The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights for Women

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More women are working out with weights these days to build strength and muscle tone, but many still use lighter weights during their workout out of fear that lifting heavy weights will cause them to gain weight or “bulk up.” Instead of maximizing the amount of weight they lift, they use light hand weights and do almost endless repetitions, never really exhausting the muscle. Although multiple repetitions using a light weight increases muscle endurance, it doesn’t build real muscle strength or definition. Women can get more benefits from their workout by increasing the amount of weight they lift, and, contrary to popular belief, lifting heavy weights doesn’t cause weight gain in women.

Do Women Gain Weight or Become Bulky if They Lift Heavy Weights?

Some women avoid lifting heavy weights because they mistakenly have visions of turning into the hulky women they see on the cover of some women’s bodybuilding magazines. Instead of becoming bulky, women who lift weights become leaner and more defined over time with ripples and curves that make them look great in a tank top. Men have far more muscle-building testosterone than women, which means women have more difficulty building muscle than their male counterparts. It’s physiologically impossible for a woman to get as big as a man by lifting heavy weights unless she’s taking hormones or chemicals that boost muscle development.

What about the issue of weight? Some women are unpleasantly surprised to find they’ve gained a few pounds after they first begin lifting heavy weights. Of course, they’re not happy to see the scale moving in the wrong direction, but there’s no need to panic. It’s not uncommon to experience temporary weight gain after starting a weight-lifting program. The increase in weight isn’t from fat gain or even from muscle, but is from more water being retained by active muscle tissue.

Why the Scale Goes Up When You First Start to Lift Weights

When you first start challenging your muscles with heavy weight-lifting, your muscles temporarily store more carbohydrates in the form of glycogen to make it available as a fuel source to muscles. Glycogen holds onto water, which is the reason the number on the scale goes up. The number reflects temporary water weight gain. Over time, your muscles adapt and no longer stockpile so much glycogen, and your weight drops back down to normal. Have you ever noticed how your muscles look fuller after a weight-training session? It’s not because you’ve suddenly developed muscle, but because your muscles are holding onto excess glycogen and water.

Why is it That Some Women Insist That Their Legs Get Bulky When Lifting Heavier Weights?

There are two reasons this can happen: If your thighs increase in size after starting a heavy weight program it is either because of temporary water weight gain or because you are consuming more calories than you are burning. It is a scientific fact that changing your fitness and diet program to create a calorie deficit will result in weight loss and yes, that means your thighs shrinking in size too. Even if you lose one pound of fat in your thighs and add one pound of muscle, your thighs will still shrink in size since muscle takes up less space than fat does. If you are trying to slim your thighs the key is to make sure you have a negative calorie balance and that you reduce your body fat while increasing your lean muscle mass. Your legs will not only be slimmer, but will look toned and healthier too!

The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights for Females

Lifting heavy weights not only increases muscle definition, but it helps you burn more fat even when you’re not sweating it out at the gym. There are two reasons for this. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue. Having an extra pound of muscle burns  additional calories each day even when you’re just sitting in a chair. Who doesn’t want that? Then there’s the after-burn. When you challenge your muscles by lifting heavy weights, you activate key hormones that help your body burn more fat even after you’ve finished your last weight-lifting set. This increased rate of calorie burn continues for up to 24-hours after a weight training session. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research women burn up to 100 additional calories within 24 hours after weight-training. That adds up to almost a pound of weight loss every month and 30 pounds a year.

It’s not just strength-training that makes you lean and defined. You still need to combine strength-training with a healthy diet to get the full benefits. You won’t develop metabolism-boosting muscle if you chow down on pastries and ice cream. To support muscle growth, eat a diet consisting of complex carbohydrates and lean protein sources, and go light on the junk food and processed food. They’re loaded with empty calories and salt that increases water weight gain. According to the ACSM  athletes should have between 1.2 and 1.7 g/kg (0.5 – 0.8 grams per pound)  of protein each day depending on your age, gender and activity level. Getting more protein than this won’t boost muscle growth any more but simply adds to your calorie load. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need massive amounts of protein to increase muscle tissue.

As you can see, heavy weight-training works in your favor when it comes to weight loss, because it boosts the amount of metabolically active muscle tissue you carry around and because of the after-burn effect. It also adds cuts, curves and definition that you won’t get from running on a treadmill or working out on an elliptical machine. If you want to look great in a bikini, weight-training gives you the edge. Cardio is still effective for burning fat and for conditioning your heart, but weight-training has some of these benefits too. Do both for maximum benefits, but don’t overdo the cardio while neglecting strength-training, as many women do. You may lose body fat, but you won’t become firmer and more defined, and you won’t get the benefits of additional metabolism-boosting muscle. With cardio, you may end up smaller but still flabby, which isn’t what most women want.

Finally, heavy weight-training helps to reverse the aging process for both women and men. The average person loses about 7% of their lean body mass every ten years after the age of 20. Since muscle is our body’s furnace for burning fat it is no wonder that most people gain weight as they age and this causes all kinds of health problems for men and women as well as reduces their quality of life.

The Bottom Line:

Don’t let the naysayers tell you lifting heavy weights will cause you to gain weight or bulk you up if you’re female. Enjoy the benefits that lifting heavy weights has on your metabolism and your body.

Excluding temporary weight gain from water retention, the only way to gain weight is to consume more calories than you burn. Lifting heavy weights burns calories, it does not add them to your body and thus it is impossible to gain weight from just lifting heavy weights. For example, look at me, I’ve been lifting heavy weights for decades and I weigh less now than when I was in high school. Even power lifters will lose weight if their calories consumed are less than their TDEE. So, no matter what your exercise, if you burn more calories than you consume you will lose weight-Guaranteed!

References:
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000 May;904:290-7.
Women’s Health website. “The Best Strength Training for Women”
Exercise Physiology. Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Fifth edition. 2001.

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21 Responses to “The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights for Women”

  1. Louise Brecht June 27, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    I really liked this article. I feel I am gaining a better understanding of the benefits of weight lifting. I also feel inspired to continue working out after reading the weekly newsletter.

  2. Tracey June 27, 2011 at 11:36 am #

    I am a 5′/125pd, 45 year old woman and having been working out for decades. What would be a good balance between weight lifting and cardio to do in a week for maximum benefits. I would like to define and keep body fat down. Can anyone help?

    Thanks for taking the time to read this and I look forward to hearing your responses.

  3. Diane States June 27, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    Thank-you for this article! I have worked out for decades and am always hearing from fitness magazines and other fitness people that muscle weighs more than fat. Ridiculous because a pound is a pound regardless if fat or muscle. I assumed it was water weigh r/t muscle inflamation processes etc. I think this notion of muscle weighing more than fat is the reason many women avoid weights and if trying to loose weight say they won’t use weights until they have lost more of their weight! You are great and I totally appreciate what you have done for women and staying healthy! Your videos get results and you give hope for the middle age woman that you can look as good as a 20 year old!!! Thank-you!!!

  4. Donna June 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    Don’t forget how really excellent they make you feel. Lifting a light weight is like knitting. Except knitting gives you better results. LOL – I have no idea why I used that simile.

  5. minnie55 June 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Great article. I discovered the benefits of weight training in the early eighties. (Discovered Cathe in the early 90s.) Weight training transformed my shape. And is now helping me coast through menapause!!

  6. TVDIVA June 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    When I was a size 18, I tried jazzercise, aerobics, walking (in addition to dietary changes) and I could not seem to lose a pound or an inch. Then I started added small weights 1-3 pounds on my walks, and slowed down my aerobic moves to include weights. Within five months I lost only 16 pounds – but I also lost 72 inches – including seven inches off my neck. I went from a size 18 to a size 10 and kept the weight off for twenty years. I encourage everyone to start with small weights and use a tape measure every week to chart your progress. You will be amazed at how great you look.

  7. Shadow June 27, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    Does this mean we may actually get another heavy series sometime in the future? S&H is great – but after a zillion workouts with it, it would be awesome to have another one similar to it. The recent releases and upcoming series are okay but I’d LOVE to see some heavy weight work again!

  8. CatheDotCom June 27, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    I’m sure in the future we will release plenty more heavy weight workouts, but we already have STS (40 DVDs) and STS Total Body as well as the Gym Styles and plenty other heavy weight workouts.

  9. Darlene June 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    I am 55 years old and lost 40 pounds in the last year. I started exercising gently, walking 20 minutes, then 30, 40….. This started to be boring so I added jogging a little and worked out to aerobics from Cathe’s step series. I lost 8 inches off my hips and now measure less than 36 inches, going from a size 14 to a size 4. I purchased the sts program and am in mesocycle 2 (hypertrophy). I agree with the article that heavy weight lifting does wonders for your shape and makes you physically smaller, not to mention how great it makes you feel.
    Wow, to walk into the Gap and buy a size 4 (not curvy) and they fit like a glove. Thank you Cathe!!!!

  10. Maxine Rice June 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    I got into your workout one day when I was home with a knee injury. I was use to lifting weight, but not the way you do it when I was finishing with your workout I knew I had a workout!!!!! Thanks for this article I tried to explained to several co-workers that lifting heavy weight was good benefit to their bodies, and with this article I can show them . Thanks again.

  11. Ellen Pierce June 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Thanks, Cathe, this is a great post!

  12. Faye Kastle June 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    I tell people that weight training has been ideal for me. I am 5’5″, wear a size 4 and weigh 140lbs. I don’t focus on the scale, I rely on how my clothes fit. Weight training along with cardio has been part of my routine for years. I am toned and defined, not bulky. So ladies, use weights, it’ll do wonders for you! I’m living proof.

  13. MJB June 28, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    LOVE YA CATHE NEVER STOP WHAT YOU DO FOR THE FITNESS INDUSTRY.

  14. Amanda October 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    @ Faye Kastie – Thank you so much for posting your stats. Lately I have really had a problem obsessing over the number on the scale and trying to bring that number down. I just got laid off at work, culminating a very stressful 8 months and I felt like maybe the weight gain was job stress, but I wasn’t eating anymore or any less. I’m 5’6″, and weigh 131 (as of this morning). Lately, first thing in the morning, the scale has shown 133-134 and its been driving me nuts. I workout faithfully 6 mornings a week, try to eat relatively clean and I felt like the scale was moving in the wrong direction. I even quit lifting heavy and went back to light weight/high rep workouts thinking that maybe my body type wasn’t suited to heavy lifting. Once I can get back to 130, I”ll start lifting heavy again.

  15. HSL December 6, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    Well, I beg to differ. I am a 44 year old female that has always taken my fitness very seriously. Running has been an integral part of my program, as has strength training. Several months ago I started a heavier lifting routine. Since then, I’ve gained close to 7 pounds, and I’ve gone up 2 pants sizes and one shirt size. I was quite fit when I started, but now I’m just flat out getting bigger. I eat a healthy diet, and I’m not eating more now than I was before. Let me tell you – this is incredibly frustrating. I feel good physically but nothing fits anymore, and I just keep gaining weight and size. So – anyone that tells me that women don’t bulk up from weight training – I say that is a load of crap.

  16. CatheDotCom December 9, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    Gaining weight only comes from eating more calories than you burn, not from lifting weights. If you reduced your running in favor of heavy lifting chances are you are burning less calories and just need to reduce your calorie intake. Gaining 7 pounds of muscle is nearly impossible for a female to do in less than year or two and if you did an accurate body composition analysis I think you find the weight gain is not primarily from muscle gain. It’s also impossible to gain weight if you’re eating less calories than you’re burning. This is a basic law of physics and a scientific fact. Chances are you’re eating more than you think or your metabolism has changed.

  17. Lauren December 21, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    I am so grateful to come across this article. I have been shying away from heavy weights because of fear of bulking. I always thought women had too much estrogen to get bulky, and I was right. The other puzzle is that they say lifting heavy weights will make you gain weight, but then they say muscle helps burn cals/fat at rest. So then wouldn’t lifting heavier weights build more muscle which will cause greater fat burn? Thank you so much. I have been putting on a little weight and was worried and wanted to stop. But now i will keep going!

  18. Monique January 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Thank you for this information. I just started working out with heavier weights with my husband/trainer. I was giving him such a hard time about the heavier weights but not anymore. I can’t wait to see my body results.

  19. Charlie February 23, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    How heavy should the weight training be?

  20. Ck May 2, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    How many reps of heavy weights should you do ?

  21. CatheDotCom May 2, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    It depends on your goal. To develop muscle mass about 10 reps. For stregth or power you will need to do even less.

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