I could probably make a 10,000 word post about the problems with the fitness industry, but that is not the point of this post. I will, however, start and end that discussion with one sentence: So called “health and fitness” resources like magazines and workout DVD’s do not care about your health or happiness, they care about making money.
Now that we have gotten that, I can get to the good stuff. I often tell people that I hate the fitness industry, and that is why I am in it. If I can provide real, science-based information about exercising right and eating healthy to even one person, then all of this is worth it to me. Today, I am going to tackle one of the major points of concern for many, many women: lifting heavy weights.
Everyone, has something to gain from training heavy. But I’m not talking about bulk. I’m talking about life-span increasing, disease preventing benefits. Let’s examine a couple of statements that these aforementioned resources make:
1. Lift lighter weights for higher repetitions to tone your muscles and avoid getting too bulky.
Sorry, I know it’s cliche, but I had to do this one. I’m actually very glad that this one is getting so much attention and that many people are not falling for this gimmick anymore, but it is still something that I hear on an almost daily basis when working in the gym. Let’s start with the facts:
- Men have more muscle cells than women.
- Their more numerous muscle cells are larger, even without training.
- Men have more testosterone than women.
With strength training, both men and women can increase the size and number of their muscle cells – that is the goal of strength training! However, the fact that men have more muscle cells and larger ones to begin with, sets them up to “bulk up”, as you would say, faster and more successfully. That, coupled with a much larger amount of testosterone, allows men to get much larger (and, unfortunately, stronger) than women.
Consider this European study of 24 women: the subjects participated in a 20-week resistance training program, in which they performed lower body exercises twice per week, with 3 sets to failure at their 6-8 rep max. The results?
“Weight training caused a significant increase in maximal isotonic strength (1 RM) for each exercise. After training, there was a decrease in body fat percentage (p less than 0.05), and an increase in lean body mass (p less than 0.05) with no overall change in thigh girth.” (Source)
What does this mean? The subjects’ strength increased, fat mass decreased, and lean mass increased, all without an increase in the size of their legs. You can improve your strength without increasing your size – and this is something that athletes cash in on all the time. It’s all about how you train. Bodybuilders are training for size, as well as strength, whereas a lot of athletes are training for strength, but not necessarily for size. Higher reps – around the 10-15 range (among other things, mind you), are actually what produce the muscle size that bodybuilders are looking for. On the other hand, many athletes will focus on lower reps and more dynamics/power exercises like olympic lifts, plyometrics, and compound movements to increase their strength relative to their size. Seems a little opposite to this high reps for toning but not bulking nonsense, huh?
2. High intensity exercise helps you burn more calories over a longer period of time.
The concept is called EPOC: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. EPOC is basically the amount of calories you burn after a workout has ended.
Shape magazine did a pretty convincing piece on this. According to Shape’s article, to get the most EPOC you have to workout at around 80% of your maximum heart rate for anywhere from 4-30 minutes. You’ll burn more calories after the workout, and hence lose more fat. Sounds great right?
Well, did you know that strength training has not only shown to have the same effect, but it has a greater effect than constant, high intensity exercise at 80% max. heart rate? A study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association found that their subjects who completed 40 minutes of circuit-style workouts or 40 minutes of heavy resistance training workouts burned more calories after their workout than those who completed 40 minutes of a cycling workout at 80% of their maximum heart rate. (Neat fact – the heavy weight training had the highest calorie burn!) So, if you’re only heading to the gym for an agonizing workout in which every minute lasts an eternity and you feel like throwing up more than you feel good because of the extra calorie burn, try a weight session instead.
BUT! Here is where the asterisk in this argument comes in. I am personally a huge fan of high intensity training, specifically plyometrics and interval training using bodyweight exercises. They provide great benefits to your overall health, are a great supplement to your weight training, and quite frankly, are very fun! However, high intensity training such as this takes a great toll on your body. It is not something that you should do more than 3 times per week for 20-30 minutes at a time, and it certainly isn’t the only workout you should do. If you’re doing interval training for the EPOC alone, skip it and hit the weights, if not, enjoy the burn, and hit the weights a couple of times per week too!
3. Older women should lift lighter weights to prevent injury.
Think of any news segment, magazine article, or TV commercial about the importance of strength training for older women you’ve seen. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that there is a larger emphasis on the importance of strength training for older adults, but the message is still a little bit misconstrued.) Most, if not all, involve images of smiling women using resistance bands, tiny neon coloured dumbbells, heck – even soup cans! To me, this horrible myth is just a sick spin on my first argument above. No matter the population, light weights and high reps are not as conducive for strength improvements as higher weights!
I looked up “seniors strength training” on google images, and the results illustrated my point pretty well:
Every body can benefit from strength training, but as you age, it becomes even more important, no matter your sex. Strength training as you age ken preserve muscle mass, bone density, independence, and vitality, according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. It can also help to prevent arthritis, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression.
However, with increased age comes increased risk of injury and heart attack while exercise. But, when executed properly, the benefits of strength training are much more grand in nature (and more likely!) than the risks. That is where the idea of using light weights probably comes in. However heavy weights when performed correctly, have great benefits to older women.
This study examined the effects of strength training in 36 already aerobically active women over the age of 60. The subjects exercised 3 days per week, performing 3 sets of 7 strength exercises at 80% of their one rep max. After 24 weeks, the subjects incased their strength, decreased their fat mass, and increased their lean body mass. Additionally, not a single participant was injured!
(If you are older and interested in starting weight training, it is best to seek the guidance of a fitness professional with additional training in senior’s fitness. They can provide you with the tools you need to stay safe in the gym.)
Heavy resistance training has many proven benefits. It helps to increase your strength, reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, reduce depressive symptoms, increase lean body mass and decrease fat mass, and so much more. I firmly believe that weight training is a very therapeutic, very cathartic exercise that has personally helped me through some pretty hard times. Everyone can benefit from strength training in one way or another, but the important thing to remember is that everyone can benefit from exercise, period. And, just like anything in life, too much of anything is bad for you.
The best thing you can do for yourself is find balance in your workouts. You don’t have to lift weights 6 days a week to be healthy, just like you don’t have to run 6 days a week to be happy. Try a combination of strength training, cardiovascular exercise, and maybe some interval training to help prevent injury and prevent boredom in the gym. The most important thing is that you’re active, and you’re enjoying it!