Weighing in on Weight Training for Women

Misconceptions about weight training—often based on unfounded fears of becoming too muscular—can keep women from pushing their fitness levels.

That’s unfortunate because weight training provides several important health benefits for women. Most important, it helps them maintain a healthy weight as they approach and pass menopause. It also can help them avoid osteoporosis and prevent back problems.

Muscle size

Misconception: Women who lift weights develop huge muscles.

Reality: Not necessarily. For women who follow a sensible weight-training program, the result will be a trim, healthy look, not bulging muscles.

This is because women naturally develop much less muscle mass than do men, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Women have fewer muscle cells, particularly in their arms and shoulders. When either a woman or man works out, muscle cells grow larger, but don't multiply.

In one study, researchers followed 24 women who did a high-intensity, high-resistance, lower-body workout for 20 weeks. “Although the women’s muscle mass increased significantly, there was no change in their measurements,” says Bob Staron, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy at Ohio University in Athens.

“Bodybuilders look the way they do after years and years of lifting,” he adds. “They also do a lot of diet manipulation and are intensely dedicated, working out five to six days a week, sometimes twice a day.”

Making time

Misconception: Weight training takes a lot of time.

Reality: You can take as much or as little time as you like. The ACSM recommends doing 10 different exercises three days a week. With warm-up and stretching, each session should take only 30 to 45 minutes.

The ACSM guidelines say that when you are starting out, you need to do only one “power set”—that is, lifting a weight heavy enough so it’s difficult to complete one set of six to 12 repetitions—to see results. That doesn’t mean you have to cut out extra sets, but keep in mind that the optimal benefits for beginners come from a one-set workout.

“If you have time to do more than one set, fine. Just don’t feel that a two-hour workout is a necessity,” says Alice Lockridge, M.S., PhysEd, an exercise physiologist in Renton, Wash.

Once you've passed the beginner stage, however, you’ll get stronger only if you lift heavier weights and do more repetitions, the ACSM says. Once you’ve gotten as strong, fit, and toned as you want, you can maintain your fitness level by continuing to lift the same amount of weight.

Fat vs. muscle

Misconception: The scale doesn’t lie.

Reality: The scale does lie. Muscle is more dense than fat. With a weight-training program, combined with a good diet and aerobic exercise, you may lose inches from your waist, thighs, and other trouble spots without losing any pounds. You may even gain a few pounds. The ACSM says that a woman may gain two to four pounds of muscle after four to six months of strength training. This added muscle mass increases her metabolism.

In Dr. Staron’s study, the women participants experienced no overall change in body weight, but their body fat dropped by an average of 2.5 percent.

“They looked more fit because the muscle composition in their bodies was changing,” he says.

When you stop

Misconception: If a woman stops working out, the muscle will turn into fat.

Reality: Muscle and fat are two separate tissues, says Dr. Staron. If you stop working out, your muscle may atrophy. Meanwhile, more fat may be stored in already existing fat cells. But one isn’t converted into the other. Even if you stop working out, you can again build muscle whenever you resume weight training.

Gender difference

Misconception: Women aren’t as strong as men.

Reality: Not entirely true. With strength training, men and women have about equal lower-body strength. Women, however, are weaker in the upper body than men, even with strength training.

Women can still benefit greatly from strength training. According to the ACSM, a woman can increase her muscle mass by about 10 percent and her strength by 30 to 50 percent after three to six months of working out.

If you’ve never lifted weights, consider working with a trainer for your first few sessions; chances are the results you get will make you stick with it.

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