Walk into any gym and you’ll typically see the ‘great divide’ - women on the cardio machines and men on the free weights side. We will admit we have fortunately been starting to see a shift of more women entering the weightlifting methodology, but unfortunately, societal norms and social media make it pretty darn hard.
We are constantly shown pictures of women with lean, toned bodies holding mini 5# dumbbells or bombarded with fad diets, or promises of fasted cardio burning all of the body fat away. So we wanted to shed some light on some of the largest fears and myths around women lifting weights, and share the truth around why building muscle mass and weight training is one of the most important things for women to achieve the body-composition they’ve always wanted!
We knew this one would come first! Yet it is still an unsaid fear for many women. When many women think of weightlifting, they think of the most extreme example in their minds - the roided out male or female lifting 400 lbs. It’s understandable, but it just isn’t true ladies.
The bottom line is women have a fraction of the testosterone that men do, and so while we weight train, women actually tend to grow a lean, slimmer physique, versus many men will grow a larger muscle mass style physique. We need to understand that muscle is denser than fat and it takes up less space on the body, and what that equates to in terms of appearance is that you may weigh the same, or there is a chance you weigh slightly more even, but you look leaner and slimmer.
Famous trainer Kelsey Wells, and a number of other women demonstrate this pretty clearly with photo proof HERE.
There is some small truth to this, and we will get to that a bit later in the blog. At the end of the day, the training should not vary too much between men and women.
Women are not a different species than men, but women are also not ‘just small men’, so although there are some differences, the principles of training should remain the same. We should utilize compound movements like squats, deadlifts, presses, and utilizing heavy weights relative to that gender and individual to help develop lean muscle tissue. Although different training styles may come into play when goals are different, women actually gain relative strength and muscle mass at nearly identical rates as men (SOURCE).
Again, this can feel like it makes sense. You are sweating, and your watch says you burn more calories doing 30 minutes on the treadmill vs. 30 minutes of weight training, but we need to understand the after-burn effect. Weight lifting keeps the body burning caloriesafter the workout is completed, whereas cardio only really burns calories during that training. On top of that after-burn effect, as we get stronger and build more lean muscle tissue, we burn more calories at rest with higher amounts of muscle mass and it is easier to maintain weight loss!
We are not saying to totally eliminate cardio, but cardio often will cause the metabolism to adapt in a negative way and burn less and less calories over time.
Although we could list dozens of reasons why strength training and building muscle mass improves our health, we will stick with the big ones for females here.
We’ve discussed this before on a couple of different blogs, likethis one, but the more muscle you have, the more effective your metabolism will be at utilizing energy, managing blood sugar, assisting weight loss, and maintaining a healthy weight! Each pound of muscle burns double that of the pounds of fat on the body (SOURCE).
Women who do not weight train can lose anywhere from 3-8% of muscle mass each decade from inactivity. Many people think that we lose muscle as we age, but the majority of muscle loss is actually more a result of being sedentary and not challenging our muscles with strength training. Building muscle and strength training has been shown to promote healthier hormone levels, healthier bones, reduce low back pain, and reverse aging factors (SOURCE).
There have been multiple studies that have linked lifting weights with feeling better about yourself (SOURCE). It has been shown to improve body image, quality of life, satisfaction, and comfort with one self. There is just something about getting under a barbell that helps a girl build a confidence cape!
Exercise is one of the greatest endorphin releases, which helps combat stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. Anyone who has fit in a killer workout in the morning knows the feeling of being able to take on whatever comes at you that day because the ‘hardest part’ of your day is behind you.
Overall, training really should be similar to most males, as we stated above, but there are some key differences that can help females stay safe, feel great, and see the best results.
Alter Training Around Your Cycle
Females have a very unique difference from males - we create human life, and that means we have lots of ups and downs throughout each month with our hormones. We dive into much deeper detail with our blog on Female Menstrual Cycle and Training, but the bottom line is that the first half of our cycle, and right around ovulation we tend to handle training stress and heavier weights much better. The second half of our cycle leading into our period, our bodies do not tolerate that stress as much, so ease up on percentages and don’t push through the high-intensity around that time.
Females Benefit From More Single-Leg Work
Due to the physiological structure of females having a different waist to hip ratio for carrying little humans, the knee joints are more prone to injury - especially the ACL (SOURCE). We still recommend primarily using full body movements like deadlifts and squats, but single leg work is beneficial for females especially to protect the knee ligaments and reduce injury risk.
We Need To Eat Enough
We saved the best point for last - you cannot expect to gain adequate muscle mass while under-eating and under-nourishing your body ladies. This is the single biggest mistake women make that keeps them from building muscle. Restricting your energy will cause ‘energy conservation’, where developing muscle is not prioritized.
So what do you do? It depends on where you’re starting, but we usually recommend, if you are at a healthy body-weight, to eat in a slight surplus (~5-10% caloric surplus) to gain muscle mass. You will gain a tiny bit of fat as well, but that will be minimal if you eat quality foods, don’t have YOLO cheat meals, and strength train properly. If you are starting in an overweight place, we recommend losing body-fat first, while still strength training, before you focus solely on gaining muscle mass.
Then you simply toggle back and forth between muscle gain and fat loss until you reach a point where you are happy to maintain.
Here is the thing ladies - if we want to look fit, and toned, and lean outside of the gym, we need to put the work in IN the gym. Getting down and dirty with our workouts.
If we want the firm legs, the lifted butt, the sculpted shoulders, etc. we need to lay off the cardio and body-weight and get ourselves the heavy barbell and then go home and eat enough to support that muscle growing!
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