Luke Weston, Junior Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare

Weight training for women: benefits of strength training and how you can get started

6 February 2020

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The increasing number of women lifting weights and doing strength training as part of their exercise routine is a welcome change in the gym dynamic, with becoming stronger overtaking a previous societal notion of women needing and aspiring to be thinner [1,2]. But with much still to discuss, Luke Weston, Junior Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare, explains how resistance training is important for both men and women and helps to dispel the myth that women and weights don’t mix.

Along with 150 minutes of aerobic activity, the NHS say we should all partake in two resistance based activities per week, which can include yoga, bodyweight exercises such as push ups, lifting weights and heavy gardening – so you certainly don’t have to go to a gym to reap the benefits of resistance based training [3].

One major myth that continues to perpetuate through the fitness industry is that lifting weights will make women ‘bulky’. Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare, explains, saying: “as for women concerned about ‘bulking up’, bear in mind that in order to do so you would need to train consistently, intensely and frequently, for many years in order to come anywhere close to what most would imagine a ‘bodybuilder’ looks like. The same goes for men. That’s like worrying about doing cardiovascular activity for fear of becoming a world class marathon runner overnight. It just doesn’t work that way.” And remember, it isn’t just about building muscle – any form of physical activity has many other benefits that contribute to both your short and long term health.

There are so many great mental and physical benefits to getting stronger and societal prejudice against “female muscularity” and the general gender split in gyms is stopping women from getting all these, just because of embarrassment or thinking it’s not for them [4]. So, here are the key benefits we can all get from strength training:

  1. Strengthens muscles. An obvious one, but strength and resistance training has both short and long term benefits. It strengthens and maintains your muscles, making everyday tasks like lifting heavier shopping bags and carrying things up and down stairs much easier, whilst also protecting your future muscle health. Later in life, we lose muscle tissue more and so by maintaining good muscle strength throughout life, we are preventing many potential issues, as well as helping ourselves to stay independent for longer by maintaining our physical strength.
  2. Stronger bones. Muscles aren’t the only part of our bodies made physically stronger by resistance training, our bones benefit greatly from it as well. Maintaining strong bones means the chances of developing osteoporosis are reduced, something that can really hinder quality of life due to our bones being much more susceptible to fractures and breaks [5]. Maintaining bone density and our overall bone health is vital for long term good health and strength training can play a key part in this.
  3. Mental health benefits. We all know that exercise is considered an effective way to help maintain or improve our mental health due to it releasing our feel good hormones, endorphins – and strength training is very much included in this. There is evidence that resistance training can help to improve your mood [6]. Plus, the feeling of empowerment when you can complete moves you may not have previously been able to, or thought you were able to, is a great feeling and a real motivator for wanting to improve.
  4. Reduced risk of various diseases including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as improving blood pressure levels. “In type 2 diabetes, you are training the tissue that is responsible for sugar metabolism in your body, so keeping muscles in good condition is crucial for this,” Daniel explains, highlighting just how wide spread the benefits of strength training are.
  5. Enjoyment and socialising. Going to the gym and classes such as Pilates and body pump are great places to meet new people or something to do with a friend. Group exercise can be a great way to help keep your motivation up, as we are accountable to someone else relying on us to go along. You don’t have to exercise on your own to get all these benefits and having someone cheering you on only adds to the enjoyment!

So, how can you get started? First thing is to decide what you think you’ll enjoy most – and remember it doesn’t have to be in a gym environment. There are many alternatives to the gym if it’s not your scene – at home workouts are a great way to get a good workout in, especially if time is something you struggle to find. And while equipment can used, body weight can absolutely give you a real workout; sit ups, press ups, squats – there are many exercises to improve your strength that use bodyweight. Being around personal trainers and professionals can, however, ensure that you have correct form in order to get the most out of the exercises you are doing and most importantly ensure you’re doing them safely. Likewise, if you want to be able to turn up and not have to decide what to do, classes offered at gyms are great. If you’re looking for a more intense physical environment and challenge, you might be interested in giving CrossFit a go.

A final note on the concept of ‘toning’; it’s a term that’s been turned into something that it isn’t. When you think of what this phrase means, you probably a lean, shaped and defined muscle, and you would be right. But the problem is that the common myth that in order to ‘tone’, you need to lift light weights, but this sort of training can’t achieve a toned body. It’s common to see people advocating that women lift very light weights for lots of repetitions (around 15+ repetitions per set). However, a muscle can only get bigger through strength training or smaller from de-training; these are the only two ways a muscle can change shape. We know from research that, when weight training, we must achieve a minimum threshold of intensity to stimulate our muscles to grow, in turn working towards achieving a ‘toned’ muscle. So, by lifting light weights, there is very little achieved towards this goal.

To stimulate muscle growth, you should be using a weight that achieves at least a 6/10 rating in perceived effort as well as aiming to achieve 2 -3 sets of between 8-12 repetitions. But strength training has such a huge range of benefits and so aesthetics are just one small part of the hugely positive impact it has on our bodies – or not a factor at all!

As with any form of exercise, the most important thing is that you enjoy whatever you choose to do and that you are doing it safely. Starting and then keeping up the habit is only going to work if you enjoy it – life’s too short not to! So whether it’s lifting weights, doing bodyweight exercises, Pilates or body pump, however you choose to get that bit stronger, your future self will certainly thank you.

References:

1. Hosie, Rachel. 6 reasons why women should lift weights. The Independent. July 2017.

2. Hinsliff, Gaby. Has strong become the respectable face of skinny for young women? The Guardian. 17 January 2018.

3. NHS - Exercise. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64.

4. Boyers, Hester. Lifting the stigma from women & strength training. The Food Media. 5 June 2018.

5. Harvard Health. Strength training builds more than muscles.

6. Harvard Health. Strengthen your mood with weight training.

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