National Women’s Health Week: Busting Myths About Female Strength Training

**This post will be updated every day this week, so be sure to check back daily!!**

The week of May 14-May 20 is Women’s Health Week! This is a national movement, and the point is to help women make healthier choices and lead a healthier life at any age. This week, I am going to be focusing on strength training for women. There are MANY myths and misconceptions when it comes to strength training for women. Exercise is one of the most important things to do-no matter how old you are-to stay healthy. HOW you exercise is important! I’m a firm believer than everyone should strength train, even if it’s just one day a week! I know a lot of women who are scared of strength training because of the myths that I’ll talk about this week. My hope is that this post and the topics discussed this week will help to clarify some of the major misconceptions about strength training, and encourage more women to add strength training to their exercise regimen!

Myth #1: Lifting weights makes women big and bulky

Truth: Lifting weights makes women lean and strong!

This is the most common misconception regarding women and strength training. You will NOT get bulky from lifting weights unless you WANT to. People still believe they’ll end up looking like a bodybuilder if they pick up a weight. But the truth is, it takes YEARS of very specific training, dieting, and supplement use to achieve that look. For the average woman, lifting weights will increase muscle strength primarily, and then increase muscle size. Your muscles will get stronger and denser, fat will begin to melt away from them, and that is what results in that “toned” look that so many women are after. This is why strength training is great for fat loss! When you strength train, the muscles break down and need to repair themselves. This takes 24-48 hours….which means you are using energy to build those muscles back stronger than before. This means you are burning more calories, for a longer period of time, even after you’re done training for the day!

Additionally, women have significantly less testosterone than men. Testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for muscle growth. Since we have less testosterone, we physically cannot build muscle like men can, without the help of supplements. It’s important to know that ALL WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT-some women may have slightly higher testosterone levels and they might build muscle faster than another women. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to genetics!

Need further proof than strength training is AMAZING for building a strong, lean, body? I asked a few of my friends to show their before and after starting to lift weights pictures. Take a look:

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Me: Here is mine! I was a ballet dancer growing up, and I never worked out. I danced 30+ hours a week and I weighed 95 pounds until college. Once I started gaining weight in college, I was a hardcore cardio bunny. I didn’t go to the gym often but when I did, it was treadmill or elliptical or bike for an hour. Once I found powerlifting, I stopped doing cardio altogether. I now lift 4x a week and do cardio once a week, only for 30 minutes. I started out weighing about 120 pounds (top left picture) and currently weigh 116 (top right picture), but that 120 was all fluff. Now, I’m strong and lean and my body continues to change. I started out squatting 115 pounds, now I squat 200! One thing I’ll never forget, is when I started lifting and talking about competing, someone said to me: “Powerlifting? Does that mean you’ll look different? I don’t want you to get huge!” While I do look a little different, it’s a BETTER different! I’m currently in the best shape of my life!

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Jill: This should be a familiar face to anyone who’s been following me for awhile. My friend and client Jill has been working with me for a little over a year. She originally came to me for help after gaining a bunch of weight after an injury put her out of commission for months. Jill lifts 3-4x per week and has slowly weaned off cardio. Her latest program from me had no cardio in it at all! Overall, she’s lost weight, but most importantly, she’s lost a ton of body fat and increased her strength SO much! She continues to eat foods she enjoys, and spends time with her husband on their boat. Check out this post for a full progress report to see how her lifts and overall quality of life has improved!

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Tara: I first met Tara when I was working in New Jersey back in 2013. When we met, we were both still new to lifting weights. Now, Tara works out for 1 hour a day doing heavy lifts and crossfit workouts. In the left picture (2010), she was running 9-10 miles a day and eating 1,000 cals a day-mainly raw veggies and salads. In the right picture (2017), she is so much stronger and faster! She eats between 2,000-2,500 cals a day including all the foods she loves (even dessert and alcohol!). Tara put on the same dress for comparison-she said it fits even better now than it did in 2010! Check out Tara on instagram, and if you’re in the northern Jersey area, be sure to check out the crossfit box she owns with her husband, Great White Crossfit!

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Michele: Michele and I met at a powerlifting competition in 2014 I believe. We were both newbies to the sport. Since then, I’ve loved watching her grow into a strong, powerful chick! She’s been lifting for 3 years, but her fitness journey has been a long one. She was a cardio addict for years before she found powerlifting in 2014. In the first (left) picture, she was doing 1.5 hours on the elliptical 7 days a week. She feel off the cardio wagon in 2014 (middle picture), and started seriously weight training in late 2014-early 2015. The far right picture is her currently, after 3 years of weight training. She is stronger and leaner than ever and can honestly say she’s never loved her body more than she does now! Check out Michele on instagram!

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Garrett: Garrett is a kickass powerlifter, bikini competitor, and fat loss coach based in Boston. We “met” on instagram back in 2015 and finally got to meet in person last summer! Garrett has also had a long fitness journey. The first picture, (white dress), she was 16 and doing mostly spinning and cardio fitness classes. In the second picture (red top), she was running 5 miles at least 3x per week, spinning, and doing treadmill workouts. She was convinced that if she didn’t do at least 45 minutes of cardio she’d get fat. She also says she always covered up in the gym because she was mortified of how her tummy looked. The third pic, (shred 415), she was a newbie to lifting and had just started kettlebell training. She kept doing 1 long run per week and sprinted once a week-at the time, she had a desk job so she worked out a lot! The 4th, 5th, and 6th pictures (middle and right, bottom row) are her now-she lifts heavy 3-4x per week for no more than 40 minutes. She does 1-2 sprint workouts and 1-2 conditioning workouts per week. She has also competed in both powerlifting and bikini competitions! Check out Garrett on instagram and on her website, Crossroads of Fitness.

These are just a few of MANY women that have found that strength training has improved their lives and their physique. I could tell stories all day about former clients of mine that were nervous about strength training but once they saw their bodies changing, and their energy increasing, they caught the bug! I’m PROUD to be a strong women, and I’m PROUD to share the stories of other strong women with you!

Myth #2: Strength training is dangerous for women

Truth: When done correctly, strength training is very safe

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Anything can be dangerous when done incorrectly-including cardio! If you are brand-new to strength training, take the time to learn proper form and execution of exercises. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you belong to a gym, look into doing a couple personal training sessions, or see if they offer a complimentary session. If you don’t belong to a gym and prefer to workout at home, do your research and try to learn from professionals via youtube or videos. Many coaches also offer online training, where they will provide you with a program and videos of exercises you aren’t familiar with (hi! That’s what I do!) When researching online, proceed with caution-there are many so-called “professionals” popping up all over social media lately. Some great strength coaches to follow that I love include Jordan Syatt, Tony Gentilcore, Brit Rand, Eric Cressey, Ryan Wood, Nancy Newell, Garrett Wood, John Gaglione, Sohee, Bret Contreras, and the women of Girls Gone Strong.

Now about the end of that myth…the “for women” part….what are we, fragile, fluffy, little bunnies? Why would strength training be more dangerous FOR WOMEN? Women should be lifting heavy and not be scared of hitting the weights. Like I said, as long as you take the time to learn proper form, learn proper execution, and learn proper programming (or hire a great trainer), strength training is no more dangerous for women than it is for men. I would even argue that men are more likely to put themselves in danger in the weight room! Here are some basic safety guidelines to consider when strength training:

DO: know your limits

DON’T: attempt to lift way heavier than you know you can do

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DO: use a spotter, and make sure they know what they’re doing!

DON’T: attempt a weight you’ve never done before without a spotter

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DO: use equipment the way it was meant to be used

DON’T: “do it for the ‘gram”

DO: always wear gym-appropriate clothing and footwear

DON’T: lift in sandals, heels, or open-toe shoes (barefoot or socks is sometimes appropriate for deadlifting)

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DO: make sure you know the correct way to perform an exercise

DON’T: attempt to wing it or attempt the exercise in a different way that could cause injury. It’s ok to ask for help!

Myth #3: Strength training is too time consuming and you need a bunch of special equipment

Truth: You can get an effective workout in 30-60 minutes, using equipment or bodyweight

When it comes to strength training, you want to focus on quality  of movement, and not quantity. Choosing 5-6 compound movements, you can build a workout that will challenge you! This workout can be done in as little as 30 minutes. I have many clients who can only devote 30-45 minutes of their time a day to working out, and they still get a great workout and great results.

You want to be sure that the workouts you’re doing will be efficient and effective. Compound movements are movements that work multiple body parts at one time. Doing these bigger movements that work the bigger muscles will produce a more efficient fat loss effect. I see so many people waste their time in the gym doing a million different exercises for each individual body part. Not that those exercises aren’t good exercises and aren’t necessary, but if you’re strapped for time they aren’t worth it! Here is an example workout that I’ve done with real clients in 30-minute sessions:

Circuit 1:
Weighted Squat (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell): 3×8
Romanian Deadlift (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell): 3×10
Farmer’s Carry: (dumbbell, kettlebell): 3×40 feet

Circuit 2:
Weighted Step-Up (kettlebell, dumbbell, med ball): 3×10 ea
Hip Thrust (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, ball, plate): 3×10
Cable Paloff Push-Press (cable machine, bands): 3×15 ea

Video here

As you can see, this workout uses equipment and is meant to be done in a gym (or at home, if you have enough equipment). There are many ways to add weight depending on what your gym has. If your gym doesn’t have a squat rack, do goblet squats with a kettlebell or dumbbell. Once you have your basic 6 movements, it’s easy to adapt to your gym environment. I’ve had to do this myself personally, on occasions where I’m traveling and working out in a hotel gym!

There are also ways to get an effective workout using no equipment at all. I have one online client who wanted to be able to do some workouts at home. When life gets super busy, sometimes you just can’t make it to the gym. If you have some weights or bands at home, that’s great! If you have nothing, you can still utilize your bodyweight and get a great workout. Check out this bodyweight-only workout that I have actually given to a client to do at home:

Circuit 1: 
Squat: 3×15
Push-Up: 3×10
Plank: 3×0:30

Circuit 2:
Walking Lunge: 3×10 each
Tricep Dip: 3×10
Seated Twist: 3×20 each

Video here

This is more of a total body workout, whereas the sample equipment workout I showed you was a lower-body focused one. But as you can see, all of these exercises are doable with no equipment. If you have some, then that’s great! You can add weights to almost all of these exercises to make them more challenging. For the tricep dips, using the edge of a coffee table or chair or couch at home will work perfectly fine.

I train clients in 30, 45, or 60 minute sessions. The programs I give my online clients should take no more than an hour. And I do have online clients that prefer to work out in the comfort of their own homes! They ALL strength train, and they ALL get results like the ones you saw in Monday’s post. Time and lack of equipment should not be an excuse!!

Myth: “Older” women shouldn’t strength train

Truth: Strength training is beneficial at any age

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First of all, what age defines “older”? I’ve heard people say women over 40 shouldn’t strength train. I’ve heard 50 is the cut-off age. I’ve heard that post-menopausal women shouldn’t strength train. But studies have shown that strength training helps to preserve bone density, improve muscle mass, improve strength, and improve balance in post-menopausal women! This means less falls, less broken bones, and less of a risk of developing osteoporosis.
Of course, the younger you start, the earlier you start reaping the benefits of strength training. However just because you are a “certain age” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t START strength training! And you shouldn’t STOP strength training at age 40, or 50, or 60.
One of the first jobs I ever had was working at a senior center teaching exercise classes. The participants ranged from age 50-99….yes, the oldest client I’ve ever had was 99 years old! We didn’t do ANY cardio exercises. It was all strength. I led strength training classes and taught them how to use weight machines and free weights. I did assessments at the beginning and end of the month-long classes. EVERY participant increased their strength, flexibility, and balance! They also reported having more energy, sleeping better, having less daily pain, and being able to “do more”.
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Another great example is my Aunt Sandy, who found strength training later in life. She lost 40lbs last year by dieting and strength training! She worked with a trainer once a week who taught her various strength exercises and wrote her programs, which she did on her own two more days a week. Sandy has had some knee issues in the past, so she learned to modify exercises in a way that didn’t cause her pain. Losing the weight actually HELPED her knee pain! She recently moved, and thanks to her strength training, was able to move heavy boxes and furniture. She is so awesome and I’m so proud to be related to such a kickass woman!
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If you are “older” and have considered joining a gym or trying strength training, it’s important to find someone who you feel comfortable working with. I would encourage working with a trainer, at least at first. This population tends to have different needs than a “younger” population would. Sandy’s trainer was in her 40s and was a mom, so she totally clicked with my aunt and understood her needs. Currently, 90% of my clients are over age 50.  It’s a population I love working with! All of my “older” clients strength train. One client, age 65, deadlifts 145 pounds!
Don’t let your age get in the way of exercising in a way that would be beneficial to you, just because people say you shouldn’t. Age is just a number, and its never too late to start!

Myth: High rep/low weight is the only way women should strength train

Truth: There are many different ways to strength train-there is no “right” way

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Blame Gwenyth Paltrow, Tracy Anderson, and every women’s health magazine for this one. Although this is a common recommendation, high rep/low weight should NOT be the only way you strength train. You must provide your body with challenging loads in order for it to adapt and change.
If you constantly use the same weight and just increase the reps, you’re building muscle endurance…not necessarily muscle strength. Your muscles will get stronger initially, but then you’ll hit a strength plateau. Like I talked about on day 3, focus on compound movements that use multiple muscle groups. Think squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, lunges, step-ups, and all variations. Use moderate to heavy weights, or weights that challenge you. Keep your reps between 5-15. I’ve always told my clients that if they can bang out 15 reps no problem, and feel like they can go to 20, the weight is too light.
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Think about things you lift on a regular basis outside of the gym: your child, your pet, your groceries. Do these only weigh 3lbs? Of course not! So why would you limit yourself to only using 3 lb weights in the gym?
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