Women and the Weights

Post by Mark Ehnis

It happened again. I wasn’t really surprised as it comes with the territory I guess. I was out on the town with some friends when I ran into an old female acquaintance.  “What are you up to?” is the first question that starts off the small talk. So I hesitantly tell them about just opening a gym and focus on training individuals who want fast results- primarily targeting serious athletes.
Why did I hesitate? Because I knew what was coming next. “Really? That’s awesome! I lift weights, but…I don’t want to look like you so I don’t do it very often,” she says. “I’m happy you don’t want to look like me, that would be an awkward goal to try to achieve,” I reply. I then try to change the conversation but she insists we still talk about lifting and kept asking questions. I didn’t want to, but she left me no choice but to go scientific meathead on her for the next 15 minutes.

This is a conversation I’ve had numerous times with the ladies. I don’t mind explaining it, but it drives me nuts when they ask about the latest celebrity workout or the latest fad they read in a magazine (which in their minds makes them an automatic expert). I can’t really blame them though. There’s so much information (i.e. Myths) out there regarding female fitness that it’s no wonder why many women are confused (and don’t worry girls, there’s a lot of garbage out there for the guys as well).  I’m not even talking about diet and nutrition- that is an entire different can of worms.
3 minutes to flat abs? Sounds easy, sign me up!
What I’m referring to is the physical training portion for females. P90X? Machines? All cardio? Free weights? Crossfit? Pilates? Yoga? Insanity Workout? The list could probably go on. So what works and what doesn’t? Truthfully, I could make an argument for all of them-, as it’s better to do something rather than nothing.  But, if you’re anything like me, you want the most ‘bang for your buck’ while not wasting time and energy in the gym. Read on and I’ll help you to try and accomplish this. I’d rather take out the guesswork and give the ladies some straight answers and show them what works 100% of the time- and WHY- when performed correctly.
First, let me start off with a little disclaimer. Just because I’m big and “bulky” doesn’t mean I’ll try to make you look the same way (you’ll learn later on why that’s impossible anyway). I also have multiple personalities when training clients. This doesn’t mean you have to be fake, but you have to relate to each client and communicate your message in the most effective matter. Meaning, I can yell and scream at the 17-year old high school football player before a set and it would probably help motivate him. It doesn’t mean I’d do the same with a 42-year old housewife- I couldn’t- it’d be weird for the both of us. And I know I can be intimidating. Chalk it up to too many years spent mastering the ‘thousand yard stare’ working in the nightclubs I guess. I realize this and always make sure my clients, male or female, are comfortable and have the best training experience possible. Just wanted to clear that up as it always comes up when I discuss training with the female gender. Disclaimer over, let’s continue.  
Not my personality of choice when training the ladies
Women need the weights. Period. When taught and programmed properly, free weights will completely change your physique, leaving you feeling strong and confident in your new body. Unless I’ve been living under a rock, which could possibly be true, the ultra skinny look is out and the curvy, athletic look is in. Women want to be firm and actually look like they work out. So why is lifting weights for women still in the minority when it comes to training? The myths. Here are a few common things I hear women say:
  •         If I lift weights, I’ll get huuuuuuuuuuge! Have you seen those girls that lift weights?? They look like men!
  •         I don’t want to bulk up, just get toned
  •         I lift weights- but stick to higher reps so I can feel the burn and not get too big
  •         I had a great workout. I hit the treadmill for an hour and was sweating so much!
  •         I lost 5 pounds but still look the same, how is that possible?
  •         My legs are ginormous so I only do upper body lifts
  •         How can I get a flat stomach? I do a bazillion crunches every day but nothing seems to change

Caused just from lifting weights? I highly doubt it. 
This is pretty much the norm with 90% of women out there. Rather than debunking all these one by one, I’ll explain what works and kill two birds with one stone. Lets first start with a clarification.
“Toning, Shaping, Sculpting”
Hate to break it to you but this word doesn’t exist- at least not how you think it means. In the book, The New Rules for Lifting for Women, they clear this up right in the beginning. Here is an excerpt from page 4:

“Weight training advice for women revolves around what I call the three dirty words: toning, shaping, and sculpting. “Tone,” short for “tonus,” has a specific meaning in exercise science: it’s the firmness of any given muscle when you aren’t deliberately flexing it. Tonus improves when you train with weights, but it’s not anything you can see.“

 The passage goes on to explain the meaning of this word, which is: “make my muscles look better without making them bigger.” This is pretty unrealistic way to go view your muscles. If your muscles don’t get larger than they are now, you’ll still look the same or “softer”- even with or without whatever fat is on top of them.

I highly recommend this book, for both males and females
The author later explains shaping and sculpting. In short, muscles cannot be shaped. Their shape is determined by your genetics. You can only make them bigger or smaller. Don’t get me wrong; you can re-shape your body by making some body parts bigger or smaller. But individual muscles cannot be re-shaped. For instance, making your shoulders larger and more broad, will give off the illusion that your waist got smaller.

Sculpting was summarized as this: “”Sculpting” is the most meaningful of the three words. It implies a combination of muscle growth and fat loss that leaves the lifter’s physique looking… well, sculpted. But you can’t “sculpt” muscles you haven’t built yet.”

Losing fat and gaining muscle is the only way to begin to transform your body. You get more “toned” by losing the layer of fat covering your muscle, while either making that muscle bigger or having it stay the same. In order to achieve that healthy, athletic look you need to have well-trained muscle tissue. Don’t be alarmed when you hear me recommend, “gaining muscle”. This doesn’t mean you’ll pack on slabs of it and look like Mr. Olympia. Which leads me into the key points of this writing.

Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler might have a little bit more testosterone (amongst other chemicals) than his female counterparts.
Women Can’t Gain Muscle Like Men, but They Can Still Train Like One
Gaining muscle is hard work. It’s also hard to build. Ask any normal man and he’ll tell you how tough it is to pack on 20 pounds of pure muscle the natural way. For women, it’s even a tougher challenge. Men have a different hormonal make up than women do. The biggest factor in this is testosterone- the muscle-building hormone. Men have a lot of it, women don’t. Some men try to do whatever they can to get as muscular as possible and still fall short- so if attaining muscle was easy, there’d be a lot more jacked dudes walking around.  
Men and women are separate genders, but they aren’t separate species. A muscle fiber in a man is structurally the same as a fiber in a woman. There are a few chemical differences but those aspects don’t change the functional ability of that fiber. Muscles of a woman are capable of performing similarly to a man. Typically, a woman may not have as much absolute strength as a typical man because their muscles are generally smaller. There’s nothing structurally special that a man’s muscles can do that a woman’s can’t.
Keep Your Body Guessing- Challenge Yourself
This doesn’t mean you have to change your workout every 2 weeks, although, variation is definitely needed. I’m talking mainly to the cardio addicts here. Doing the same workout day after day on the treadmill or elliptical will leave you frustrated and mentally drained. This is why you see the same people on the treadmills for years on end, yet their physique never changes. What happens is that during exercise your body and muscles are broken down. Through recovery our body is ‘rebuilt’ so that same stress won’t cause that breakdown again- basically it comes back stronger to withstand the same stress that just broke it. So exercise-wise, the next time you run on the treadmill, it has to be more intense- either longer, faster, or both. Otherwise you’ll actually end burning FEWER calories because your body has become very efficient at that activity. It’s used to it so it’s time to change it up. 
The same holds true for lifting weights. If you use the same weight for the same number of reps all the time then your body will be efficient at withstanding that stress and you’ll gain nothing from the exercise. Hard work isn’t easy. Ladies must challenge themselves in the weight room just like they would in a spin class or training for a marathon. I’ve found women to be much smarter than men in the weight room as they pick up new techniques quicker and are generally more focused on the task at hand. Don’t let the brains and work ethic go to waste because going up in weight seems intimidating. I guarantee that you’re body is stronger than you think. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you’re a prisoner to the fluorescent dumbbells-despite what the media portrays. (Do a Google Image search for “females working out” and look at all the colorful dumbbells. See how female lifting is portrayed?)
Women Need to Train for Strength
You get stronger by lifting heavy weights. The days of high reps with the 8-pound dumbbells are over. This also doesn’t mean you have to squat 300 pounds on your first day either. Shoot for weights that will be challenging. 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps are perfect for most exercises. Sets of 5 reps should also be used for some of the bigger, compound exercises (see below). You should follow a progressive program and aim to use a heavier weight or hit more reps than you did on the previous workout with the same weight. One of the biggest benefits of training for strength and lifting heavy is that it ramps up your metabolism to burn more calories at rest for up to 48 hours after your last rep! This is true with all heavy lifting (light weights don’t have this same effect) and short burst activities. More traditional aerobic exercises only burn calories 12-24 hours post-workout. This fact alone should drive the women to the free weight area. Building muscle and become more efficient at burning fat? When do we start lifting?

Too little of weight and bogus exercises will leave you with bogus results.  

Use Compound Exercises
The most effective way to add strength and muscle is to incorporate compound exercises into your program. Compound exercises use many muscle groups within your body simultaneously. These exercises use more muscle throughout the movement, providing you with the biggest bang for your buck while also burning more calories. Squats, deadlifts, military press variations, bench press variations, rows, chin-ups, and dips are all compound exercises that use a ton of muscle. The inner/outer thigh machine, triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and machine flyes (or machine anything really) will do little for achieving results and are usually a waste of time. (Of course there are exceptions- old age, injuries, etc.)

Learn proper technique on the big exercises and include them into your program and you’ll be happy you did. Plus a woman who squats is usually just a better all-around person- just in my opinion of course. 

The squat- every woman’s program should contain a variation of it. No comment about the gloves in this picture…

There Are Progressions for Everything
So what if you can’t bench your bodyweight or aren’t ready to have a barbell on your back. Those are more advanced lifts for the lifter with more gym experience- not a first-time-lifting weights beginner. A good training program will have you building up to those bigger exercises so you can perform them properly.

I use the same thinking when dealing with younger athletes. If they can’t do a bodyweight squat we use different variations to accomplish this first, compared to throwing them under a bar and having them squat themselves into extreme discomfort. And if you feel self-conscious about starting out with the basics then I encourage you to find a group or training partners of your strength level or experience and attack those exercises together. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to watch each other progress and achieve new heights in your training.

Wrap Up
So what gives me the authority to say what works and what doesn’t? I’m not a woman. I train more males than females. Why should you listen? The truth is, that you can train a woman almost the exact same as you would a man. Look at the list above- lift heavy, challenge yourself and use progressive overload, use compound lifts, train for strength, and use proper progressions. These are all principles I use with all the males I train as well. Yes, there are some differences when training females compared to males but those are usually found in the nitty-gritty of programming workouts. You’ll just have to come experience the program for yourself and find out what they are (shameless plug).
I’m not saying you have to ditch the 5-mile runs or step class- especially if you enjoy doing those things and they make you happy. But if you’re frustrated with your current workout routine and are after some serious results, then I strongly suggest adding in 2-3 strength workouts per week. Just remember if you add something to your exercise regime, you have to take something out as well. A properly designed strength program is the X-factor that you have all been waiting for.

So guys, be prepared to share the squat racks with your ladies. You both will be happy you did in the long run! 

For more info on women and the weights check out the book that was referenced in this post, The New Rules of Lifting for Women by Lou Schuler.
Feel free to pass along this post to anyone that might benefit from it’s info!