Despite the images of strong, lean women that are everywhere from popular culture to politics to athletics, there is an alarmingly large number of women who are afraid to gain muscle. Every trainer has heard the question from female clients of all ages: Will this give me big muscles? Or, the statement, I build muscle really easily and don’t want to get bulky. Can you just help me get toned?
Instead of using this article to argue that strong is attractive and that women should embrace strength and muscle, the point is that women need to train smart. Women need to identify their health and body composition goals and train in order to meet those goals.
I wrote that in my thirty-four years as a strength coach, for every kilo of lean tissue my female clients gained, there was an equal loss of weight in body fat. With these body composition changes, not only will every woman feel more empowered, but her body will look fantastic!
If losing body fat is anywhere on your list of goals, then gaining muscle must be a priority. Otherwise, the only weapons you have against body fat are an extremely clean diet and interval training. If you choose that route, it will be necessary to cut back on energy intake to offset the drop in metabolism that comes with aging. Even so, low muscle mass is linked to accelerated aging and a variety of serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, greater risk of breaking a bone, having poor posture, getting regular colds, having a low mood, or being depressed. This list goes on, and I provide more details below with Ten More Reasons Women Should Not Be Afraid of Gaining Muscle.
Body Composition and Hormone Response to Training
First, let’s address a few of the misconceptions regarding training, muscles, and women. For any newbies to Charlespoliquin.com, let’s review the key factor in changing body composition: hormone response to training. It’s physiologically impossible for women to gain muscle in the same way as a man because women don’t have enough testosterone unless they ingest it on purpose.
If men train hard and lift heavy loads, they will experience a large boost in testosterone post-workout. This doesn’t happen to women. Women have 15 to 20 times less testosterone than men, and studies have failed to demonstrate any significant change in testosterone response in women from training.
The good thing about resistance training for females of all ages is that if you train hard, you will elevate the hormone Growth Hormone (GH), which burns fat in the body. GH will also help you build muscle, but it has a much greater effect on fat burning.
What a lot of women don’t realize is that if they resistance train, they will build a little bit of muscle, get stronger, and most gratifying, lose the fat that covers up the muscles they have. This will make them look strong and fit—and those muscles are great ammunition against the fat gain that happens with age.
Muscle Won’t Turn to Fat
Resistance training will not “turn fat into muscle,” nor will muscle that has been built turn into fat. It you train intelligently hard, fat will be lost and muscle will be gained. You will increase your metabolism and with proper nutrition, you will keep that fat off. If you quit training, muscle will be lost, and fat will probably be gained depending on your energy intake.
Also, a pound of muscle doesn’t “weigh less” than a pound of fat. They both weigh a pound, but if you have 10 pounds of muscle you will look a lot leaner than if that same 10 pounds was all fat.
How to Get Stronger
The only way to get stronger is to progressively increase the amount of weight you lift. It is possible to build muscle with moderate loads, but the definition of moderate is not 5 pounds. Rather, a standard fat loss training program would use anywhere between 60 and 85 percent loads (that refers to a weight that is 60 to 85 percent of the maximal amount you can lift for a given exercise). Where a lot of women and uneducated trainers go wrong is that they take “moderate” to mean “light” and then they drop that weight in half. Loads of 10 or 20 percent are a waste of time. They won’t help you be able to pick a child up off the floor or put a heavy box up on a shelf overhead.
In fact, high rep, light load training won’t do anything for you, except it may lead you to lose the small amount of muscle you already have! High rep, light load training is a variation of aerobic exercise and it may raise cortisol. One study found that embarking on a light load aerobic-style resistance program led to the loss of 5 pounds of muscle and a reduction in resting metabolic rate of 3 percent over a 10 year period!. You’ll be left with less muscle and possibly more fat—sounds like a Fat Trap to me!
The belief that high repetition, light load training will give women develop muscle tone is a misconception. The scientific definition of muscle “tone” has nothing to do with the popular definition, which seems to be the level of visibility of muscles. To achieve better muscle tone by the popular definition, all you need to do is lose fat, and high rep, light load training will not help you do this.
The better solution is to a “periodized” program focused on body composition such as the German Body Comp program, which will progressively allow you to reach your goals.
Ten More Reasons Women Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Gaining Muscle
1. You’ll Have Less Body Fat
Muscle mass is the best defense against getting fat. For example, one study compared a 12-week periodized resistance training protocol using loads ranging from 60 to 80 percent of maximal with a muscular endurance protocol using light loads with 15 to 30 reps on body composition in women. The women that did the periodized program lost nearly 5 kg of body fat, gained about 3 kg of muscle, and had dramatic increases in strength. The women who did the high rep, light load muscular endurance program lost NO fat and gained no muscle. They didn’t get stronger either!
It’s okay to start getting strong at a young age. Studies show that girls from age 7 on up can develop equal strength as boys of the same age. Plus, in young girls, having a stronger handgrip, and more lower and upper body strength are all associated with better body composition, lower BMI, and greater functional ability as measured by vertical jump. By developing strength at a young age, you’ll set yourself or your kids up for a lean and strong future!
2. You’ll Look Better in Clothes…and Without Them
Strong, developed muscles can give women curves—glutes and abs with muscle development are much more aesthetically pleasing to the male eye—and you’ll look better in clothes. Perhaps more important than conforming to the male gaze is research that suggests that building strength by training is an effective way for women to take control of their body image.
Once you have a tool to help you get the body you desire, you’ll feel empowered. I guarantee that achieving personal records and squatting or deadlifting more than you weigh will make you feel and look awesome.
3. You’ll Have a Healthier Baby and A Leaner Pregnancy
A recent study found that pregnant women who participated in an aquatic resistance training program for 6 months until the start of the third trimester had healthier babies than a control group. The offspring had better insulin sensitivity over the first year, and less chance of being big or small at birth (both markers of poorer health and risk of disease development).
The women in the training group gained significantly less weight and had much better glucose tolerance throughout the study. There were no cases of gestational diabetes in the training group, whereas half of the women in the control group developed gestational diabetes.
4. You’ll Have Less Disease Risk: Cancer, Diabetes, etc.
As mentioned in part 1, the more muscle and bone you have, the greater the acid buffering power your body has, which correlates with a better immune system and higher levels of the endogenous antioxidant, glutathione. Lower glutathione is a primary predictor of fatal disease risk, especially cancer.
A new study has linked lower handgrip strength, which is correlated with low muscle mass in women, with poor health and a much greater risk of developing a number of chronic diseases. In women, stroke, poor posture (kyphosis), history of a fall, hyperthyroidism, and anemia were associated with a weak handgrip.
5. You’ll Have Better Posture
If you lift smart, you will develop structural balance, which basically means your muscles will be coordinated to help you move well and have better posture. A strong lower back and core will help you stand up tall, keep your abdomen tight, and avoid back pain. A stronger upper back will give you the ability to roll your shoulders back by retracting your shoulder blades.
More strength will help you develop better body awareness so that you keep you head in line with your spine (not sticking forward), and your movement patterns will be smoother. You’ll look and feel more confident, and people will have more respect for you!
6. You’ll Have Better Balance and Flexibility
A study of untrained women who participated in a 10-week resistance training program showed that they improved their balance by doubling the amount of time they could stand on one foot with outstretched arms from 43 seconds to 85 seconds. These women increased lower body strength by 32 percent and gained an average of 20 kilos on their leg press 1RM. The also decreased body fat by 2.2 percent!
Better flexibility isn’t a given because it depends on a variety of factors including whether you stretch or get body work on a regular basis. But, studies do indicate that women who perform better on tests of lower body strength have better flexibility. Naturally, a more active lifestyle will help you maintain flexibility and avoid immobilizing injuries, such as injury to the rotator cuff, hip, or knee.
7. You’ll Have A Better Mental Outlook
The 10-week study of women mentioned in #6 also found positive changes in the participants’ mental outlook from strength training. These women demonstrated greater physical confidence, much fewer mood disturbances and feelings of depression, and they had less fatigue by the end of the study.
8. You’ll Have a Stronger Immune System
Lifting weights improves gene activity and enhances the body’s natural antioxidant system so that it is ready to launch an assault when exposed to viruses. Research shows that people who do moderate to vigorous training get sick much less often than those who are inactive—one study found a 43 percent lower incidence of getting a cold during the winter months.
9. You’ll Age Better
Greater muscle mass percentage in older women is strongly associated with better mobility, faster gait speed, lower body weight, and lower fat mass. Gaining muscle now will help you stay leaner, maintain stronger bones, and avoid pain as you age.
10. You’ll Live Longer
At least six studies have shown that women who have more muscle mass will live longer. Being stronger means you’ll have better mobility and muscle power as you get older, which is another primary indicator of longevity.
A related bonus is that by getting strong, lean, and muscular at a young age, you’ll avoid what is being called sarcopenic-obesity, or being fat and having low muscle mass when you are old. Although it’s unclear whether older people gain fat first or lose muscle first, these two physiological actions go hand in hand. Once you start losing muscle, you are just about guaranteed to get fat if you don’t take action by lifting some iron!