The Importance of Resistance Training for Women (and Men too!)
What does resistance training mean to you? Does your mind instantly flash images of heavy weights and bulky bodies? Do you think YOU will “bulk-up” if you lift weights?
Back in my early 20’s, when I was in the military, I started lifting weights with the guys. I was hesitant at first, with visions of bulky arms and shoulders dancing around in my head. They told me, “If you think you are getting bulky, you can just stop.” I figured they were right and gave it a go. The first thing I noticed was the scale jumping up by around 10 pounds. Holy hell, that’s not what I bargained for! However, I also noticed that I dropped around 2 sizes in clothing and I didn’t look bulky at all. Not only did I look slimmer and trimmer, but I was so much stronger! There were things I had to do for my job, but just didn’t have the strength, so I would have to get help. All of a sudden, I could do it myself! I absolutely loved the look and strength I obtained.
Besides looking better and having more strength, lifting weight (resistance training) has many health benefits. There’s a extensive list, but some of those benefits are that it keeps your bones strong, maintains lean muscle mass (that’s so important as we age), maintains joint flexibility, promotes balance, manages back pain, enhances cardiovascular health, assists in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, improves cognitive abilities, and even boosts your self esteem.
The recommendations for strength training for everyone of all age groups (not just elite athletes) is a relatively new concept. Exercise recommendations were more geared towards aerobic exercise (1980’s aerobics, leotards and leg warmers, anyone?). However, as age-related muscle loss was researched, it was found that lean tissue losses are quite significant. Muscle mass declines between 3% and 8% each decade after age 30 (yes, 30 years old!), averaging approximately 0.2 kg of lean weight loss per year. Muscle loss increases to 5% to 10% each decade after age 50, averaging approximately 0.4 kg per year after the fifth decade of life. Along with this loss in muscle mass, it was found that many physiological factors were associated with it, such as bone loss, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and overall mortality. Resistance training helps to combat these issues that we all deal with as we age.
Besides all of the benefits mentioned above, one of the best parts of gaining some muscle mass is that you burn more calories! As you increase your percentage of lean muscle mass, your basal metabolic rate increases. That means you burn more calories while you are sitting behind your desk, or even sleeping! If that’s not incentive enough, I don’t know what is!
You may have heard that muscle weighs more than fat. Well, that’s not really the truth. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat - right? Just like a pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of bricks. It’s the density of the object that’s the key. Think about it, a pound of bricks would probably fit in the palm of your hand, where a pound of feathers would probably fill your whole car! It’s the same with fat vs muscle. Muscle is more dense, so it takes less space. That’s why even though I gained weight when I started lifting weights (as I gained muscle mass), I actually got smaller in size. Make sense?
This is a big reason why the scale is definitely not your friend when you start resistance training. The numbers on the scale are a big lie because they don’t represent body composition. A body builder (think Arnold Schwartzenegger) is considered obese when looking at the scale, but we both know they are far from obese, many of them having single-digit body fat percentages. The best thing you can do is to see how your clothes are fitting. If you really need some numbers to go by, start taking your measurements at a set time once a month and write them down. I used to take mine one week after my period stopped to make sure I wasn’t dealing with any hormonal water retention.
Does the idea of lifting weights sound daunting? Even though I personally love lifting weights, resistance training isn’t just weight training. You can also use resistance bands or even your body weight for resistance. The key is that it should take some effort. If it becomes easy, you need to add more weight.
What is easy? Since the idea behind resistance training is to gain muscle mass (increase your percentage of muscle tissue), you have to create a strain on your muscles so they will be triggered to grow. That means that you need to be lifting a weight that is challenging. I agree with the recommendation from the American Cancer Society: you should do each exercise for (no more than) 8-12 repetitions, barely being able to get through the last repetition. If you can get through all 12 “reps” without much effort, you need to increase your weight.
I personally prefer to train at a gym, but you don’t need a gym membership to be able to do resistance training. You can easily do a workout from home, and there are plenty of YouTube videos with workouts available for no cost. Starting off with body weight exercises or some resistance bands is virtually free.
If you want to start lifting weights, and if you have never done any type of weight training, I highly recommend hiring a trainer to get you started on a plan and show you how to do the exercises properly. You definitely don’t want to get injured and you do want to maximize the benefits of doing the work, so you need to make sure you are using the correct form. You would probably just need one or two sessions to get a plan and learn the movements, and then you should be good to go on your own!
The most important thing here is to just get started! Optimally you will want to do some form of resistance training twice a week, but if it really seems far out there for you, just start with one. If you used to do resistance training and have been on hiatus for a while, just get going! You will be amazed at how fast your body picks it back up again. The first few times will be the hardest (like everything new), but as you progress and start noticing the benefits, you will be motivated to keep going!