Women, weight & weight training part 1

women curlsI have just returned from my daily trip to the gym. While I was there, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The gym I use is a big, open plan, well equipped room but it seemed there was an invisible force field around the weight training area that only the female clientele could see. The whole time I was there, not a single member of the gentler sex came into the weight training area. Luckily for me, the force field didn’t prevent me from going into the cardio area and asking a few ladies why they didn’t come over to the other side of the gym. Their responses ranged from “I don’t want big muscles” to “cardio is best for weight loss” to “it smells really bad over that side!”



After speaking to a few more women (in the name of science obviously) I realised there was an awful lot of misinformation, confusion and outright lies being spread about resistance training so in this series of articles, I intend to dispel a few of those old myths and start a petition to get more woman lifting weights!

Myth number 1)
Strength training will cause big, bulky muscles and make woman look masculine.

Most women do not have the genetic potential to develop big muscles. They lack sufficient amounts of the male hormone testosterone to develop the kind of muscle mass seen in men. The dominant female hormone, oestrogen, is not responsible for muscle growth, unlike male testosterone. The only way for the majority of women to develop large “male like” muscles would be for them it ingest/inject extraneous testosterone to override their normal hormonal functions. Clearly, this is not a common practice and is only really seen in the sport of bodybuilding and other pursuits where developing maximal strength is necessary.

Myth number 2)
To lose weight, I need to do lots of cardio.

Imagine a glass. In your mind fill this glass with three parts water and one part olive oil. As you know, water and oil don’t readily mix so the oil will float on top of the water. This glass represents your total body weight; the water represents your lean tissue (muscle, bones and internal organs) and the oil representing your body fat. Most exercisers are only concerned with what they weigh, not what that weight is made up of (correctly termed body composition). Using our glass analogy it would be easy to pour off either liquid and reduce the contents of the glass, however, the reality is we want to keep the water (lean body tissue) and ditch the oil (fat). Getting rid of muscle and keeping fat is just pure madness, but with someone who exclusively uses cardio exercise for weight management, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Cardiovascular exercise is essential for our health – it keeps the heart, lungs and circulatory system in tip-top condition, and also burns energy (calories) when we’re doing it. However, because your body is the master adapter and responds to the stress you put upon it, it will do everything it can to make cardiovascular exercise easier. The body lays down new capillaries to aid in oxygen delivery and lactic acid removal, grows bigger/more cells called mitochondria to produce more energy giving ATP, makes the heart bigger and stronger and improves the function of the lungs to increase the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, and rids it self of any extra muscle not actively used in the chosen cardiovascular activity. Think about it. Muscle is vascular – it needs oxygen to survive. Even when you are running, the muscles of your upper body still need large amounts of oxygen. To increase the amount of oxygen available for the running muscles in the legs, it makes sense from a survival perspective to get rid of some of the redundant muscle mass of the upper body. It’s like trimming unnecessary weight off of a car chassis to give greater performance.

This is all well and good for runners wanting to run faster or further, but for someone who wants to control their body fat and look good, this is about the worst possible thing you can do. Muscle needs fuel (food). Less muscle = less food required. We call the daily amount of energy you need your Basal Metabolic Rate – or BMR for short. The resulting loss of muscle mass lowers your BMR resulting in an energy surplus which will most likely turn into fat when that energy is not used. A two pound loss of muscle will result in a approximate 70 kcal drop in daily energy requirements. This means our aerobic loving exerciser will lose muscle, gain fat and look worse than they did before starting their exercise regime.

What is the best way to maintain/gain lean tissue I hear you ask? The answer is “Lift weights”. It’s a simple case of use it or lose it. The body will maintain/increase its muscle mass if that muscle is being called on regularly to perform work.

A small increase in muscle mass will result in a higher daily BMR which means our exerciser will need more energy on a daily basis, and if they are under eating, that extra energy will have to come from body fat stores.

So, the take home message is that a combination of cardio and weight training is best for fat loss. Weight loss can occur when we lose muscle but the reality is that it’s the fat we need to lose, and keep the muscle.  

In the next part of this series more myths will get busted!

Part 2 of this series can be found here http://www.ultra-fitmagazine.co.uk/?p=1213
Part 3 of this series can be found here http://www.ultra-fitmagazine.co.uk/?p=1221

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