A few years back, I had a conversation with a family member of mine who is a female and over the age of 50. For our purposes today and to protect her identity, let’s call her Darcie.
We were discussing her current exercises of choice and the topic of dumbells came up, Darcie told me she only has 10 pounds in her house because she didn’t want to get “too bulky”. As a woman, she wanted to be slim and toned, so going over 10# was never an option. She saved the heavier dumbbells for her husband. Let’s call him Stefan.
Darcie says she does “low weight, high reps” so she can tone. She stays away from high weight/low reps because that causes muscles to get big. After a few eye rolls, I went on to explain, ever so nicely, a few things to her that I now want to share with you today:
Darcie was on to something when she mentioned high versus low weight, but as opposed to explaining “big” versus “toned” muscles, Darcie was explaining muscle strength versus muscle endurance. Simply put, strength is being able to lift something well that weighs a lot while endurance is being able to lift or perform a task for a long period of time. In life, we need both. Both need to be trained and rarely are you ever working on just one. As women, most of us are like Darcie and never train for strength, therefore missing out on so many vital things that strength training can provide.
First of all, what is strength training? For a muscle to become STRONG, it has to be overloaded and stressed. Simply put, when a muscle is loaded it breaks down and as it recovers, it builds back up. During that recovery, you build up thicker, bigger and STRONGER muscles. When your goal is strength, an exercise needs to stay in a low rep range (normally between 3-12 reps for multiple sets). When choosing how many reps to perform, you want the last 4-5 reps to be hard, i.e muscles burning, shaking and you’re ready to be done. If you get to 10 reps and could do 10 more, the weight is too light and needs to be increased.
So, we know what it is. We know simply how to do it, but why?
1. Strength Training and “Bulking Up” – Like many other things in life, women are significantly different than men and that includes the weight room. Acording to Women’s Heart Foundation, women lack 10 to 30 hormones required for muscle growth and bulk. Women who participate in bodybuilding and strive for muscle growth spend multiple sessions a day in the gym, eat very specific and restricted diets and are following very specific regimes to achieve the muscle mass they need for competition. For the majority of women, our genetics and strength training a few times/week will actually provide the tone and definition we are all so desperate for – not bulk.
2. Strength Training and Losing Weight – So you not only will increase muscle tone by adding strength-focused workouts into your programming, but you will also burn calories more efficiently. Dr. Wayne Wescott performed a study that showed women who strength train are able to burn fat at a higher rate than those who do not. He concluded that women who strength train 2-3x per week for 8 weeks were able to gain 1.75 pounds in muscle and additionally lost up to 4 pounds in fat. Lean muscle helps increase resting metabolism, which allows women to burn fat at a higher rate all throughout the day!
So those of you who spend hours on cardio machines to burn fat and calories – I challenge you to add in a few strength training days to see better, more efficient gains in body fat percentage as well as tone up your flabby arms and muffin tops everyone points to when they discuss their exercise goals.
3. Strength Training Gets You Strong! – This is an obvious statement but goes overlooked more often than not. As a therapist, I see hundreds of women in their 50s+ who lose independence due to weakness. It takes strength to do things like pick up a laundry basket, get children and grandchildren into car seats or out of cribs. It takes strength to get down and up from the floor after you wrap presents. It takes strength to get out of a low booth at a restaurant. The strength that is required for these tasks is not guaranteed or given. Women that strength train regularly remain independent with daily tasks longer!
4. Strength Training Increases Bone Health – Osteoporosis affects many people all over the world, and over 80% of these people are women. Due to hormone levels and genetic makeup, we are predisposed to weaker, less dense bones compared to men. Our max bone density is achieved when we graduate high school. After that, the only way bones can regrow is with weight-bearing activities. Studies show that after 6 months of weight training, bone density can increase by up to 13 percent. Women who strength train are able to avoid osteoporosis but also reverse this condition as well.
5. Weight Training and Our Brains – A Harvard study found that women who participate in consistent weight training reported a greater decrease in clinical depression symptoms than counseling alone. In general, women who lift weights report feeling overall more confident and capable than women who do not. Life is hard. Life sucks sometimes. Exercise can and will help you feel better about it.
As women, we have been told that men pick up the heavy boxes. Men use the weight room, and we use the treadmill. Men open up pickle jars, put away Christmas decorations, and carry the luggage on a trip. Now if you chose to defer to your husband, brother or son on these things because you just don’t want to, then that’s one thing. But I don’t ever want a woman to think she is unable to do these things, strictly due to her gender, biases we have learned growing up, or lack of education about the wonderful and lifesaving benefits strength training can provide.
You will be glad to know that Darcie now strength trains 3x weekly with a trainer. She is the thinnest she has been since having 5 children, she has decreased clothing size, has increased energy all while not “bulking up”. Imagine that.
Strength training can be scary and daunting. I would encourage every woman to do whatever it takes to get started and get comfortable. As I therapist, I provide functional movement screens which is a great place to start to ensure sure your body is ready and prepared for a full strength training routine. Find someone to help you get started and do it!
Pick up something heavy. Pick it up well. Pick it up often. You won’t regret it.
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