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Female Strength Training - Busting The Myths

A heck-of-a-lot of information, misinformation and conflicting advice exists in the world of fitness and nutrition, making it hard to know whether what you read is sound advice, yet another fad or outright false. By addressing the myths and misconceptions that persist around female strength training, I want to help settle any reservations you might have, that might be keeping you from trying this type of exercise.



Not long after I first started out as a personal trainer, I put together a questionnaire to find out more about women’s perceptions of strength training.


I wanted to understand why so few women were using the gym, and why the few ladies who did were steering clear of the weights area.


The responses I got back included several gems:


“There are gross guys usually at every gym that put me off”



…and…


“I would hate to be associated in any way with the people who stare at themselves in the mirrors. It’s just creepy, you know?”


Sadly though, of the 64 responses I received I found just one other lady who lifted weights... But to my relief, she sang its praises:


“I love it, I love seeing my muscles defining and gaining strength and the feeling of hard work accomplished. Goodbye ‘tuck shop lady' arms!”


I also discovered that most misgivings could be classed into one of three categories. And so this is how I'm going to address them here.


The first, and most common, goes something along the lines of :


“Lifting weights will cause me to get big and bulky”


Let’s get this straight.


An increase in muscle mass is caused by an increase in muscle protein synthesis, which in turn is governed largely by the hormone testosterone. [1]


Testosterone is produced by the testes in males, the ovaries in females, and in small amounts by the adrenal glands in both sexes.


Generally, the testes produce much more testosterone than the ovaries. Comparing average testosterone levels in men and women, men have about 16.7±14.8 nmol/L versus 2.1±1.6 nmol/L in women. [2]


In other words, most women simply don’t produce enough testosterone to build that much muscle.


I should mention that hormonal conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), congenital adrenal hyperplasia and hirsutism, can lead to higher-than-average levels of testosterone in women. If you're at all concerned about any of these then it'd be worth speaking with your GP, who can run a blood test to check your hormone levels.


Testosterone aside, no one inadvertently gains a whole heap of muscle mass; you have to work damn hard for it! You need to put in the training hours and support muscle growth with the right nutrition.


What's more, you’ll need to be training specifically for hypertrophy (building muscle bulk) if you're expecting any serious gains. [3,4]


Assuming hypertrophy's not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to structure a workout to deliver results that better align with your objectives.


Want to know how? CLICK HERE to join me inside Own It In The Gym. A brand new online course designed to put you in the drivers seat when it comes to your training. Learn how to lift when you want, where you want, to get the results you want.


The second misconception involves the belief that:


“Lifting weights won't help me to lose weight”


It seems to be common belief that you need to do a whole heap of cardio in order to lose weight and only then will it be worth hitting the weights room to try and tone up.


Before we go any further on this one, I just want to make absolutely sure we’re talking about the same thing. Because we might sometimes cite weight loss as a training objective, when more precisely, we mean fat loss.


The difference is that if we’re just focusing on losing weight, loss of fluid and loss of lean tissue will look like a win on the scales.


I don’t need to tell you that it’s important to keep well hydrated. But there’s an advantage to preserving, or even building, some lean tissue for those who want to shed some extra body fat too.


Muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat. In fact, pound for pound, it burns around three times more energy than fat. [5,6]


Lifting weights, building muscle and increasing your body’s proportion of lean tissue will therefore increase your resting metabolic rate, which means more calories burned at rest.


You’ve also heard the saying ‘muscle weighs more than fat’, right? Well, it’s sort of true; muscle tissue is more dense than fat – or adipose – tissue, which means it occupies less space in the body.


So regardless of what’s going on with your overall body weight, as you start lifting weights it’s also likely that you’ll start to experience changes in your body shape and the fit of your clothing.


Fitness trackers measure energy expenditure based on heart rate, and while strength training undoubtedly gets your heart pounding, pauses between reps and sets mean your heart rate doesn’t remain elevated in the same way it does when you go for a jog.


When you check your watch at the end of a strength training session, the inconsistency between calories burned and perceived effort can be a little disparaging.


But what happens if you continue to measure energy expenditure hours or even days after your workout?


Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption – or EPOC – is the term given to the additional energy used during the recovery period post-exercise.


You may have heard of it referred to as the afterburn effect.


Once you’ve finished training, there are deficits to be made up for and systems that need bringing back into equilibrium. Glucose, proteins, fats, nutrients, water, hormones and neurotransmitters all need to be shuttled around and base levels need to be restored, and this requires a lot of energy.


Studies measuring EPOC during the hours and days post strength training consistently show a higher EPOC effect compared to steady state aerobic work. [7,8,9,10]


Alright, final one:


“The weights room is too intimidating”


A very easy way around this is to do your workouts at home. You won’t have the watching eyes of anybody else and you won’t have to worry about any equipment you’d planned to use being occupied.


However, if you do want to head into a gym at any point, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. I’d suggest three things:


Number one: Stick to the free weights.


Free weights are pretty much uniform in their appearance meaning you’ll be able to step into any gym, anywhere in the world, and know exactly what you’re looking at, how heavy it is, and how to use it.


Number two: Focus on YOU


I know a lot of women find all the flexing, grunting and testosterone that flies around the weights room intimidating. I’m not going to pretend and say it’s not. But I want to reinforce that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.


Lifting weights is all about you: your goals, your training and your results. If it helps, you could try taking a friend. Or take your music and keep your headphones in.


Number three: Make sure you ask for a proper induction into any new gym you step foot in.


Have them explain and demonstrate how to use each piece of equipment, if that’s what you want. It’s in their best interest that you’re using the equipment safely and correctly too, so never think you’re wasting their time.


Ready to put those reservations behind you and start reaping the benefits of strength training? CLICK HERE to join me inside Own It In The Gym. A brand new online course designed to put you in the drivers seat when it comes to your training. Learn how to lift when you want, where you want, to get the results you want.


 

References [1] Tipton, K. D., & Wolfe, R. R. (2001). Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 11(1), 109-132. [2] Torjesen, P. A., & Sandnes, L. (2004). Serum testosterone in women as measured by an automated immunoassay and a RIA. Clinical Chemistry, 50(3), 678-679. [3] Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872. [4] Morton, R. W., Colenso-Semple, L., & Phillips, S. M. (2019). Training for strength and hypertrophy: an evidence-based approach. Current Opinion in Physiology, 10, 90-95. [5] Wang, Z., Ying, Z., Bosy‐Westphal, A., Zhang, J., Heller, M., Later, W., ... & Müller, M. J. (2011). Evaluation of specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues: comparison between men and women. American Journal of Human Biology, 23(3), 333-338. [6] Wang, Z., Ying, Z., Bosy‐Westphal, A., Zhang, J., Heller, M., Later, W., ... & Müller, M. J. (2012). Evaluation of specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues: comparison between nonobese and obese women. Obesity, 20(1), 95-100. [7] Greer, B. K., Sirithienthad, P., Moffatt, R. J., Marcello, R. T., & Panton, L. B. (2015). EPOC comparison between isocaloric bouts of steady-state aerobic, intermittent aerobic, and resistance training. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport, 86(2), 190-195. [8] Farinatti, P., Castinheiras Neto, A. G., & da Silva, N. L. (2013). Influence of resistance training variables on excess postexercise oxygen consumption: a systematic review. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2013. [9] Braun, W. A., Hawthorne, W. E., & Markofski, M. M. (2005). Acute EPOC response in women to circuit training and treadmill exercise of matched oxygen consumption. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 94(5), 500-504. [10] Thornton, M. K., & Potteiger, J. A. (2002). Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(4), 715-722.

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