Alternate title: The importance of strength training for women; a rant by a grumpy old trainer…
While “you have to run to lose weight” is the fitness myth I’ve heard the most, “lifting makes women bulky” is my all-time favorite!
Wait, did I say favorite? I meant least favorite. Seriously, I hate it.
I remember a time not so long ago where I had the this conversation with clients on a weekly basis…
Me: Ok, let’s move on to the next exercise.
Client: You know I hate step ups.
Me: You’ve said you hate every exercise we do.
Client: Ugh, fine. But I don’t want to do too much. I don’t want to get bulky…
Me: Wait, didn’t you just tell me you were down two pants sizes since we started??
[A quick side note to any current or aspiring personal trainers and fitness professionals reading this: if you hear a client mention a concern multiple times even though you’ve explained it over and over, there’s a reason for it. In the story mentioned above, the client wasn’t actually worried about getting “bulky”. She was initially nervous, but the training and her results convinced her otherwise rather quickly.
Her actual concern was getting hurt.
Her first experience with a personal trainer was about as bad as they come. I’ll skip the details, but it was so bad that she talked about it for years afterwards. Long story short, when clients talk, be sure to listen!]
Yes, that conversation actually happened.
I don’t hate this myth because of how many times I’ve had to explain that it isn’t true. I’ll have a conversation with a client as many times as needed so they understand the process and we are on the same page.
I hate this myth because of how harmful it is.
Nonsense like this gets repeated far more often than it should by people with no clue what they’re talking about. As a result, strength training for women and lifting weights are demonized.
Instead of promoting the benefits, you hear things like:
Women shouldn’t lift…
Lifting weights isn’t feminine…
You’ll look like a man…
It makes your legs big and puffy…
Wrong, wrong, wrong! The importance of strength training for women shouldn’t be dismissed due to unfounded fears and nonsense.
Before I go any further, I want to say it loud and clear:
By itself, lifting weights does not make women bulky, big, unfeminine, or look like men.
In fact, nobody gets “big and bulky” just from lifting weights.
Yes, gaining muscle is the primary reason most people (men especially) start a resistance training program. That said, it does not happen automatically and it isn’t exactly “easy”.
Time to clear up some of the confusion on this topic.
1.Gaining muscle does not equal “getting bigger”
When the topic of lifting and gaining muscle comes up, most people think of someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or some other larger than life bodybuilder.
While this is a possible outcome of lifting weights, it is also the most extreme!
I would like to provide a less extreme, more reasonable, every day alternative…
This is a former client of mine. We worked together for about 7 years, and the pictures above are from the last year or so that we trained together.
When we started, she had many of the same concerns that I mention here. She would bring them up from time to time and I did my best to explain so we were on the same page.
Her goals changed the longer we trained. Eventually she asked about getting stronger, doing pull ups, learning how to deadlift, and things like that. I was surprised, but excited at the same time.
Anyway, after 7 years, a lot of squats, pull ups, deadlifts, heavy dumbbell exercises, and more, she never turned into a man or got “bigger”.
Instead, she noticed she felt better, looked better, received more compliments, liked being stronger, and worried about the scale less.
She saw the benefit and came to understand the importance of strength training for women. That sounds like a net positive to me.
2. “Muscle Weighs More Than Fat”
No, it doesn’t. Here’s a visual example of the difference between the two.
Both plates weigh 25 pounds, but one is made of a dense material that makes it smaller. It is the same with muscle and body fat. Muscle is more dense and it takes up less space as a result.
Because of this, you won’t automatically get bigger just because you gain muscle. What will most likely happen is you will lose body fat while gaining muscle. Your weight may stay the same but you will look and feel very different.
There’s a chance you may end up smaller after gaining muscle and losing fat. One thing
Going to the gym and lifting weights isn’t that hard or complicated. As a concept, gaining muscle isn’t complicated either. What makes it hard is the commitment and work required, both in and out of the gym.
Consistent training, preparing meals, getting enough sleep, fitting it all in with work, family, and the rest of that thing called “life”.
This is the “hard” part, especially when you consider that if you want to make significant progress, you’re in the gym 3 or more days a week. Keeping the commitment while finding a way to make everything work is the biggest challenge, but also the most rewarding when you see the payoff!
If “finding the balance” and staying committed aren’t hard enough, women have an even bigger battle to fight when gaining muscle.
Compared to men, women produce less testosterone, which is the primary muscle building hormone. Women are more sensitive to it, but the lower concentration of testosterone means the muscle building process is slower compared to men.
Lean muscle and additional weight don’t appear from nowhere. Something is needed to create it, and that thing is calories. Gaining muscle is the same as gaining weight; when you eat more calories than you expend or “burn” as energy, you get “bigger”.
Instead of storing the extra calories as fat, your body uses it to build muscle when you’re lifting.
Whether you’re lifting or not, a simple and proactive solution to avoid gaining weight and “getting bulky” is to watch your food intake.
The best thing to do is follow a simple, flexible eating plan that you can stick to without much issue. Keep it mostly healthy, minimize the junk, and don’t use lifting as an excuse to eat whatever, whenever.
6.Get ready to lift. A lot.
Much to the disappointment of myself, lots of athletes, and nearly every teenage boy on earth, it takes more than two days of light circuit training to gain a noticeable amount of muscle.
As I mentioned above, building significant muscle is a commitment. At the bare minimum, expect to train at least 3 times a week with a focus on multi-joint exercises.
These exercises also need to be moderately heavy. While “heavy” is a little different for everyone, here’s a general rule I like to use in my gym.
- Finish all reps of an exercise and can keep going for 5 or more reps…
- Can talk in the middle of a set…
- Don’t feel a burn in the muscles…
- Have no change in the speed of your reps…
Chances are the weight you’re using isn’t heavy enough.
If you are not lifting often enough, using weights heavy enough to signal the body to “grow”, or eating enough, you will not gain muscle. Period.
In addition to that, there is more than one way to lift weights. The exercises that build muscle and strength also tone, shape and sculpt (ugh, that word again). It all depends on how you use them.
As I said above, the importance of strength training for women is a big deal and shouldn’t be dismissed because of misinformation. In fact, strength training is a big deal for everyone; men, women, old, and young. It’s not just about getting big muscles anymore.
Lifting is a great activity. In addition to the health benefits and improved appearance, it doesn’t have an expiration date and can improve your quality of life if you approach it the right way.
If you haven’t already, I recommend giving it a try so you can decide for yourself. You might end up loving it!