Women and Weights: A Key Component to Women’s Health and Fitness
“Nature did not intend for one sex to be strong and muscular, and the other sex to be weak and flabby. Nature did not intend for one sex to eat food and the other sex to starve. The principles of fitness and nutrition do not change according to gender.”
-Scott A. Connelly, M.D. Author, BodyRx
I was a personal trainer during my diving medicine tour in the Navy. I trained many women. One of the greatest misconceptions I found women to have about exercise, fitness, and achieving a great body is that lifting weights will make their body bigger and bulkier, and that a fit body requires a starvation diet and endless hours of boring aerobic exercise. The very fact that so many women attempt such a program, and so many fail, should make everyone question such an approach. If that was YOUR approach then your lack of progress was certainly not your fault. Yet this approach remains the dominant fitness paradigm in most women’s lives. It is true that following such a program will make you thin – but you will also be weak, chronically fatigued, possibly amenorrheic, and eventually osteoporotic. If sexual attractiveness is, as I believe, the appearance that you are capable of robust and vivacious living, you will not be sexy – except to perhaps the wrong type of man. If you develop a thin, weak, thoroughly submissive look, you will undoubtedly attract the man looking for someone to rule. Now, this is just one man’s opinion but many have asked for it…so….careful what you wish for.
Let us dispel with this fitness myth once and for all. By arming you intellectually with “why” you should include resistance training and healthy, frequent eating as part of your fitness regimen, it will make it much easier to stay on such a program. Consistency is requisite for seeing the effects of any fitness effort. Indeed, once you experience the changes in your body’s appearance, strength, and metabolism with symmetrically placed muscle, and the new feeling of heightened energy from eating the right things often, you will never want to go back to your former exercise and nutrition paradigm.
This essay was originally written in 2006, almost 10 years ago, for my own clients whom I trained at Bally’s in Virginia Beach. I am giving it to you raw and unedited…
For any human being, what gives the body its primary form is skeletal structure. This cannot be changed on the macro, big picture, level. The health and strength of the bones can be improved, but this is not physically noticeable. Your body’s form can only be modified by changing the amount of muscle mass and the amount of fat carried on the skeletal frame. Muscle is firm and metabolically active; fat is soft, flaccid and metabolically inert. The ratio of muscle to fat is what is referred to in common parlance as “tone”. Increasing your tone physically means changing this ratio to favor muscle at the expense of fat. Therefore, there is no such thing as “toning.” There is only muscle gain and fat loss to reach that in shape look. Muscle is gained by resistance exercise and the right amount of protein in your diet. Fat is lost by creating a calorie deficit and by having a rudimentary knowledge of nutrient partitioning.
Comparing the body of a woman to that of a man, one finds only 2 essential differences; and one derivative. First, there is the obvious difference in the reproductive organs. Second is the endocrine system, which is integrated with the reproductive. Men predominantly produce the hormone testosterone which directs the DNA in their muscle cells to synthesize protein and grow larger muscles; muscles being metabolically active, men tend to have less body fat. The beasts you see in the magazines use testosterone supplementation (anabolic steroids). I should know, I’ve trained them. Women produce progesterone and estrogen, this last accounting for fat being preferentially stored on the hips and thighs. This fat distribution is an evolutionary advantage as it provides a large energy reservoir for women during pregnancy when, for thousands of years, humans were exposed to random starvation periods before they had reached the level of an agrarian existence. A derivative difference between men and women, deriving from the reproductive function, is the skeletal structure of the pelvis. This is important to note because it does have implications for hip and knee injuries in sports (another topic altogether). However, as far as the muscles go, there is no difference between the sexes. You and I have the same biceps, the same pectorals, the same hamstrings. And they function precisely the same in each human being. Overall size is determined by genetics, hormonal levels, and training.
The skeletal muscles are exactly the same on both a gross and microscopic level, and thus men and women respond in the same way to resistance training. The only difference lies in the degree of response. Because of the presence of testosterone, men grow larger muscles. In fact, if you look at a female bodybuilding magazine, you will be hard-pressed to find a muscular woman in there who has not used synthetic testosterone (anabolic steroids) at some point in her training career. It is impossible for a woman to develop the muscles of a man without raising her testosterone in some manner. This is why lifting weights will not make a woman too muscular. In fact, lifting weights will not make a man super muscular, as witnessed by the same guys in the same gym doing the same all-out routine for years on end and getting nowhere. Since there is no difference in the actual makeup of the muscles, there should be no significant difference in the training methodology. A woman should use the same exercises, the same repetitions, and the same sets for muscle growth – and also for maintenance when growth is no longer desired. And yes, you should train as intensely as a man, taking your sets to positive muscular failure.
So what makes a woman’s body beautiful? This is a tough question to answer. I’m probably not qualified to answer it. There is so much variation in what both men and women think on this question. But beauty can be objectively defined and can be summarized in one word: Harmony. Beauty is a sense of harmony or symmetry.
One could consider it a component of Arete’.
If you apply this definition of beauty to a woman’s body you will have to consider the skeletal structure and delicate curves of the figure which are accentuated by a properly and symmetrically developed musculature. You will have to consider the softness and tone of the overlying skin. And you will have to consider the gentle, elegant, yet proud and confident posture that only a strong body, though feminine, can convey. All of these characteristics are developed and enhanced through proper exercise, and one of its foundations must be a quality resistance training program. Above all other considerations, however, what a woman should strive for is to achieve her own ideal figure, rationally defined, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Nothing is sexier than the radiant confidence and self-esteem that can only be earned by achieving your own ideal, not someone else’s. You are your own highest value.
Many health benefits follow from making resistance training and proper nutrition a foundation of a fitness program. You will lose body fat and keep it off much easier than with aerobics and low calorie diets, you will prevent osteoporosis and slow the age-related decline in muscle mass, you will improve your cardiovascular fitness by engaging in workouts that significantly elevate your heart rate, and you will improve your confidence, self-esteem, and even the ability to defend yourself should the situation arise. If you are worried at all about cellulite (Do I have your attention now?) then you need to discover how the right training, combined with the proper diet, is the only non-surgical way of getting rid of it.
Body fat is lost more permanent with proper resistance training because of one primary phenomenon: muscle is more metabolically active.
In other words, muscle requires more energy – even at rest – than fat. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn – even while you sleep. The less muscle you have, the more readily you will store fat. If you happen to try one of the fad low calorie/high carbohydrate diets you will lose weight – but this weight will be about 40% muscle and 60% fat. When you go off the diet and gain the weight back, you put on 80% fat and only 20% muscle. Year after year of yo-yo dieting like this may leave you at the same weight, but your body fat percentage will climb higher and higher, and your muscle and bone mass will steadily dwindle. As your muscle mass drops, so does your metabolism. If you keep your metabolism high and in constant fat-burning mode, you will eventually take some of that nasty cellulite, which is simply a stubborn form of fat. But it’s still fat and subject to the same laws of metabolism.
This problem with body composition from yo-yo dieting is so prevalent today. Look how many women are forced to eat one small salad with a spoonful of tuna per day just to lose a pound in a month.
This is no way to live. Stop the madness sister.
Consider also the metabolic response to exercise. Aerobic exercise burns calories while you participate in it and then for a short time thereafter (30-60 minutes). Then your metabolism is back to baseline. When you subject your body to an intense resistance training session, particularly with free weights, you actually damage the muscle on a microscopic level leading to a repair and recovery response. This is what you want – slight damage or stress on the muscle, giving it the signal to grow back stronger and ever so bigger. This damage leads to inflammation and the muscle soreness you feel for a day or two after lifting weights. It takes this long to repair the muscle tissue and then over-adapt and become stronger. All of this work that the muscle cells are accomplishing towards repair requires energy. Where does this energy come from? If your diet is right, it will primarily come from your fat stores! This is why if you have a choice between lifting weights and aerobics, if you can’t choose both, you have to choose the weights – if you want the most bang for your buck. If you have time for both, lift weights before your aerobic exercise. Better yet, combine the two into metabolic resistance training (MRT) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
Resistance training helps fight osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is an age related decline in both bone mineral and bone strength. It is the primary culprit behind most skeletal fractures in elderly females. The secondary culprit of these fractures being poor muscle strength and coordination. Training functionally with free weights prevents both osteoporosis and degradation in muscle strength and coordination (and coordinated older women do not often fall). It is well known that women, particularly caucasian women, are more prone to osteoporosis. This is probably not so much genetic, as it is diet-induced. Bone mass peaks in women in the mid to late twenties and slowly erodes after that. The more bone mass a woman builds up prior to this, the better chance she stands of not seeing the consequences of osteoporosis as she ages (fractures, poor posture, bone pain). In my opinion it is crucial that young ladies begin resistance training early in their teenage years and participate in sports actively. Also crucial is calcium and protein intake. Both exercise and good nutrition is grossly lacking in many young females, usually secondary to the desire to be overly thin and attractive, two words I would say are a contradiction. I know that teenage girls normally dine on chips, pop-tarts and diet sodas for breakfast, none of which contain much calcium or protein. The acid in sodas can contribute toward eroding bone mineral. The good news is that if you are active and eat healthy in your adult life, you can significantly slow the development of osteoporosis – and resistance training is the best activity to do this.
Cardiovascular fitness can also be improved with weight training.
If you do not have time to do an intense weight training session and aerobics, you can mix the two by engaging in circuit training or in MRT or HIIT. Circuits are simply done by going from one exercise to the next with only 30-60 seconds of rest between exercises. It puts a greater load on the muscles and bones than standard aerobics, and you get the benefit of a cardiovascular workout in the process. As always, free weights will be much more functional than machines.
Becoming stronger, and knowing you’re stronger, gives you more self-esteem by making you more confident in your appearance and abilities.
The root of self-esteem is in the certainty that you are capable of living. And for a human being, a being of integrated mind and body, this means a certainty that you can think and act. To be more powerful in your thinking you must develop your intellect, to be more powerful in your actions you must develop your body. If you were ever to be in a life or death situation which called on your strength, every bit that you have developed may save your life or someone else’s. No matter how you look at it, resistance training is only helpful to women. If you want to begin learning how to begin a program correctly, the Basic and Intermediate DTS Principles are available at healthandperformanceupdate.com
Lanny Littlejohn, MD