this notion. Strength training belongs to women just as it belongs to men, and you owe it to yourself to explore this important physical activity.