I saw the inside of a gymnasium for the first time when I was 14. My school was rather avant garde when it came to sporting facilities and the brand new gym was the latest addition to its repertoire for physical training. A friend and I were so enthused by the various types of equipment, that we would sneak into the gym after the Games session every evening to crank out some reps on the leg press machine or pec dec station (I didn’t know what the equipment were called until many years later).
One day the Sports Teacher saw us doing some lifting and hastened to warn us. I believe he said something to this effect, “That machine is not meant for you. Girls should not use it or they’ll grow disproportionately.” Alas, the teacher was not avant garde enough. So that was the end of my gym exploration. And it remained that way until a scientifically better informed trainer cleared the cobwebs in my head about why ‘girls’ should, in fact, train with weights.
“That machine is not meant for you.”
Today, despite the updated awareness among the trainer community about the benefits of resistance training for women, the lack of awareness among women themselves remains high. Have you seen how the cardio sections of most gyms are packed with women sweating it out on the treadmills or elliptical trainers while the weight rooms are almost devoid of women?
My own perception of weight training changed only when, about a decade ago, an enthusiastic trainer encouraged me to complement my marathon training with some strength training. I did not fully comprehend why he thought it was important for improving my running but I agreed to give it a shot anyway. And that became the turning point in my fitness journey.
It is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones.
Let’s first look at why women are resistant to resistance training (oops, I did it again!) Most women who shy away from weight training think they’ll end up looking grossly muscular, too manly for comfort. In truth, it is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones. The predominant male hormone, testosterone, which makes men looks like men, is what promotes muscle build-up. Women have very low levels of testosterone and could only look like men if they underwent hormonal intervention (read steroids). The female hormone, estrogen, on the other hand, helps fat build-up, among other things. That is also the reason that women have a relatively higher percentage of body fat than men. So that should put to rest any doubts a woman has about looking manly or unfeminine.
But are there any special benefits for women to engage in resistance training apart from those available to men such as fat loss, muscle definition, and increased strength and functionality? Several!
Because weight training enables hypertrophy, i.e. growth, of muscles, it accentuates the natural human form. In the case of women, the improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Training the muscles of the back and core helps to taper the waist, giving the illusion of the hourglass to the entire female form. As a woman, wouldn’t that be something to strive for?
Women tend to be more prone to bone-related troubles than men due to the effects of childbirth and age-related degeneration following menopause. Osteoporosis and osteopenia, thus, affect women a lot more frequently than men. Resistance training, supported by adequate nutrition, is the only form of exercise that can help to strengthen the joints and bones, thus, reducing the risk of these maladies. For the cardio-lovers, weight training complements high-impact cardio activities by improving bone density and preparing the joints for sustaining high-impact work.
The improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves.
For women of childbearing age, weight training can prove to be highly beneficial in all phases of making a baby – during pregnancy, delivery and post-natal recovery (this has been my own experience too). Women who lift weights on a regular basis have fewer pregnancy symptoms and are able to deal with them better than those who don’t – little or no water retention, swollen ankles, backache, nausea. They have a higher chance of delivering a baby naturally, i.e. through a normal vaginal delivery, versus women do not train with weights. They are also much better placed when it comes to post natal recovery, easily regaining their pre-pregnancy weight, and resuming their exercise form. The training also naturally helps with all the lifting that a new mum has to do – a baby, nappies, wipes, bottles, bags, mats, toys and what have you!
So, woman, the next time somebody tries to tell you that you shouldn’t train with weights, do yourself a favour and find a different fitness advisor!