Losing weight and becoming healthier inevitably tops the list of most people’s fitness goals. But many—women in particular—may be ignoring one of the best ways to get lean: strength training.
Strength training can involve just about any kind of resistance training, whether that’s lifting barbells or hand weights, jumping on a weight machine or even using resistance bands or weighted balls. Also, with the popularity of CrossFit and other highly intensive exercise programs, it’s worthwhile to mention that you do not have to participate in something that extreme to accomplish your goals. Effective strength training can be kept simple.
But wait, you say. Won’t I get bulky?
The answer, actually, is no. You can thank biology for this one. Although testosterone makes it easy for guys to rapidly build up large muscles when weight training, estrogen in women limits the ability to get bulky or thick muscles.
The other good news? Ounce for ounce, muscle tissue is smaller than adipose (fatty) tissue. So if you strength train, build up muscle and lose fat, you’ll automatically be leaner. The number on the scale might not show it since muscle weighs more than fat, but the changes will be quite obvious in the mirror.
Still in doubt? Read on for these other common misconceptions—and the fact behind the fiction:
Misconception: “As a woman, I always need to use lower weight and do higher reps.”
Truth: Lower weight and more reps are one strategy in strength training. But to really see results, it’s better to alternate that strategy with others, including using higher weight and lower reps. The reason is, our bodies tend to adapt to certain stressors. That’s why some who exercise talk about plateauing and not seeing any further changes in fat loss. It’s a sign that you need to switch things up to challenge your body in a new way to keep your body adapting. So if you’re using five-pound weights this month and three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, next month try using 10-pound weights and three sets of one to six reps. Then, the next month, go back to your original strategy to keep your body guessing.
Misconception: “Running is the best way for my body to get lean and strong.”
Truth: Muscle has four different types of muscle fibers. While the action of running can effectively hit one of these fibers repeatedly, resistance training with weights can apply a high enough force to work all four of these fibers. And the more you train these other fibers, the more your metabolism speeds up. Also think about it: If you’re a runner, as your endurance improves, you’ll need to do longer runs to stimulate adaptation. With strength training, you can simply add more weight or intensity and still exercise within the limited time window most of us have available.
Misconception: “My goal is fat loss: Isn’t cardio better?”
Truth: It’s true that for cardiovascular health, you’ll want to get your heart rate up, so running, aerobics, cycling—anything that gets your heart pumping is ideal. But if your goal is fat loss, strength training builds muscle and sheds fat, and as we mentioned above, working all four muscle fiber types will help speed up your metabolism. Increasing your metabolism results in burning more calories throughout the day, not just during your workout. This results in much greater fat loss than when doing only cardio. However, both are important for a balanced approach. So aim for adding some strength training two to three times a week to your exercise regimen. These sessions can be brief (20 to 30 minutes) depending on your approach.
Misconception: “You have a higher risk of injury if you lift weights.”
Truth: Research hasn’t shown that strength training carries a higher risk of injury compared to other types of exercise. But at the same time, form is critical, especially if you’re using heavier weights. If you’re new and gung-ho about strength training, watch out for a tendency to overdo it, which could lead to injury. A good rule of thumb is to seek out a coach, personal trainer or class that can help you learn to strength train using the proper form and appropriate progression
Misconception: “As a woman, I should stick to hand weights and machines—no big barbells.”
Truth: There are no weights that are “just for guys” or “just for women.” Also, there are no lifts that are gender specific. But to get more bang for the buck, whether you’re a man or a woman, I advise lifts that work the whole body at once. That way, you can get a total body workout with a minimal number of exercises and keep your time commitment low. This approach can be accomplished with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. One example is the squat press where you squat holding the weight on your chest or shoulders. Then, as you move back to standing, lift the weight over your head.
Misconception: “Strength training is only good for my muscles.”
Truth: It’s true that sarcopenia or the loss of muscle and strength is common as we age, with many negative consequences for our health and well-being. Building and maintaining lean muscle reverses this process and reduces our risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. However, strength training has also been found to be highly beneficial for bone health, protecting women from bone loss and osteoporosis, which occurs after menopause. In addition, regardless of your age, strength training will help build stronger bones, reducing the risk of fractures.
The ultimate New Year’s resolution is for a healthy, well-rounded body. By adding in strength training—and making sure to do it safely using the proper form and progression—both women and men can make a strong start to accomplishing that goal.