Weight Training for Women: The Downside of Starting a Weight Training Program
Somewhere out there is a woman who could write a book on this subject. I’m not that woman, but I do like to take a philosophical approach to the very popular notions out there about women’s fitness. And right now, I feel compelled to discover a balance in this area.
It sounds like a fantastic ideal. And it’s true. At any age, a woman can burn more fat and increase strength and endurance through a weight training program. Weight training for women builds confidence and brings many subtle benefits. But there are pitfalls to consider.
Even positive change can come with a price. Are you willing to pay it?
This hub is written for the novice – for a female who wants to upgrade her exercise program. but doesn’t know what’s involved. I believe that my advice applies whether you are considering traditional weightlifting, Pilates classes, or the use of a fitness ball.
Well, I have done strength conditioning for as long as two years at a time, and I can tell you from my own experience that you need to be prepared, as it is a big lifestyle change. For me, personally at this time, cardio workouts are all I do, and I do them as I accomplish other tasks.
Frankly, not every woman will want to embark on such a regimen. I’ll lay out the advantages and disadvantages for you, and you can make up your own mind, based on your own fitness goals.
Remember, as a woman, you don’t have to worry about getting big muscles. In fact, to get the results similar to the two models in my accompanying pictures requires know-how and quite an investment of time into the finer details of a fat-burning plan. Many of us are interested in more modest goals.
Monroe -- Just About Perfect, at Any Fitness Level
Your Changing Body Image and Its Impact on Others
I consider the following discussion worthy of first place in this hub. It's near and dear to the hearts of women.
You’ll be sculpting your body. You cannot control where the fat goes, nor how fast it disappears from parts of your body. Many women will get extremely frustrated because there is a body part that doesn’t seem to respond the way they think it should. This is because of the great variation in genetics from one person to the next. Some women have a body type with big legs that look out of proportion to the rest of their physique. While they can improve their muscle tone, their legs are never going to be slender.
Also, if you’re over 50, you need to get used to the idea that a lean body may make you look older. When you lose fat, some of it comes off the face – and it is fat that was filling out wrinkles and gauntness in your countenance.
In the best of scenarios, women are going to have a bit of dysmorphia (distortion of body image). Their sense of self and appearance is very much affected by the constant barrage of images from the media, especially when the ideal of the feminine form keeps changing every decade. Men are not as affected by strong media messages about how they look, or if they are, they don’t talk about it.
So you could say that women are going to experience a jolt to their self-image as they undergo the changes from a weight training routine. They may feel more, or less feminine. They may find the surroundings in which they train to be intimidating, or not. They may feel somewhat, or quite a bit, more self-conscious when men check them out.
If you’re a Raquel Welch look-a-like, a Marilyn Monroe type, or a Sophia Loren siren, I predict nothing will change with you. You cannot seriously mess up a fabulous, hour-glass shape, no matter how much weight-lifting you do. You’re stunning when you’re “skinny-fat”, you’re stunning when you carry around 15 extra pounds. So don’t worry.
But if your natural form is fairly slender, and you’ve been used to a little softness around the hips and thighs, and you have the bustline of a figure skater, you can expect to look in the mirror, and wonder what happened to the womanly look.
Also, expect comments from others like, “What happened to you? I haven’t seen you in a long time? Have you been ill? You’re so thin!” Also, you cannot predict how your spouse or significant other will see you, or what they’ll say. How long will it take them to get used to the new, presumably sexier, you?
Consider the Way You Eat
While the weight-lifting will certainly require you to go through your routine, it might be accomplished in 15 or 20 minutes, three times a week.
The real change factor is how much you eat, and when.
When you begin to do strength conditioning, you’ll notice that you are a lot hungrier. This is because as you build up more lean tissue and burn fat, that new muscle tissue must be fed. It isn’t going to be satisfied with a junk food snack of Cheezits and a Coke, and if the muscle tissue doesn’t get what it needs, you won’t burn enough fat to do any good, either. You will need to eat the right combination of proteins, carbs, and fats, at fairly regular intervals. Five small meals per day is absolutely the best, but four might suffice.
As many important fitness consultants have also proved, you can also eat less regularly, but in the fashion of the paleolithic human. This kind of eating plan would get rid of most dairy, nearly all grains, and incorporate good fats in a percentage higher than most traditional plans would even consider. This can be a good plan for some weight lifters.
You won’t get six-pack abs like the model unless you are willing to really lower the fat in your diet. When I was doing the routine, I was not willing to eliminate any more fat in my diet or reduce the portions just so my triceps would look better. What are your expectations, and how much time would you sacrifice to get in quality meals throughout the day? This requires lots of shopping, planning, and meal preparation, easily adding an average of six or seven hours per week that must be devoted to nutrition.
Portrait of a Fitness Model: The Ideal for Some Women (But Not for Me)
Changing Your Wardrobe
Facts are facts. Here things can start to get a little expensive.
One thing is for sure. Successful building up of lean tissue in your body means the loss of inches. Your present wardrobe just won’t fit you anymore. This is a familiar dilemma to most women, especially those who’ve yo-yoed on diets.
But if you weren’t very big to begin with, it may be even more of a problem as you lose body fat. If you’re petite, and get down to a size 4, watch out. Even some size 4 clothing will be a bit sloppy and ill-fitting on you, and size 2, from my experience, is very difficult to locate. Larger framed women may find that a size 10 just doesn’t have the right proportions for them.
American designers have become more generous with their sizing, ever since World War II. The Simplicity and McCall’s patterns did not change their sizing, but the off-the-rack clothing designers did. It’s become worse in the last ten years as more of the population has become obese.
So, yes, it will be more difficult to find clothes that are small enough (or proportioned properly) for you. You can maybe get creative and seek out European-designed clothing. It’s cut smaller for more fit people. You can save money here by frequenting consignment stores.
I have found the saying “Weight-lifters are the only people who look worse with their clothes on” to be true. At least it’s true for women. You may find yourself wearing work-out attire more often, and in casual social situations.
No Pain, No Gain?
No, I’m not talking about muscle soreness from lactic acid build-up between work-outs. A little soreness at first is natural, but it will be minor.
If you’re doing your job right, and as you begin to get considerably more lean, you will burn fat off your gluteus maximus. It will hurt to sit down, because you will now feel the loss of fat padding on your backside. In my prime at age 40, I was down to about 20% body fat, which is considered to be a reasonable goal for a woman. Because I wasn’t overweight to begin with, I noticed the fat loss even more. For five miserable weeks, I endured the feeling of my pelvic bones digging into my flesh, until I finally got used to the sensation.
Everybody’s anatomy is different, but I can assure you that I’m not the first person who’s burned off fat and has reported this problem. It really is a pain in the rear – literally.
A Cautious Approach to Possible Injury
Pay close attention to this if you’re over 40. It is most important that you get a qualified professional to work with you on a weight-lifting regimen. This might mean a personal trainer that you trust, or (as in my case) an exercise physiologist. It’s even more crucial if you’re going to be using free weights, as opposed to machines.
Injuries do happen. After a number of months of weight-lifting, I developed tendinitis in my left wrist. I feel that with a sufficient warm-up of the muscles, and the use of ice packs on the affected area after the work-out, you should be OK. But if time goes by and things don’t get better, see a physician.
The chance of injury is great enough that you should always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program, especially if you have had any musculoskeletal problems in the past.
It would be worthwhile to learn the most biomechanically efficient way to approach a particular movement. I’ve written extensively about this in my hub, What It's Like to Take Lessons in the Alexander Technique, and how the Technique can make every movement more easeful and efficient. Frankly, it infuriates me that so many fitness trainers and exercise gurus give the wrong advice to people who are learning to work out.
Renewed Energy With a Renewed Mind
Ahh… here we begin to get into more positive territory. (You were probably wondering when I’d get to this.)
You’ll need to change your exercise mindset. No question about it. You simply won’t get much from your weight training regimen with a reluctant, procrastinating kind of attitude.
I can tell you, however, that as you approach strength training with a positive attitude, you will get re-charged. You can be dead tired, with your body dragging from a mentally exhausting day at the office, but once you finish your work-out, you’ll be rewarded with an unbelievable surge of energy.
The energy renewal from a strength conditioning routine is unlike any I ever received from a cardio routine. In addition, depressing thoughts seem to disappear. Quite obviously, a weight-lifting work-out brings out more endorphins than almost any activity I can think of.
A weight training work-out, when done correctly, speeds up your metabolism for 24 hours after you finish it. It is superior to cardio routines (what we used to call aerobic exercise) for fat-burning. This will have profound implications for women who’ve always had trouble losing weight – that is, if they follow a good eating plan.
Strength and Endurance
Perhaps you’re motivated to do strength conditioning because you need to lift a toddler, or help your elderly parent out of a wheel chair each day. The endurance you need to do small jobs around the house will be greatly increased for you. There’s probably not a better motivation for a woman to do weight lifting.
Also, some women just want the added confidence and respect they will get from their fitness accomplishments.
There is no question that weight training is absolutely the best thing a woman can do to build up bone density. If osteoporosis runs in your family, you probably know that bone loss accelerates after menopause. Help to minimize that loss with your weight training regimen.
Other Medical Benefits
By getting stronger and leaner, women benefit with lower blood pressure, better digestion, a stronger back, reduction of LDL cholesterol, and reduction of arthritis pain.
When elderly people start a weight-training program, they achieve some improvement in their flexibility and balance. This is helpful in preventing falls.
Me, extreme right, age 40 (about 20% body fat)
My Great-Great Grandmother. I Got My Genes from Her. They Didn't Have to Worry About Fitness in 1875!
It's Really Up to You
I admit that I’m a woman who’s never really been overweight. I do have good genes. With each decade, I am losing some muscle mass (and adding fat), because I haven’t kept up the weight lifting, but for now, a weight-training program does not fit my goals in life.
I’ve got a stubborn little terrier with bad habits to conquer. Walking my two dogs is my exercise, which I do faithfully (I wear toning sneakers, which I highly recommend). I’ve also got more hubs to write, more vegetable gardening to do, and a few more Bible studies to complete.
I could see my priorities changing at some point, though.
You’ll notice that I haven’t used the phrases "dieting" and "weight loss" very much throughout this hub. This is because these words have negative connotations that have no long-term place in a woman’s life. The two words you should remember instead are “fat-burning” and “eating plan.”
If you’re a woman who has been struggling with the concepts of dieting and weight loss for a long time, you might have to do quite a bit of soul-searching about whether you have the commitment to enter a weight training program. For some, it might be a matter of taking baby steps and working up to a full program over time. Certainly, you will receive some benefit from this kind of program, even if you are only doing it at the level of 70% (and that’s a statement straight from a local fitness guru named Larry North).
For many women, it’s really going to be the only way they’ll achieve optimal fat-burning and start to feel better about themselves and their fitness level. And for a few, it’s quite literally a matter of health problems which are accelerating out of control, and need to be fixed before more serious compromises have to be made to their lifestyle.