Weightlifting for women has become a lot more popular in recent years. The hashtag #StrongIsTheNewSkinny has been used in over 1.5 million Instagram posts at the time of writing.
And I’m not talking about lifting those small 5 lb dumbbells during group fitness classes. Sure, those classes are great for cardio, and they complement heavy weightlifting well, but that’s the point I’m making: fitness classes advertised as “strength” classes are talking about strength-endurance, which is completely different to the kind of heavy strength training I’m talking about.
But there’s still a lot of resistance (pun intended) to the idea of real weightlifting for women, using heavy weights. People talk about weightlifting as a “guy thing”, that its only purpose is for building huge arms, and I’ve even heard some claim it isn’t necessary if you just want to “tone”.
And of course, everyone knows that weightlifting makes women bulky!
This is all wrong. Totally wrong.
I wrote this blog post with the benefits of weightlifting for women in mind. But having finished writing, I’ve realised that the benefits actually apply to everyone.
So whether you’re female, male, or other, read on to learn more.
WEIGHTLIFTING FOR WOMEN: 5 REASONS IT’S SO IMPORTANT
1. Lose body fat permanently
A lot of people, both men and women, are surprised when I tell them they need to lift weights if they want to lose body fat. There are several reasons for this.
First, heavy compound movements like deadlifts and squats burn a lot of calories and elevate your metabolism for up to 48 hours after lifting weights.
Second, building just a couple of pounds of muscle is great for increasing your metabolism long-term. Two or three pounds of muscle spread out over your entire body isn’t very noticeable, but it will help you burn thousands of extra calories per year without doing any extra exercise.
Third, lifting weights is the best way to maintain your lean muscle mass when you do cardio. Why is this important? Because maintaining lean muscle mass keeps your metabolism nice and high.
Have you ever known anyone to start doing a lot of cardio, lose weight, but then put it all back on as soon as they stop? I certainly have. This happens because the weight loss that happens during a cardio-only regime is a mixture of fat and muscle. The muscle loss leads to a decreased metabolism, which means you’d have to eat fewer and fewer calories and perform more and more exercise in order to maintain the weight loss. It’s unsustainable.
However, if you lift weights on the days you don’t do cardio, you’ll maintain the muscle mass. It’s like sending your body a signal that says “when you do cardio, keep all that lean muscle mass and burn only fat for fuel”. Your metabolism remains high, and not only does the fat come off easier, but it stays off.
Just look at the photos at the top of this blog post: that’s my
fiancee wife, Meghan. She understands the benefits of weightlifting for women. Meghan stays very lean (around 19% body fat, which is super low for a woman) by lifting weights for 2-3 hours per week, and that’s pretty much all she does for exercise. Occasionally she’ll take a group fitness class with a friend, but that’s more of a social event than anything else.
2. Get lean and strong without getting bulky
“Getting bulky” is the number one fear that women have about lifting weights. And it’s totally unfounded.
Some women have told me that they easily gain muscle: the day after they lift weights their muscles look and feel a little bigger than before.
That isn’t muscle growth. That’s increased water in and around the muscles. The body floods muscle cells with water whenever there’s some kind of damage, whether that’s the normal breakdown of muscle fibres during exercise, or the damage that occurs from injury.
And if you think building muscle is easy, let me tell you about my client, “Dave”.
Dave has a naturally large build: he’s 6’4″ and weighed 250 lb when we met. He also has a huge beard and he’s completely bald. His build and beard/hair situation told me he must have very high levels of testosterone, which is a hormone that makes building muscle very easy. If he’d wanted, we could have turned him into a huge bodybuilder within a year.
But Dave didn’t want that. He just wanted to get lean. He was happy with his level of muscle mass, and he was right to be happy: according to the body composition scan, he had well above average levels of muscle mass. But he also had above-average levels of body fat.
Dave was very specific: he didn’t want to build muscle. He just wanted to lose the excess body fat and get stronger.
I put a program together for Dave that was different from the regular kind of strength training you normally see guys doing. Instead of straight sets (e.g. 8 reps of bench press, rest, 8 more, rest etc.) we’ve been doing lots of supersets and trisets – basically, grouping exercises together and performing them with minimal rest.
Dave’s been coming to see me twice a week to strength train, and his cardio is limited to walking on a treadmill twice a week for half an hour or so. His results have been spectacular: he averaged a loss of 1 lb of pure body fat per week during our first 6 months of training, for a total fat loss of 25 lb. He only gained 2 lb of muscle during that time, which he was happy with.
Dave’s got a lot stronger in all his lifts, and his flexibility and posture have also improved.
Why am I telling you this? Because if a giant, hairy man full of testosterone can lift weights consistently for 6 months and only gain 2 lb of muscle, then how much muscle do you think the average sized women, with a fraction of the testosterone of the average man, can build?
If you train in the way that Dave has been training, you’ll get lean and strong without building excessive amounts of muscle.
Don’t believe me? Just check out these Instagram stars:
– Anna Victoria @annavictoria
– Karina Elle @karinaelle
– Anllela Sagra @anllela_sagra
– Emily Schromm @emilyschromm
Scroll through their feeds. They all lift weights, they’re all pretty damn strong, and none of them looks even remotely “bulky”. In fact, they all look like pictures of health.
In fact, strength guru Dan John would probably describe those women as “Rockstar Hot“, which is generally what happens to women when they can perform 3 pull-ups and deadlift or squat 135 lb for 5 reps. Once these two goals have been achieved, a woman tends to be around 19% body fat or lower, but with feminine curves (if you’re interested, the male equivalent of Rockstar Hot seems to be around 15 pull-ups and the ability to deadlift or squat 315 lb for 5 reps, at which point he’ll be around 8-10% body fat).
Maybe you don’t want to be as ripped as the above women, but don’t worry: it takes a ridiculously strict diet for women to get to the six-pack level of body fat.
3. Improve posture
You probably have a desk job of some kind, something that involves sitting for long periods of time in front of a computer.
Your shoulders are hunched forward while you’re typing, your elbow is unsupported while you use a mouse, you lean your head forward to get closer to the monitor, and all that sitting is slowly making your hips and hamstrings tight.
As a result, your rhomboids (small muscles in your upper back that keep your shoulders stable) “switch off” and weaken because you’re always leaning forward. This can lead to painful and tight shoulders.
Your glutes (butt muscles) also switch off and weaken due to all that sitting. Weak and inactive glutes are a major cause of chronic lower back pain (as are tight hips).
It’s no wonder that most people have terrible posture. Modern life is breaking our bodies!
Weightlifting is the cure for all this. Upper body pulling exercises (e.g. cable rows) will quite literally pull everything back into position.
You need to reactivate those muscles that have switched off. Lower body exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges will switch on and strengthen the glutes, and loosen up the hips, allowing you to stand tall and pain-free. Those exercises also make your butt look awesome.
4. Increase bone density
Weightlifting isn’t just about muscular strength. It also makes bones denser.
And this is another reason that weightlifting for women is so important: not only do women start off with less bone density than men, but they lose more of it as they age. You, therefore, won’t be surprised to hear that osteoporosis is more common in women.
Falls are the leading cause of injury and death in older adults. Reduced bone density is one of the main reasons why a fall can cause such severe damage.
But women (and men) can fight this with strength training. You’ll reduce your chance of an osteoporosis diagnosis, and in the event of a fall, you’re more likely to come away unharmed.
5. Reduce anxiety
Anxiety affects over 18% of the American population, and women are more likely to be affected than men.
Fortunately, there does seem to be a simple treatment: strength training.
The evidence is clear: strength training “significantly improves anxiety symptoms among both healthy participants and participants with a physical or mental illness.”
I’m not saying you need to throw away your prescription if you’re currently taking medication for anxiety. I’m a personal trainer with zero medical training. But I would suggest you sit down with your doctor to discuss whether you should introduce strength training as part of your treatment.
So now you know the benefits of weightlifting for women. Ladies, just remember: strong is the new skinny.