Weight training is no longer the domain of bulky guys with oversized muscles. Women of all shapes and sizes are harnessing the power of dumbbells and barbells and reaping the rewards. However, the percentage of females that weight train is still surprising low – around 17.5% – that’s less than 1 out of 5. Surveys show that older women are the ones least likely to strength training. Why is participation in this form of training so low? Unfortunately, many women still have false beliefs about weight training that makes them reluctant to pick up a pair of weight or a dumbbell. What are these female strength training myths that hold women back?
Female Strength Training Myth #1: Strength Training Will Create a Masculine Body Composition
Unless you have a high testosterone level due to a condition like polycystic ovarian syndrome or unless you’re taking anabolic steroids, or are genetically predisposed to building big muscles, it’s unlikely you’ll become muscle bound from resistance training. Instead, you’ll become leaner and stronger. Weight training builds confidence too! Some women don’t realize that strength training helps with weight loss as well. Not only do women not have the hormonal structure to build big muscles, but they also have shorter muscle bellies and fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers, which make it harder to build substantial muscle.
Female Strength Training Myth #2: Cardio Is Better for Weight Loss than Strength Training
In general, cardio burns more calories than strength training, but strength training builds metabolically active muscle tissue. This boost in muscle modestly increases resting metabolic rate so that you burn more calories even when you’re inactive. That’s a bonus! Studies show that strength training is even more important for older women who are trying to lose weight. Women over the age of 50 are already losing muscle at a higher rate and restricting calories and doing cardio can boost muscle loss even more.
Female Strength Training Myth #3: Men Have More Potential to Build Strength Than Women
Women, in general, aren’t as strong as men. Studies show that women have about 66% of the lower-body strength that men have in the lower body and 52% of the upper body strength. Yet, studies show men and women have roughly equal potential to gain strength through training. Men start out with more absolute strength, especially in the upper body, but men and women have a similar capacity to gain muscle strength. It’s entirely conceivable that a female who trains hard might be stronger than a man who doesn’t strength train.
Female Strength Training Myth #4: Lifting Lighter Weights is Best for “Toning” Muscles
Toning is a term you hear about a lot, but it has little meaning with respect to body composition. Most people use it to describe muscles that have some definition but are lean rather than bulky. Yet we know it’s hard for women to build bulk, even with heavy lifting. Yet, going TOO light on the weights won’t change your body, especially once you’re past the beginner stage. In fact, unless you hypertrophy the muscles a bit, and lose some of the fat covering the muscles, you won’t change the appearance of your muscles – and neither will you look more “toned.” The way to hypertrophy a muscle so it looks more defined is to use progressive overload. That means subjecting the muscles you’re working gradually to more of a challenge by increasing the resistance, sets, volume of training, etc.
In the beginning, use light weights until you’re comfortable with how to do an exercise properly. Then, increase the resistance and continue to do so as the exercise becomes easier. Without progressive overload, you’ll stall out. Some studies show that you CAN build muscle size using light weights, but only if you do an exercise to near muscle failure. However, lifting lighter weights to fatigue will improve muscle endurance and that’s beneficial for making your muscles more fatigue resistant. Just don’t count on light weights to help you build substantial strength or definition. You may see some change initially, but without progressive challenge, you’re limited.
Female Strength Training Myth #5: More Must Be Better
More exercise, more calorie restriction, more lifting – it can all come back to bite you. Sometimes people adopt the mindset that more is better. If you’re trying to lose body fat and build strength at the same time, you might be drastically cutting calories to lose body fat and increasing your exercise as well. This approach will leave you exhausted and will likely lead to burnout. Your training methods must be sustainable. For one, it’s hard to hypertrophy muscles when you’re in a calorie deficit. When you overly restrict calories, your body enters a catabolic state that interferes with hypertrophy gains. If you’re trying to lose body fat while building muscle, don’t reduce your calorie intake by more than 20% – and make those calories count. The bulk of what you eat should be whole foods and foods that contain enough protein, whether plant or animal based.
Don’t forget that when you lose weight due to excessive calorie restriction, you also lose muscle. The loss of muscle tissue slows your metabolism and makes it even harder to lose weight. The downside? You end up in a vicious cycle of starving yourself and STILL not losing weight. All the while, anabolic hormones that help you build muscle are declining and further sabotaging your gains. Don’t let this happen to you as it’s counterproductive.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, this dispels some of the common myths about women and strength training and you can use this information to maximize your own training while avoiding the pitfalls. So, keep training smart!
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Science Daily. “Lose fat, preserve muscle: Weight training beats cardio for older adults”
Obesity, 2017; 25 (11): 1823 DOI: 10.1002/oby.21977.
Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;66(3):254-62.
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