The problem that I have when it comes to females & weight training is that some, not all females (so don't get all Tanya Harding on me) are afraid of getting out of their comfort zone. They formulate an image in their minds that I'm trying to 'bulk them up' like a bodybuilder, which is completely false. What I do know is that they've become too comfortable and complacent with their resistance training program, which are 2 very dangerous places to be in, yet they're the ones who are constantly complaining about not seeing results! They whine about their arms being too flabby, their thighs aren't as toned as they'd like them to be, their waistline is getting wider....blah, blah, blah. The reason I say comfort & complacency are dangerous places to be in is because these are the areas that yield very little to no results.
If results are what you're after, you MUST lift heavier loads to improve and create lean muscle growth. In turn, increased muscle development will not only give shape & tone to your body, but it will also increase your resting metabolic rate by burning an additional 35-50 calories more per hour while at rest. That's right, adding muscle increases metabolism. It also improves physical performance, helps burn stored fat, decreases the risk of potential injury, improves bone density (decreases the risk of osteoporosis), reduces the risk of heart disease, aids in rehabilitation, improves your overall appearance, boosts strength & power, and helps us to age gracefully.
Let me set the record straight by discussing some key points as to why women CANNOT bulk up when lifting heavy weights:
- Women do not have nearly as much testosterone as men. In fact, according to Bill Kreamer in Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, women have about 15 to 20 times less testosterone than men. Testosterone is the reason men are men and women are women. After men hit puberty, they grow facial hair, their voice deepens, and they develop muscle mass. Because men have more testosterone, they're much more equipped to gain muscle. Because women don't have very much testosterone in their bodies, they'll never be able to get as big as men.
- The perception that women will bulk up when they begin a strength training program comes from the chemically-altered women on the covers of bodybuilding magazines. These “grocery stand models” are most likely pumped full of some extra juice. This is why they look like men. If you take the missing link that separates men from women and add it back in, what do you have? That's right....a man!
- For women, toning is what happens when the muscle is developed through training. This is essentially bodybuilding without testosterone. Since the testosterone is not present in sufficient amounts, the muscle will develop, but it won’t gain a large amount of mass. The “toned” appearance comes from removing the fat that is covering a well-developed muscle.
- Muscle bulk comes from a high volume of work. The repetition range that most women would prefer to do (8–20 reps) promotes hypertrophy (muscle growth). For example, a bodybuilding program will have three exercises per body part. For the chest, they may do flat bench for three sets of 12, incline for three sets of 12, and decline bench for three sets of 12. This adds up to 108 total repetitions. A program geared towards strength will have one exercise for the chest — flat bench for six sets of three reps with progressively heavier weight. This equals 18 total repetitions. High volume (108 reps) causes considerable muscle damage, which in turn, results in hypertrophy. The considerably lower volume (18 reps) will build more strength and cause minimal bulking.
- Heavy weights will promote strength not size. This has been proven time and time again. When lifting weights over 85%, the primary stress imposed upon the body is placed on the nervous system, not on the muscles. Therefore, strength will improve by a neurological effect while not increasing the size of the muscles. According to Zatsiorsky and Kreamer in Science and Practice of Strength Training, 'women need to train with heavy weights not only to strengthen the muscles but also to cause positive adaptations in the bones and connective tissues.'
- Bulking up is not an overnight process. Many women think they'll start lifting weights, wake up one morning, and say “Holy crap! I’m huge!” It doesn’t happen this way. The men that you see who have more muscle than the average person have worked hard for a long time (years) to get that way. If you bulk up overnight, contact me as soon as possible because I want to do what you’re doing.
- What some personal trainers are prescribing is not working. Many female athletes come into a new program and say they want to do bodyweight step-ups, bodyweight lunges, and leg extensions because it’s what their personal trainer back home had them do. However, many of these girls need to look in a mirror and have a reality check because their trainer’s so-called 'magical toning exercises' aren't working and haven't helped them see the desired results they want. Trainers will hand out easy workouts and tell people they work because they know that if they make the program too hard the client will complain. And, if the client is complaining, there’s a good chance the trainer might lose that client (a client to a trainer equals money).
- Bulking up is calorie dependant. It all comes down to calories in vs. calories out. This means if you eat more than you're burning, you'll gain weight. If you eat less than you're burning, you will lose weight. Unfortunately, most female athletes perceive any weight gain as “bulking up” and don't give attention to the fact that they are simply gaining fat. A trainer friend of mine once said, "Squats don’t bulk you up. It’s the ten beers a night that bulk you up.” This cannot be emphasized enough. If you’re a female athlete and training with heavy weights (or not), you need to watch what you eat.
- Most of the so-called 'experts' are only experts on pretending to sound like they know what they're talking about. The people who “educate” female athletes on training and nutrition have no idea what they’re talking about. Let’s face it — how many people do you know who claim to “know a thing or two about lifting and nutrition?” Now, how many people do you know who actually know what they’re talking about, practice what they preach, live the fitness lifestyle, enforce the principles of proper nutrition and 'clean eating'? Invariably, these so-called experts are also the people who blame their gut on poor genetics. They're also the reason you see so many women doing sets of 10 with a weight they could do 20 or 30 times. These females are being told by the experts that this is what it takes to “tone” the muscles. Instead, they're only wasting their time doing an exercise with a weight that is making no contribution to the fitness levels or the development of the muscle.
In case you haven’t figured it out by this point in this blog post, what's currently being done in fitness clubs to help female athletes tone their bodies isn't working. It’s not helping these women get toned, and it's definitely not helping improve athletic performance. Contrary to the ineffective light weights currently being used, heavy weights offer many benefits for women including improved body composition, stronger muscles, decreased injury rate, and stronger bones as mentioned earlier. Try lifting heavy resistance loads, controlling your diet and watch this logical, science-based solution make the difference you’ve been looking for.
Check out these 2 books which I highly recommend that reflect the topic of women & weight training: "The Female Body Breakthrough" by Rachel Cosgrove, CSCS and "The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess" by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsythe, MS, and Alywn Cosgrove, CSCS.
*Sources: The Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, The Science & Practice of Strength Training, elitefts.com