As a female strength and conditioning coach I cringe every time I go into a commercial gym, for many reasons. But for the purpose of this article it is because there are so many women working their butts off and they have no idea they are doing it all wrong. I apologize if I offend other women by telling you to ‘Man Up’. The phrase ‘Man Up’ has been a staple in my vocabulary for as long as I can remember and has proven to be a successful motivational device in my coaching. Of course, I know my athletes and clients very well and I know when it is appropriate to give them that boost of motivation.
When I say ‘Man Up’ I don’t actually want women to act like men, or do something like a man, I just want them to dig a little deeper and push themselves. (Again, I know when to push and when to dial it back with all of my clients.) But, for the sake of this article, I do want women to do something like men, and that is lift heavier weights. (Heavier is proportionate to individuals).
Men go to the gym and partake in a some kind of resistance training regime and maybe some cardio. Women, do cardio and maybe do light strength training and flexion based core exercises. Unfortunately, women struggle to see results, not because of their work ethic, but because they are not using the correct modalities.
Don’t worry ladies, it’s not your fault. I don’t know where this women lifting weights stigma came from exactly, but it’s really getting on my nerves. However, I do understand that a lot of it has to do with a lack of education and the awful fitness advice that is found on social media. Women are being portrayed in a horrific fashion in the fitness industry, fitness models are not real life, so ladies I beg you to stop comparing yourself to them (unless you’re a fitness model). But, most women reading this are just looking to feel better, get stronger, and maybe look a little better. Not all women are meant to be a size 2. Do yourself a favor and un-follow anyone on instagram that claims that. Believe it or not, an excessive lumbar lordotic curve and high heels are terrible for your back (try to find a fitness model or fitspo picture where a woman is not arching her back or sticking her butt out). Don’t get me wrong I believe a well built physique takes dedication and I strive to improve my physique on a daily basis, but we have to understand not every woman has to have a flat stomach to be healthy.
Now, that you have gotten the nonsense off your social medias feeds, let’s talk more about the misconceptions surrounding women and resistance training. As an athletic trainer, and strength and conditioning specialist, I have heard some ridiculous claims and excuses on how women should approach resistance training.
But I don’t Want to Get Bulky…
First, let’s start with the oh so common “I don’t want to get bulky” excuse. News flash ladies, it is extremely difficult, I repeat extremely difficult, for women to gain natural hypertrophy(muscle growth). In fact, hypertrophy or increases in muscle mass, is largely due to genetics and diet. There are certain body types that will gain muscles easily (mesomorph), a type where it is extremely hard to gain even a pound of lean muscle (ectomorph), and a type that has a hard time losing body fat no matter how hard they work (endomorph). Now, I’m not saying if you have a certain body type your fitness levels are predetermined and you shouldn’t work as hard, genetics are just another factor in the fat loss journey.
If women leave the gym and eat a 3000 to 4000 calorie diet a day, then yes they will probably gain some mass if they are eating the correct foods. If they are eating crap then they will probably gain the fat, that they are trying so hard to lose.
Resistance and strength training will not make you bulky, if done correctly(more on that to follow). Resistance training is a great tool that is under utilized by women when starting a fat loss program. A study published in 2010 showed that resistance training is a viable and superior method for fat loss and weight management in post menopausal women (Jennifer W. Bea et al). Resistance training will increase fat free body mass, increasing lean muscle. One kg of lean muscle burns 13 kcal/day and one kg of fat burns 4.5 kcal/day (Wang et al). An increase in lean muscle, will lead to an increase or maintained Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). RMR is the amount of energy your body expends at rest and may account for 70% of your daily energy expenditure. So an increase in lean muscle and RMR means you will burn more calories at rest, who doesn’t want that?
Another awesome benefit of lifting weights was shown in a study conducted in 2009. The study found a suppression of the hunger hormone ghrelin, after participating in a resistance training regimen. Reducing your ghrelin levels will aid in decreasing your overall food intake.
Oh I Lift Weights, I Do Like 20 Bicep Curls with 5 lb Dumbbells…
The second, oh so irritating theory, is lifting light weights for high reps. Well first of all, doing 20 tricep kickbacks with 3 lbs isn’t going to get you anywhere except maybe a tricep overuse injury. Whoever told woman they shouldn’t lift heavy to get lean muscle should be defenestrated. Most women, lift heavy on a daily basis and don’t even realize it i.e. carry grocery bags and picking up their children. Women need to be strong, so why should we only lift 5 lb weights in the gym? Please someone explain this to me.
So how should woman lift? Heavier weights for lower reps. When we look at the chart below we see that higher reps with lighter weight induce muscular endurance and even hypertrophy, and lower reps with higher weights create muscular strength and power. Bodybuilders want hypertrophy, we want strength. So ladies, ditch the 5 lbs weights and start lifting heavy.
(Baechele, T.R. and Earle, R.W. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.).Champaign, lll.: Human Kinetics. Westcott, W.L. (2003). Building Strength and Stamina (2nd ed.). Champaign, lll.: Human Kinetics.)
I Just Want to Lose Weight, So I Just Do Like an Hour of Cardio…
My third favorite is the idea that Long, Slow, Distance (LSD) cardio is going to help women melt away the pounds. LSD is a great aerobic exercise, and of course any aerobic exercise decreases your chances of heart disease, but when our goal is fat loss, LSD may not be the answer.
LSD, if done for a long time will in fact burn many calories, but it will also breakdown the lean muscle, and could lead to overuse injuries. If lean muscle is decreased, than our RMR can decrease as well. But, because the number on the scales are going down women are happy. This is where the idea of fat loss vs weight loss comes in. There is a need for both, but the focus has been put on weight loss and number on the scale way too much. If your goal is to feel better and look better than fat loss, not weight loss should be the priority. Note the image below, while 5lbs is still 5lbs, muscle is more dense than fat and muscle will always look better. Also, check out this article by Tony Gentilcore Weight Loss vs Fat Loss.
Another, reason to nix the LSD is because it has little to no effect on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC is the energy expended to return the body to a stable state after intense exercise. This process, is also known as the “afterburn” because it can burn calories after exercise and can last up to 36 hours after exercise is completed. LSD is not intense enough to elicit a significant EPOC effect. High intensity interval training and resistance training will have a greater “afterburn” effect than low intensity LSD( Braun et al). The great thing about interval training , while difficult, is it takes about half the time as traditional aerobic training.
High intensity interval training is getting a lot of buzz lately and for good reason. It an extremely effective way, to increase your aerobic levels and burn fat. Studies like this one, Irving et al, have proved that high intensity training burns more adipose tissue than regular low intensity aerobic training. While, sprint intervals are demanding and may be hell for some clients, a great way to incorporate high intensity training into your training protocols is through circuit or complexes. Jen Sinkler, is the expert at well, lifting weights faster for metabolic effects.
I do believe however there is a time and place for LSD cardio in a fat loss program, but it should not be your main source of aerobic exercise. LSD, is great to get women ready for higher intensity interval training, women should not jump right into high intensity training, they must have an aerobic base before participating in that kind of training. LSD, can also be used on an “active rest” day to get some type of movement and exercise in. Sometimes, women love to do hours of cardio, to keep that itch satisfied program a day or two of LSD, but LSD should not take up over 20% of you aerobic exercise.
I Do Strength Training, But Only After 45 Minutes of Cardio…
Let’s do cardio first to get it out of way, is a common whisper I hear in the women’s locker room. There is some logic to that statement, but let’s put some science into the mix. LSD or high intensity interval cardio, to non endurance athlete, is to put it nicely, plain hell. It would make sense to get the most dreaded thing on the program over with first. But , when it comes to our CNS, energy systems, and the fuel in our body, cardio first may not be the best course of action.
Our body is fueled by ATP, we store some of it naturally, but most of it we get from the food we eat. ATP is our energy and our bodies have systems in place to deliver energy during different types of exercise. I do not want to go into a thorough and detailed explanation of our bodies energy systems in this article, but to break it down very simply, our body has an aerobic energy system and an anaerobic energy. The aerobic system utilizes oxygen and delivers ATP during slow,long lasting, low intensity exercise. The anaerobic does not use oxygen and delivers ATP during fast, short lasting, higher intensity exercise. With oxygen available the aerobic system is efficient in delivering ATP based on the demands of the exercise. However, due to the higher intensity, and increased energy demands, the anaerobic system has to work much harder to deliver the ATP necessary for exercise being performed. If we have more ATP stores available during anaerobic exercise we will be more efficient in our resistance training session. But if we perform anytime of cardio first(especially HIIT) we won’t have much energy left to perform a strength training session.
Resistance training not only places high demands on the anaerobic system, but the Central Nervous System as well. We perform at optimum levels when our CNS is not fatigued. When fatigue sets in our performance diminishes. Engaging in any type of cardio before strength training can cause fatigue, by using the fuel needed for strenght training and begin to fatigue the CNS as well. This will lead to a very crappy strength sessions and will lead to very little gains in lean muscle (lean muscle burns calories, we want lean muscle).. Cardio, is not as demanding on the CNS and should be done after resistance training.
I Went to the Gym Today, So McDonald’s is Totally Acceptable…
You have to love the, ‘I just went to the gym, so I’m going to eat whatever I want.’ Sometimes I struggle to understand where these crazy ideas come from. You can not eat whatever you want because you just worked out, you are defeating the entire purpose of your workout. Granted, if you are going to indulge in something sweet your post workout meal would be the time to do it, because the sugar would be used to replenish glycogen stores instead of being stored as fat. But that is a whole different topic. The fact of the matter is, you can not out train a bad diet. Yes, that may be a cliche, but fitness professionals continue to have to repeat it on a daily basis. Nutrition is the key to success for any fat loss and strength program.
I Don’t Really Have a Plan, I Just Make it Up as I Go…
I also, enjoy the “I’m just gonna wing it” mindset. While, going with the flow may be an adventurous personality trait, uneducated improvisation in your fat loss or strength program will not find you success. You will not achieve the results you want if you don’t have a plan. Very few businesses have success without a detailed business plan. Having a set plan in place will keep you committed, dedicated, and motivated. A plan or program will help you monitor and track your achievements, as well as keep you in check with areas you still need to improve upon.
Some people like to back the decision to wing on the idea that our muscles get confused. Hate to break it to you, but are muscles don’t get confused, because they don’t think. Our body adapts to the stress being placed on them, our muscles adapts to the type of exercises and amount of weight used, which is when we may stop seeing changes. In order, to continue to see change we must engage in a periodization based program.
The key is to find what program works for you, not every woman is the same, cookie cutter programs and routines may not always be the best options. Seek information from reputable sources like Girls Gone Strong, Lift like a Girl, and Lift Weights Faster. These sites are geared towards women and lifting, and are just full of useful information for anyone looking to improve their over all health and strength. Other great sources are Mike Boyle at StrengthCoach.com, T- Nation, Gray Cook with Functional Movement Systems, Tony Gentilcore, and Eric Cressey, along with many others.
While the internet is great, it will only get you so far, the truly best option is to find a knowledgeable fitness professional. Nothing beats the one on one format of personal training and I believe that anyone, man or woman, venturing into the fitness world should invest in a personal trainer, it is absolutely invaluable. If you would like to know more about my training styles or would like to start training, feel free to Contact Me Here!
Resistance Training? You Mean the Machine Circuit Right?
Last but not least, the nemesis of functional training, the Nautilus type machines and circuit. Let’s think about this, most Americans sit at a desk for an average 8 hrs a day, why go into a gym and sit longer? Correct me if I’m wrong, but most people go to a gym to feel better, move better, and burn calories. Sitting on a machine will hinder those goals. Healthy, uninjured, women and men, should spend the least amount of time as possible on their asses while working out (unless it’s a programmed rest).
The most affective approach is to perform full body multi-joint movements and well as single leg based training to incorporate more proprioception (balance) training. Not only will these exercises burn more calories than sitting on your butt, but they are functional and correlate directly to your daily lives.
Let’s recap a bit. Women you will not get bulky if you lift and eat correctly, which means you have to start lifting heavier weights for lower reps to get lean muscle. Lean muscle increases our RMR, and increase in RMR means we will be burning more calories at rest. Women should stop doing LSD cardio and try out HIIT, because HIIT will burn more fat, increase EPOC (burn calories after working out), and takes half the time as traditional cardio. Weight loss is not the same thing as fat loss. Do your cardio to have better strength training sessions. Stick to a plan or program, put down the McDonald’s, and avoid the machines.
I would like to leave you with one last thing, I believe is so important for women to hear. Stop comparing yourself to other people! We are all different, we all have different goals, and we all have different bodies. Fat loss shouldn’t just be about your body image, with fat loss you will take back your health, feel better, and become stronger, which is much more important than any number on a scale.
In Part 2 of this mini series I will discuss how to put all of this information together to help you build a solid program to get stronger and lose fat.
Questions, comments, suggestions, ideas are welcomed below…