The mountain of evidence showing the positive impact of strength training for women is growing every day. Among the myriad of benefits, it can increase metabolism, have a positive impact on bone density, have positive mental health and mood benefits, prevent injury, and may even boost your libido. Yet, the National Center for Health Statistics shows that only two out of 10 women strength train two or more times a week. And, even of those that do participate, many unknowingly proceed in such a way that they aren’t reaping the full benefits.
Strength training for women is a subject overrun with myths and misunderstandings, so let’s put some of those myths to rest once and for all.
Myth #1: Strength Training will make me look like a bodybuilder! First, it’s important to realize that the amount of muscle a woman can put on is metabolically limited by a number of factors. First, women don’t have the testosterone needed to build a lot of muscle. Second, many women coming to strength training are eating at a deficit for fat loss, and thus won’t be building much, if any, new muscle—the goal of strength training while eating at a deficit is to retain the muscle mass you already have and skew the percentage of weight loss towards fat and away from lean body mass.
The fact is: “Looking like a bodybuilder” doesn’t happen accidentally. A personal favorite tough-love article on the subject of women and strength training equates saying you don’t want to end up accidentally looking like a bodybuilder to saying, "Eh, I don't want to do any sprints today because I don't want to win the 100m gold medal next week." Looking like a bodybuilder, especially for women, requires a phenomenal lifestyle commitment.
Myth #2: I get bulky when I lift weights! Fat overtop and inside the muscle can look a lot like muscle bulk when it’s not. Case in point- if you’ve ever seen an early episode of The Biggest Loser, you can often see what looks like muscle definition showing through on contestants that are still in the 40% bodyfat range with more than a hundred pounds of fat to lose, yet none of those contestants look anything near “bulky” at the final reveal. I encourage women concerned about bulk to worry about getting the fat off first and foremost—I have yet to meet a woman who has gotten down to her ideal bodyfat and still said “I shouldn’t have lifted those weights!” Even if you do end up not liking the definition of a particular muscle group once the fat’s off, you can always fine-tune that later. But the fact is, a necessary part of creating a metabolism that will maximize fat burn is through including strength training to retain lean muscle.
Myth #3: I lift low-weight, high-reps to get lean! Many women who do use weights fall prey to “pink dumbbell syndrome”-- lifting 3-pound dumbbells for countless reps, year-after-year, and never hitting a point of muscle fatigue. This isn’t “strength training,” it’s aerobic exercise. To reap the benefits of strength training, you should lift in the 10-12 reps-to-failure range, and should need to add weight every month or so to continually hit the appropriate level of muscle fatigue.
Myth #4: The scale’s not moving, but it’s OK because muscle weighs more than fat! Going back to the metabolic limitations of muscle gain for women, the best research I’ve bubbled up shows that a female bodybuilder who is living the lifestyle required to put on the maximum amount of muscle possible—this means not eating at a deficit, supplementing, lifting extremely heavy—would be considered very successful if she were able to put on about .8 of a pound of lean muscle mass per month. And, as we’ve discussed, if you are eating at a deficit for fat loss, you are putting on vastly less than that.
So, the tough truth is… if you are successfully achieving a calorie deficit to realize even a pound of fat loss per week, your “muscle gain” would never obscure scale movement. The two most likely reasons the scale’s not moving? 1) The new stimulus has moved some water into the muscles as part of the repair cycle. You’ll know this is the case if some weight comes on quite suddenly after starting a weight training program and then your weight loss progresses as expected from there. Or, 2) You are overestimating the calories you are burning and/or underestimating the calories you are consuming and aren’t actually at a calorie deficit for weight loss. You’ll know this is the case if your weight is staying the same or creeping up over time.
In case you can’t tell, I am a huge proponent of strength training for women. I have seen the benefits both personally and in folks I’ve coached. I hope by putting some of these myths to rest, you’ll feel more comfortable adding an effective strength training element to your fitness regimen.
Heather Hawkins is fitness and wellness coach who works to educate and empower people to find a path to fitness that works for their lifestyle. She is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition coach based in San Francisco, CA and runs FitLifeSF.com. Follow her on Twitter @FitLifeSF and send your fitness and nutrition questions to Smurf@FitLifeSF.com for use in future blogs.