The myth behind women and weight lifting

There’s a great deal of misinformation, confusion and outright lies being spread about resistance training, so lets dispel a few of those old myths and start a petition to get more woman lifting weights!

With the help of Sonia Ashby to illustrate some exercises, we can sway anyone (female or male) who’s maybe doubting the body transformation power of weights!


Myth number 1

Strength training will cause big, bulky muscles and make woman look masculine

Most women do not have the genetic potential to develop big muscles.

They lack sufficient amounts of the male hormone testosterone to develop the kind of muscle mass seen in men.

The dominant female hormone, oestrogen, is not responsible for muscle growth, unlike male testosterone.

The only way for the majority of women to develop large ‘male like’ muscles would be for them to ingest/inject extraneous testosterone to override their normal hormonal functions – obviously something that’s not going to happen in the world of everyday fitness training and has much to dissuade it.

Myth number 2

To lose weight, I need to do lots of cardio

Imagine a glass. In your mind fill this glass with three parts water and one part olive oil. 

As you know, water and oil don’t readily mix so the oil will float on top of the water.

This glass represents your total body weight, the water your lean tissue (muscle, bones and internal organs) and the oil is your body fat. Most exercisers are only concerned with what they weigh, not what that weight is made up of (correctly termed body composition).

Using our glass analogy it would be easy to pour off either liquid and reduce the contents of the glass, however, the reality is we want to keep the water (lean body tissue) and ditch the oil (fat).

Getting rid of muscle and keeping fat is just pure madness, but with someone who exclusively uses cardio exercise for weight management, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Cardiovascular exercise is essential for our health – it keeps the heart, lungs and circulatory system in tip-top condition and also burns energy (calories) when we’re doing it.

What happens our body when we do cardio?

However, because your body is the master adapter and responds to the stress you put upon it, it will do everything it can to make cardiovascular exercise easier.

The body lays down new capillaries to aid in oxygen delivery and lactic acid removal (the chemical that’s produced with exercise), grows more cells called mitochondria to produce more energy giving ATP (the body’s universal energy donor), makes the heart bigger and stronger and improves the function of the lungs to increase the efficiency of the cardiovascular system and rids itself of any extra muscle not actively used in the chosen cardiovascular activity.

Think about it. Muscle is vascular – it needs oxygen to survive.

Even when you are running, the muscles of your upper body still need large amounts of oxygen.

To increase the amount of oxygen available for the running muscles in the legs, it makes sense from a survival perspective to get rid of some of the redundant muscle mass of the upper body. It’s like trimming unnecessary weight off of a car chassis to give greater performance.

Now, this is all well and good for runners wanting to run faster or further, but for someone who wants to control their body fat and look good, this is about the worst possible thing you can do.

Fuel your muscles

Muscle needs fuel (food). 

Less muscle = less food required. We call the daily amount of energy you need your Basal Metabolic Rate – or BMR for short. The resulting loss of muscle mass lowers your BMR resulting in an energy surplus which will most likely turn into fat when that energy is not used.

A 2lbs /1kg loss of muscle will result in an approximate 70 kcal drop in daily energy requirements. This means our aerobic loving exerciser will lose muscle, gain fat and look worse than they did before starting their exercise regime.

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What is the best way to maintain/gain lean tissue I hear you ask? The answer is ‘Lift weights’.

It’s a simple case of use it or lose it. The body will maintain/increase its muscle mass if that muscle is being called on regularly to perform work.

A small increase in muscle mass will result in a higher daily BMR which means you will need more energy on a daily basis and if you are under eating, that extra energy will have to come from body fat stores.

So, the take home message is that a combination of cardio and weight training is best for fat loss. Weight loss can occur when we lose muscle but the reality is that it’s the fat we need to lose and we should keep the muscle.

Myth number 3

To tone up I need to do lots of reps with a light weight

Feel the burn?

The lovely Jane Fonda did wonders by getting people exercising, but she also set us back years by promoting ‘the burn’ and super-high reps for toning and ‘inch loss’.

That burning you feel when you are exercising is not fat melting away, it’s lactic acid being produced by your muscles as they run out of oxygen. Lactic acid does not cause spot reduction of body fat.

If super high reps did, people who eat lots and often would have thin faces from all that chewing! Spot reduction is a supersized myth! Fat stores will disappear globally, not locally. It’s cruel but it’s the truth.

Someone once asked me, “What’s the best exercise to make my stomach thinner?” I replied “Push yourself away from the dining table sooner”. Probably not the answer they were seeking, but it’s a painful truth very few exercisers/dieters ever grasp.

Overloading your muscles

The best (in fact only) way to improve the condition of a muscle or muscle group is to overload it – in other words ask it to do more work than usual. This means work it harder, not longer.

Think about it. You do 30 side leg lifts to tone your glutes (your butt). When that gets easier, you do 35, then 40 and so on. After a few months you are doing 5 sets of 50 per leg and your entire exercise routine consists of nothing but side lying leg lifts because that’s all you have time for.

Sounds like madness doesn’t it?

Surely, it would be better to increase the workload, overload the muscles more and not have to spend an hour on the same exercise?

To improve the condition of a muscle, it must be exposed to progressive overload i.e. asked to do more than it’s used to on a regular basis. Only then will we see the adaptation (increase in tone) we are seeking.

A rep count of 15 or less is best in terms of effect and training time economy. Any higher than that and really it’s just a waste of your valuable time.

This 15 rep rule applies to all muscle groups, including abdominals. Super high reps do nothing but waste time. Find ways to make exercises harder rather than do hundreds of unnecessarily time wasting reps.

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Myth number 4

Free weights are for men, machines for women

This is one of those old, sexual stereotypes from the ‘70’s that is only slowly going away. 

Old fashioned gyms used to be the reserve of ‘manly’ men, but that stopped in the ‘80s when commercial gyms came into being.

The thing is though in many cases, the free weights area is still kind of off limits to  women.

Why is this? Do the men intimidate the women with all their unnecessary grunting? Is it because the exercises seem too manly’? Are women concerned that they might get big muscles like the guys? (We’ve covered this now). Is it really the smell? (too many protein shakes are the probable culprit there I think).

Whatever the reason, the free weight area contains some of the best tools a girl can use to give her the body she always dreamed of. It’s also interesting to note that some exercises and machines are deemed to be male or female when the reality is that our bodies are so similar, that pretty much all exercises are beneficial to both sexes.

That being said, some exercises considered very ‘masculine’ are virtually essential for any woman wanting to work on the traditional female ‘problem areas’ of the hips, butt and thighs.

I refer here to the squat, deadlift, stiff-legged dead lift and to a lesser extent the lunge and high step up. With enough weight, these exercise will carve any woman an awesome lower body in much less time than endless sets of hip abduction, hip adduction or standing leg curls.

Any woman who wants a good lower body should learn to squat and dead lift. Period.

Myth number 5

Muscle turns to fat when you stop training – I don’t want that to happen to me!

Go back to our water and oil in a glass image.

Is it possible to turn water into oil or visa versa? The answer, of course, is no. The same is true of muscle and fat.

They are biologically different and cannot turn into each other. However, it is possible to reduce fat stores and increase muscle mass thus giving the appearance of one turning into the other.

Because muscle is biologically active, it needs energy (calories from food) to sustain it. However, if our subject stops exercising for an extended period without reducing their calorific (food) intake, their muscles will shrink (correctly termed atrophy) and their fat stores will grow (hypertrophy) again giving the impression of one turning into the other.

The easiest was to avoid this happening is to a) don’t stop training and b) if you do have to stop training for an extended period e.g. illness or vacation, try to reduce your food intake so that the excess energy that would usually be used up by your exercise wont be stored as fat.

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