Woman sitting on weight bench in gym clothes leaning forward with a weight in her arm, pumping the weight and smiling.

Why women need time in the weight room

Share this story now

If you’re a woman who’s been intimidated by the weight room at the gym at one point or another, you’re not alone. Buff men who look like they know what they’re doing and strange machines have kept many a woman far away. Not to mention, rumor has it that lifting weights will cause us to bulk up when we really want to trim down. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Women can (and should!) incorporate weight training into their fitness routines for a multitude of health benefits.

Why should women lift?

The advantages of strength training start small, such as having muscle strength for everyday activities and aiding your metabolism. But they don’t stop there. Women who strength train lower their risk for osteoporosis, tend to have higher self-esteem, and have a lower risk of injury. Also, according to a recent study from Penn State College of Medicine, strength training twice a week resulted in a 41 percent decreased risk of cardiac death and a 19 percent decreased risk of dying from cancer.

Ginnie Emmott, certified exercise physiologist and manager of the Folsom Fitness and Rehabilitation Center at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, encourages many of her female clients to start lifting. That often involves educating them about the misconceptions that come with strength training.

“Usually, when I work with women, they only want to lift weights to tone specific areas.” Emmott says. “But it is important to note you can’t reduce fat in specific areas by spot-training.”

While a lot of women want to be “long and lean,” you can’t tricep-press your way to smaller arms. “This is because fat and muscle are two different entities — they are not tied together,” Emmott says. “Fat does not turn into muscle or vice versa. As you build muscle and lose fat, the muscle becomes more visible and creates the definition that people aim for.”

Emmott adds that strength training actually works in women’s favor when it comes to trying to trim down. After an intense strength session, you can burn an extra 10 calories per hour at rest for up to 38 hours. This adds up! On the other hand, too much cardiovascular exercise can actually eat away at your muscle mass, making it more difficult to burn fat and achieve the definition they desire.

Don’t be bothered by bulking-up rumors

Women seeking a leaner look fear that weightlifting will cause them to bulk up. But Emmott sets the record straight, leaving no doubt that the benefits of hitting the weight room far outweigh the reasons to avoid it.

“Don’t assume that if you do the same exercises that men do that you will look the same way,” she says. “Men are capable of building those brawny muscles because they have 16 to 20 times more testosterone than women.”

Plus, men and women have different distribution of muscle fiber. Men tend to have a higher volume and prevalence of “fast twitch” muscle fiber, which better equips them for activities such as powerlifting (heavy weight, short duration, longer recovery). However, women tend have a higher volume of “slow twitch” muscle fiber, making them better at endurance-style exercises (longer lasting, shorter recovery).

The bottom line is that because of our physiology as women, it would take an extreme regimen of intense workouts and strict dieting to look like a body builder. Bulking-up is unlikely.

Getting a strong start

If you’re convinced that it’s time to pick up those weights, here are a few tips to get you started. Emmott stresses all of these points to keep people safe and actively working toward their health goals.

  • Check in with your doctor. Whenever you start a new exercise program, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. He or she knows your health best and might have recommendations for adjusting the workout for your own medical needs.
  • Focus on form. As you do the exercises, concentrating on proper form will help to prevent injury and ensure that you’re working the correct muscles.
  • Don’t worry about weight gain. After a workout, you might have a little water weight, but don’t worry. Your body uses that H2O to repair muscles.
  • Pick the right weight. Select a starting weight that challenges you when getting to the 10th to 12th rep. You should have to work to get to 12, but not have to break the form of the exercise in the process. If the weights are heavy enough, you would be able to get to 12 reps but wouldn’t be able to accomplish 15 reps at that same weight. For most women, this starting point would probably be 5 to 8 pounds, dependent on the exercise.
  • Start with one set. Emmott starts her inexperienced clients with one set of 10 to 12 reps twice a week. When this begins to feel too easy, she recommends moving up in sets, rather than weight. Once you work up to three sets of 12, it’s time to move up in weight.
  • Take time to recover. Strength training actually breaks down your muscles, and muscle growth occurs when those muscles heal again. Make sure to leave about 48 hours between strength workouts to allow for that maximum benefit.

Check out this video with Emmott featuring three easy free-weight exercises that are great for starting a weightlifting routine. If you’re ready to make a change and reap all the benefits of lifting, then get to it, girl! Don’t let anything hold you back from becoming the strongest woman you can be.