In recent years, I’ve seen an increase in the amount of women working the free weights and machines at gyms. Resistance training for women is in vogue.
In fact, the average gym, in the average town has more and more women showing up for some strength training than ever before.
Sports like Crossfit, Triathlon, Spartan Races and others are partly to thank for this, including the increasing social media and televised exposure of professional athletes across the world.
Gender based social biases and taboos are also breaking down and being washed away by the ever-growing tide of the global female empowerment movement.
Pro trainers and coaches have always been there for their female athletes, but more and more are extolling the virtues of resistance training from gym to gym now.
Furthermore, female trainers are becoming much more prominent within the industry. They are key players in the promotion of strength training to women.
Whatever the reason, it’s happening, but there is still a lot more work to be done. Not every woman is going to get into resistance training but every woman should know the benefits of it, and lose the malignant pre-conceptions about it that are still very much alive and kicking.
Don’t Resist the Resistance Training
Let’s start with some of those pre-conceptions I mentioned, in particular the immediate resistance that some people throw up to the very idea of resistance training.
These have been major roadblocks stopping women from fulfilling their well deserved right to vastly improved health, strength and fitness from the very beginning.
1) I don’t want to end up with a big manly physique
This is a classic. Put it this way, if you had a penny for every woman on earth who has said this, or something very similar, you would be extremely rich.
I tried to get my mum to start a resistance training program once, and that was her reply. In her mind, lifting weights automatically means you will look like a bodybuilder.
If only we could achieve the gains my mum thought she was going to get. We’d all look phenomenal.
Maybe you have thought about this yourself, and somewhere deep down this is a concern of yours. It doesn’t have to be extreme like the example above.
Some women genuinely fear any increase in muscle mass or definition because they want a slender “feminine” physique.
To this I will say a few of things:
(a) It takes a lot of work to build those muscles and to make them look prominent. They won’t sneak up on you without you knowing. There’s definitely zero risk of waking up one day with huge shoulders and being mortified when you look in the mirror.
(b) You can do resistance training geared more towards toning muscle and enhancing the physique you are looking for. It doesn’t necessarily counteract any body image you have in your mind’s eye.
(c) When you get into the rhythm of your training program, and start feeling the benefits over your whole body and within your mind, you will start to live for the process, and stop worrying about some end result.
There is no end result.
There are just targets and goals.
After you achieve them, there are more.
2) I want to lose weight, not grow muscle
It’s another angle on the first problem to be honest, but worth mentioning.
Weight loss is a tricky term for me. What you probably want is fat loss, and muscle retention.
A lot of diet plans are built around the idea that standing on scales and seeing the needle go down is an absolute sign of success.
Sometimes, it is one factor of success. However, let me ask you: if you get weaker while you’re dieting, is that a success? Many women view decreased strength during a diet as part of the deal.
It shouldn’t be. At the very least you should be aiming to retain your muscle and bone mass and increase your strength.
It will only improve your physique, posture, energy levels and mood, while accelerating fat loss.
For sure, lose the fat, but strengthen muscle. For example: squatting literally sculpts the perfect bottom. Shed the fat on top and you will have the rear end of a magazine model.
Remember: if you are overweight, all that steady-state cardio is not as good for fat loss and body composition as a mix of strength training and high intensity interval cardio.
3) I’ll get hurt if I do that sort of thing
Some people make the argument that all that weight lifting business is bound to cause injury.
Obviously, that’s a firm NO. Resistance weight training can cause injury, but only if you don’t do it properly. In that respect it’s like anything.
With proper technique and appropriate load selection, it’s safer than other sports because you’re in total control of all of the variables.
Team sport players tear ligaments just changing direction sometimes. Runners can’t always control the surface they are running on, and are plagued by undulating impact. Cyclists can fall off their bike.
In the gym, your only potential enemy is you, so don’t make yourself one. If anything, some additional strength training will help you avoid injury.
It’s lack of strength that is often the root cause of back, knee, and shoulder problems in everyday life.
4) I like doing my spin class / running / aerobics / yoga
Yes, do it, do them all. Be as active as you want, or can.
Adding, or making room for, some strength conditioning will only bolster your abilities in those other activities, as well as give you a whole new volume of physical health.
If you are already an active person, you know the benefits of exercise and you know how to fit it into your life. You have even less of an excuse to get out of resistance work than anyone else.
5) I’m scared of looking silly or weak
Confidence, or lack of it, is a big mental obstacle for some to overcome. It’s even more daunting for people who are overweight and/or out of shape and worried about the looks, or even comments, they might get.
I can’t singlehandedly go about destroying all a$$holes in gyms. I would if I could.
However, for every one of them, there are a hundred people out there who will tell you that you’re doing a great thing. The community is, generally speaking, a supportive one.
Physical transformation stories are aplenty. Hit social media hard, and look at any one of the stories. Ignore the BS and you’ll be able to tell your story soon enough.
Wiping the Slate Clean and Bursting the Macho Bubble
There are other misconceptions about women and resistance training. One of the main ones that persists is the idea that this is predominantly a man’s world.
The grumpy looking gym bro with the aggressive scowl and shoulder acne is the kind of dude I’m imagining at this point, but the boys’ club mentality is kept alive by men (and women) of all shapes and sizes.
At the core of this ridiculousness is a few long-held beliefs with respect to men and women lifting weights.
Here are some of them:
- Lifting heavy weights might injure a woman. They should stick to light resistance training.
- Lifting heavy weights makes you bulk up, so if women don’t want that then they should avoid it.
- Women can’t make improvements in strength like men can, so they should stick to the lighter stuff.
- Women have a different type of muscle fiber to men, and so should train differently.
- Men have ten times more testosterone than women. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone, and thus allows them to grow muscle more easily.
As with most noise oft spouted by meatheads and bro-scientists, most of the above is nonsense, and the stuff that isn’t nonsense is twisted to fit their worldview.
I’ll offer you some counterpoints to each of the above assertions in order.
Misconception 1: Women Should Not Lift Heavy Weight – Just Because
“Heavy weight” ought to be more accurately defined first. We’re talking in the region of 60% and above of your 1RM.
Your 1RM is your One Rep Max, which is the most weight you can lift in a given movement for one single repetition. It’s a way to gauge your progress and also be able to say “I can bench X lbs”.
Now, the heavy weight in question being a percentage of your own potential maximum lift, that means “heavy” basically varies in actual load (kg/lbs) from one person to the next, but the effort required to lift it remains the same.
And it’s important to remember that. It’s all relative to your own capabilities, not someone else’s.
So with that in mind, I’m focusing on heavy weight, because women are often led to believe, and even coached to think, that they should lift very light weight, as if they are somehow too delicate or more likely to get hurt lifting a heavy load relative to their strength level.
This notion is ingrained in society, and it’s still really only a minority of women who are breaking the stigma.
Ask yourself why – if all things like technique, form and so on, are equal – what is the difference between men and women, and their ability to lift heavy weight?
There is no difference. Strength is strength, weight is weight. Neither discriminates based on gender.
Misconception 2: Women – You Will Bulk Up If You Lift Heavy Weight
Another misconception is that any girl who starts lifting heavy weight (i.e. major percentages of their 1RM (see above)), will also bulk up and start looking masculine.
Ironically, this idea pervades women’s health magazines. Sadly, women’s health mags seem to perpetuate the “lift light weight, and not too often, because you’re female” mindset, rather than helping to debunk it.
Muscle is in some ways simple, and in other ways complex. One thing it does not do is remain the same.
To maintain strength, size, density etc. muscle needs to be trained, rested and nourished consistently.
To grow in size and strength, it has to go through a process of recovery and overcompensation.
When we train muscles, we actually damage them, so the recovery part is essential to at least recover the same strength and quality of tissue. However, the body overcompensates and signals the muscle to grow a little stronger each time.
The muscle proteins responsible for the actual contractile strength are called myofibrils, which are basically rope-like lengths of connected proteins. They can grow in number and they can grow thicker as individuals.
That growth is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy, and it is the growth that is associated most directly with strength increase.
Myofibrils are surrounded by the sarcoplasm, which is kind of like the cytoplasm inside a cell. The sarcoplasm contains, amongst other things, sarcoplasmic proteins which are not contractile proteins.
The sarcoplasm can also grow, and it appears that it can do it both semi-independently and as a direct function of myofibrillar hypertrophy.
Basically, think of each muscle fiber as a pipe. The myofibrils would be cables running through the pipe, and the sarcoplasm would be a gel-like substance filling the remaining space.
When you increase the number of myofobrils, or their thickness, they will eventually cause the muscle fibers (pipes) to increase in size also, which in-turn means the muscle tissue increases in size on the macro-scale.
Sarcoplasmic volume tends to grow as well as a result of resistance training with heavy loads.
Note: I’ve written an article about the differences between sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy, and it’s definitely recommended reading if you’re looking to learn more about the different types of muscle growth.
Bodybuilders, who you would point out as having the biggest muscles in the world, train with the intention of growing their muscles as big as possible.
Strength athletes don’t care about size as much as the amount of weight they can lift. If size directly equated to strength then the biggest muscles in the world would be those of record-breaking powerlifters, olympic weightlifters and leading strongmen.
The fact is, there are some people who weigh a hundred pounds less than the average bodybuilder, but can out-lift them in the typical compound movements like squat, bench and deadlift.
The reason is that the biggest muscles do not automatically qualify as the strongest.
Why am I blathering on about this???
Simple. Training has an impact on how much you grow in size. Not everyone looks like a bodybuilder just because they lift heavy weight in the gym.
Your muscles won’t grow uncontrollably large and you will not look masculine from this type of training. You can achieve the physique you want. Basically you can fit your training to match your goal.
Misconception 3: Women Can’t Build Muscle and Strength Like Men Anyway
This one is pure male propaganda. You can probably smell the macho, alpha pride coming off your page.
Here’s the reality in a nutshell:
Men start off bigger, because of their base testosterone levels as they grow from a teenager into an adult. This is the reason, on average, why men attain larger absolute sizes in strength and size compared to women.
However, gains in muscle size and strength relative to their starting point occur at the same rate in both men and women, all else being equal.
If you think that stomps on the myth, then get this:
From the studies comparing strength training outcomes for women and men, a meta-analysis found that in the first 10 to 20 weeks, women make quicker strength gains than men, particularly in upper-body strength.
Greg Nuckols conducted the meta-analysis and wrote it up in April 2018
After 20 weeks, strength gains from there on appear roughly the same between the sexes, but with a slight edge still for the women.
Relative gains in muscle growth (size) also appear to be pretty much equal for men and women.
In one study which handled low-load versus high-load training for women, the results showed that women respond as well to high-load training as men in terms of relative strength and muscle gain, but not as well with low-load training.
That might seem to contradict my earlier statement that strength is strength and gender differences are not apparent. If it does that slightly then at the same time it further supports the idea that women should lift heavy weight and not restrict themselves to light training.
To wrap that up a little tighter, let’s summarize the above:
Men are essentially born with the advantage of higher baseline strength and size, so when they build on it, their totals will always be higher than women.
Women, however, can build as fast as men, and even faster in the short term.
If a man starts with the same amount of muscle mass and strength as a woman, the two would probably make the same gains as one another.
Misconception 4: Women Have Different Muscle Fibers Than Men
No. Not different types at all. Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers – and their variants – are the same in women as they are in men.
There does appear to be a slight difference, on average, between men and women with respect to the ratios of their Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers.
Women have a slightly higher proportion of Type 1 muscle fibers, otherwise known as slow-twitch muscle fibers.
This means their muscles can complete more repetitions within a set, of a load that’s a given percentage of their maximum (1RM), compared to what a man can do at the same percentage of their max.
The only slight difference to training approach I would make for women is to increase their intra-set rep-count and perhaps even overall volume, such as adding another set to each movement, but it would ultimately depend on the individual and how fast their muscles fatigue.
Misconception 5: Man Has More Testosterone. Man Grow Big!
This one’s flabbergasting to most bro-scientists and modern cavemen but if you’ve read this article from the beginning it won’t be all that surprising to you.
In the context of muscle mass and strength, testosterone appears to have its greatest effect in the early years leading up to adulthood.
Levels of testosterone seem to set you up for a larger base musculature and strength.
This is evident when you look at the average size differences between men and women.
However, once you have reached your adult size, those relative differences do not seem to offer any advantage to men in terms of their progress in strength and muscle mass in response to resistance training.
None of this is to say testosterone is not important to myriad other aspects of male health.
Another important fact to highlight is that estrogen does indeed have an anabolic effect in muscle. What’s more, it may have a protective effect on muscle tissue which could also explain the slightly improved recovery times that women have on men.
Resistance Training For Women – Final Words of Wisdom
If you have read this article from the beginning then I hope you pass it forward, for no other reason than the underlying message is an extremely positive one.
There is no cause for women to shy away from resistance training, in particular resistance training with heavy weight. None whatsoever.
In fact, women tend to improve in strength at a faster rate than men in the first couple of months of a training program.
They should be afforded every opportunity to do so.
That said, it would be excellent to see more women taking responsibility for their own physical health, getting out of the endless on-off diet/light exercise cycle, and adapting their view of exercise and body image.
Resistance training will change your physique to a certain extent, but it’s a positive change without a shadow of doubt. A balanced program will result in a balanced and aesthetic body shape.
It will also bring the many other, perhaps more important, benefits that come with strength training.