Tag Archives: Weight training

I am a woman and don’t want to bulk up like a man. Why do I need to train with weights?

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!

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I do Yoga each day. Why do I need to train with weights?

I became a yogini over two decades ago, quite by accident. A college-mate of mine had enrolled for a class on her parents’ recommendation. She suggested I check it out. It was the first time I had tried any activity like it. I discovered not only that I enjoyed the experience but also that I was rather good at it.

Once a month, the 60-something Yoga teacher would invite other Yoga teachers from his matth, which practised the Iyengar style, to break up the monotony. On one such occasion, the invitee teacher led us through a particularly complex routine of yogasanas. As the complexity grew with each pose, more and more participants started to stall. To my surprise, I was among a handful that could complete all the poses as directed. The teacher beamed at me as I arched my back in a perfect Kapotasana, the pigeon pose, and said encouragingly, “Now, strive to maintain this flexibility throughout your life.” So that is what I did.

I am grateful for the day that my friend convinced me to go to that class with her. Yoga has been a constant companion in my life ever since. (My love for it eventually translated into a certification as a Yoga teacher following the Ashtanga philosophy a few years ago.) My belief in Yoga as a way of life has only solidified further.

Around me, I’ve noticed that the attendees in Yoga classes typically span a gradient from middle-aged women (especially homemakers), senior citizens (primarily interested in Pranayama), or exercise-starved corporate employees in a corporate-sponsored class, on one end of the spectrum, to young adrenaline-seeking enthusiasts of Power Yoga and passionate believers of the Yogic philosophy on the other. However, I see people attending Yoga classes to the exclusion of any other form of exercise. And that’s where the disconnect occurs.

Yoga, undoubtedly, has holistic benefits for not just health but also life in general. I would be amongst the first persons to attest to its importance in health and fitness. Among the benefits from Yoga are improved flexibility, which reduces risk of injury; improved breathing, which enhances cardiovascular health and stamina; improved posture and balance, which improve spine and bone health; and relaxation and stress-relief. A highly advanced practice can even improve muscle tone and strength.

I would venture as far as to say that among all types of exercise, the practice of Yogasanas is perhaps the only form to enable improvement on all five components of fitness. And, yet, it has limitations when it comes to progressive overload, a key requirement for developing musculoskeletal strength, the main antidote to aging, which I discussed in detail in my last post.

Progressive overload’ simply means giving your body a greater training stimulus once it gets accustomed to a particular level of training. For example, the veteran jogger who runs the same 5 kilometres every day is not progressing in his cardio training while the newbie who adds five more minutes to his ten-minute jog, or adds half a kilometre to his 2-kilometre run, or takes two minutes less to run the same 2 kilometres, is increasing the load and intensity.

Similarly, while training with weights, one might add a few repetitions to a set, or a whole set to an exercise, or increase the weight for a set, or do the same number of sets in less time than before, as a way to increase the load. The idea is to go beyond your comfort zone and push your body to do a little more once a particular training level is reached. For example, a novice to weight training might be able to do 15 reps of an exercise in her first week before experiencing fatigue. Once she finds that she can go up to 20 reps without fatigue, she could increase the weight or resistance to deliver 12 reps. As her muscles gain strength to perform 15-18 reps of the same exercise at the new weight, she can move to a higher weight again.

While doing yogasanas, there is sufficient progression until you learn the correct posture, balance, form, technique, and how to handle your own bodyweight. You might even gain some load by increasing the duration of your practice or adding variations of an exercise to target the same muscle group multiple times. However, it is impossible to add further resistance to such practice once bodyweight training comes within your comfort zone. For example, a person who can perform an Adhomukh Vrikshasana, a handstand, even when adding pushups to the handstand, will need to resort to external weights eventually to seek hypertrophy and further strengthen her shoulders, arms and forearms.

Weight training provides your body with the training stimulus to first break down muscle tissue and then build it up larger to be stronger than before. If fat loss is your goal, then the greater muscle mass means that you carry more metabolically active tissue, which revs your metabolism and increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Also, resistance training has the greatest after-burn effect among all types of exercise.  Hence, you burn more calories even when you are at rest and not only during exercise.

So the next time you face a dilemma as to whether to sign up for resistance training despite the daily Yoga class or not, don’t choose. Go for it!

 

PC: The Big Yogi

I walk 30 minutes each day. Why do I need to train with weights?

I was 11 when I learnt for the first time that ‘walking’ was a cure for all obesity-related maladies. A neighbour, the mother of a friend of mine, had, I’d heard, been denied a reservation on a US-bound flight by an airline because she was overweight. Now I don’t know about airline norms existing at the time, but I do recall that that lady walked about ten kilometres everyday for the next three months to whittle down her 96-kilo frame to a 78-kilo one. When she tried to book her ticket again, the airline had no cause for complaint. On my following term break, I heard that the lady had had to extend her sojourn in the US due to a knee fracture she suffered from a fall on the pavement.

I’ve seen this story repeat itself several times since then (newly minted middle-aged marathoners who literally break a leg, come to mind). ‘Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Well-meaning relatives and friends, who oftentimes are the biggest defaulters where exercise is concerned, seem to proffer this advice left, right and centre. Mothers-in-law of expectant brides encourage their daughters-in-law to ‘simply walk’, all as part of the ante-natal care-giving for the mothers-to-be. Doctors of obese diabetic patients prescribe ‘walking for 20-30 minutes a day’ as part of the treatment. Parents of obese teenagers tag the children along with them on their own morning walk ritual.

Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Now, I have nothing against walking as a form of exercise. In fact, it is an inseparable part of my own regimen. It is convenient, cheap, does not need to be learnt, and does not require any special gear or equipment except a good pair of shoes. But to say that it is the ‘best form of exercise’ only explains the ignorance of the person saying it.

A person may be motivated to take up exercise for a variety of reasons, mostly reactively, unfortunately, rather than proactively. But if the goal is to seek long-term sustainable health and fitness, then depending on walking alone is investing your time in a severely lop-sided exercise programme.

If you break down the physiology of walking, you’ll realise that it is primarily a lower body workout, which engages your core. It is a high-impact activity that causes a great amount of stress on your weight-bearing joints, the hips, knees and ankles. Since it is a low intensity steady state activity (walking fast would still qualify as low intensity if you are able to do it for tens of minutes), walking engages your aerobic energy system (more on this later), necessarily involving your cardio-respiratory apparatus to provide a constant supply of energy.

The reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat.

As a cardio activity, then, walking depends on the carbs immediately available in your system in the form of glycogen stored in muscles, the fat stored in your body as adipose tissue, and the protein from muscles, which can break down to create glucose for energy, in that order. This implies that a cardio activity will eat through your muscle (presumably precious) if it is not able to generate enough energy quickly from the body fat (presumably dispensable). That’s also the reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat, unless their nutrition super-compensates for it.

When you let go of muscle, you allow for the weakening of your joints and, hence, bones. So, while your cardio-respiratory endurance improves, resulting in greater lung capacity and a lower resting heart rate, your muscles atrophy and your joints become feebler. How do you then spare the muscle and avoid risking a joint/ bone injury? By doing two things – ensuring appropriate nutrition (a protein-rich diet to repair the muscle tissue) and training with weights.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen.

Weight training provides your body with the training stimulus to first break down muscle tissue and then build it up to be stronger than before. It also prepares your joints and bones for dealing with high-impact activities such as walking or jogging.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen. A larger muscle mass means that you carry more metabolically active tissue, i.e. lean body mass, which revs your metabolism and increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Also, resistance training has the greatest after-burn effect among all types of exercise. Hence, you burn more calories even when you are at rest and not only during exercise, as is the case with a cardio activity.

Here’s a bonus: weight training helps muscles to hypertrophy, i.e. grow larger, giving your body a complementary anti-aging lucky charm. It tones the body because muscles add definition to the limbs. You’ll love the compliments that come your way. (See what I did there?!)

Despite all these benefits to resistance training, there is a lot of resistance to training this way. (Okay, now I’m overdoing it…backing off!) I’ll explore other myths on this soon.

 

PC: shutterstock