For too long women have been duped into thinking that weight training leads to Arnie-style bulk. But the truth is that by avoiding weights, we’re actually missing out on a fast-track to strength, toning and a positive self image. Here, we set the record straight…
Have you been avoiding the dumbbells for fear that they will make you bulk out? Then you’re not alone. It’s a common misconception that weight training will make women beef up, but the truth, according to Jennis founder and Olympic gold medallist, Jessica Ennis-Hill, is that “the majority of women are more likely to become lean, strong and powerful if they add weight and resistance to their workouts, rather than bulky.
“Importantly, if you do the right type of resistance training, whether that’s with weights or using your own bodyweight, it brings tangible results and feels fantastic.”
What results are we talking about?
Looking lean and toned are just two of the benefits of adding weights to your routine, with a revved-up metabolism, higher self esteem and faster running pace all additional plus points.
For a start, lifting weights builds lean muscle. And because muscle burns more calories than fat, you’ll burn more calories each day just doing your everyday activities. A 2014 study found that a nine-month resistance training programme increased resting metabolic rate by around 5%.
It makes sense when you break it down, but being stronger has a natural positive effect on your sporting prowess – including boosting your running speed and endurance, the reason being that more strength = more power and propulsion for your runs.
Resistance exercise, including weight-training, increases bone density, too. This is because this type of exercise places a physical stress on bones, which activates a bone cell called an osteoblast, needed to build new bone. Because women start losing bone mass after the age of 30, this is really important.
Better body image
A 2015 study on 341 women, mostly aged between around 40 and 85, found that two strength-training sessions a week boosted body confidence and body image. Researchers attributed this to the fact that lifting weights helps you feel more positive about your fitness, weight and health in general, which in turn helps you feel more proud of your strong body.
The majority of women are more likely to become lean, strong and powerful if they add weight and resistance to their workouts, rather than bulky
What style of weight training are we talking?
When it comes to the style of training and size of weights you use, to make maximum strength and tone gains, there needs to be a good balance between weight and number of repetitions. What’s key is that your weights are light enough that you maintain good form in your moves throughout to avoid risk of injury, but heavy enough to be challenging, particularly in the final reps.
“Aim to lift weights that are heavy enough so that the last one or two reps of a set feel difficult to pull off but you still maintain good form,” says Jess. “It should feel like you couldn’t do many more.”
Don’t worry if your weights look too light when starting off. You are definitely not picking the easy route by choosing low weights. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a low weight and high number of reps had the same effect on muscle mass as heavy weight and low number of reps.
Aim to lift weights that are heavy enough so that the last one or two reps of a set feel difficult to pull off but you still maintain good form. It should feel like you couldn’t do many more
What else do I need to know?
When you’re strength training, regardless of whether you’re applying load through weights or bodyweight exercises, there are a couple of other things you need to be mindful of.
Sleep and adequate recovery is really important so that your muscles can repair. The reason for this is that poor sleep curbs the work of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1, which is needed for muscle repair, according to a 2017 study.
What if you do want to get bodybuilder big?
“Because of a woman’s hormone makeup, it’s actually really difficult for us to get bodybuilder big and takes an incredible amount of hard work,” says Jess.
“You need to lift seriously heavy weights, completely transform your diet and train A LOT. That takes dedication.”
To give you some idea of what we are talking about here, the average female bodybuilder will be training twice a day: for example, one hour of weight-lifting – focusing on a different part of the body each day – plus up to two hours of cardio daily.
She’ll be eating a healthy diet with plenty of grains, fruit, veg, nuts and seeds, including lots of protein at every meal to help build muscle. The average woman needs 45g of protein a day, according to the NHS, but women bodybuilders tend to consume at least twice this amount per day.
Then there’s the adaptations she’ll make to her diet depending on what she’s working towards. During the ‘bulking’ phase, for example, when bodybuilders are building muscle, they increase their calorie intake by 15% more than normal. But when preparing for a competition, they will probably start to cut calories by 15% less than normal. This is to burn fat, and is called the ‘cutting’ phase.
Back to you
So, there you have it. Rather than making you bodybuilder big, the right strength training sessions will actually help you feel great, rev up your metabolism and help with toning and strength gains.
To help you out, Jess has created some new ‘Super Strength sessions’ in her Jennis app, plus all her HIIT sessions help with strength gains by adding resistance through bodyweight exercises.
Find out more about Jessica Ennis-Hill’s Jennis Fitness app here