5 Women’s Strength Training Myth’s Busted
The information geared toward women in the fitness industry makes me sick. We are blasted with images of bodies that have been specifically fueled and trained to look a certain way… whether a bodybuilder in a non-functional bikini or some celebrity comes to mind, the principle is the same. We are led to believe that if we only worked harder or ate less or paid more, that body would appear. As if that’s why we should be exercising anyway. It’s ALL about how we look. Articles and programs and supplements and everything we see pushes us toward either buying something or committing to something in order to LOOK like the cover of whatever fitness mag is most prominently displayed or whatever online group paid to get their stuff to the top of your Google search results. Look, I realize that everyone has a to make a living, and the industry has it figured out. Make people feel inferior and tell them you can bring them up to your level of useless shapely strength and they’ll be worth something! Just sign here. Gross.
I’m sick of the lies women are fed and the frustration and lack of confidence especially girls have with respect to fitness. Guess what?! You are already strong. You are so important. You have so much to show this world. Do you want to be even stronger? Super. Let’s just set some things straight. I’ll try not to swear too much. Just assume eye roll emoji is present throughout as I list these, punctuated by a punch and a red mad face here and there.
First, not really a myth but an important point: You have, if you’ve read this far, what my buddy and world-renowned strength coach Jason Glass calls a solid “gym IQ.” You have been in a gym and know a few things about getting stronger or fitter. All of us have things to learn, and you’re just looking for more. Those with low gym IQ are just beginners or haven’t had the training yet, and unfortunately, we can all fall victim to these lies. The more we learn and the more we do, the gym IQ develops.
So buckle up, let’s get real.
1. IF I LIFT, I’ll GET BIG.
Sure, if you want to, and if you specifically train for size, and you eat a ton of specific macronutrients and take a ton of certain supplements, you will get big. That’s called bodybuilding.
But, if you go into the gym with a smart training program (which just means it’s designed with what you can do now and what you want to accomplish in mind, and your gym IQ is appropriate for what you’re doing) you will get stronger, but not “bulky” or “big,” since the truth is, in order to develop that size, you need lots of training and lots of time in the gym. Again, like everything else, it won’t happen unless you’re training for it. Women should NOT be limited to lightweight on isolated machines like knee extensions and hamstring curls (more on that later) and should ABSOLUTELY pick up heavy stuff.
Let’s get nerdy for a second. The force a muscle can produce is related to its cross-sectional area and the density of proteins within it that cause it to contract. So, when you strength train, the proteins become packed more densely, and when you continue to train, they multiply to meet the demand. This does not mean that suddenly your muscles bulge unattractively, this means you can hustle and play tag on a play structure, you can save a scared kid who climbed too high in a tree, you can get your cooler into your car for your camping trip, and you can hold your head high while you type and drive and change diapers and fix sprinklers. If you kept it to light resistance band and 3# dumbbells, you’d miss all that.
2. CARDIO BURNS MORE CALORIES.
GONE are the days of girls showing up to the gym to lean onto to the Stairmaster or hang on the elliptical trainer for an hour reading garbage magazines and listening to garbage music. Ok, maybe they were reading quality stuff and listening to intellectual podcasts, but still.
The above recipe will make you sweat, for sure. And you’ll burn calories. But WHY?!?! Why do you want to burn calories? What is that doing to move you toward your goals? Many women come to fitness systems to lose weight, and calorie balance is therefore important. BUT, an hour on these machines is A WASTE of your valuable time. There is so much more you can get out of your time in the gym if you mix it up! And if you must hop on the machines to “warm up,” please do not hang on there, or lean into the bars. Have good posture and hold up that gorgeous face.
Resistance training has been shown to have an afterburner effect (my pilot friends know this is a loosely applied term here) - which means that once you’re done, you continue to burn energy (calories) at a higher rate than prior to the workout. Nerds like me call this Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), and the volume and duration of that excess depend on the intensity of the exercise and on the “volume of exercising skeletal mass” (J Stren Cond Res May 92). Specifically, in women, both trained and untrained, resistance training increases the metabolic activity of lean tissue. (J Stren Con Res Mar 2016). More lean tissue (muscles), more calories burned. And muscles are kind of high maintenance: they require more energy just to rest than fat, so a body with higher lean mass (less fat mass) requires more energy just to survive. So, strength training, that improves muscle protein density and force production capacity, also increases the fuel burning capacity of the entire system (you), during, following, and over the long term.
3. LOW RESISTANCE, HIGH REPS FOR TONING.
First of all, what’s toning? Sculpting? Is this really just making the body look leaner? Getting more muscle definition? Ok, we just went over this. Strength training will make muscles denser and stronger, meanwhile burning more calories to strip down any fat tissue covering those guns. High reps, while nice for endurance, also adds a repetitive stress concern - 3 sets of 20 rather than 4 sets of 6 means extra loaded joint movement which may lead to joint issues. So again, resistance training, with good form and appropriate load, is better for “toning,” and strength, and wellness.
4. ISOLATE MUSCLES FOR BEST STRENGTH GAINS.
Again, an idea that I think comes from the bodybuilding world and/or those looking to bring in customers with low gym IQ. Isolating muscles with single joint movement (think seated knee extension machine for the quads) does indeed target a muscle and indeed that muscle will get stronger. SO WHAT?!?! If I do hundred knee extensions with a hundred pounds slapped on that machine, what will I get? Bigger quads? Maybe. Sore kneecaps? Probably. Better running speed or vertical jump? Nope. The thing is, just like raising kids, moving a body takes a village. A whole staff of muscle support shows up for you all the time, even to hold up the device you’re reading this on. So our training should mimic life and require some coordination of our moving parts. That is, while appropriate for some, sometimes, chest press or bench press will do less for you (given comparable load) than a push-up, since to execute a push-up, the whole anterior chain (front side of the body) has to work together to support you through the movement. A strong muscle does us no good unless it knows how to show up with its buddies and work as a team.
5. WOMEN NEED TO TRAIN DIFFERENTLY THAN MEN.
Ok, this is a myth, that we’ll get to in a second, but I have to say that WOMEN ARE NOT MEN. Your cycle matters. Right before you start your period, there’s a dip in hormone levels that cause fatigue and inflammation, which can increase injury risk, so be careful. Don’t skip workouts, just adjust them! Then, as you move out of menses, energy is up and training can reflect that. Mid-cycle (ovulation) estrogen is peaking and progesterone is low, increasing ligamentous laxity, again elevating injury risk. After that, things settle out a bit for a few days and we can push hard again. Everyone is different, so variations in symptoms with cycle may be harsh for some, mild for others, but all menstruating women have these fluctuations. Exercise can control some of the nasty effects of PMS and at other phases of the cycle, but the same workout every day will not work. That is, there is a physiologic reason you have a hard time pushing yourself some days or feel unsteady on others. Not only is it not fair to expect you to just buck up and do it, it can be dangerous. Track your cycle and follow Janet Alexander and Kaitlyn Pimentel who are pushing to make this topic part of our smart wellness routine.
You can and should pick up heavy stuff and free weights and you can and should outlift the men at times. You can teach them a thing or two. Side note, that badass athlete between your ears can benefit from this too. Do not sell yourself short and stick to light resistance. Life is not light resistance (said the mom with the 85-lb son who gets hurt and needs to be picked up off the field, or maybe runs off the mound after striking out the last batter and jumps to hug her in celebration). Move well first, then load it up and move strong. Not strong for a girl. Just strong.
Pay attention. Set some goals, get smart, and crush it.
See you at the gym (you’ll be the girl moving beautifully and getting strong for life in the free weight room),
You can find more information from Carina Abrams over on her on Instagram @drivesportslab or on her YouTube Channel Drive Sports Lab!