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Strength Training for Women without the Bulk

It takes a lot more work and calories for a woman to bulk up in the gym. Try strength training to tone, burn more calories & reduce body fat.

Take a look around any big box gym and you’ll see a greater percentage of women than men on cardio equipment. You’ll observe the same phenomenon if you look into your local yoga practice. Now take a peek at the free weight area—chances are you won’t find men being outnumbered there (and women-only clubs don’t count, but nice try!).

lifting_weights_increases_metabolism_long_term_picThe times are definitely changing though, and more and more women adopt strength training as part of their regimen to look and feel better. However, it still surprises me how many women hold the view that, and I quote, “strength training will make me look big and bulky, like the girls you see on those muscle magazines.” Every time I hear this, I’m sure an angel somewhere loses its wings.

The Truth about Bulking Up

Women naturally have less muscle mass than men, especially in the upper body. Unless they follow a progressive overload training protocol and have a calorie intake to support muscle growth, they won’t come anywhere close to looking like the Mrs. Universe of bodybuilding.

Women don’t naturally secrete the amount of testosterone necessary to get big and bulky; it’s said they only make about 5–10% of the testosterone that men do. This isn’t to say that women can’t build muscle, because they obviously can, so in the worst-case scenario, if an area becomes too bulky from increased muscle, a tweak in training can easily be made to reduce the bulk in favor of tone.

This is actually a good problem to have as the added muscle helps burn more calories when at rest and increases a person’s metabolic rate, helping to reduce body fat. One pound of muscle burns around six calories at rest, while one pound of fat burns roughly only two calories.

Dr. Cassandra Forsythe states that women are less powerful than men due to lower muscle mass, smaller hearts, and less lung capacity, all leading to a lower stroke volume. However, women tend to recover faster from high intensity training than men do.

Some Other Strength Training Benefits:

  • woman_measurment_skinny_stomach_healthy_weight_loss_picImproved body composition. If curves are what you’re after, then weight training is your answer. No amount of endurance exercise will create that hourglass physique, as it is muscle that creates the curves.
  • Lowered risk of heart disease.
  • Increased bone density, decreasing the risk of osteoporosis,especially in those after menopause when the body no longer secretes estrogen.
  • More insulin sensitive, decreasing the risk of type II diabetes.
  • If combining weights with cardio, such as in a complex or a circuit, more calories can be burned post-workout than cardiovascular exercise alone. Calories can be burned for up to 36 hours post-workout through a process called Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC.
  • By training in different rep ranges and therefore using different loads, women, like men, have a better chance of hypertrophy in all the muscle fiber types.

Weight Training as a Woman

weight_training_to_improve_your_running_picThere are a few things to think about regarding women and strength training. Premenopausal women who are not using birth control may find that they are stronger and able to train harder during the follicular phase and ovulation phase. Please be careful during the ovulation phase as your body is more susceptible to injury during this time—be sure your exercise form is impeccable. During the luteal phase, it may be wise to lay off the heavier weights and instead choose moderate loads and incorporate endurance training.

Women have a wider pelvis, creating a greater Q-angle than men, so be on the lookout for a valgus collapse (knee caving towards the midline of the body) during exercise. It is imperative that the knee stays overtop of the big toe at all times, otherwise ACL injuries can occur.

Hopefully at this point, if you’ve been neglecting strength training, you’re rethinking your game plan going forward. For those of you who’ve been hitting the weights hard, you can attest that the only useful application those pastel colored, rubber coated dumbbells have is that they make good doorstoppers.

Train hard, but train smart!

Learn more about strength training!

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