These days, there’s no shortage of women flocking to the gym in search of the holy grail to tone and spot reduce their “problem areas“. While this is great news, it’s very apparent to me that women are as confused as ever about how to achieve these goals with weight training.
Who can blame them?
Women are so heavily marketed to, and often inundated with erroneous exercise techniques, it’s no wonder that their beliefs regarding weight training are so off the mark. These beliefs need to be challenged if women want to experience the plethora of benefits from the most effective tool in existence for transforming their body – a properly designed, progressive weight lifting program.
Do women really need to exercise differently than men? Is being a woman somehow limiting your potential to have the body you desire?
Men and women respond to weight training in much the same way, yet men and women often demonstrate significant differences in strength and muscle mass. The average women is only two-thirds as strong as a typical man. Even though the muscle composition (muscle fiber type) is similar in both sexes, men tend to have more muscle mass per pound of bodyweight and this is mainly what accounts for their increased strength production, especially in the upper body. Women, on the other hand, tend to have a much higher percentage of body fat than men leaving them with far less muscle per pound of body weight.
The reason for the difference in body composition comes down to hormones. Women produce high levels of estrogen and other fat storage hormones. Testosterone is a muscle building and fat burning hormone, of which most women produce very little of. In fact men produce around 2500% more testosterone than women.
It’s the estrogen hormone that contributes directly to the fat deposition and distribution in women, typically mostly in the thighs. This is why many women are shaped like pears and men are more like apples. In fact, when a woman loses weight, many simply go from a large pear to a small pear shape; that is unless weight training is used to “shape” the body.
I’m sorry ladies, but you’re built for lactation and pregnancy, and as a result, your body has little need for testosterone. This can present some challenges for women who want to use weight training to lose body fat because:
- need more exercise than men for the same amount of fat loss;
- have a 10% lower RMR (resting metabolism) than men;
- who take the” pill” may have a lower metabolic rate;
- with low iron levels may have decreased fat loss through exercise;
- may find that pre-menopausal “glenoid fat” is less responsive to fat loss; and
- may find that lower body fat is 1.5-2x less removable than abdominal fat.
So women do have some challenges out of the gate, but their uniqueness is not necessarily a weakness. Genetics aside, the weakness often resides in the mind of the individual and in the application of the weight training itself. To help turn these weaknesses into strengths I’d like to debunk some of myths that continue to prevent women from enjoying the benefits of a well-designed weight training program. Let’s get started . . .
#1 : Toning Their Muscles
The desire for toned muscles is almost exclusively the reason most women start lifting weights in the first place. The problem is that “tone” is taken out of context and the desire to achieve it often results in a flawed exercise program.
The term “muscle tone” or tonus describes an electrophysiological phenomenon, a measure of ionic flow across muscle cell membranes. It can be thought of as the muscle’s readiness to do intense exercise. The more fit the muscle, the more electrophysiological activity it exhibits at rest. Lack of exercise leads to poor tone. Aerobic exercise improves tone a little bit while low-intensity weight training improves tone more and high-intensity training improves tone the fastest. This why a strength athlete’s musculature appears to be flexed even when at rest.
Most exercise programs that claim to improve muscle tone are actually lower-intensity muscle building programs. You know, the ones with very high reps counts, usually in a circuit setting. These are only moderately effective for improving muscle tone. If a woman sees results from such an approach, it is most likely due to lowered body fat levels from increased caloric expenditure and not as a result of weight training adaptation. If “tone” is the goal, strength training is the method. Period.
#2 : Developing Big Muscles
Everyone knows that men want muscular development. This is for the obvious reasons of masculine dominance and peer respect (and intimidation). Weight training has always been the best option for achieving this. Images of muscle-bound behemoths continues to lead many inexperienced women to believe that lifting weights will cause them to develop unnatural, masculine muscles and somehow compromise their femininity.
Experienced women know better. Initial concerns of getting “too bulky” are quickly abandoned as they become aware of just how difficult it is too gain a significant amount of muscle. I can’t overstate this.
It is VERY difficult to build muscle, let alone sustain it.
A high volume of precise training, excessive caloric consumption and a surplus of testosterone is needed to significantly add muscle mass. Unless this is the situation, women are not going to be adding any “bulk” – Period!
In addition, an individual must possess the genetics and motivation to build large muscles. Most women have neither. Simply lifting weights is not enough to create more than a few pounds of muscle gain in most cases. However, this is the ideal scenario if someone wants to make subtle but noticeable changes to their physique.
With rare exception, when a woman begins to see the shape of her triceps, roundness in her shoulders, sweep of the thighs, and particularly a hint of abs poking through the fat, she is hooked. Perhaps wearing smaller clothing sizes and being more ‘compact’ or ‘tight’ in dimensions is good encouragement to tolerate any added muscle.
#3 : Losing Their Flexibility
There is some concern from women that weight training will decrease their hard earned flexibility. This is simply not the case unless they train that way. A lot of younger women that I run into display an impressive degree of range of motion through most of their joints. This is usually because they regularly participate in activities that encourage extensive passive flexibility (ie. stretching without resistance). Of course there is nothing wrong with this but there needs to be a program in place to develop one’s active flexibility or ability to stretch – while under load . Let me explain.
In the same way a lot of weight lifters (if they develop too much mass) eventually become stiff if they don’t stretch, many women will likely develop laxity in their joints if they don’t also get stronger. Excessive flexibility might seem impressive but is actually unsafe and unnatural. People cannot allow their joints to move through a terminal range of motion (ie. bottom of a squat) without a good amount of strength supporting the tissues or they risk injury.
Flexibility without strength = Instability
It’s always about balance. With intelligent weight training you can balance out your active and passive flexibility (also known as the active flexibility deficit). I don’t care if you can put both legs behind your head, if you can’t to duplicate that range in a loaded straight leg deadlift you may get injured. This deficit also correlates positively to your performance in a chosen sport. If your joints are unstable, your power and strength will suffer.
The bottom line ladies: I know you love your yoga but make sure you compliment your flexibility with a sound strength training regimen.
Although there are differences, both men and women can benefit tremendously from lifting weights. Sex is just one element affecting your results from lifting weights. But the application of weight training is based on the unique goals of the individual, not sex. Far too many adult women are walkers, joggers and group exercisers. While being active is great, if you really want to change the shape of your body ladies, there is only one proven solution – weight training.
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