Myth busting: weight training for women

By: Amanda Dale

If I had a dollar for every (female) client that’s told me they don’t lift weights because they “don’t want to get too big,” I’d probably go into early retirement.

Perhaps the most pervasive myth in the entire fitness industry (besides the fact that crunches give you abs, which is a topic for another time) is the idea that when a woman picks up a set of weights, she will somehow transform into a muscular, masculine, or otherwise monstrous human being.

It’s time to break the cycle of misinformation, once and for all. Repeat after me, ladies: weight training will not make you bulky!

I know what you’re thinking – but I’ve seen those “Crossfit girls” with the massive quads and giant lats!” “I had a friend who started Olympic weightlifting and got really big really fast!” “One time I knew a girl who competed in bodybuilding contests and had biceps the size of my head!”

The thing that all of the above examples have in common is these women are lifting very heavy weights, very regularly, and eating very large amounts of protein, with the goal of developing large muscles and gains in body mass. These types of gains in size do not happen by accident; in fact they are the result of lots of hard work, dietary changes, and dedicated heavy weight training (and in some cases, very unfortunately, even performance enhancing drugs or hormones).

Most women do not have the naturally occurring amounts of testosterone necessary to attain massive hypertrophy. Furthermore, most women are not lifting heavy enough weights to develop large muscles. 

What I see much more commonly than muscle gain in my female clients is the propensity toward higher body fat percentages, weak upper bodies, and low-protein diets. If more women addressed these issues in their workout programmes by simply adding weight training, they would very likely attain the lean, chiselled-but-not-huge, strong bodies they are looking for.

So how to build without the bulk?

First of all, think about athletes that need to be strong, explosive, and flexible without carrying any excess weight – boxers, dancers, sprinters, gymnasts and rock climbers come to mind. What these athletes have in common is that they lift heavy weights, often performing fundamental movements (think squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and cleans) to maximum, but balance their weight training with clean eating, bodyweight exercise (such as push-ups, planks, and burpees – all the bootcamp staples!), and cardio.

Even more importantly, these athletes maintain a high percentage of lean muscle to fat, meaning they maximise their metabolisms by maintaining enough muscle to burn more calories even at rest.  Without muscle tissue, the body can only burn so many calories on its own without external stimuli, like exercise. When you keep your body lean and muscled, you turn it into a fat-burning machine, raising your resting metabolic rate without any extra effort and burning more calories every day – even those you don’t get a chance to exercise. Bonus!

How to overcome our body challenges

Women, particularly those of childbearing age, face an uphill battle against body fat and muscle loss. We carry a greater percentage of sex-specific essential body fat in order to protect our reproductive organs (which is why a woman at 19% is extremely fit whereas a man would need to be at around 10% to be similarly fit). 

After the age of 30, even active women can lose 3-5% of their muscle mass per decade, so weight training is absolutely crucial to build and maintain a healthy and functional body. Think of muscle as the silver bullet of fitness for women – it will give you a leaner look, more energy, and increased calorie burning power while taking up less time than traditional “cardio”.

Next time you hit the gym, resist the urge to pick up the pink and purple 2-KG dumbbells or hop onto the elliptical machine, instead, slide some plates onto a bar, find a certified personal trainer for guidance, and build the lean, mean body you deserve.

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