June 13, 2024

F1000 Scientist

Health to Life

Strength Training for Women: Will Resistance Workouts Make You A She-Hulk?

4 min read

Advise the typical woman trying to lose weight to add a day or two of strength training to her fitness plan and you’d think you had suggested she inject steroids by the way she looks at you.

“But I don’t want to look like one of those women bodybuilders!” she’ll often reply, alarm on her face. “I’m afraid I’ll just bulk up.” Today it’s time to grab this myth by its meaty bicep and find out what really happens when women add strength training to their routine.

First, let’s look at what we really mean by strength training.

Getting The Strength Training Myth In A Chokehold

When we really pin down the strength training myth, we find it often starts with how many of us define “strength training exercises.” What typically comes to mind are vein-rippled monster men doing squats or bench presses with a Volkswagen-sized stack of plates on each end of the barbell.

But that’s not all there is to it – you need to realize strength training is not synonymous with weightlifting, power lifting, or bodybuilding.

Yes, these sports do depend on strength training exercise, but keep in mind that many other sports do as well. For instance, softball, volleyball, basketball, and rowing teams all depend on strength training to accomplish their goals, yet they all feature rather normal-looking athletes, male and female.

When it comes down to the meat and gristle, resistance training is no more than contracting your muscle against an opposing resistance, such as gravity – as is the case in weight lifting. The aim is to increase your anaerobic endurance, your strength, and/or the size (bear with me) of your skeletal muscles.

Resistance doesn’t have to come from gravity – it can also come from hydraulic forces (machines), elastic forces (resistance bands), or the force of your own opposing muscles (isometrics).

Some of the methods of strength training for women simply leverage body weight. Think your run of the mill calisthenics or the more trendy Pilates.

Don’t be afraid to stick with good old-fashioned weights though either; there’s no reason to shy away from them. Just use lighter weights with more repetitions. 10 – 12 reps per set is a good average for women, and you can increase the weight as you get stronger.

Wait, But What Does “Increase the Size” Really Mean?

I could almost see your eyebrow twitch when you read that resistance exercises increase size – your face squinting into that “I told you so” look. But not so fast.

Some overweight women are deathly afraid of building strength because they look down at their arms and legs and what they see doesn’t seem entirely flabby. It feels solid to the touch, and they probably see themselves as naturally bulky.

So, if your arms are that beefy now, with little or no exercise, what’s going to happen when you work them out? They’ll get bigger, right? Well, no.

When you have a higher percentage of fat on your frame, it’s not just stored where it can be seen and pinched. It’s also stored in your muscle. To imagine how this works, think of a well-marbled steak with tendrils of fat running through the meat.

So what this “marbling effect” does is make your muscle bulkier. But if you’re overweight and start replacing your fat with lean muscle, your muscles will actually look smaller! They’ll just get smaller and more toned looking, and that what you want, right?

Muscle Mass And Metabolism

The real good news about building muscle is the increase in metabolism. Did you know that a more toned, muscular body actually burns calories faster and more efficiently?

Most women think all they need is to create a calorie deficit and they’ll start dropping some pounds, but adding lean body mass speeds up progress, even if it’s buried below extra fat. That lean mass will burn calories all day no matter what you’re doing.

As a result, the food you do eat won’t have such a drastic effect on your weight and appearance – it will still be a factor, sure, but by giving your body the resources to manage your weight, you won’t have to work so hard to manage it yourself.

Other Benefits Of Building Strength

The benefits of adding resistance training to your workout plan don’t stop there. In addition to helping control weight, it also reduces injury, increases stamina, improves balance, hones focus, and reduces symptoms of chronic diseases (like diabetes, back pain, or arthritis). To go on, one of the most important benefits is that strength training not only prevents bone density loss but actually can increase it, thus preventing and reversing the degenerative effects of osteoporosis.

The Final Rep

Look, here’s what it comes down to. Even men who WANT to bulk up have to spend a ton of time in the gym and eat exactly the right diet to get hard gains. Otherwise, they just get more toned… and yeah, their muscles may get a little bulkier-looking because their bodies are just built that way.

But you’re not a man; you’re a woman. And losing weight while building strength is not going to make you look like a female bodybuilder. Do you realize how much work (and often drugs) it takes for them to get there? Your two or three days in the gym could never do that.

It’ll make you slimmer, sure – more toned. It’ll help you lose weight and improve your overall health – definitely.

And that’s exactly what you want. Work your muscles, and they’ll work for you in return. Strength training is vital for women too – believe it.

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