Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Women, weight and weight training

I have just returned from my daily trip to the gym. While I was there, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The gym I use is a big, open plan, well equipped room but it seemed there was an invisible force field around the weight training area that only the female clientele could see. The whole time I was there, not a single member of the gentler sex came into the weight training area. Luckily for me, the force field didn’t prevent me from going into the cardio area and asking a few ladies why they didn’t come over to the other side of the gym. Their responses ranged from “I don’t want big muscles” to “cardio is best for weight loss” to “it smells really bad over that side!” After speaking to a few more women (in the name of science obviously) I realised there was an awful lot of misinformation, confusion and outright lies being spread about resistance training so in this article, I intend to dispel a few of those old myths and start a petition to get more woman lifting weights!

Myth number 1) Strength training will cause big, bulky muscles and make woman look masculine.

Most women do not have the genetic potential to develop big muscles. They lack sufficient amounts of the male hormone testosterone to develop the kind of muscle mass seen in men. The dominant female hormone, oestrogen, is not responsible for muscle growth, unlike male testosterone. The only way for the majority of women to develop large “male like” muscles would be for them it ingest/inject extraneous testosterone to override their normal hormonal functions. Clearly, this is not a common practice and is only really seen in the sport of bodybuilding and other pursuits where developing maximal strength is necessary.

Myth number 2) To lose weight, I need to do lots of cardio.

Imagine a glass. In your mind fill this glass with three parts water and one part olive oil. As you know, water and oil don’t readily mix so the oil will float on top of the water. This glass represents your total body weight; the water represents your lean tissue (muscle, bones and internal organs) and the oil representing your body fat. Most exercisers are only concerned with what they weigh, not what that weight is made up of (correctly termed body composition). Using our glass analogy it would be easy to pour off either liquid and reduce the contents of the glass, however, the reality is we want to keep the water (lean body tissue) and ditch the oil (fat). Getting rid of muscle and keeping fat is just pure madness, but with someone who exclusively uses cardio exercise for weight management, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Cardiovascular exercise is essential for our health – it keeps the heart, lungs and circulatory system in tip-top condition, and also burns energy (calories) when we’re doing it. However, because your body is the master adapter and responds to the stress you put upon it, it will do everything it can to make cardiovascular exercise easier. The body lays down new capillaries to aid in oxygen delivery and lactic acid removal, grows bigger/more cells called mitochondria to produce more energy giving ATP, makes the heart bigger and stronger and improves the function of the lungs to increase the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, and rids it self of any extra muscle not actively used in the chosen cardiovascular activity. Think about it. Muscle is vascular – it needs oxygen to survive. Even when you are running, the muscles of your upper body still need large amounts of oxygen. To increase the amount of oxygen available for the running muscles in the legs, it makes sense from a survival perspective to get rid of some of the redundant muscle mass of the upper body. It’s like trimming unnecessary weight off of a car chassis to give greater performance.

This is all well and good for runners wanting to run faster or further, but for someone who wants to control their body fat and look good, this is about the worst possible thing you can do. Muscle needs fuel (food). Less muscle = less food required. We call the daily amount of energy you need your Basal Metabolic Rate – or BMR for short. The resulting loss of muscle mass lowers your BMR resulting in an energy surplus which will most likely turn into fat when that energy is not used. A two pound loss of muscle will result in a approximate 70 kcal drop in daily energy requirements. This means our aerobic loving exerciser will lose muscle, gain fat and look worse than they did before starting their exercise regime.

What is the best way to maintain/gain lean tissue I hear you ask? The answer is “Lift weights”. It’s a simple case of use it or lose it. The body will maintain/increase its muscle mass if that muscle is being called on regularly to perform work.

A small increase in muscle mass will result in a higher daily BMR which means our exerciser will need more energy on a daily basis, and if they are under eating, that extra energy will have to come from body fat stores.
So, the take home message is that a combination of cardio and weight training is best for fat loss. Weight loss can occur when we lose muscle but the reality is that it’s the fat we need to lose, and keep the muscle.

Myth number 3) To tone up I need to do lots of reps with a light weight.

The lovely Jane Fonda did wonders by getting people exercising, but she also set us back years by promoting “the burn” and super-high reps for toning and inch loss. That burning you feel when you are exercising is not fat melting away, it is Lactic Acid being produced by your muscles as they run out of oxygen. Lactic acid does not cause spot reduction of body fat. If super high reps caused spot reduction of body fat, people who eat lots and often would have thin faces from all that chewing!!! Spot reduction is a super-sized myth! Fat stores will disappear globally, not locally. It’s cruel but it’s the truth. Some one once asked me “what’s the best exercise to make my stomach thinner?” I replied “Push your self away from the dining table sooner”. Probably not the answer they were seeking, but it’s a painful truth very few exercisers/dieters ever grasp.

The best (in fact only) was to improve the condition of a muscle or muscle group is to overload it – in other words ask it to do more work than usual. This means work it harder, not longer. Think about it. You do 30 side leg lifts to tone your glutes (your butt). When that gets easier, you do 35, then 40 and so on. After a few months you are doing 5 sets of 50 per leg and your entire exercise routine consists of nothing but side lying leg lifts because that’s all you have time for. Sounds like madness doesn’t it? Surely, it would be better to increase the workload, overload the muscles more and not have to spend an hour on the same exercise? To improve the condition of a muscle, it must be exposed to progressive overload i.e. asked to do more than it’s used to on a regular basis. Only then will it we see the adaptation (increase in tone) we are seeking.

A rep count of 20 or less is best in terms of effect and training time economy. Any higher than that and really it’s just a waste of your valuable time. This 20 rep rule applies to all muscle groups, including abdominals. Super high reps do nothing but waste time. Find ways to make exercises harder rather than do hundreds of unnecessarily time wasting reps.

Myth number 4) Free weights for men, machines for women.

This is one of those stupid, old, sexual stereotypes from the ‘70’s that never really went away. Old fashioned gyms used to be the reserve of manly men, but that stopped in the ‘80s when commercial gyms came into being. The thing is, in many cases, the free weights area is still kind of off limits to women. Why is this? Do the men intimidate the women with all their unnecessary grunting? Is it because the exercises seem “too manly”? Are women concerned that they might get big muscles like the guys? (We’ve covered this now). Is it really the smell??? (Can’t help with that one – too many protein shakes are the probable culprit there I think). Whatever the reason, the free weight area contains some of the best tools a girl can use to give her the body she always dreamed of.

It’s interesting to note that some exercises and machines are deemed to be male or female when the reality is that our bodies are so similar, that pretty much all exercises are beneficial to both sexes. That being said, some exercises considered very “masculine” are virtually essential for any woman wanting to work on the traditional female “problem areas” of the hips, butt and thighs. I refer to the squat, dead lift, stiff legged dead lift and to a lesser extent the lunge and high step up. With enough weight, these exercise will give most guys the “killer wheels” they’re after, but with moderate loading and a rep count of 15-20, they will carve any woman an awesome lower body in much less time than endless sets of hip abduction, hip adduction or standing leg curls.

Any woman who wants a good lower body should learn to squat and dead lift. Period.

Myth number 5) Muscle turns to fat when you stop training – I don’t want that to happen to me!

Go back to our water and oil in a glass image. Is it possible to turn water into oil or visa versa? The answer of course is no (Unless you are Jesus – then you’d probably do the water into wine thing anyway.) The same is true of muscle and fat. They are biologically different and cannot turn into each other. However, it is possible to reduce fat stores and increase muscle mass thus giving the appearance of one turning into the other.
Because muscle is biologically active, it needs energy (calories from food) to sustain it. However, if our subject stops exercising for an extended period without reducing their calorific (food) intake, their muscles will shrink (correctly termed atrophy) and their fat stores will grow (hypertrophy) again giving the impression of one turning into the other. The easiest was to avoid this happening is to a) don’t stop training and b) if you do have to stop training for an extended period e.g. illness or vacation, try to reduce your food intake so that the excess energy that would usually be used up by your exercise wont be stored as fat.

Myth number 6) Strength training makes muscles short and bulky – I want long slender muscles like a dancer so I do yoga instead.

I’ve heard this one so many times now that if I had a pound for every time, I’d be a rich man indeed. I had a huge argument with an ex girlfriend about this very subject…needless to say I stuck to my guns and am now single! It always amazes me how common this misconception is.

Muscles are the shape they are because of where they are attached to your skeleton. These attachment sites are referred to as Origins and Insertions. A muscle is attached to the skeleton by tendons. The point at which the tendon meets the skeleton dictates if a muscle will appear long or short. These attachment sites will not move regardless of whether you engage in vigorous weight training or endless yoga and stretching. It’s just genetics, pure and simple. Some people are blessed with long muscle bellies and short tendons, giving an appearance of long, flowing muscles, whilst other people have shorter muscle bellies and longer tendons giving the appearance of short “bunchy” muscles. There are no special exercises that will magically change the length of a muscle belly. Don’t waste precious time doing weird and wonderful movements alleged to lengthen your muscles. We can make our muscles bigger, firmer and improve their condition, but their length is predetermined – if you don’t like the length of your muscles, blame your folks, not your weight training routine.

Myth number 7) Strength training just takes too long and I have to go too often – I don’t have time!

When I here this one, it’s safe to make the assumption that this woman has trained with a man who fancies him self as a bit of a bodybuilder and has been exposed to the multi day split system of training. With the split training system, different muscles are trained on different days e.g. Monday is legs, Tuesday is chest, Wednesday is back, Thursday is shoulders, and Friday is arms (ready for a weekend out in town wearing a T shirt 2 sizes too small!). This type of training is fine for bodybuilders but for the majority of exercisers it requires way too much time in the gym.

The average exerciser should seldom adopt a split training programme and instead stick to whole body weight training sessions where the body is exercised as a single synergistic unit. Whole body training is time efficient, easy to plan and requires only 2-3 hours of gym time a week, leaving lots of time to do other things.

By using exercises which are deemed to be “compound” i.e. there is movement at more than on joint, we can work multiple muscle groups at the same time. By way of an example, to work the lower body effectively using isolation exercises (an exercise where movement is limited to one joint only) you would have to perform 6 exercises … leg extensions, leg curls, hip extensions, hip adductions, hip abductions and calf raises. Or, we could just do squats. Weight training really can be that simple and straight forward.

It is possible to train the entire body using just 6 exercises and still have time to perform some cardio or core work and be finished in an hour or less. Organise the 6 exercises into a circuit and you have an amazingly effective fat burning/cardio workout in the time it takes the average male trainer to do his guns workout!

So ladies, leave those split routines to the bodybuilders. Smart woman do whole body workouts.

Myth 8) I can’t strength train because I have back/knees/shoulder pain.

Which came first – the chicken or the egg? It’s the same for this myth. Is your back/knee/shoulder pain because you don’t weight train? Once a doctor has given the all clear and confirmed that any pain is not due to musculoskeletal or neurological injury, it’s not uncommon to find that after a few weeks of corrective weight training chronic aches and pains start to disappear. The body is an amazing machine – far more complex than any automobile. To run at optimum efficiency, it needs to have all its parts working in balance. By balance, I mean our muscles (which are generally arranged in opposing pairs on either side of a skeletal joint) need to be equally toned. If muscles on one side of a joint are stronger than those found on the opposite side, a dysfunctional joint will develop and pain may well be the result. Many of our day to day tasks are unidirectional requiring the use of muscles on one side of a joint only. This means that within a pair, one muscle maybe stronger than the muscle that opposes it.

With prescribed weight training exercises, we can rebalance the muscles on either side of a joint and return that joint to full function. Strengthening the lower back can cure lower back pain, strengthening the muscles of the thigh (the quadriceps and hamstrings) can prevent knee pain, strengthening the muscles of the upper back can improve posture and prevent neck pain.

Some time ago, I had an email personal training client. The deal was I would write a programme and the client would take it to her local gym and the resident instructor would then teach her the exercises. This client was suffering from some lower back pain which had been attributed to muscle weakness so we agreed that she needed to improve the strength of her back and I prescribed dead lifts. The instructor, on hearing about the clients’ bad back removed the dead lifts from her programme and replaced this great exercise with the leg curl machine. Needless to say, when I heard about this I was aggrieved! What the instructor failed to realise was the client had 3 growing children who regularly needed to be picked up and carried and she needed to prepare her back for the rigours of this frequent occurrence and the fact the kids were getting heavier all the time! She NEEDED to dead lift! Weak muscles shouldn’t be favoured or ignored but challenged so that they cease to be weak.

I’m sure many more myths are still yet to be busted so if you know of any others please feel free to drop me a line so I can expose them to the world! I’m sure you can now see, weight training is an essential form of exercise suitable for almost everyone – young and old, male and female. The huge benefits that can be gained from lifting weights (improved strength, bone density, muscle tone, joint stability, posture, fitness etc) far out weight any perceived risks so I strongly urge you to take up weight training and reap the rewards. You body will thank you for it!

Patrick Dale.
Before undertaking any new exercise programme, always consult your doctor and seek professional instruction as faulty exercise technique can result in serious injury.


  1. Made my GF read this - hopefully she'll get out of those bloody aerobics classes and lift some weights now.

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