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By Neghar Fonooni
There’s been a lot of talk in the fitness world lately about serious strength training for women, and the countless benefits of pumping iron. You see articles about it in all the major fitness publications and, fortunately, a gradual paradigm shift has begun, both in the industry, as well as modern society, regarding the female image. There has been a mild departure from the delicate, unassuming treadmill walker, to something slightly more hardcore. This new image boasts not only sumptuous, sinewy muscle—but places a heavy premium on being legitimately strong, and ultimately, kind of badass.
Strong is in style; there is certainly no doubt about that. Women around the world are beginning to get in touch with their inner beasts, proudly purporting their desire to lift heavy stuff.
And although this female strength revolution is still rather niche, its’ being progressively nudged along by organizations such as Strong is the New Skinny, Crossfit, and Girls Gone Strong. It’s a movement; a redefinition of what it means to train like a girl.
The movement is, of course, still quite small. This is due to several factors, including the discomfort that many women feel in the weight room, social stigmas and strength training myths that just won’t seem to die. But it’s a movement nonetheless, and one that I am rather excited to be a part of—both as a coach and a woman.
But I have a confession to make.
Getting strong is not the reason I started lifting. In fact, the desire to lift big was so far from my mind, that it took 7 years of experience in the weight room to realize it.
My first experience in the weight room was as a timid high school sophomore, intent on looking better in a bikini. All of my friends were skinny, but alas, I was the “thick” friend; the friend who couldn’t share anyone’s clothes and felt extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I hated my plump thighs and buxom bottom. I wanted to be skinny, and that was all there was to it.
This is why most of us women end up lifting weights. Not because we want to deadlift twice our body weight or perform unassisted chin-ups, but because we want to look better, feel tighter and bare our bodies comfortably when the occasion calls for a two piece. The confidence, self-esteem and flat out functionality that comes with serious strength training will hopefully win out in the long run, but it’s rarely the catalyst for embarking on a weight training program.
As a coach, the majority of my clientele are female. And while they eventually become excited about lifting big and setting personal records, they usually start out with a number of fears regarding heavy weight training. In an effort to show you why ladies should lift, I’ll discuss those fears, how and why to assuage them, and what to do to start getting the body you want—both in form and function.
The Big, Bulky Muscle Myth
So you’re afraid if you lift big, you’re going to get big, right? Well, you’re not alone. The most common myth about strength training is that it will create bulky, masculine muscles. Women intimate to me regularly the fear that they will end up looking like Ms. Olympia should they lift anything heavier than 5-pound dumbbells. That’s why programs like Pilates and the Tracy Anderson Method boast the development of lean, sculpted muscles. They know what you want, they just don’t know how to give it to you.
Let me go ahead and allay these fears. If you lift heavy, you will develop a musculature that is in line with your specific genetics. You might be slightly denser, like Jessica Biel, or on the slimmer side, such as Evangeline Lilly (both super hot and fit, I might add). Ultimately, however, your body will develop as only it can.
You can’t fight genetics, but you can play the best hand with what you’re dealt. That involves training consistently, in a way that supports your body, but more importantly, it relies heavily on what you put in your mouth. Eating a diet of whole foods, rich with protein, vegetables and healthy fats will support a lean physique, and is an integral component to maintaining a fit, sleek body.
So, why won’t you get big, you ask?
The answer is testosterone; the hormone most frequently associated with the development of muscle mass.
This hormone, often referred to as the male sex hormone, is actually produced by women as well. However, women produce, on average, about 1/15th the amount that men do. Furthermore, the amount of free testosterone-that which is found in the bloodstream-is rather infinitesimal compared to the total amount produced in the body. This free testosterone is what is essentially responsible for stimulating physiological changes.
So it stands to reason, that if women produce significantly lower amounts of testosterone as compared to men, and of that testosterone, an even smaller amount can actually help increase muscle mass, the likelihood of a woman bulking up by just lifting heavy is astonishingly low. If it were that easy to get big, men wouldn’t spend so much time in the gym trying to do so.
Why You Should Lift, and Lift BIG
Now that you’ve been cleared of the most misleading reason not to lift big, let’s discuss the reasons you should. Interestingly, the very thing that leaves most women on cardio machines and out of the weight room, is one of the key components of fat loss.
You guessed it: testosterone and muscle mass.
I know what you must be thinking—this chick is crazy. She just told me I don’t produce enough testosterone to get big, and now she’s telling me I need that same testosterone to burn fat?
But don’t call shenanigans on me just yet. Let me explain why muscle mass is so integral to a fat loss program and how testosterone plays a role in that. Because testosterone is responsible for developing muscle mass, and your body produces testosterone (in addition to estrogen and progesterone), you will begin to increase the amount of lean mass you carry by lifting weights. Testosterone is also responsible for improving insulin sensitivity—which is really just a fancy way of saying that your body will be more efficient at responding to blood sugars and avoiding fat storage.
So, by lifting big, you won’t get huge (unless you decide to drastically supplement your testosterone beyond normal levels), and you will increase your metabolism.
The reason for this is simple: The more muscle, or lean mass, you possess, the more calories you will burn at any given time. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue that is critical for fat loss. The bigger you lift, the more lean mass you will gain, resulting in a lean, fat burning machine. And because muscle is more dense than fat, gaining it will actually make your body tighter and smaller. When I tell people how much I weigh, they are typically floored. At 5’1 and 123 pounds, my muscular body looks far different than that of someone with the same measurements and very little muscle.
But fat loss and a sculpted physique are not the only reasons to lift big. There are benefits to pumping iron that might not catapult you into the weight-room, but will ultimately keep you there.
Remember when I said that getting strong wasn’t why I started lifting? Well, it is why I’ve continued to lift for the past 15 years, and what has kept me motivated to lift consistently. Strength is my secret weapon, for it has given me self-confidence and worth beyond measure. Because I can accomplish physical feats I had never thought possible, I am now more certain of my ability to crush any challenge that life sends my way. Where there was once doubt and despair, there is tenacity and fearlessness. I am a force, and a fit one at that.
Mental and emotional benefits notwithstanding, there are physical advantages of lifting that eclipse the obvious aesthetic benefits. Ever have to move furniture? Lift boxes? Climb mountains of stairs? Serious lifting makes all of those things less cumbersome.
Last year, I was invited to my son’s kindergarten class to speak about exercise and nutrition. When I asked the class why it was important to be strong, a 6-year-old girl named Lizzie answered: “Because it makes everything else easier.”
Strong makes life easier, in every sense of the word. Strong will make you sexier, more capable and self-sufficient. Strong is the answer, and lifting is the way to achieve it.
Where to Begin
So you’re convinced, right?
You want your hottest body and a courageous, infallible disposition. You know that lifting won’t make you big and bulky, rather svelte and spirited. But, you might not know how to start a legitimate lifting program and are likely confused by all of the exercise regimens that saturate the fitness world.
Let’s demystify it a bit and go over some basics. First of all, the idea of lifting big is relative. Heavy is what is challenging for you, but still allows you to perform exercises with proper technique. Typically, I tell my clients that if they can lift something more than 10 times with ease and accuracy, it’s time to increase the load.
Secondly, an effective lifting program need not be complicated. All you need are a few basic concepts:
-Mobilize: activities that ensure your ability to move freely, such as foam rolling, focused stretching and joint mobility.
-Push: variations of pushups, overhead presses, lunges and squats.
-Pull: variations of chin-ups, rows and deadlifts.
-Stabilize: exercises to strengthen your trunk such as planks and farmers walks.
To get you started, l’ve put together a simple routine of just 4 exercises that you can perform in as little as15 minutes with minimal equipment. You can do these exercises with dumbbells, kettlebells, or even a barbell if you are more advanced. I recommend performing this workout 3 times per week, and gradually increasing the weight to create a metabolic disturbance in your body for consistent results.
The exercises are demonstrated in the video above. Rest one minute between exercises and repeat this circuit up to 5 times.
1. Goblet Squat x 5-10
2. Bent-over Row x 5-10
3. Deadlift x 5-10
4. Pushup x 5=10 (Place your hands on an elevated surface if you can't perform a regular pushup yet.)
Like Arnold said, it’s only 1% of your day, and will help you get closer to a stronger, sexier YOU.
Are you ready to commit to 1% a day? Join the Spark Challenge now! https://www.fitocracy.com/spark/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neghar Fonooni is a fitness coach, presenter and blogger on the East coast via Los Angeles. She is the founder of Eat, Lift and be Happy-a blog and online business that educates and inspires readers to find their best possible nutrition, fitness and lifestyle strategies. Fonooni is also a co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, the Women’s Fitness Authority.