Some women do not want to lift any appreciable weight in their weight-training programs. In some circles, there is a belief that lifting weights will make them explode with bulging muscles. This is an unfortunate fallacy. Muscles are nothing to be afraid of – and there are many valid, physical reasons why women should embrace developing muscle for improved health.
Women who fear resembling the Hulk should put that anxiety to rest. It just won’t happen – for a simple reason – hormones. Women are from the planet Estrogen; men are from Testosterone. Both genders produce both hormones, but the relative ratios are significantly different. Men normally produce higher levels of testosterone (approximately 10 times that of women) and lower levels of estrogen. Women produce the opposite.
The huge professional female bodybuilders you may have seen online gained their extreme muscle mass with the aid of supplemental anabolic-androgenic steroids. However, use of steroids carries legal ramifications as well as potential physical and physiological side effects.
Although both testosterone and estrogen are anabolic (promoting the process whereby smaller units build bigger units in the body), testosterone is primarily responsible for increases in muscle tissue growth. Sure, some women have higher levels of testosterone than normal and therefore may tend to increase muscle mass beyond the average woman. This is genetically determined, and many of these women are competitive athletes. But, most women will not naturally develop enormous muscles. And, a woman does not have to be an athlete to increase muscle mass and enjoy the benefits.
Any woman can increase strength and gain muscle. A sensible program of combining resistance exercise and cardio will increase strength and stamina. Resistance training will stimulate the muscles to remain strong and robust, and will help with weight management. Let’s talk about why women should partake in resistance training.
Life and weight loss:
In our society, too many women are obsessed with weight control. Unfortunately, that obsession normally centers on the bathroom scale and does not consider changes in body composition (ratio of body fat to lean body mass). Most fad diets result in a loss of muscle tissue as well as body fat. You can lose half your fat and remain alive; but if you lose half of your muscle mass, you may die. Since muscle is denser than body fat, a person who is weight training may show slower changes on the scale, but faster changes in body composition.
Muscles burn fuel:
Muscle burns more calories than body fat. Muscle cells have organelles called mitochondria, often referred to by physiologists as the cells’ “power plants.” They provide the energy for nearly all the metabolic processes that take place within the cell. Muscle cells are very busy and the mitochondria constantly transform chemical energy into mechanical energy. Reactions within the mitochondria break the bonds of fuel molecules and release energy for cells to use. During endurance exercise, most of the energy for muscle activity is provided by mitochondria. This is used as the primary argument for the performance of excessive endurance exercise. While it is true that calories are burned during endurance exercise, only resistance training can increase muscle mass. More muscle = more mitochondria = more fuel burned.
Weight training can increase basal metabolic rate:
Basal metabolic rate refers to the number of calories used by the body at rest, and makes up 60 to 75 percent of the body’s total energy expenditure. While aerobic exercise burns calories during activity (and a small amount afterwards), it has minimal effect on basal metabolic rate. Furthermore, extensive periods of aerobic activity can decrease basal metabolic rate by causing muscle loss. In contrast, a proper resistance training program can increase muscle mass and the metabolic rate. For general overall health and weight control, weight training is a necessary component of a woman’s exercise program.
Muscle inactivity leads to muscle weakness and wasting:
Muscle must be physically active if it is to remain in good health. Otherwise, it will degenerate and lose mass. Because older individuals are less active, their muscles shrink and they become weak, often unable to walk without aid. Less muscle mass also means the body burns less fuel. Most importantly, less muscle mass means a decline in strength. Consequently, sedentary people have an increased need to incorporate exercise into their weekly activities to maintain muscle mass, strength and aid in weight control.
Connective tissue and joints:
Resistance training stresses and strengthens connective tissue. This is the tissue that binds bones together and attaches muscles to the skeleton. Sensible training with weights will increase the cell activity of connective tissue in the muscle and that attaching the muscles to the bones. Mechanical compression of the joints stimulates healthy metabolism of cartilage within the joints. Inactive joints have decreased macromolecule turnover in the tissue and may be more susceptible to osteoarthritis and injury.
Helps prevent osteoporosis:
Muscle wasting in the elderly contributes greatly to osteoporosis, a major debilitating disease in women after they reach menopause. Women have less muscle mass than men, and also have less bone density. Both men and women undergo hormonal and metabolic changes as they age. Muscles start to deteriorate, fat accumulates more readily, and bones begin to lose their density. This process can be slowed, especially with forethought. Load-bearing activities enhance bone mass. Studies have shown that women who are active throughout their lives have greater bone density and retard bone loss in later years. Research has demonstrated that weight training can reduce, and possibly reverse, bone loss in pre- and postmenopausal women. However, women should start and maintain some type of weight training activity as early as their 20s for optimum prevention of osteoporosis. Regardless, it’s never too late to start, no matter what age.
Resistance Training vs. Toning
We have used the two terms “weight training” and “resistance training” interchangeably. In the context of this article, resistance training is more applicable: building muscle mass by increasing the resistance the muscle must move. Exercise physiologists call this “progressive overload.” Muscles are amazing pieces of metabolic machinery. They adapt quickly to the stresses (additional weight) you place on them. When you follow a structured program of progressive overload and feed your muscles with clean food, stay properly hydrated and give your muscles adequate time to rest and recover, they will grow.
Use the word “toning” in a gym and watch the hardcore weightlifters cringe and sneer. Toning is not resistance training. Nor will it build muscle mass. The term toning is erroneously applied to doing countless reps with small amounts of weight that don’t incrementally challenge the muscle. That muscle adapts quickly to moving a weight for a given number of reps and is no longer stimulated. The weight must be progressively increased in small increments for muscles to grow.
Use as much weight as you can and move that weight with intensity. Challenge yourself. Set goals and work hard to achieve them. When you can curl that 10-pound dumbbell for 12 reps, grab the next heavier dumbbell and do it again. Go for that extra rep. Embrace the feeling of contracting muscle. Push yourself and rejoice in your accomplishments.