Women and Weight Training

Weightlifting woman doing shoulder press exercise with a weight bar inside a gym.

“Women should not lift too much weights at the gym, it will only make them look muscular!”

This is one of the most common misconceptions propagated by gym trainers, sometimes even the best of them. For decades, women have shied away from those dumbbells and barbells, fearing that they would end up looking ‘unfeminine,’ and unnecessarily muscular. But research in fitness sciences has set the records straight conclusively – there is no category of individuals who cannot or should not strength train – kids, adolescents, elderly, pregnant women, men, women – everyone can train with weights. Unless you are injured or hurt, there is no reason to refrain from strength training.

And when it comes to women in particular, not only can they lift those dumbbells in the gym, they actually should. Read on to know about the benefits of strength training for women.

Why should women strength train?

1) Promote Fat Loss: Once you begin strength training, not only will you see the several benefits it has, but it will also make you a much more confident person in several aspects of your life. The most important benefit seen with women who strength train is that their fat loss effort is promoted. How does this happen?

When you strength train, you body actually builds and strengthens muscles where they are weak. The more (i.e. stronger) muscles you have, the higher is your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate – the rate at which your body burns energy even when at rest.) Simply put, when you strengthen and develop your muscles, your body not only burns calories when you actually work out, but even several hours after your workout. There are two reasons why this happens, first being that the muscles need more energy to sustain themselves (i.e., to just be around,) and the second, muscles after extensive strength training need energy to repair themselves – energy that comes primarily from burning fats. Thus, strength training definitely promotes fat loss.

2) Preserving muscle strength: With the increase in age, muscle strength starts to decrease – this decrease is approximately 12% to 15% per decade after the age of 50 in both men and women. Thus, it is very important for them to focus on preserving muscle mass and also increasing muscle mass (which in turn increases muscle strength.)

With weight training, unlike cardio, you do not lose any muscle mass, instead you only build more of them. Strength training is your best bet when it comes to getting rid of all the extra flab, toning your body, and building a strong core.

3) Increase Bone Strength: Strength training has also been known to strengthen bones, especially during old age, as bone density tends to decrease. Hence, strength training will go a long way in preventing degenerative bone conditions like Osteoporosis.

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Now, let’s come to the main fear that women have when they think of weights. “Will strength training make me look like a man?”

The answer is doubtlessly ‘NO!’ Having muscles doesn’t mean looking ‘masculine.’ Women’s bodies are designed to be different from those of men. Men have much higher levels of testosterone when compared to women – Studies have proven that women have about 15-20% less testosterone than men, which is claimed to be the main hormone responsible for a bulky, muscular body. Also, women need a lot of fat (i.e. about 15 to 20% at least) in order to ensure certain hormonal functions. Lastly, women just do not have muscle mass like men to begin with, which, with sustained training, would make them look like men.

Can pregnant women strength train as well?

Pregnant woman working out with dumbbells with personal trainer at the gym

It is very important for pregnant women to maintain their weight and not turn obese. Obesity will not only cause several problems during child birth but will also cause severe complications to the child, resulting in child obesity among other issues. It is very important to keep the body active and strength train in order to not lose any muscle during pregnancy. Thus, basic weight training with light weights is recommended for beginners, and the weight and intensity can be increased according to experience levels.

It is also important to have a strong core and strong legs in order to support the extra weight that is put on during pregnancy. Therefore, exercises like planks and squats are highly beneficial. Not just the core, but training all the other muscle groups is also equally important to in order to provide the strength needed during child birth, and ensure continued support to the recuperating mother’s body.

Menstruation cycle and strength training

Another common question is whether or not it is advisable to workout during periods. The answer is a ‘Yes,’ even for day 1 and day 2. Not only can you workout during your periods, but you can use your entire menstrual cycle to maximize strength training benefits.

The entire menstrual cycle is usually divided in three phases – Follicular phase, Ovulation phase and Luteal phase. The Follicular Phase is from Day 0 to Day 13 where follicles are formed and continue to develop. The Ovulation Phase is around the Day 14, where the mature follicle releases the ‘ovum’ or egg cell, and all hormones are at their peak. In the Luteal Phase, which is from Day 15 to Day 28, the Corpus Luteum (dead follicle) is formed. This is usually the phase where PMS or the Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, may begin. Finally, there is the day when periods start (Menstruation) and that resets the cycle.

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During the Follicular Phase, women have higher-than-normal tolerance for pain and also have greater force-generation capacity, which is especially helpful for lifting and training. It is best to focus on training progress in this phase, as all hormones start to build up in the body. Ultimately, you can train through tough pain and go stronger for longer. As workout intensity is higher in this phase, carbs can be taken post workout to fill the depleted glycogen stores.

In the Ovulation Phase, which usually starts on Day 14, relative strength levels are elevated and usually at their peak. The ability to generate force is sustained. This phase is the ideal time for you to attempt personal records, as all hormones are at peak levels. However, it is to be noted that the risk of injury is elevated as well. This is because the concentration of estrogen elevates, which can interfere with collagen synthesis and neuromuscular control – thus making you more prone to injuries. It is therefore very important to adhere to proper form. Also, at this time there is a slight increase in appetite, but it is important to stick to the diet, and include carbs post workout only.

Then comes the Luteal Phase, between Day 15 to 28, where there is gradual decrease in strength. During this phase, it is observed that an individual feel less efficient during exercise, and hits fatigue sooner than normal. This is also the phase where the most scary symptoms, that is the PMS begins! It is best to focus on high volume training, as the lifting capacities go down and it becomes difficult to lift heavy. Also, there is a lot of bloating and sense of fullness, thanks to water retention. As such, you may also feel better if you opt for low impact exercise, such as yoga, stretching and balancing exercises. Finally, in this phase, the body metabolism tends towards fat utilization over glucose utilization, which means, it makes most sense to go as low-carb as possible. As estrogen levels are high in this phase, there will be more utilization of fats in the body.

Finally it is Day 28, the day menstruation begins. Starting then, it is seen that all the water retention goes away, and there is no more bloating and no more PMS. As your periods begin, you can slowly work on transitioning back to higher-intensity workouts. The metabolism is still on the lesser side as insulin sensitivity gradually increases, thus it is best to stick to low-carb levels in the diet. However, you should gradually keep increasing your intensity as your body transitions to the Follicular phase, and you are set to kill it at the gym again!

So what are the takeaways?

Strength training is undoubtedly beneficial for all-round health – be it to aid weight loss and tone up, or to build stronger muscles, bones, and improve your immunity and endurance. Don’t be daunted by those dumbbells and kettlebells and don’t be put off by all those men flexing their biceps and pectorals! Lifting weights won’t make you one bit like them. What it will do is to make you the fittest version of yourself.

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So, move out of your comfort zone and begin with strength training to get the most out it. After all, a fit body is a sign of a fit lifestyle and healthy practices.

 

Author Credits – Trina Roy