Strength Training for Women – Myths and Benefits
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- The most common myth we encounter is the fear of attaining a ‘masculine physique’.
- Some women assume that strength training is only useful for building large muscles and that this process occurs easily instantaneously. This is false.
- Another misconception is that strength training reduces flexibility and increases risk of injury. Strength training may improve flexibility and is perfectly safe, if executed correctly.
- Strength training elicits a myriad of health benefits, both physiological and psychological, which both men and women should take advantage of.
It’s nineteen eighty something, fluorescent leggings, shoulder pads and large perms are the height of fashion and Jane Fonda is the face of women’s fitness. The general notion was that women should only perform cardio and bodyweight exercise (think power walking, step aerobics and Pilates) to attain that sought after ‘slim, long and lean’ look. God forbid a female lifted any weight heavier than 5kg in fear of suddenly transforming into Arnold Schwarzenegger in drag.
Now, we like to think we’ve come a long way from celebrity “fitness gurus” ruling the television screens and magazine covers with their pseudoscience and dogmatic beliefs. Unfortunately, many of these misconceptions have been so ingrained into our culture that they still remain. We aim to call into question some of these long-standing myths and make a case for the benefits that strength training has to offer the female population.
What is Strength Training?
Before we start the discussion, we need to be clear as to what strength training even is. There are many different expressions of strength. We’d happily class a gymnast, sprinter or powerlifter as all ‘strong’ in their own respective fields.
A quick google search will define strength training as “a type of physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles”. This is a pretty broad term which contains a host of variables and complexities, but for the sake of this article, this definition will suffice.
Common Myths and Misconceptions
#1. Strength Training Will Give the Appearance of ‘Short’, ‘Bulky’ Muscles
This is by far the most common misconception amongst our female clients when we discuss strength training. First of all, once you’ve fully developed as an adult you cannot change a muscles length! You can build muscle size (known as muscular hypertrophy) but muscle lengthening and shortening physically cannot occur.
Muscular hypertrophy will only occur if you’re eating more calories than you use (a caloric surplus) and your training has been specifically designed to do so. You’d need to be lifting weights (sometimes to failure) over a spectrum of rep and set ranges, consistently, for an average of >3 times per week, incorporating planned progressive overload and for a long period of time (think months and years).
Also, this process does not happen overnight and we often spend years with male clients trying to get them to put on 2kg of lean muscle! Women in particular are specifically at a large disadvantage due to the low amounts of testosterone in their system (the critical hormone needed to build muscle).
So in short, incorporating some strength training into your exercise regime will highly unlikely grow your muscles to the point you get a ‘masculine’ or ‘bulky’ aesthetic. You can also gain strength without the body having to increase the size of the muscle. So, keep calm and carry on!
#2. Cardio is Better Than Strength Training for Fat Loss
Although it is true that traditional forms of ‘cardio’ (jogging, swimming, cycling etc) burns more calories on averages per minute than strength training, a large amount of evidence consistently shows that a mixture of both cardio and strength training is more beneficial for fat lossfat loss than either cardio or strength on their own (7).
What were the hypothesised reasons for this? Well, a few things may be at play here. Strength training will help you retain muscle mass as you lose weight through a caloric deficit (8) and this can maintain or even increase your resting metabolic rate (9). This gives you the added benefit of being able to lose weight without reducing your calories so low that the diet becomes unsustainable.
Strength training can also improve your ability to train harder and for longer, which will definitely add up in terms of expended calories over a significant period of time.
#3. Strength Training Will Reduce Flexibility
This misconception was probably derived from drawing false correlations through observation. It was observed that large muscular framed bodybuilders or powerlifters looked (and often were) tight and stiff. The assumption was that the training they were involved in must have caused this phenomenon. However, lifting weights with good form, through a full range of motion (ROM) will likely maintain joint health and actually improve ROM. Research has shown that the relationship between strength training and muscle stiffness just doesn’t exist, if anything the opposite is likely to be true (4&5).
Being sedentary is significantly worse at causing stiffness and reducing flexibility, as you’re simply not using your joints and muscles enough. So, as with everything, it depends on what stimulus you are providing the body as to how it responds. Incorporating some stretching and mobility exercises as part of your warm ups, cool downs or daily routine can’t hurt either.
#4. Strength Training Increases the Risk of Injury
We understand why most feel unconfident when it comes to lifting weights. The correct dosage of weight training is the difference between a medicine and a poison. If you lift too much weight, far beyond the capacity for your muscles and joints to control, you increase your risk of injury. If you lift appropriate weight with good form, you not only massively reduce the risk of injury (6) but also gain the benefit of becoming more robust and resilient to the point your joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons and bones will probably thank you.
#5. Strength Exercises can “Spot Reduce” Fat
Have you ever heard that you can reduce fat on the back of your arms by doing Triceps extensions? Or get rid of that stubborn belly fat by doing ab crunches until you feel sick? Such thinking is referred to as ‘spot reduction’. Well, unfortunately, this just simply doesn’t happen (10). On the contrary in fact, fat is lost wherever your body wants to lose it and varies widely from person to person. In general, fat tends to be lost from the extremities first (legs, arms, face etc) and hangs around the hips and belly for a bit longer. But again, this is variable and depends on the individual.
Keep consistent with your training and nutrition and enjoy the process! Don’t get caught up with losing weight in any specific areas.
Having dispelled a few common misconceptions, here is a list of proven benefits that adding some strength training to your exercise routine can have;
1. Increased resting metabolic rate (RMR) (9)
2. Increased bone density (11)
3. Improved joint strength (12)
4. More efficient and resilient cardiovascular system (13)
5. A more sculpted and toned physique (as opposed to ‘skinny fat’)
6. Higher self-esteem and confidence (14)
7. Great transfer into real life (able to carry and lift boxes, babies, suitcases, tables, bikes etc)
8. Improved brain function and memory (seriously! cool right?) (15)
So, get lifting ladies, become invest some resources in learning how to lift well and we guarantee your health, fitness and physique will hit a whole new level…more power to you!
Food for thought? If this has encouraged you to think about your health, fitness & wellbeing, why not click this link and fill out our enquiry form. We’d love to see how we can help you on your journey.
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.
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