Strength Training for Women

The importance of strength training for women should not be underestimated. Once a practice reserved solely for competitive athletes and bodybuilders, strength training has gained incredible popularity over the last decade. This is due to the significant research devoted to the study of the benefits of strength training. It is now realized to be an essential part of any fitness regimen, and along with activities that focus on cardiovascular endurance, flexibility and optimal body composition, strength training insures a well-balanced, injury-free lifestyle. (Beginners see this article: Beginning a Strength Training Program.)

Strength training has been proven to benefit all populations, from adolescent athletes to seniors. Women, in particular, see tremendous benefits from strength training. Traditionally, women relied on cardiovascular activity and a low calorie diet to change their physical appearance. Unfortunately, low calorie diets merely punish the soul and plummet the metabolism, and, without including consistent strength training in our program, effecting change can be an impossible goal. (Sidebar refers to article with tips on eating correctly for your metabolism.)  Also, aerobically overtraining can lead to injury.  We now know that strength training is absolutely essential if we wish to create visual changes in our bodies, and we’ve discovered that the benefits of strength training extend far beyond the visual.

Strength training creates strong ligaments and tendons, which serve to support our joints and decrease the likelihood of injury from other activities. Bone density increases dramatically, reducing our risk of osteoporosis. Strength training enhances quality of life, as it enables us to better perform daily activities that require lifting, pushing and pulling. The physical and spiritual benefits of strength training are myriad, and when realized, the goal no longer becomes a “hardbody”, but the confidence and control that strength training teaches us.

Women further benefit from strength training because of the increase in resting metabolism created by strength training. Because of this increase, women who are trying to reduce bodyfat will do so more easily. When done sufficiently and consistently, strength training increases muscle fiber size. Once muscle fibers enlarge, they consume more energy – which boosts our metabolisms.

For women of middle age, this is particularly important.  Strength training can help them avoid that predicable metabolic sluggishness that often occurs at that stage in life. Thus, the true secret to keeping middle age pounds off is not to eat less, but to strength train more!

Many women are afraid of strength training because they believe that it will create large muscles that are unattractive. “I’ll weight train once I get this fat off.  I don’t want to turn it into muscle”. This is a prevalent misconception. The vast majority of women cannot build large muscles because they are genetically incapable of doing so. It is impossible to turn fat into muscle, or muscle into fat, as each cell is unique from the other.

In order to dispel these types of myths, we need to understand the physiology of strength training.  Strength training results in an increase in muscle fiber size. As the muscle fibers increase in thickness, the shape of the muscle changes, getting thicker in the belly, or middle, of the muscle. This results in a change in the shape of the muscle. How much the muscle changes in shape, and how large the muscle gets, depends on the amount of work the muscle is asked to do (as well as other factors discussed later). If the muscle is asked to lift very heavy loads, it will respond with a significant increase in fiber/muscle size. (The goal of most men.)

In order to avoid this gain in muscle mass, women are told to lift very light weights.  This recommendation is oftentimes interpreted to the extreme, and women perform many repetitions with 3 or 5 pound weights. Unfortunately, without sufficient load (weight), the muscle will not change, and the goal of “tone” and “shape” cannot be achieved. A change in the shape or tone of a muscle is created in the same way that size is created, with hard work and consistency!! In order to shape or tone your muscle, you must lift a weight that is heavy enough to create muscle fatigue. Muscular failure is different than muscular fatigue. Working to muscular failure is not always appropriate for general strength training as it can lead to injury.  Working your muscles to fatigue will not necessarily create large, unsightly muscle mass.  Even if you work your muscles to extreme fatigue, rest assured, that the majority of  women are genetically unable to create large muscles because they lack sufficient hormones or body structure to do so.

Body structure and body composition, or the amount of bodyfat vs. lean tissue, plays an important role in how you respond to weight training. Muscular body types, or mesomorphs, respond quickly to weight training and are most likely to build muscle size. Ectomorphs, (thin, frail body) are generally unable to add muscle mass, even though they need to! Most women tend to be endomorphs, or pear shaped, and have a difficult time creating tone in their lower bodies, where they store most of their bodyfat. In addition, the more fat stored on the body in general, the less likely you are to see the muscle’s tone, as subcutaneous (under the skin) fat surrounds the muscles, obscuring their shape. Because each body type responds differently to exercise, it is recommended that you seek professional advise on how to create a weight training program that best suits your bodytype, goals, lifestyle and overall fitness level. Undoubtedly, women of all shapes and sizes benefit from strength training.

Strength training need not be complex or overly time consuming. It can fit easily into any woman’s lifestyle, since it requires minimal equipment and time. Free weights, weight training machines, rubber tubing or your own bodyweight will all enhance muscular strength and endurance with as little as 20 minutes to one half hour a day of training. All major muscle groups need to be worked to avoid muscular and postural imbalances. It is recommended that you choose a weight or load that produces muscle fatigue somewhere between 8-12 repetitions of an exercise for the upper body, and 12-15 repetitions for the lower body. Most current research recommends 1-3 sets per muscle group, depending on your goals and current fitness level. (A set is equal to the number of repetitions (8-12 or 12-15) you are currently able to do safely and with correct posture.)

Again, for the safest, most effective program, you should seek the advice of a certified fitness professional. Also, there are many books on the subject.  I highly recommend “A Woman’s Book Of Strength“, by Karen Andes, for the most up-to-date, correct information for women.
As always, please get approval from your physician before starting any exercise regimen.