Strength training and women


There are a few misconceptions that I deal with on a daily basis when it comes to women and lifting weights. Most, if not all, fitness information marketed towards women are promising impossible results and misinformation about exercise.

If you’re interested in strength training and are unsure of how to do squats or dead lifts, or you’re unsure of how to get started, you’re lacking confidence to hit the free weight section of the gym – that’s okay, you’re in the right place! I’m passionate about helping women gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to train their bodies to be stronger and more functional.

The main misconceptions I experience are:

  1. Lifting heavy will make me bulky

  2. Women’s bodies aren’t suited to lifting weights

Let me explain why these statements are incorrect:

I often chat to clients or have ladies message me saying that they are wanting to “tone up” but that they are worried about training in the gym because they are concerned about becoming bulky.

You know those women bodybuilders who look really muscular? They eat, train, and take supplements specifically so they can look like that. They’ve been working extremely hard towards that goal for years and years, it takes a lot of dedication and definitely doesn’t happen over night.

When you pick up heavy things, your muscles get stronger and generally a little bit bigger. If you pump yourself full of testosterone and/or eat way more calories than you are burning every day, sure…you could get quite a bit bigger.

BUT, if you lift weights, eat at a caloric deficit and eat healthy, wholesome foods - your muscles will get leaner and stronger, giving you that “toned” look you want.

Muscle tissue responds to resistance in two different ways, an increase in resistance will produce an increase in size/cross sectional area (hypertrophy) and a lack of resistance will produce a decrease in size (atrophy). Muscle tissue responds the same regardless of whether you are male or female.

Body weight training is fine! There is nothing wrong with it, in fact it is preferable in certain cases, for example when working with novices who have never lifted before or those dealing with rehab of an injury. However, once the body has gained strength through body weight movement it is important to overload the neuromuscular system to increase strength, power and muscular size/density to continue experiencing these strength gains.

I primarily do strength training, I don’t include much traditional cardio in my training program other than aiming to reach 10,000 steps per day. I don’t think that I look necessarily bulky, so if you’re worried about that, don’t be. Remember, strength training = increased lean muscle = more calories burnt at rest!

It is true that women’s bodies respond to certain things differently to men’s as we have different hormones, women are not just small men! However, our muscle tissues respond the same to weight training. The main difference to be aware of is the differences in physiology between men and women, there is a 30% difference in genome between men and women!

Men cycle their hormones on a daily cycle, whereas women cycle theirs monthly. Depending of what phase of our cycle we are in will determine what type of training will be most beneficial at that stage. By no means are women’s bodies not suited to weight training!

Our hormones actually give us a few advantages over men when it comes to exercise. Women have more mitochondria flexibility (the ability to switch between burning glycogen and fat) as well as higher insulin sensitivity compared to men. We can also tolerate higher volume and training frequency than men as oestrogen helps with stress and recovery.

The follicular phase of our cycle is ideal for strength and power training – the hormone estradiol is anabolic (promotes muscle growth). In terms of lifting weights, this is an ideal environment for muscle growth and training adaptations.

The luteal phase of our cycle is generally the most challenging when it comes to training – this is when our cravings increase, we are more tired, irritable and experience PMS. We are more prone to injury during this phase and our body shifts to use lipids (fats) as fuel. You should still lifts weights during this phase of your cycle, but if not feeling 100% it’s a good idea to focus on a deload phase, a bit of aerobic work and mobility for 2-3 days.

Effective training is all about what works for you as an individual. At any point during your hormonal phases, women’s bodies are still suited to resistance training! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

There’s no reason men and women should train differently. There’s no reason that men and women can’t complete the same types of exercises. Women have just as much a right to be in the free weights section and squat rack as men do. Unfortunately, it’s just less common, but I’m hoping I can help change that!

Ashlee PeetComment