I just can’t figure it out: why are some women so resistant to strength training?
For those of you who aren’t much into fitness lingo, strength training refers to lifting exercises that use weights or other forms of resistance to build or tone muscle. Different exercises target different muscle groups, and all will improve strength or endurance of the exercised muscle. We all need muscle to move, and stronger muscles help us to do more, to look better, and to generally have more fun with our fitness.
Yet, go to almost any gym in America. There, you’ll find a remarkable gender self-segregation: boys flock to the free weights and benches while girls congregate at the cardio equipment, running like over-sized hamsters on their wheels. Infrequently, you’ll find women meandering into the free weight section, but those who do can be found clinging to the mini-weights as if any other sized dumbbell will jump up and bite them. Nothing is funnier to me than tiny girls doing bicep curls with 2.5 lb weights.
Here’s some free advice: if you can text and lift at the same time, your weights are too light. In fact, I’m fairly certain that only tiny children, extremely elderly people, or incredibly deconditioned people will benefit at all from curls with 2.5 pounders; anyone else, particularly anyone capable of lifting the weight of their own arms to do things like, I don’t know, hail a cab, should be working with something heavier when doing free weights.
People at the gym do the activities at the gym that they think will help them achieve their goals. Women, for better or for worse, strive to be thin, so they metaphorically and literally spin their wheels trying to burn calories. And because they don’t want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, they eschew weight training. “Muscles aren’t feminine!”, they proclaim. Never mind that sexy women like Michelle Obama, Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, and Wonder Woman all are beautiful, feminine women with muscle definition. Okay, so that last one is a cartoon, but she’s still got some sexy, toned arms.
But let’s pretend for a minute that we agree that beauty requires weight loss (which I don’t believe): why still do women avoid strength training?
Cardio burns calories, to be sure, but only so long as you are doing cardio. Once you get off the bike or treadmill or elliptical machine, your metabolic rate returns to normal. Since it takes burning over 3,000 calories to lose a single pound, and since most folks burn about 500 calories per hour doing Cardio, it takes six hours of pure Cardio a week to burn a single pound. Less if you’re also dieting, but not by much. That’s a lot of boring wheel-spinning activity.
Strength training, on the other hand, helps to build muscle. Unlike fat, muscle is a metabolically active tissue, meaning that just to exist, muscle burns calories. In other words, building muscle can help a woman raise their resting (e.g. internet-surfing, tv-watching, couch-potato-imitating) metabolic rate, and thereby burn more calories all day, and not just when she’s running. A short thirty minute strength training session twice a week can vastly improve the efficiency of a calorie-burning fitness plan, speed up weight loss, and improve overall health.
What about those fears that strength training will transform a woman into the She-Hulk? That’s all bogus. What’s more, it’s based on vanity. Building muscle is extremely difficult, as any strength trainer will tell you. Even men, who have the benefit of testosterone, struggle to bulk up. What makes a woman think that a few sets on the bench press will magically build the kind of physique that any Mr. Universe would envy? Basically, no one — man or woman — will magically build muscles if they aren’t trying to become a body-builder; there should be zero fears that incorporating a basic strength training regimen into your weekly work-out will make you the next Conan the Barbarian.
So hopefully you’re convinced and are thinking about starting a strength training routine. If you are, than here are some basic tips for designing a strength training regimen.
First of all, you need to do strength training at least twice (preferably three times) a week, spaced at least one day apart from one another, to create any sort of benefit and not injure yourself. The basic principle of strength training is to use resistance and simple repetitive exercises to challenge your muscles to their maximum. When your muscles reach their maximum, they are temporarily damaged — but by being damaged, they rebuild themselves a little bit stronger and a little bit better. Not giving your muscles sufficient time to rest and recover will never give them the opportunity to rebuild and become stronger, but giving yourself too much time between each strength workout will cause your muscles to revert back to normal — and possibly cause injury if you push yourself too hard at your next workout (thinking you’ve gotten stronger).
Second, the point of strength training is to push yourself to the maximum. That means, you must choose a challenging resistance and appropriate set/rep combination, even if you’re a woman and you’re afraid of looking like She-Hulk. Reps are the number of exercises you do in a single set before a rest, sets are the groups of exercise; so, for bicep curls, you might do 3 sets of 10 reps — meaning you’ll do a set of 10, then rest, and then do a second set, and so on. To set your set/rep combination, decide if you would rather be building muscle strenghth or muscle endurance. Generally, women want to build less bulky endurance muscles, not bulky strong muscles, but keep in mind that building strong muscles brings with it … well, the strength to do things. In any event, choose a high set/rep combo to build endurance (e.g. 3×10 for beginners, 3×15, 5×10, or 5×15 for the more experienced) or low set/rep combo to build strength (e.g. 3×5). While I’m on the subject, appropriate rest times between sets are 30 seconds if you are doing endurance and 1 minute if you’re building strength — anything longer will cool your muscles down too much.
As discussed above, you can pick a difficult resistance, and you will not walk out of the gym looking like a man; women just don’t build muscle as readily as men, so we can do a fair amount of strength training (and build substantial functional strength) while retaining our feminine shapes. The purpose of strength training is, as I said, to push your muscles to the maximum — only then will they rebuild themselves better. So, to pick your resistance, you need to go to failure — which means, pick a weight that is moderate to do for your first set, challenging in your second set, and very difficult for you to finish in your final set. If you can keep lifting your weight at the end of your last set (even if you can do so with some pain or discomfort), then pick a heavier weight for your next workout, even if you are on an endurance set/rep combo. Cue the reason why 2.5 lb weights are silly — you’d have to exercise non-stop for hours at that weight to reach failure of any kind. To reiterate: failure doesn’t mean “it kinda hurts now”, failure means “I physically cannot do this anymore, no matter how hard I try”. It does take some practice to recognize the difference between “hurt” and “failure”, so keep pushing yourself with successive workouts.
For safety (and motivation) reasons, it is best to work out with a partner. Although cardio is generally a solitary activity, strength training often works best with a buddy — because the purpose is to go to failure, your buddy can spot for you, meaning that they will protect you on your last set, as your muscles fail out. There is technique associated with properly spotting for a friend, but the basic principle is that your spotter must pay attention to you at all times, and give you a tiny bit of assistance if you start to have trouble. They should also be ready to prevent your weights from hitting you if you drop them. Again, talk to a trainer for proper spotting technique.
If you do not have a friend to work with, ask someone at the gym to spot for you, or use a weight machine (rather than free weights) to prevent accidents. The downside of weight machines, however, is that free weights exercise several groups of muscles at the same time; machines target muscle groups, so they are less effective.
Also, for safety, do a warm-up set before exercising a new major muscle group. So, if you’re starting on arms, do a warm-up set in your first arms exercise, and then you’re good until you switch to legs, even if you’re doing a different arm exercise next. To do a warm-up set, do the same exercise you would otherwise do, but do it with half the normal resistance — this should be really easy to do. The warm-up set doesn’t count towards your other sets, but just gets blood flowing to the appropriate muscles.
As for which exercises to do, the best idea is to take advantage of your gym’s free personal trainer consultation, if you have that option. This will help you tailor your strength training program for your specific desires; there are hundreds of exercises out there, and they all can be placed in different orders and grouped in different ways to achieve a specific outcome. Don’t fall for the myth that you should work out the muscles next to your “fat areas” — fat doesn’t turn into muscle, and muscle will not draw from the closest fat store when burning muscle. There is absolutely no reason to target your thigh muscles to burn thigh fat — but, if you build lots of muscle all over your body, you will burn all your fat stores and eventually work through your thigh fat. One reason to target your thighs, however, might be to increase muscle definition in that particular area. But, overall, if you want to increase your resting metabolic rate, focus on exercises that work on lots of different muscles.
For beginners who are just getting started, try this workout (all at 3×10, 1 minute rest in between working down to 30 seconds, in this order):
- Assisted pull-ups (or pull-downs) — works back and arms
- Chest/bench press (or push-ups) — works chest and arms
- Squats — works legs and butt; or Lunges — works legs and butt. Choose based on strain to your knees.
- Dead lifts — works lower back and legs
- Sit-ups (or your favourite ab exercise) — works core
I’ve found that this combination of exercises all involve complex movements, which means they work several muscle groups at once, and give you the most bang for your buck. At 3×10 with 1 minute rests, you can also easily accomplish this workout in 30 minutes or less. Finally, it’s ordered in such a way as to work from the top of your body down, and minimizes the need to warm up before each exercise — you only really need to warm up for the first and third exercise in this regimen. As you get more used to strength training, you can then swap this work-out out for one that is better tailored to your body; for example, I now have more focused arm exercises because, as a wannabe triathlete, I get sufficient strength training on my legs with my weekly cardio, but need to build strength in my arms and back to improve my swim performance.
As for how to do these exercises, again the best bet is to talk with a personal trainer who can check your form. Always be aware of form when doing strength training, because poor form leads to injury. But, most of us don’t have access to a personal trainer. Thankfully, there are many websites out there that can teach you to do these exercises, and include video to help you correct your form. This website, ExRx.net, has a nice directory of exercises, and includes video to show how each is done. Another resource is, of course, YouTube. The key is to be aware of your body — dull pain on your last set is expected as you fail, so don’t stop lifting if you experience some discomfort. But sharp pain at any point in time is not right — if at any time you feel a sharp pain, safely and carefully stop what you are doing and consult a trainer or doctor (there are trainers on staff at most gyms) for help or advice about what you might be doing wrong. Most certainly, do not resume that particular exercise until you have figured out the source of your pain.
(Incidentally, Googling “woman strength training machine” pulled up pages of women working with the pull-down bar incorrectly. Which just goes to show you how few women are encouraged to strength train effectively.)
Personally, I like including a mix of strength training and cardio training in my workouts. Strength training is paced completely different than cardio training, so it’s kind of fun to go to the gym and move from machine to machine, rather than be tied to my hamster wheel for an hour and a half. Unlike when I do cardio, strength training lets me interact with my lifting partners, people watch, and interact with more machines. Also — and I’m not going to lie here — there’s a thrill associated with being a 5 foot girl who’s able to out-bench some of the beefy guys in the free weight area.
And, that sure as heck ain’t gonna happen with those silly 2.5 lb weights.