Throughout history, gender bias has left women’s health vastly underrepresented and under-studied. This is particularly true when it comes to research in sports and exercise science. This article will share with you the research and science behind why women should lift heavy weights. As our culture continues to make strides toward gender equality, it’s important to directly address women about strength training and exercise.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are shedding light on a significant part of what we do every day at Hyatt Training: provide a safe space for women to lift heavy weights.
Why should women lift weights?
The benefits of resistance training exist for all bodies, regardless of biological sex. These benefits include increased strength and muscle mass, stronger/denser bones, a faster metabolism and more efficient fat loss, increased athletic performance, and decreased risk of injury.
However, when it comes to women, there are misrepresentations, false beliefs, and harmful messages surrounding fitness. This makes it even more crucial to encourage women to explore this traditionally male-dominated approach to fitness. Education is an important part of dismantling bad information surrounding what happens when women lift heavy weights.
Let’s explore the benefits of weight training, through a women-focused lens.
Increased strength, mobility, and balance
Lifting weights strategically and progressively makes you stronger. Getting stronger means daily tasks become easier, which is especially important in aging. As your muscles get stronger and more powerful, they are better able to support your joints, thus increasing balance, mobility, and flexibility. Higher levels of responsiveness, stability, and strength throughout your body are key to supporting your joints and decreasing risk of injury.
Increased muscle mass
Getting stronger also means adding more muscle to your body, something many women are dubious of. Misinformation and cultural pressures have led women to shy away from building muscle for fear of getting too “bulky.” This notion, rooted in female oppression, anti-fat bias, and the idea that women should be small–in body and in presence–has led to widespread fear of being too muscular.
We think there’s no such thing!
In reality, building and maintaining muscle is important to combat the natural loss of muscle mass as we age. After age 30, your body loses 3-5% of its muscle each decade. Resistance training can slow, and even reverse this process (2). That means aging with greater strength, mobility, and a faster metabolism.
When it comes to the aesthetics and physical appearance of muscle, there is of course, a wide range of preferences. But, it’s important to point out that when desiring a “toned” physique–something of a cultural obsession the past few decades–that result requires increasing muscle mass through lifting heavy weights.
Women begin losing bone at a younger age, and faster, than men. Additionally, women over 50 face a rate of osteoporosis four times higher than men of the same age (4). It’s imperative that women work to slow this process, because denser, stronger bones better resist fractures as we age.
After age 40, we lose 1% of our bone mass per year (3). This can eventually make bones so fragile that even everyday movements and small falls can cause fractures. Resistance training can slow and even reverse this process as we age, and ensure we keep strong bones for as long as possible.
A common goal in the pursuit of fitness is weight loss, or more accurately stated, fat loss. Most fat loss is controlled through nutrition. However, increasing the body’s metabolism can help create more sustainable fat loss by allowing someone a higher intake of calories during a caloric deficit (the process of expending more calories than you’re eating).
One way to increase your metabolism is by adding muscle mass to your body. Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is how many calories–or how much energy–your body uses while at rest, just to stay alive.
A pound of muscle uses about three times more energy/calories than a pound of fat (6). So, the more muscle you have on your body, the greater your energy needs are, and the more calories you burn in a resting state.
Individual metabolism is highly complex and influenced by many factors, most of which we can not control, like genetics, hormones, and body chemistry. Heavy resistance training is the best way to build muscle, and therefore support your metabolism through one factor that you do have control over. Increased muscle mass also benefits metabolism by increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin, and its metabolic flexibility.
Even a minimal increase in metabolism can help with weight management. However, it’s important to note this should be considered secondary to the other health benefits of weight training, as the effect may be minimal in some people (6).
Exercise and the menstrual cycle
Unlike men, women’s hormones fluctuate throughout their menstrual cycle. These shifts in hormones affect energy levels, confidence, motivation, and performance.
According to Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, “Your hormonal fluctuations throughout the month can bolster your workout in many ways. Instead of getting frustrated by periodic shifts in ability, you can plan your workouts to give you an advantage.”
Planning according to your menstrual cycle means knowing where you fall within the cycle. Using an app to track symptoms and menstruation can be helpful with this.
How should you exercise in each phase of your cycle?
Dr. Brighten emphasizes always listening to your body, but also breaks down a few helpful guidelines to consider:
During your period, gentle movement can be helpful to alleviate cramps or boost your energy if you’re feeling tired. However, you may also find yourself able to lift heavier weights and push yourself harder than at other times during your cycle, particularly toward the end of your period (5).
From the time your period ends through the time you ovulate, higher levels of testosterone and estrogen mean building muscle is easiest during this phase. Strength training workouts in this timeframe will likely feel their best (5).
After ovulation and before the start of your next cycle, there may be a noticeable drop in your tolerance for exercise and exertion. Water retention is higher and the body’s ability to regulate temperature decreases. Metabolic and hormone changes often lead to feeling increased hunger during this time. Slightly increasing calorie intake, specifically carbohydrates, can be helpful to support the body’s needs. Additionally, focusing on active rest, like walking, might be the right approach (5).
What if you’re no longer menstruating and have reached menopause? Strength training holds tons of benefits for post-menopausal women, too; improved utilization of glucose, the preservation of muscle and bone mass, and positive changes in mood, to name a few. Syncing your fitness to your cycle and physiology can help harness the distinct advantages of female biology, working smarter with your body, rather than harder.
Author Elana Witt is a personal trainer and nutrition coach at Hyatt Training. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.