Go into most gyms and you’ll see a clear divide between male and female exercisers. Most guys tend to spend the majority of their time lifting weights while the ladies are more likely to be found in the aerobics studio doing group exercise classes or on the cardio equipment working up a sweat in an effort to burn fat and “tone up”.
There are several reasons for this divide…
- Many women fear that lifting weights will make them muscular and manly-looking
- Not enough women understand the value of lifting weights for fat loss, fitness, health, appearance, bone health and long term health benefits
- Guys are smelly, noisy creatures who make the weight training area much less welcoming!
While there is nothing much to be done about point three, points one and two need addressing…
- Weight training will NOT make women muscular and manly looking
If building muscle was that easy, every guy who ever did a set of curls or bench presses would look like a bodybuilder. Looking around the gym, it’s abundantly clear that simply isn’t the case. Building meaningful amounts of muscle is HARD and requires a special diet, very persistent and specific training and a whole lot of commitment. Exceptional muscle growth does not happen by accident so if you DON’T train like a bodybuilder you WON’T look like a bodybuilder!
Additionally, women generally lack meaningful amounts of testosterone, the male hormone that influences characteristics such as facial hair, a deep voice and muscle size. With only about a tenth of the testosterone, women are much less able to build muscle than men.
- Weight training can significantly enhance fat loss, fitness, health and appearance
Cardio is not the only way to lose fat and get fit. In fact, cardio alone is not the key to fat loss and health but can actually leave you fat and untoned! High volumes of cardio may well burn a lot of calories BUT it also causes muscle atrophy or shrinkage and doesn’t address many of the typical female problem areas whether that be weight loss, problem areas general female stability issues that normally are around the hip area…Cardio is important for cardiovascular fitness and health BUT weight training is essential if you want to maximize your fat loss, fitness, health and appearance.
Firstly, lifting weights allows you to target those typical female problem areas – your hips and thighs, the back of your arms and abdomen for example. Not that you can spot reduce fat from these areas but you can ensure the underlying muscles are firm, strong and stable – stability being essential for ensuring a healthy strong body long term.
Secondly, strength training enhances fat loss by increasing insulin sensitivity. This ensures that food eaten after lifting weights is preferentially partitioned into your muscles and away from your fat stores. Insulin sensitivity is elevated for as many as 48 hours after strenuous strength training.
Next, lifting weights increases your daily metabolic rate which means you’ll burn more calories at rest and even while you sleep. A single kilo of muscle will increase your daily energy expenditure by a whopping 400 kilojoules!
Last, by no means least, strength training also enhances bone health by increasing bone mass. Women are especially susceptible to sarcopenia or bone loss which can lead to osteoporosis – also known as porous or brittle bone disease and characterised by bone that are very prone to fracture. Weight training increases osteoblast activity – the cells responsible for bone growth and renewal. Combined with a healthy diet, not smoking and not drinking excessively, strength training is an excellent antidote to the risk of developing osteoporosis.
It’s pretty clear then that lifting weights offers far more benefits than it does draw backs but how can you get the most out of weight training? Good question! Here are some guidelines for maximizing your strength training results…
- Focus on compound exercises – compound exercises involve multiple muscles and joints and provide the best results for the least amount of time and effort. Good examples include squats, lunges, push-ups, seated rows and overhead presses. Make sure that your workouts consist of at least 80% compound exercises.
- Perform two to four sets of 13 to 20 repetitions – sets of six to 12 are known to be best for bodybuilding so it makes sense to avoid that rep range if you are concerned about inadvertently building muscle, The 13 to 20 rep range will develop endurance more than muscle size but will still help strengthen and firm up your muscles. It may still be useful to spend some time outside of this rep range for the purpose of increasing general strength, adding a little muscle for fat-burning purposes or avoiding plateaus but this should be part of a carefully planned periodization programme.
- Focus on lower body training – many guys completely avoid leg training because it’s hard work and they’d rather develop a big upper body. Don’t be like them – build your workouts around lower body exercises. This doesn’t mean you should avoid training your upper body – that would be a mistake – just place the general emphasis on your lower body e.g. two lower body exercises for every upper body one. Not only will this increase the energy cost of your workouts, leading to greater fat loss, you’ll also address the typical problem areas of the thighs and hips. Additionally, you’ll hopefully shame the guys into doing fewer biceps curls and more squats!
- Stick with whole body workouts – split routines, where different muscles are worked in different days, are synonymous with bodybuilding as they allow you to do multiple sets of multiple exercises per muscle group. If you want to sidestep excessive muscle development, this is something you need to avoid so instead of a split routine, work your entire body two or three times a week.
- Seated rows
- Lat pull downs
- Overhead presses
- Cable wood chops
(Some extra exercise can be added to this workout for pre/rehab purposes e.g. middle traps, rhomboids and lower traps for postural issues but that’s something for another article!)
Note the lack of direct arm and upper trap work – two areas where a little muscle can produce a very masculine look. Doing set after set of triceps won’t cure your fatty arms either so forget the idea you can spot-reduce arm fat. Fat loss is best achieved by focusiung on total body workouts and a healthy diet.
Weight training can help every women (including you!) achieve her best body ever and in much less time than cardio alone. Additionally, it offers several important health benefits which, again, cardio cannot provide. Cardio is not in any way bad but should always be considered as just one of the forms of exercise that makes up a well-rounded workout routine. If you aren’t a regular weight trainer, maybe now is the time to start?!
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Hi, my name is Dinny Morris. I’m a personal trainer and in sunny Sydney, Australia.
I work with men and women at all levels of their physical development, from overweight couch potatoes who want to get in shape, to professional athletes and natural bodybuilders who want to beef up strength and body mass.