Resistance training – It’s one of the very few ways to make bones denser, a perk that is especially important for women. Lifting something, like a dumbbell, makes bones bear more weight, and in exercise, stressing your bones is a good thing (providing you are sensible about the “how”). Bones are constantly remodelling as any exercise physiologist will explain. Your body is always adding calcium to your bones and taking calcium away from your bones.
This delicate balance starts to tip as people age, and then you lose more mineral from the bone than you’re able to lay down. Over time, bone gets less dense and more brittle and prone to osteoporosis, a condition that is estimated to affect 200 million women worldwide – approximately one-tenth of women aged 60, one-fifth of women aged 70, two-fifths of women aged 80 and two-thirds of women aged 90. Women have smaller, thinner bones than men from the start, and after menopause they lose oestrogen, a hormone that protects bones.
Resistance training also comes with the less visible benefit of lowering risk for several diseases. The only real way we can increase our metabolism, unless we take drugs, is to lift weights and maintain or increase our lean mass. Doing so makes the body more sensitive to insulin, and therefore more durable against certain diseases.
Recent research suggests that resistance training may lower a woman’s risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In a 2016 study, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health used data from nearly 36,000 older women, who ranged in age from 47 to 98. The women filled out questionnaires for about a decade detailing their health and exercise levels, and one question asked women to estimate how much weightlifting or strength training they had done per week in the past year. The researchers then tracked which of the women had a heart attack or stroke and which developed Type 2 diabetes.
Whether or not a woman did muscle-strengthening exercises indicated a lot about her health. Compared with women who avoided it, those who did any amount of strength training were more likely to have a lower body mass index and a healthier diet and less likely to be a current smoker.
They also had a Type 2 diabetes risk that was 30% lower and a cardiovascular disease risk 17% lower than those who did no strength training, even after the researchers controlled for other variables like age, diet and physical activity. That in itself is a good enough reason to start doing some resistance training!!
Adding aerobic exercise helped drive both risks down even more. Those who did at least 120 minutes a week of aerobic exercise and some strength training had a Type 2 diabetes risk 65% lower than women who didn’t do either. So don’t stop the cardio, just add some resistance training to it.
Most people should do both kinds of exercise, but if you had to choose one pick resistance training. Cardio may be more agreeable, and less intimidating, but you also get less and less out of it over time. As you grow fitter, you have to do more and more aerobic exercise to see gains. Resistance training is simply the most efficient exercise for those with limited time.
Resistance training comes in many accessible forms — many of which don’t require a gym membership and don’t require a personal trainer. Resistance bands, (cheap strips of elastic that loop around arms or legs), are one good way to build strength without weights, for instance. A 2017 study showed that when frail women over 60 who were obese worked out with resistance bands for three months, they dropped body fat and increased bone density. Another option that involves even less equipment is to use your own body weight. Chair squat (standing up in front of a chair and sitting down until you just touch the front edge of the seat of the chair) many times builds strength, as does jumping, which uses many of the legs’ major muscles. Even walking can count as strength training, depending on the intensity.
The right type and amount will be different for every woman (and man, for that matter), but a little bit every day will do wonders. Not only will you look better than when you first started, but you will also feel really confident. Strength training opens up your thoughts to more positive thinking.
You can start with your bodyweight.
Put simply strength training means using resistance to create work for your muscles. So there are a lot of ways to create this resistance that requires minimal equipment (or none at all). Bodyweight workouts can be an incredibly effective, yet simple, way to strength train, try squats and push-ups to begin with. You can also use tools like dumbbells, medicine balls, TRX bands, resistance bands, and kettlebells. But if that sounds complicated don’t worry about it. Keep it simple and focus on equipment-free routines first. No matter what you do, the most important thing is to find something that challenges you.
Begin with two days a week and build up.
Start with two days for two to three weeks, then add a third day. Ideally, you should strength train three to five days per week, but work your way up — starting off at five days a week might come as a real shock your body!!
Aim to complete 20-minute sessions, then gradually add on time in ten-minute increments until you’re working for 45 to 60 minutes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should not do any cardio. 150 minutes of light-to-moderate work or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity work is recommended for good health. Finding the right mix of workouts will depend very much on your own specific goals.
Prepare your muscles before you start.
A proper warm-up is an important part of an effective strength workout. Start by foam rolling your muscles. Foam rolling loosens up tight muscles so that they work the way they’re designed to. A dynamic warm-up is another important part of your pre-workout routine, it preps your muscles for the work they’re about to do and helps increase your range of motion. Increasing your range of motion allows you to go deeper into those squats and fully extend those bicep curls, which means more muscle recruitment and better results. These two combined reduce your risk of injury and allow you to push harder during your workout.
Pair an upper-body move with a lower-body move.
You may have heard people in the gym talk about things like “leg day,” but when it comes to a beginner strength workout that’s only a few days a week, a full-body workout is best (rather than splitting your days up by body part). Full-body workouts maximize your caloric burn and the muscles worked each session. The best way to do this is to pair one upper body exercise with one lower body exercise. This allows the lower body time to recover while the upper body works and vice-versa. You should also aim for a balance between movements that feel like pulling and ones that feel like pushing. For example, you could pair these exercises together:
Squats + push-ups
Walking lunges + lat pulldowns
Romanian deadlifts + overhead press
Mountain climber + bench row
Aim for 10 reps and 3 sets per exercise.
When you’re just getting started try to keep things simple. Performing 10 reps (repetitions of the movement) and three sets of each (doing those 10 reps 3 times) is a good place to start, explains Davis. You can mix it up as you get more comfortable with the moves and need more of a challenge.
So, for example, with the moves above you’d do 10 squats followed by 10 push-ups. Take a 60 90 second rest and repeat that 2 more times. Then you move on to your walking lunges and lat pull-downs (and repeat those 3 times total, too). You can really do anywhere from eight reps to 15 (and even just two sets, if you don’t have time for three), but it’s not a bad idea for beginners to start with a 10-rep range to get comfortable with the exercise. And while there’s some debate over whether three sets of an exercise is really best it is a simple, easy to follow model for a beginner.
When you’re using weights, here’s how much weight you should start lifting.
Different exercises do require different weights, but there are some markers that can help guide you towards the right resistance, whether you’re using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. Go for a weight that is heavy enough to challenge you, but not so heavy that you can’t do it with the correct technique. For example, if you’re doing 10 reps, you should feel pretty fatigued by the time you hit rep 10. If you can breeze through all your reps, though, that’s a sign you should up the weight. Ideally the 3rd set should really challenge you to complete it.
Stick to the same moves each day when you’re starting out.
While experienced gym goers may choose to do different exercises every day during a week-long period (and repeat the same moves the following week), there’s no need to follow this type of program when you’re just starting out. Keep it simple. Stick to the same basic moves two to three times a week to build a basic level of fitness and strength. Great results can be made by repeating the same workout but increasing resistance as you become stronger. Later on switching things can help you avoid a training plateau but then so can increasing resistance while doing the same exercise.
Fit in a post-workout stretch if you can.
Now that you’ve got the training part done, it’s time to stretch. Stretching while your muscles are warm can help improve your flexibility. A light cool-down is also great for calming the nervous system. While dynamic stretches should be your go-to during a warm-up, the cool-down is where static stretching comes in—this means holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds.
Refuel with water, carbs, and protein.
After training session it is important to rehydrate your body: Drink lots of water. A balanced post-workout snack is also a good idea. Go for one with carbs to refuel your glycogen stores (one of your body’s main energy sources) and about 10 to 20 grams of protein to help build and repair your muscles. If you’re lifting and weight loss is one of your goals, though, it’s still important to keep calories in mind—a post-workout snack shouldn’t be more than 150 to 200 calories.
Take rest days when your body tells you to.
It’s OK to be a little sore. Your muscles might feel achy or tired the day after a tough training session thanks to DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. A novel, new movement or a resistance exercise with a large eccentric phase will cause DOMS for anyone not just a beginner. When you resistance train you’re causing microscopic damage to the tissue that will be repaired, that’s how you build stronger lean muscle. Repair and recover are important elements and so rest days and sufficient sleep are vital. If you constantly break down muscle without a recovery period, you won’t give the muscle fibres a chance to repair and build back stronger.
Ultimately, you must focus on how you feel. Listen to your body, it will tell you when it needs a day off. Don’t push yourself too hard to begin with; look to increase the intensity in your training over time, in both the level of resistance and the frequency of training.
The benefits of weight lifting for women are much written about and widely varied. Simply put, It makes you feel healthier, helps you move pain-free, you’ll look better naked – there are lots of reasons why you should make resistance training a regular part of your fitness training.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that what you eat will dictate your SIZE but training will dictate your SHAPE!
For a lean body with curves in the right places you need a combination of the 2 – None of this 80% diet, 20% training BS – both are important. At the risk of over simplifying, when you diet, you lose fat and muscle mass. This is why you lose your curves, and end up with little muscle mass no matter how much body fat you also lose (especially if you’re past your teenage years). Apart from the effect on how you look this is also detrimental to your long term health and wellness. By doing resistance training while in a calorie deficit you will maximize your fat loss while minimizing muscle loss – the end result being all the right curves in the right places! and a functional strong body as a bonus!
What about endurance training (cardio’s more scientific name)?
Think of endurance training in the same way as diet… it helps dictating your size by burning more calories, but will do very little for your shape.
“But… Won’t I get bulky?”
This is a reaction some women have when it’s suggested that they swap the bike for a barbell. But in one simple word: No! Females do not have enough testosterone, a key muscle building hormone.
“But what about the female bodybuilders?” – I hear you say.
Pretty much everyone in the top of professional bodybuilding is on synthetic drugs (not all but most)… and even if not then, they have been lifting heavy for many years! So you have nothing to fear! Sure you can increase your muscle mass, but it won’t happen overnight. You will need lots of time and dedication and even then, you will hardly look big.
However, if you really don’t want to increase your muscle mass, but want to look firmer… remember that diet = size so make sure you are eating at maintenance and/or a calorie deficit to get the lean body you maybe dreaming of. As an independent woman, you may like to carry your own things and may hate it when your strength is a limiting factor in how you live your life. Who likes to struggle to carry bags etc? No one should have their daily life restricted by poor strength. Resistance training will make you feel like Wonder Woman without looking like The Hulk. Day-to-day tasks get a lot easier to manage and suddenly things like walking upstairs, carrying or lifting your children up are not such a struggle anymore.
Because of your wonderful (and sometimes misunderstood) hormones, ladies are at a higher risk of osteoporosis as they get older. By the time you reach adulthood, your bone density is at its peak but will then deteriorate as you age. This puts elderly women at higher risk of fractures and injuries. However, resistance training has been linked to not only increasing the strength of your muscles, but also your bones strength and importantly their density and will improve your bone density, no matter when you start training. Also, the good news with regards to resistance training is that there is little-to-no impact, which makes it safer for people of all ages. By strengthening muscles, bones and connective tissue, weight training will improve balance and coordination making it less likely that you may fall and break a bone or strain some part of your body. It will also improve joint stability and may help prevent osteoarthritis and back pain.
In addition, there have been various links between exercise and mental health. A study from Harvard Medical School shows that as little as 10 weeks of resistance training can reduce clinical depression more effectively than standard counseling. Wow!! The one thing I never thought about when I started my weight training journey was the sociological change. However feeling stronger is very empowering, as the weights I lifted increased I felt a lot more confident and sure of myself. So will you.
So what are you waiting for? Get lifting! Don’t know how to get started? Resistance training comes in many forms. If you are a total beginner, body weight and resistance bands may be enough. Yoga and Pilates can help too – go find a class! But …….. the body adapts to new stimulus quick so as you progress it will be necessary to add weights in order to further improve.
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