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Weight training for women weight loss

Weight Training and the Female Body

The myth “If a woman lifts heavy and consistently, she will look like a man” is persistent, and I don’t know where it came from. Nothing could be further from the truth. A woman who follows a rigorous and progressive weight training program won’t look like a man, she will look like…… well she will look like a woman who lifts weights. There are inherent differences in the physical structure and hormone production of men and women. Everyone has different ideas of beauty, so it is possible that a woman could naturally achieve a physique that others would not find attractive, but that is true of anyone.

Where does the myth come from? Stereotypes? Cultural ideations?

Where does this myth come from? It seems to be a globally accepted misconception about women and weight training. There doesn’t seem to be one point of origin. It could be that when women started going to the gym and/or weight training at home, they were perceived as intruders in what was a male only domain. Wherever it came from, the myth continues to this day. The most commonly perpetuated pillar of this stereotype is the image of a woman who is clearly taking steroids. This is the only way to achieve the “manly” body that so many criticize.

What people believe weight training will do to you:

 

Aleesha Young, US female amateur bodybuilding champion 2014

What actually happens when women lift weights:

Ruthie Bowles – US national bikini competitor/ fitness model

How does the body create muscle? Is it different for men and women?

Muscle growth is a gradual process, even more so for women than men, due to our lower testosterone levels. A woman who trains in the gym is not going to wake up one day with a body she doesn’t recognize, which is similar to how a person won’t wake up one day and suddenly be overweight. It is a gradual process made up of many small choices each day. A woman who works out, but does not make the best dietary choices will almost never see the same results as a woman who trains and eats well.

Male and female bodies are structured differently. The female body is optimized for child birth, causing us to be predisposed to put more weight on our legs. Personally, I found it more difficult to add muscle to my upper body, despite training six days per week, twice per day for 8 or 10-week cycles in preparation for bodybuilding competitions. I did eventually achieve the look I was aiming for, but it took me years to reach my goal. This is a typical experience for a weight training female. It takes women years to put on the sort of muscle mass that men can add to their physiques in a much shorter time. Additionally, there is only so much the body can do naturally, which is why people resort to steroids and other products to unnaturally boost body mechanisms, such as muscle growth.

Muscle growth is part of the body’s healing process. People often associate muscle building with gym time, but the time in the gym is actually when muscle fibers are broken down. During the rebuilding process, the body rebuilds and heals the muscle, making it a little larger and stronger than before. This is why rest days are so important. If not allowed proper rest, then the body will not heal the muscle fibers in time for the next workout.

Testosterone is a primary driver behind muscle growth. Testosterone is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal cortex, testes, and ovaries. Women produce testosterone too, just not in the amounts that men do (sometimes 30 times less than men). Decreased testosterone has been correlated with lowered libido, loss of muscle mass, and an increase in body fat in both men and women. Weight training and a balanced diet are two of the ways to naturally increase testosterone levels. Naturally produced testosterone will not increase so much as to give a distinct advantage, but as people get older, their testosterone naturally drops off, hampering muscle building efforts.

How do women encourage muscle growth? Are there special considerations compared to men? What about diet and training?

Women encourage muscle growth the same way men do. A consistent and dedicated weight training program combined with a healthy well-balanced diet will produce muscle growth. Notice that I said “well-balanced”. Due to protein being so heavily tied to muscle building, some people believe the more protein the better. This isn’t true, and can actually be bad for your kidneys. A typical home cook meal consisting of a bowl of rice (an Asian carb staple), a meat dish, some cooked vegetables and soup are generally enough to sustain an average adult. The main alterations that have to be made to this type of diet are an increase in protein and fat. Protein provides the building blocks of muscle, while fat is necessary for hormone production, namely testosterone. Tofu should be avoided, since it contains soy which is high in estrogen.

The body is constantly divvying up calories and nutrients. One of the staple characteristics of a weightlifter is how often they eat. Most women weightlifters I know eat a small to medium sized meal every 2-3 hours. Eating this often keeps the blood sugar from dipping, and offers a regular source of nutrients. Notably, any food a person eats gets processed immediately. The body has two possibilities for food processing: energy right now (blood sugar) and energy for later (body fat). This means that a portion of a large meal has a greater chance of being stored as body fat, when compared to a medium sized meal.

Muscles heal best with the proper fuel, namely the foods we eat. The idiom, “you are what you eat”, has a serious ring of truth when you consider physical fitness encompasses more than just your gym routine. Generally speaking, a diet that supports a strong weight training program consists of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fats. Some common sources of protein are: fish, chicken, turkey, and beef. There are some types of fish that combine the necessary protein with healthy fats, namely tuna and salmon. Complex carbohydrates vary by region, and include what we consider starches, like brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains, and vegetables. Including many different types of vegetables will allow you to get a lot of different vitamins and minerals. Additionally, many vegetables don’t have a lot of calories, which means you can have extra helpings! Complex carbohydrates are digested slower than simple carbohydrates, which is what usually makes them better for you. Healthy fats are critical to good health. They support joint health in addition to heart health. Common sources of healthy fats are: olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, and the well-loved avocado (which is a fruit, but deserves to be in this category).

The image above (of me in the green suit) shows me at my peak physique. . I trained twice per day for 16 weeks leading up to the show. The first eight weeks, I trained two different muscle groups twice per day, and I ate more calories than I burned to encourage muscle growth. That is a very important point. To give your muscles the best chance of real growth, you need to eat to fuel that growth. This means you need to eat more calories than you burn. This is called bulking. For women, this doesn’t mean you get “bulky”, it is just the term that is used. You don’t have to eat a whole lot more than you burn, just enough to let your body know it is okay to add calorie-burning muscle to your body. I did not get bulky or look manly

Everyone’s weight training program should be specialized for them. When you know your body well, it becomes easier to refine your programs. My bulking training program looked like this:

Monday: Chest (A.M)/ Back (P.M)

Tuesday: Hamstrings & Glutes (A.M.)/ Quad & Calves (P.M.)

Wednesday: Shoulders (A.M.)/ Abdominals (P.M.)

Thursday: same as Monday

Friday: same as Tuesday

Saturday: same as Wednesday

Sunday: Rest Day

Keep in mind that I structured this program because I was competing in the USA NPC National Bodybuilding Competition. Most weight training programs are 4-5 days of training with 2-3 days of rest. I was at an elite stage of my training, and I had a rest cycle planned for after that competition, allowing my body to rest after the huge demand I placed on it. For people not planning on competing, 3-4 days of training is an ideal amount of training time.

The second 8 weeks, I lifted weights in the mornings, and I did cardio in the evenings. At this stage, I was trying to lower my body fat while keeping my muscles. I lowered my calorie intake by about 100 calories each week to really hone in on the physique I was looking for. This is called a “cut” or “cutting cycle”. I was dieting, but I was also eating a lot of food to begin with. In order to avoid damage to my metabolism, I made sure to keep my calorie intake at levels that wouldn’t push my body into starvation mode. There will be more on starvation mode in a moment.

My cutting training plan looked like this:

Monday: Chest (A.M.)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M.)

Tuesday: Quads & Calves (A.M.)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M.)

Wednesday: Back (A.M)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M.)

Thursday: Hamstrings (A.M.)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M)

Friday: Shoulders (A.M.)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M.)

Saturday: Abdominals (A.M.)/ Cardio Intervals (P.M.)

Sunday: Rest day

The primary take away here is that you should have a plan that helps you achieve your goals. Serious changes have to be made when your goals change.

How does weight training compare to a cardio only plan?

The human body tries to be good at what we do most often. This is why people who lift weights get stronger, and people who run get faster. You do not generally find a weight lifter who is just as fast as they are strong. When weight lifters choose to do cardio, it is generally because they want to lose body fat so their muscles are more defined. All sorts of physical activities provide a variety of benefits to the body, but there is no single type of exercise that improves all aspects of a person’s fitness equally.

In a 12-week study conducted with twenty people were assigned a weight training program and twenty people were assigned a cardio only program. Each group saw improvements in different areas. In the cardio only program, there was an increase in the amount of oxygen in the blood, whereas in the weight training program, there were significant heightened qualities noted in their blood, such as an increase in the amount of red blood cells. Another noteworthy discovery of the experiment was that the weightlifting program participants showed a significant increase in a particular stem cell. The researchers concluded that weightlifting showed a better adaptation to exercise.

I presented that example, only because I think it is important to consider your goals, and what you enjoy doing. The exercise you enjoy doing is the one that you will keep doing. All forms of exercise can improve your health. That being said, I do think that a weight training program paired with cardio has significant advantages over a cardio only program. The primary one being muscle growth. Muscles burn more calories at rest (when you aren’t working out) than other types of tissue. General numbers that gets tossed around are 10 calories burned per pound of muscle, and 3 calories per pound of fat burned each day. So, the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you burn at rest.

I mentioned starvation mode earlier. Starvation mode is the phrase used to describe a person’s metabolism after it has been abused too much. Eating below your required number of calories for too long causes damage to your metabolism, and your body seeks to correct this imbalance. It looks for processes to eliminate to bring the number of calories burned down. One of the first processes to go is muscle maintenance. Less muscle means a lower calorie burn, enabling your body to survive better on the calories you give it. Too few calories also suggests too few nutrients, which causes other problems in the body. Starvation mode should never be a weight loss solution.

Women who train with weights are a growing niche of gym goers. They are enjoying the strength it gives their bodies, and they are relishing the sculpted and firm changes they feel and can see in the mirror. Weight training is not just for men, and being strong and beautiful is an attainable goal. Being contentious of what we eat and how we exercise will give use healthy bodies, not manly ones.

Author:

Ruthie Bowles
Instagram: @annaruthus
Twitter: @annaruthus

References

C., J. (2012, November 19). Muscle Building Diet for the Asian Male. Retrieved from Alpha Asian: http://alpha-asian.blogspot.com/2012/11/muscle-building-diet-for-asian-male.html

Kwon, Y., & Kravitz, L. (2004). How Do Muscles Grow? Retrieved from University of New Mexico: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/musclesgrowLK.html

Leyva, J. (2013, September 17). How Do Muscles Grow? The Science of Muscle Growth. Retrieved from BuiltLean: https://www.builtlean.com/2013/09/17/muscles-grow/

Matthews, M. (2015). How Testosterone Levels Affect Muscle Growth and Fat Loss. Retrieved from Muscle for Life: https://www.muscleforlife.com/how-testosterone-levels-affect-muscle-growth-and-fat-loss/

Shalaby, M., Saad, M., Akar, S., Reda, M., & Shalgam, A. (2012, December). The Role of Aerobic and Anaerobic Training Programs on CD34+ Stem Cells and Chosen Physiological Variables. Journal of Human Kinetics, 69-79.

 

 

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