Why Women Should Lift Weights
Pumping iron can make you look and feel better at any age.
While struggling through long jumps and lunges during a recent class at my boxing gym, the owner suggested I lift weights—heavy weights—to help build strength in my legs and protect my joints. Specifically, he suggested I try powerlifting. It was an intriguing suggestion that ran counter to what I’d been told all my life, namely, that I shouldn’t lift heavy weights or I would “bulk up.” But what’s wrong with that? As it turns out, nothing—in fact, lifting heavy can be very healthy for women, particularly as we age.
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Debunking the Bulk Myth
An article on Insider (medically reviewed), neatly unpacks some of the myths around women and weightlifting. Among these myths are the idea that lifting weights will make you look “bulky.” The article states:
“Building muscle takes significantly longer than burning fat, and years of hard work are required for the lean muscle mass you see on ‘bulky’ athletes.”
Even if that weren't the case, what’s wrong with looking muscular? I would love to look like Serena Williams or Aly Raisman, I just clearly don’t spend enough time in the gym.
Benefits of Weightlifting
So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, why should women lift weights? According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, weightlifting has a number benefits for women:
It can help you move better. By targeting “underactive muscle groups,” it can help ward off chronic pain caused by poor movement patterns. In other words, the owner of the gym was right! Lifting weights might make me less creaky.
It can make you more confident. “Resistance training programs can aid women in changing their focus to increasing strength rather than losing weight,” according to the article. In a recent podcast, we talked about dieting and obsessive scale watching (of which I’m guilty), so perhaps weight training can serve as an antidote to that.
It helps protect your bones. Loss of bone density can be a big problem for older people, and particularly for women, since loss of bone density accelerates during menopause. While several types of exercise can slow bone loss, studies have found resistance training to be particularly effective for preserving both bone density and muscle mass.
It can help you lose weight. In addition to the calories burned during a session, weightlifting increases your resting metabolic rate so that you continue to burn calories after you leave the gym. And lifting heavier weights increases this effect.
You’re Never Too Old to Get Ripped
It’s an unfortunate fact that muscle mass starts declining after age 30 and speeds up after age 60. However, lifting weights can slow—or even reverse—the decline. According to a study in Geriatrics:
“Progressive resistance exercises can produce substantial increases in strength and muscle size, even in the oldest old. For many older patients, exercise represents the safest, least expensive means to lose body fat, decrease blood pressure, improving glucose tolerance, and maintain long-term independence.”
Another study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that heavy resistance training is “safe and enjoyable” for women over 60 and reaps benefits even for those who are already active.
How To Get Started
While weightlifting has many benefits, it has some risks as well. Improper form can lead to injury and lifting too much too soon can be a recipe for disaster. As a result, it might be a good idea so start out with a personal trainer. During my first foray into strength training, I met with a personal trainer once a month to keep the costs down, and he gave me a program that I could use throughout the month while progressively increasing the weights that I used.
An article in American Family Physician has a few additional tips, including using a spotter (someone who can help you if the weight ends up being too heavy), warming up properly, and not lifting if you feel pain. It listed a couple more that I found obvious and somewhat humorous:
Don't hyperventilate (breathe in and out fast) or hold your breath when you lift heavy weights. You may faint and lose control of the weights. Breathe out when you lift or press.
Don't lift weights if you are light-headed. Stop your workout and start again the next day.
I would say those two apply to most types of exercise!
While I don’t think I’m ready to add a powerlifting to my fitness repertoire right now, I am definitely adding strength training a couple of times per week and focusing on heavier weights with fewer repetitions versus lighter weights with more.
Have you had success with weightlifting? Tell us about it in the comments.