It’s no secret I train mostly women. While I enjoy helping men with their fitness levels as well, there is little more gratifying to me than to help a fellow female find their new inner “physical core,” always lying just below the surface. For that reason, I wanted to address a common misconception about women and strength training.
Often I get asked about using weights and resistance in strength training when women wonder how they might look if they really dedicated themselves to getting toned. “Will I eventually look like a guy if I keep going up with the weights?” I am asked. The answer is an unequivocal NO.
While research continues to uncover more and more reasons why working out with weights is good for you, a number of women think they should avoid strength training because they fear looking like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. While it’s true we can’t build bulky muscle like men, everyone builds strength along with its physical appearance differently. Some women do hit the gym with a vengeance and then wonder why, after several weeks of resistance training, their clothes don’t fit or why the number on the scale can sometimes go up instead of down.
The big T (testosterone) does play an important role in muscle development, but the answer to why some men and women increase in muscle size and others don’t is hidden within our DNA. Even then, it takes years and years of consistent strength training to see even small muscle bulges appear on a woman’s body. Why? Genetics dictate how we individually respond to exercise, determining the types of muscle fibers we have and where they are distributed. It also determines our ratio of testosterone to estrogen and where we store body fat. All that makes up our body type.
So I’m sure you’ve seen illustrations of women’s body types, right? We all generally fall under the categories or combinations of them: mesomorphs (muscular), endomorphs (rounded/voluptuous) and ectomorphs (slim and linear) in shape. While they may follow identical training routines, mesomorphs respond to strength training by building muscle mass much faster than their ectomorphic counterparts. Endomorphs generally need to lose body fat in order to see a change in size or shape as a result of their training, and ectomorphs are less likely to build muscle mass but will become stronger with a consistent strength training regimen.
When you overload a muscle, you will increase its size. Aerobic training uses only your body weight, even when changing the resistance of an elliptical machine or a treadmill slope. Step training or stair climbing result in changes in the size and shape of the muscles of the lower body. If you’re concerned about building up larger muscles in the lower body by walking, or stair stepping, then it’s wise to reduce the resistance and concentrate more on speed.
Old rules (but similar ones) apply to strength training: getting stronger depends on working with progressively heavier weights and perform fewer repetitions. To promote endurance, use lighter weights and complete more repetitions. What’s great about all this for women is that -- just like men -- most women will experience a 20% to 40% increase in muscular strength after several months of resistance training.
Women have to worry about more than simply getting to or maintaining a certain size, however. Weight training is a powerful preventive action against osteoporosis, a disease caused by porous bone and low bone density. We are at much higher risk than men for the disease and most of us are likely to suffer from it as we age, leading to an increased susceptibility to fractures. Strength training can increase bone density; in fact, research shows that only 6 months of weightlifting can increase bone mineral density by as much as 15 percent. As you increase your muscle tissue, your bones must adapt to accommodate this increase in your muscle mass, your bones respond by increasing in density. The result? You will own a stronger skeletal structure and a reduced risk for osteoporosis.
Getting real about your body type and how you might respond to exercise aids in helping you realistic goals and expectations and avoiding comparisons to others working out around you. My best advice? Focus on how good exercise makes you feel rather than how you would like to look. Small changes lead to bigger overall changes and soon you’ll begin to see the you that resides inside, no matter what the shape may be.