Not just for guys: Here's why weight training is important for women too

Women are actually 6% stronger than men at the leg press, seen in this filepic as a two-person version, when strength is expressed relative to lean body mass.

Exercise to the majority of people, means walking, running, swimming, hiking or any other form of cardiovascular activity. They talk about wanting to lose weight, but do not factor in strength or resistance training into their workouts.

While aerobic exercise burns both fat and muscle, weight training burns almost exclusively fat. Any exercise where you move your body against resistance and is hard to perform, can be considered resistance or strength training.

Resistance can be provided simply by moving your body against gravity (i.e. using your own body as a weight) or by using weighted objects such as dumbbells or barbells. You can also add resistance by using machines at the gym or by using equipment such as weighted bars, bands, tubes or kettlebells.

This form of training is what we call weight training. To most women, this form of workout is still an alien concept, despite repeated assurances that weight training offers plenty of benefits.

Just a few days ago, a friend approached me for advice on how to tone her arms and tummy because those areas were starting to sag. She was getting older, and with increasing healthcare costs and hefty insurance premiums, she decided to get herself fit. Fortunately, she has no health issues and is blessed with slim genes.

When I told her she needed to do strength training, she innocently asked, “If I lift my water bottle a few times, is that enough to tone my biceps?”

“Are you referring to the 1.5 litre bottles?” I queried.

“Oh no,” came the reply. “Just the 500 milliliter ones.” She was dead serious, but I was amused.

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You don’t get those muscles by lifting a 500ml water bottle! Most women are against weight-training as they fear they will end up looking like Singaporean bodybuilder Joan Liew, seen in this filepic, but that is quite unlikely to happen to the average woman.

Equally strong

This is the thing about women – they fear lifting weights and most just don’t like it. Many women are afraid they will develop large bulky muscles from weight training, although we know that this is highly unlikely for the average woman.

Athletic women who are able to develop significant muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) typically have higher than normal testosterone levels, lower than normal oestrogen-to-testosterone ratios, a genetic predisposition to develop a greater muscle mass, and a very intense training programme that includes high levels of protein intake.

In any event, the principle of reversibility states that all exercise adaptations are transient (temporary) and reversible. In other words, if you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Women tend to be weaker than men primarily because of their lower quantity of muscles and their smaller bones. That’s why when an older woman falls, she tends to suffer more fractures than if an older man falls.

However, research has shown that given the same amount of muscle, there are no differences in strength between the sexes. Some studies show that when strength is expressed relative to lean body mass, men are 45% stronger than women at the bench press, but that women are 6% stronger that men at the leg press.

The large discrepancy between the upper and lower body strength may be due to the fact that both men and women walk, run and climb stairs, but men usually lift heavy objects with their arms more frequently than do women.

As female muscle tissue has the same physiological characteristics as male muscle tissue, it responds to training in the same manner. Depending on your body type, muscle definition comes along quicker for both men and women when they start weight training, with muscles looking more sculpted and toned.

The amount of muscle definition that you see will depend on the amount of fat that is covering the muscle.

Stressing the joints

Efficient weight training means putting stress on your joints. Your bones react to the weight on them by fighting back and getting stronger. Basically, the more you stress your joints, the harder the muscles around them have to work to support them.

As the muscles become stronger, they protect the joints, increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. If the movements seem too easy, then your joints are not being stressed enough and muscles cannot be built. Now is the time to up the intensity.

Bone mass decreases with age, so consistent strength training over time can prevent bone loss, and may even help build new bone. Ideally, you should target strengthening all areas, but if you’re older, work on the ones that are most prone to breaking or fracturing: the hips, spine and wrists.

Here’s a tip to increase bone density in your hips; Do five stomps on each foot twice a day, using enough pressure to crush a can of peas.

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Women are actually 6% stronger than men at the leg press, seen in this filepic as a two-person version, when strength is expressed relative to lean body mass.

Changing it up

Ideally, beginners should incorporate weight training twice a week into their workouts, doing a full-body workout with one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Having that target number of repetitions also helps you zero in on the right weight.

Start with a weight you know you can handle, then gradually increase it until it’s a challenge to hit your target reps with good form. As you make strength training a habit, your body will get stronger, which means you can gradually increase the amount of weight you lift.

Once you’ve perfected the exercises and the body gets better, try sha-king things up by experimenting with new exercises every few months or switching to more challenging versions.

Consider alternating body weight with equipment or bands. It’s important that your muscles don’t develop a memory (of the exercises), so that they can continually build.

A note to remember is that weight training may increase your weight slightly as muscles weigh more than fat. However, even though your body weight may increase, your body size may shrink and you will look trimmer.

Muscles also help to increase your metabolic rate because muscle burns more calories than fat. So if you build more muscle and reduce fat, you’ll continue to burn calories all day long. Isn’t that enticing?

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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