I'll get to the science in a minute, but first watch this 32 year-old woman do 7 unassisted pull-ups:
She is 5’3” and 114 pounds. She is not a personal trainer. Nor is she a fitness competitor. She works out 5 days a week for 45-60 minutes then works full-time in the fashion industry. (Full disclosure: she is my partner and I have her permission). Women ask her for tips and advice every day. When asked what she does, she says she lifts weights “heavier than you think you are supposed to”.
I wish this issue could be laid to rest, once and for all. Should women lift weights? Will you get bulky from strength training? The science has been out there for decades, yet the myth persists. I have a theory why the myth lives on. I think most people just aren’t willing to work that hard. It’s much easier to say, “I can’t do it, because I don’t want to get bulky” than it is to actually do the hard work and achieve the results everyone is after.
I’ve worked with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood and I can tell you they lift weights. They lift weights that are heavy enough so they can get stronger. It’s important to distinguish between bodybuilding and strength training. Bodybuilding is a sport where men and women do everything they possibly can to build very large, defined muscles. Bodybuilders work their muscles so intensely that multiple days are required to recover. Therefore, they are only able to train one or two muscle groups per day. They drastically manipulate their diets depending on whether they are “bulking up” or “ripping down” right before a contest. They may even use anabolic steroids and growth hormones to increase their muscle size. The bottom line is it’s really very difficult to “bulk up”!
Strength training is a method of improving muscular strength by gradually increasing the ability to resist force through the use of free weights, machines, or the person's own body weight. Strength does not necessarily equal size! The benefits of strength training include increased bone, muscle, tendon and ligament strength, improved joint function, reduced potential for injury, increased bone density, increase in metabolism, improved cardiac function, and elevated HDL (good) cholesterol, not to mention improved performance in all sports and physical activities. No other form of exercise provides a greater range of benefits.
That’s the science. “You don’t know my body,” I hear. “I’ve lifted weights before and my clothes get tighter!” Here’s what happens: Say you are a size 8 or 10 and you’ve never really worked out with resistance before. You have very little muscle tissue under a much larger layer of fat. By the third, fourth and fifth week of a good strength program, you are beginning to build lean tissue (muscle) under that layer of fat. Muscle is denser than fat. You go to pull your jeans over your thighs and they feel tighter. You freak out because you think you are getting bigger. What’s actually happening is you now have denser tissue, which makes it more difficult to “squish” into those jeans. Here’s the important part: YOU HAVEN’T YET GIVEN YOUR METABOLISM A CHANCE TO CHANGE. Once you have more muscle tissue on your body, you will burn more calories, period. You’ll burn more calories asleep, awake, working out, and watching TV.
There will naturally be a bit of overlap as you begin to re-proportion your body. This is when many women jump to the conclusion they are “getting too big”. I’ve never had a woman complain that she’s too muscular after they’ve dropped body fat on my strength program. Wouldn’t you rather be leaner and fitter and maybe have to buy a new wardrobe? I challenge the women I work with to give it 12 weeks. “If you feel like you’ve gotten too big, we can always give you your old body back.” That’s the easy part.