Should Women Train & Lift Weights Like Men? Absolutely!
Should women train the same way men do? It’s one of the most common misconceptions in fitness fueled by some rather alternate facts and outdated ideas that women shouldn’t lift weights or train like men for fear of building man sized muscles and losing their femininity. It’s a misconception that is strongly supported by the media and fitness industry as it helps sell gender targeted activities and gym memberships- even though it is in reality an incredibly sexist movement that prevents women from realizing many of their fitness goals and optimizing their overall health. In fact, all things considered, weight training is perhaps even more important for women than for men, yet in a quest to maximize class attendances and boost enrollment, women have been bombarded for decades with the premise that they can get the strong, sculpted and toned body of their dreams from just doing aerobics, Pilates, yoga and spin classes with a maybe some token weight lifting with “girl” weights of a ridiculously inconsequential magnitude. The marketing gender bias is strong, and for good reasons. Gyms sell memberships to women based on classes that appeal to them and the quality, quantity (and even color) of the cup holding treadmills, Stairmasters and elliptical machines.
Given the desire to appeal to women, everything from the aerobics machines, selectorized weight machines and even the dumbbells in gyms are designed to be as stylish and as attractive as possible to women. As they make up the majority of gym goers in the United States, representing an impressive 66 percent of the total gym member population. Class activities are also strongly marketed to women, focusing on fun and group activity. The problem is, however that while classes and equipment are designed to attract a heavily female patronage- they are inherently condescending as they do little to address women’s actual goals. Emphasis is, and always has been on sales- not results, so it isn’t surprising that most fitness related programs for women have little in the way of serious weight training as a selling point- regardless of how effective it might be.
While few women would look at the quality and quantity of barbells and dumbbells to determine whether a gym was right for them- it’s indeed the weights that they need to realize the goal of a tighter and more toned body. What works for men to build lean and sculpted physiques works for women as well- but sadly only a few eschew the scientifically absurd notions that women need to train differently or that weight training has a negative impact on femininity. The millions of women who remain frustrated by their lack of progress and difficulty in controlling their weight are an unfortunate but telling testimony to the fact that the light weights/aerobics approach doesn’t really work. In stark contrast however, the sculpted and undeniably feminine fitness models and in shape celebrities whose bodies most women consider as their ultimate goal all incorporate serious weight training to look the way they do.
Should Women Train Like Men? Social Barriers In the Media To Women Lifting Weights
The gender gap here in developed countries may be closing in terms of employment and equal rights (to a degree) but in the physical world, women are still expected to do less. Many men also feel threatened by the idea of a strong woman and openly discourage their spouse, girlfriends, friends and relatives from lifting weights as they hold the misguided notion that strength is somehow the monopoly of men. In the 21st Century with all the social advances that we have made it is sad to know that many men still think this way, but unlike times gone by women are more aware that this is more a matter of male insecurity than any inherent truth yet many still hold the archaic associations of weakness with femininity and the media does a lot to make this the case. Consider a photograph of a female fitness model or celebrity training in a magazine or on a fitness related website. Usually everyone is smiling for the camera, while posing with uselessly light weights or taking a class or smiling on an aerobic machine. It is very rare that you will see a woman training with weights and grimacing with effort. It might not sound like much of a big deal, and some would argue that it caters to the female aesthetic- but think about what ideas such images convey and how condescending it is to imply that there is something wrong with showing images of women working hard. Contrast those images with photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime working out, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or any major male star who gets ripped and muscular for a film. You’d be hard pressed to find a photo of them smiling at the camera in booty shorts with ridiculously light weights in their hand. And if you saw such a spectacle, you would immediately think that they weren’t trying intent on being taken seriously- but when women are portrayed this way few make the connection that it is indeed a sexist and condescending portrayal. Men are shown training hard, sweating, grimacing and working hard- which sends a very powerful message that inspires other men to do the same and thus they get the same results. Women don’t always have that privilege in the media. Like it or not, body language is an important part of how we are influenced and women are seldom given the message that it’s okay to work hard and sweat as most of the cues from the media are more focused on training being fun and light activities. This works really well to sell products and services but it’s alarmingly hypocritical. Especially when the buffed women in the photos actually train as hard, if not harder than the men with weights to look the way they look.
Equally misleading is the use of women who have been lifting weights for years in ads for yoga classes, putting forth the notion that somehow body contortion and controlled breathing exercises creates a strong and sculpted physique. I can personally attest to this being the case as a fitness and movement photographer in my “other life.” My specialty is high intensity weight training, it’s what I have done exclusively with my clients for the past 25 years and I once worked with a prominent yoga instructor who I later learned didn’t want anyone knowing that she lifted weights as she wanted her clientele to believe that her physique was the product of her yoga practice. (To be fair I have also trained a number of yoga teachers who would gladly tell their clients that weight training and proper diet was the key to their sculpted bodies, so they aren’t all out to mislead.) Many social media fitness personalities also lift serious weights in secret so as not to go against the prevailing trend that women should not be made to feel like they need to go to a gym. Again it’s not conjecture, but something I know for a fact as I have been contacted to train social media celebrities on condition that their high intensity weight training be done at a private location and that no one could know that they actually trained with weights. While I have trained celebrities in private and would never publicly say that I worked with them unless they said made that disclosure themselves, this didn’t feel right at all and I politely declined. Lots of young women look to these social media fitness girls as a source of inspiration and I don’t want my daughter or anyone else’s daughter buying into the idea that you can eat cupcakes, take a class here and there and look terrific without breaking a sweat.
The Impact Of Drug Use In Female Bodybuilding & Physique Sports As a Barrier To Women Lifting Weights And Training
Back in the islands, weight training is considered a serious undertaking, by both men and women alike. In climates where you walk around half naked 365 days a year, coupled with festivals requiring little in the way of dress but lots in the way of sculpted abs and tight bodies, weight training is embraced as the defacto method to get that lean and hard body, regardless of gender. Growing up, the piece of advice I would hear given over and over to young women bent on getting their stomachs flat and their behinds tight was to go train with the boys. A visit to a hardcore gym back home will reveal not just men toiling away doing squats and deadlifts, but women as well. And make no mistake that those women- as hard as they train they aren’t masculine by any stretch of the imagination, but rather they sport the sleek and toned bodies that are the elusive Holy Grail for most. As effective as serious weight lifting may be for women interested in doing everything from firming up the back of their arms, to tightening their midsection and shaping up the back of their legs, it doesn’t sell. A fact compounded by the negative impact of modern female bodybuilding where drug use creates a rather daunting image of women with muscles popping out of muscles in an obviously unnatural way. Images like these go a long way in cementing the unfounded idea that if women train like men that they will eventually look like men, but nothing could be further from the truth. One of the first obstacles that must be overcome for women to understand the folly of such an idea is the truth about drug use in physique sports.
The majority of the world is unaware that there are two vastly incongruent worlds of bodybuilding. One, is where the use of anabolic steroids, growth hormone, insulin, thyroid medication and other drugs are not only used by competitors but encouraged. These are the women (and men) you see prominently displayed in the magazines- and quite frankly, the ones who most members of the general public find highly unattractive. It’s hard not to be affected by the image of a female bodybuilder, (and in some cases figure competitors) who look very much like guys wearing bikinis. My philosophy is and always will be to each his or her own, but the problem with such displays is that there is little done to educate the public- women in particular- that no matter how hard you train and how much you lift, you’ll never look like the women you see onstage at untested shows because it simply isn’t possible without an extensive array of drugs. The other travesty is that natural bodybuilding is virtually unknown to the public at large. Completely overshadowed by the freakish and out of this world physiques of untested competitions is the world of drug tested bodybuilding, where the women don’t look like men in drag, but like the models you see adorning the covers of popular fitness magazines.
It would surprise most women to learn that the tight bodies of their dreams are attained regularly by those who train with weights as hard as the guys do. Female bodybuilding in its infancy, went a along way to inspire a whole generation of women hitting the weights to change their bodies during the 1980’s, but the specter of drug use brought such inspiration to a grinding halt, and the fitness industry, eager to not lose consumers, simply switched the emphasis from promoting weight training to more aerobic type and class oriented activities for women as a result. It makes sense, but it also raises some very important social questions about our society and the underlying trend of a submissive role for women in today’s world, but before delving into the social aspects, let’s look first at the physiology of the matter. Are women in any way different from men in terms of their body structure and is there any basis for a need for different approaches to exercise for them to get optimal results? These are valid questions and fortunately also ones that have been extensively researched over the years.
Should Women Train & Lift Weights Like Men? Understanding Hormonal & Structural Differences
It shouldn’t surprise anyone over the age of four that there are indeed major differences between men and women in terms of their body structure. In terms of metabolism, men are on average bigger and have more muscle mass than women, which accounts for them having an average metabolic rate of about 1.0 kilocalories per hour per kilogram of body weight. Women have slightly slower metabolisms than men, which among other things accounts for it being so much easier for them to gain weight when compared to their male counterparts. The difference isn’t that huge though, with the median metabolic rate for a woman being usually about 0.9 kilocalories per hour per kilogram of body weight. Women also have higher levels of estrogen than men do- a hormone responsible for not only female secondary sex characteristics, but structural functions such as increasing sex specific fat stores. Men have higher levels of testosterone, which among other things plays a key role in the development of male reproductive tissues as well as promoting increased muscle and bone mass. Both men and women have some level of circulating estrogen and testosterone, but the concentrations of estrogen are higher in women, while testosterone levels in men are far higher. Testosterone’s anabolic, or muscle building effects, can make men more muscular and give them more potential to increase the size and strength of their muscles. Women have far lower levels of testosterone and don’t respond to it the same way that men do. Differences that make it impossible for women to naturally build muscles have strength at levels comparable to men without using anabolic steroids. And even with anabolic steroids, which are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, it would take quite a lot to achieve man like muscles. So there is no risk of a woman training naturally accidentally getting bulky like a man.
Hormones aside, there are also important structural differences between men and women in terms of muscles. Studies of elite male and female bodybuilders show a clear difference in the maximum size of muscle fibers in men when compared to women. Men not only have muscle fibers that are twice as large, but also even among world class strength athletes, contractile muscle takes up less than 30 % of their total body mass in females than in males. Such research is invaluable as it puts to rest the idea that women who weight trained extensively would somehow sprout man sized muscles. In fact, studies continue to suggest that while females can significantly increase their strength through weight training, they are not able to increase their muscle size and density to the degree that men can. [5,6]
Do Women Respond Differently To Weight Training Compared To Men?
While we have demonstrated that women do not and cannot under ordinary circumstances get muscles that are as big or as strong as men, the question thus remains whether there is a difference in the way women would respond to such exercise. Today’s party line states that women have more body fat than men(which is on average quite correct) and thus have to do more fat burning exercises like aerobics to lose weight along with high repetition weight training of low intensity. The problem with this popular ideology is that it has no foundation in the way our bodies work, nor does it take into consideration the mechanical stresses required for the toned and taut bodies that most women seek. Firstly, it has been proven that brief high intensity weight training burns more calories and contributes to a greater reduction in overall body fat than aerobic type exercises. [7,8]
It was first thought that aerobic exercise contributed to weight loss by burning calories during exercise and afterwards as well. However, subsequent studies have conclusively shown that the so called ‘afterburn effect’ is far more pronounced after a high intensity weight training type workout.[9,10,11] Thus. weight training of sufficient intensity not only helps you burn calories (and potential body fat) while training, but also stimulates an increase in overall metabolism during the recovery period after training at a rate significantly higher than aerobic exercise can. Weight training also increases muscle mass- which not only gives you the much coveted look of a chiseled and sculpted body with muscle definition– but also helps you burn more calories as a result of the consequent increase in muscle mass.
Women & Weight Training- Aerobics & Light Weight Lifting Won’t Give You That Tight & Toned Physique
Aerobic type exercises do not stimulate significant increases in muscle mass- with muscle adaptations occurring only at the beginning of a period of relative inactivity and even then, only in a very limited form. In terms of creating a tight and toned body, low intensity weight training is equally worthless as muscle can only be stimulated if there is an overload that it is not accustomed to dealing with. You can do 100 bicep curls with a user friendly looking purple 5 lb weight from now until the cows come home, but it won’t do a thing to make your arms any tighter. You can use female friendly leg abductor/abductor machines with light weights for hours on end- but you won’t get tighter legs. Without an intensity that signals to your body that it has to adapt to an activity by becoming stronger and bigger, basically nothing happens as you have to train with relatively heavy weights (within reason) and at an intensity adequate enough to spur your body to respond (kind of like how the guys train.) Read my article on How Muscles Get Bigger And Stronger for a more in-depth presentation of how our body responds to exercise.
The Dancer’s Body- The End Result of Intense Weight Training
Over the past 25 years of my time as a personal trainer I have had the honor and privilege of working with a number of dancers, both professional and students who all wanted the same thing- that highly coveted, chiseled and toned dancer’s body. I am also a (soon-to-be-published) professional dance photographer and have worked with some of the top dancers in the world as part of my work, Dance As Art- The New York City Photography Project. In addition to the fact that two of my training staff are also professional dancers who both train alongside me and do the same exercises that I do. The general public has a strong misconception that somehow dancing itself gives you these “long and lean” muscles that so many popular dancers have. With ballerinas such as Misty Copeland taking the spotlight as the new look of the dancer today, what is often lost is that these bodies come from serious weight lifting. Not from dancing, not from Pilates, not from Barre classes or any other misleading nonsense that lines the pockets of those selling the classes to young men and women hoping to get that dancer’s body. The fact of the matter is that if you go to any prominent dance school you will note that the dancers who dance eight or more hours a day look exactly like a cross section of the general public. Our bodies adapt to what we do and anyone dancing for years has long adapted to the activity and it will not help them do much in the way of building muscle, nor will it help them get leaner. The popular dancers who we see with ripped abs and that lean and toned look are usually those who train very hard in the gym, and or those who are young and genetically had that lean and muscular look even before they started dancing. The average dancer tends to not be very muscular and their body fat is rarely very low, however, when they get to the gym and start a program of intense weight training, not only do they get the sculpted look, but they also become better dancers overall. They don’t get “muscle bound” (see my article How Weight Training Increases Flexibility) nor do they lose any flexibility as they just get build lean muscle and lose body fat in the process. Having trained and worked with my fair share of them both I and the many dancers who I have helped transform can attest to the veracity of this statement.
Building muscle, thus, is indeed the Holy Grail and gender-wise, there is absolutely no evidence for women training with different exercises or different ways to build it. In fact, when looked at as relative changes, the percentage increases in cross sectional muscle area between men and women as a response to weight training is very much the same.[12,13] So if you want to really make significant changes in your body, you need to make weight training the central part of your routine- not an afterthought done at the end. In terms of exercises, forget about the light weight with high reps idea as it won’t get you anywhere, and instead focus on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, rows, presses and even power exercises like clean and jerks. You’ll be surprised not only how much your body will change, but that as your muscles grow and your body fat diminishes you’ll get smaller. That’s right, high intensity weight training makes women smaller- not bigger. My wife trains with me, she isn’t huge. My trainer staff train with me and they aren’t huge. My female clients aged 20 to 72 aren’t huge either and they all lift weights the same way my male clients do. They are toned and tight as muscles mass increases in women tend to enhance curves, firm everything up and create that svelte look, while concurrent loss of body fat made all of them go down several sizes. Every woman I know who ever met a natural female bodybuilder or figure competitor was always amazed at just how small they were in person. Without drugs, the oversized look just doesn’t happen, but of course, you have to pay attention to your diet as well if you want to look toned and fit. It doesn’t happen overnight- but if you stick with it, I guarantee you’ll be more than pleased with the results.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is the international fitness consultant for UNICEF, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning NYC personal training services here!
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