Weight-lifting was historically an exercise modality that women shied away from for fear of being "too masculine" or "getting too big." Female strength sports did not become fully recognized until the 1970s and 1980s with the recognition of female powerlifters (1987), the Women's Weightlifting Championship (1987), female bodybuilding shows (1977), and the Strongest Woman event in 1997.
The idea of female strength athletes has gained even more popularity since the advent of CrossFit in the early 2000s (Rohloff, 2013).
However, the importance and benefits of participating in a strength training program extend much farther than sports performance. Strength training is a critical component of a balanced fitness routine and healthy lifestyle for women of all ages and life stages.
If you are on a learning streak, the NASM Women's Fitness course is an amazing program to check out!
5 Reasons Why Women Should Lift
Many women will begin a weight-lifting program for aesthetic purposes. Perhaps she viewed a social media post or magazine article covered in pictures of very lean and toned women, which she wants to emulate. Maybe she has been told that lifting weights will help her lose weight as she attempts a weight loss program.
These intangible motivators may hold some truth- strength training can improve aesthetics. An increased lean body mass can aid in fat loss; however, they pale in comparison to the very real and often life-changing benefits of a strength training program.
Reason #1 Development of Good Movement Patterns and Pain Reduction
Do you recall the old adage that stated, "if you keep making that face (or in this case doing that movement), you will get stuck that way?" There is a grain of truth to this statement in that the human movement system is very prone to muscle imbalance and the development of dysfunctional movement patterns.
Many adults deal with chronic neck, back, knee, or shoulder pain. As many as 70 percent of adults will deal with one of these conditions at some point in their lives (Davis et al., 2012). Musculoskeletal pain and associated syndromes are currently the leading cause of disability worldwide. This type of pain is frequently attributed to chronic faulty movement patterns (Corbett et al., 2019).
Strength training with a qualified fitness professional can help target underactive muscle groups. It also improves overall movement patterns leading to significant decreases in musculoskeletal pain (Rodrigues et al., 2014). The bottom line- strength training can help us keep moving pain-free.
Reason #2: Improvement of Self-Confidence and Selection of Healthy Goals
Poor body image is a common issue in both younger and older women. Strength training has been demonstrated to improve women's perceptions of their body image and improve self-esteem markers overall. This holds true compared to other exercise modalities such as walking (Seguin et al., 2013).
Women often feel pressured to watch that number on the scale drop and may engage in disordered eating patterns and fad dieting to make it happen. Resistance training programs can aid women in changing their focus to increasing strength rather than losing weight.
Szabo and Green (2002) found that engaging in a resistance training program improved women's psychological outcomes with a history of eating disorders. The bottom line- strength training programs can free us from a cycle of dieting and unrealistic body image goals.
Reason #3: Increase in Resting Metabolic Rate
Most of our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) comes from resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is responsible for 60 to 70 percent of TDEE. A person's lean body mass (muscle, bones, connective tissue, body water) has a substantial effect on overall RMR, and overall metabolic rate as muscle is highly metabolically active. This means it requires more energy to sustain itself than adipose (fat) tissue (Summerfield, 2016).
For example, Sarah and Rachel are both 30-year-old women who are 5'4'' and 140 pounds. At first glance, we may assume that these two women have the same metabolic rates since they are the same height and weight. However, there is a significant difference.
Rachel is a recreational powerlifter who engages in strength training five days per week and therefore as a body fat mass amounting to 18 percent of total body weight. Conversely, Sarah is relatively sedentary and has a body fat mass accounting for 35 percent of her total body weight. Rachel has a total lean body mass of 114.8 lbs, while Sarah has a lean body mass of 91 lbs.
Rachel’s RMR: 1,497 kcal/day
Sarah’s RMR: 1,263 kcal/day
This example illustrates how increased muscle mass due to strength training leads to more fat loss over time. It is not that the act of strength training itself uses vast amounts of energy, but instead that it increases your TDEE, which over time can lead to a leaner physique.
Rachel's RMR is significantly higher than Sarah's because of her substantially higher lean body mass. The bottom line- having a higher muscle mass increases our calorie burn every day, not just on the days we train.
Reason #4: Decreased Risk of Metabolic Syndrome (eh hem…diabetes and heart disease)
Currently, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM) in the United States is 8.6 percent. This means that approximately one in twelve adults in the US are currently living with type 2 diabetes (Westcott, 2012). Likewise, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is now the number one killer of women in the United States.
These two disorders are linked as the incidence of CVD is much higher in individuals with DM have a much greater likelihood of a subsequent CVD diagnosis (Garcia et al., 2016). These two disorders occur because of metabolic dysfunction and inflammation in the body. Strength training can significantly improve insulin sensitivity, metabolic efficiency and reduce inflammatory markers in the body.
Individuals who engage in regular strength training may enjoy a 40 to 70 percent decrease in CVD risk (Liu et al., 2019) and, in women, a 40 percent reduction in DM risk (Shiroma et al., 2017). The bottom line- strength training helps us significantly reduce our risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Reason #5: Improvement and Protection of Bone Mineral Density (Hello Osteoporosis)
Osteoporosis is often a silent disease of bone fragility that often does not show until the affected person experiences a fracture. Did you know 1 in 3 women will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their life? Osteoporosis is the most common bone disease worldwide and has become even more common with increases in life expectancy worldwide.
This disorder is characterized by decreased bone mass and overall weakened bones, which puts the affected individual at greater risk for fractures and eventually immobility. Bone (like muscle and fat) is a dynamic tissue, and the body is constantly breaking it down and replacing it. The rate of bone accretion (increase in bone) must exceed the rate of bone reabsorption for this tissue to remain strong and healthy (Sozen et al., 2017).
Likewise, some stress (greater than the stress of daily activities) must be placed on the skeleton for this process to occur. Resistance training is the best way to place the correct amount of stress on bone tissue to aid in increasing bone formation (Hong & Kim, 2018). The bottom line- strength training helps us maintain strong and healthy bones.
Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Weights
How Many Times a Week Should a Woman Lift Weight?
This question completely depends on your goals, movement patterns, and phase of training. You can achieve training frequency to maintain basic health in two sessions per week with 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 exercises targeting major muscle groups (Hurley et al., 2018). However, a well-rounded strength-training program includes a flexibility component (strength and foam rolling) and must first and foremost address any movement compensations you may have.
The NASM OPT model™ has five phases of training defined by the goal of that phase. These phases include (1) stabilization-endurance, (2) strength-endurance, (3) muscular development (hypertrophy), (4) maximum strength, and (5) power. These phases determine how many sets, repetitions, and training frequency. Women who are new to strength training may remain in phase 1 for an extended period.
Some women may not have any desire to progress past phase 2. Women interested in making more significant strength gains over time may cycle through Phases 3 and 4, which may require more training frequency, perhaps 4 sessions per week instead of 2. Female athletes may benefit greatly from Phase 5 and require a higher training frequency (Clark et al., 2014). A qualified NASM-CPT can provide you with an appropriate plan to meet your goals.
Can you lose weight by lifting weights, or should I focus more on cardio?
Recall our Rachel and Sarah example. Skeletal muscle is metabolically active tissue and is a major contributor to your TDEE. Skeletal and cardiac muscles account for approximately 30 percent of the TDEE in a healthy individual (McPherron et al., 2013). The more skeletal muscle an individual has, the higher their resting metabolic rate will be. Similarly, having healthy amounts of skeletal muscle improves insulin sensitivity. These factors will help you lose more weight over time if weight loss is your goal.
However, cardio is also an important part of any weight loss plan. Weight loss occurs when there is a caloric deficit, or rather when TDEE exceeds total daily energy intake (TDEI). The act of strength training may utilize fewer calories per session than cardio exercise, and cardio is therefore needed to increase TDEE. Think about it in terms of a financial analogy.
Cardio is your daily income from your job, while strength training is your investment in the stock market. Cardio will increase your TDEE directly, while strength training will increase your skeletal muscle mass and increase your TDEE more indirectly by increasing your RMR (Summerfield, 2016). The bottom line- a well-rounded exercise program with a goal of fat loss will include both cardio AND strength training.
Will I get very bulky from strength training?
The fear of large bulky muscles, while a dream for some women, may make others feel uneasy about starting a strength training program. Generally, females tend to have smaller muscle fibers, a lower concentration of type-II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers, and a much lower (approximately one-eighth to one-tenth) serum level of testosterone (the most potent anabolic hormone) than their male counterparts.
These factors allow for more significant muscle hypertrophy (growth) in males as compared to females even when placed under similar training volumes (Miller et al., 1993). It is also important to note that building very muscles requires a great deal of targeted high volume strength training with meticulous nutrition practice.
In other words, it requires a lot of work and dedication to achieve in both men and women. The bottom line- you can rest assured that even though you may experience some muscle hypertrophy (yay gains) from participating in a strength training program, it is unlikely that it will result in big bulky muscles.
See: Hypertrophy - Back to the Basics for more information on muscular development.
Will I get injured lifting weights?
Sometimes, gym equipment can appear intimidating. Some women are concerned that they may injure themselves by lifting weights, especially if they have an underlying musculoskeletal issue (i.e., back, knee, or hip pain).
An appropriately designed strength training program is more likely to decrease the risk of injury and may conversely improve musculoskeletal pain syndromes if appropriate corrective exercises are implemented (Clark et al., 2014). The bottom line- working with a qualified fitness professional is the best way to assess your movement compensations, correct them, and learn safe and appropriate weight-lifting techniques.
Weight-lifting Considerations for Women Over 50
Many women are fully capable of participating in strength training programs well into the post-menopausal years. It is possible that strength gains may be more difficult to achieve with the reduction in circulating anabolic hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and reduction in muscle satellite cells, making muscle hypertrophy more difficult, though still attainable with appropriately planned training programs and nutrient timing (Sims, 2016).
There is nothing specific about this stage of life that prevents a woman from achieving extremely high levels of strength (if desired). However, there are a few considerations worth mentioning.
It is more common to experience complications from CVD in this age range. Additionally, the frequency of conditions such as high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and DM may negate certain types and intensity of exercises and/or require medical clearance from a physician prior to starting an exercise program.
It is also important to note that osteoporosis is a potential risk for women in this age group, and high-impact exercise, exercises that may come with the risk of a fall, or exercises that place a great deal of pressure on the spinal cord may be contraindicated in some women in this age group (Mishra et al., 2011).
A regular and appropriately designed strength training program is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for women of all ages and stages of life.
Resistance training has the power to strengthen our muscles, bones, metabolic systems, and psychological well-being and help us achieve our more aesthetic fitness goals.
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