Weightlifting for Women: A Scientific Approach

Weightlifting Women
“Will Lifting Heavy Weights Make Me Look Bulky?” is one of the most commonly searched topics when it comes to women and weightlifting. Many articles online dispel the myths about getting bulky (whatever that means) as a weightlifting woman. This is of course offset by the large quantity of photos of female bodybuilders, who seem to endure as much body shaming as individuals who are out of shape. This “I never want to look like that” mind frame can be quickly put to rest with a brief response from Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Don’t worry, you never will.”

While many articles are quick to outline why this won’t happen, and why women should lift weights, they seem to be pretty vague when it comes to the science behind these reasons. I decided to channel my inner Bill Nye and do some digging.

You’ll Only Get Bulky if you want to, and Maybe Not Even Then.

Women and men are built differently when it comes to fat loss and muscle gain. Don’t believe me? Think about it. How often do you hear of women struggling to lose weight and having their husband say “I lost 10lbs this week!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the gym, proud of my months of training, to have a new guy come in and pass me within weeks. We’re just built differently.

The science: Women and men have both testosterone and estrogen, but at varying levels. Men produce up to 20 times more testosterone than women. (1) Testosterone contributes to muscle growth. What does this mean? That you’re not going to just turn into a hulk by lifting some heavy weights. Your body isn’t built for it. You have to put in an insane amount of work to end up bulky.

Anyone in a relationship with the fickle mistress known as “Gains” can tell you that it takes a long time to build up, but you quickly return to your former self after ceasing your routine. Even vacations can be a struggle.

Low Weight + High Rep = Bodybuilding

To further the point made above, the Hulk-like bodybuilders you see tend to follow a low weight + high rep training plan with cardio. If you’ve been doing this and don’t look like those people, then you’re safe to try some heavy lifting without turning into a complete beefcake.

There’s also this amazing thing called free will, which allows you to stop what you’re doing if you don’t like the results. Anyone in a relationship with the fickle mistress known as “Gains” can tell you that it takes a long time to build up, but you quickly return to your former self after ceasing your routine. Even vacations can be a struggle.

High Cardio + Low Calories Can Burn Muscle

Yes, you read that right. When exercising your body will use whatever fuel source is available at the time. This means that if you aren’t nourishing your body properly (i.e. getting enough calories to fuel your workout) you are at risk for burning muscle. Weightlifting results in burning more calories at rest due to the increase in muscle mass, meaning you have to eat more to sustain yourself. So we’re clear: You get to eat more.

However, this does not mean you will burn muscle by doing cardio if you are properly nourished. This paragraph does not give you an excuse to skip cardio, or as I like to call it: “Cardi-no.”

Ward off Osteoporosis

This benefit should be at the top of the list for women when considering a workout routine, rather than the aesthetic benefits of exercise. Studies have shown that weight training can increase bone mass density (BMD) by 1-3% per annum. It is estimated that 50% of women will experience a bone fracture due to osteoporosis. (2) The National Osteoporosis Foundation even goes so far as to recommend weightlifting. Enough said.

Weightlifting results in burning more calories at rest due to the increase in muscle mass, meaning you have to eat more to sustain yourself. So we’re clear: You get to eat more.

Improve Cholesterol Levels

A study completed by the American College of Sports Medicine showed evidence of a direct impact on cholesterol levels through resistance/ strength training. Resistance training has the potential to increase HDL (good) cholesterol by 8-21% while lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol by 13-23%. (3) While different studies showed varying results for aerobic exercises such as running, jogging etc. the ranges of change seemed to be significantly lower than that of strength training. I would surmise that a combination of the two in addition to healthy eating habits would be more effective still. If you aren’t ready to throw yourself into weight training, perhaps this will give you the incentive to work it into your current routine.

Improve Mental Health & Clarity

Many studies have been conducted to show the impacts of exercise on the psyche. An in-depth review investigating the impact of strength training specifically showed a notable decrease in symptoms for people struggling with fatigue, anxiety, and depression in addition to a reduction in perceived pain from people with osteoarthritis, lower back issues, and fibromyalgia. The study also reported an improvement in cognitive abilities as well as self-esteem.(4) This benefit in particular rings true for Strong in Body, Strong in Mind as were all about that mental and physical balance.

Conclusion

Stop worrying so much about “getting bulky” and start considering the serious health benefits weightlifting can have on your body. Of course, always talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program and don’t take the word of a blogger as gospel. We’re a devious bunch.


Sources:
1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/articles/testosterone.shtml
2) https://www.nof.org/patients/what-is-osteoporosis/
3) Aloia J, McGowan D, Vaswani A, et al. Relationship of menopause to skeletal and muscle mass. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1991; 53: 1378–83. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2012/07000/Resistance_Training_is_Medicine___Effects_of.13.aspx#P168
4) O’Connor PJ, Herring MP, Caravalho A. Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 2010; 4: 377–396. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2012/07000/Resistance_Training_is_Medicine___Effects_of.13.aspx#P168