by Jari Love
Ask any trainer the biggest mistake a woman can make when it comes to staying fit, and they’ll almost always tell you the same thing: Avoiding the weight room. Thankfully, ladies of a certain age are realizing it’s time to start lifting some serious iron. “It’s taken a long time, but women are finally beginning to embrace the powerful benefits of committed and intelligent strength training,” says Holly Perkins, author of Lift to Get Lean and creator of Women’s Strength Nation, a virtual community dedicated to raising awareness about strength training for women. “Now it’s not about being skinny — women are coming to the gym to get strong and protect their health.”
On average, starting in our late 20s, women lose five pounds of muscle every ten years; after menopause, that loss doubles—creating a 3 percent drop in metabolism—per decade. The end result is almost always the same: Weight gain and weakness. But the right weight workout can undo the damage, and quickly.
So why has it taken so long for women to discover these benefits? It all boils down to these common misconceptions. Don’t let them hold you back from discovering the anti-aging power regular weight training provides.
- It’s a guy thing
The idea that only dudes frequent the weight room is long outdated. Over 87,000 women participated in the 2015 CrossFit Games Open and more than a quarter of them were over 40. “When I started studying strength training in the 80s, most of the volunteers were men,” says Wayne Westcott, director of fitness research at Quincy College and the author of Strength Training Past 50. Now, a whopping 70 percent are women. And their average age? 55. “Women get that what’s really at stake here is their health,” says Westcott.
- It’ll turn you into a hulk
“It’s so important to get the record straight about this fear of ‘bulk,'” says Perkins. “Ninety percent of women are physiologically unable to build muscle to the degree where they would be considered ‘bulky.’ It is simply a function of estrogen and lack of testosterone; You will never build muscle like a man’s, unless you are trying to achieve that result.” Instead, you’ll create firm, feminine curves—especially if you keep the rests between sets super short. “The less you stop between exercises, the more calories you burn, creating that lean, sculpted look,” says Perkins.
- It burns fewer calories than cardio
“Women spent decades buying into the myth that if they wanted to be smaller, they needed to do endless amounts of cardio,” says Nia Shanks, a strength training specialist based in Tampa, Florida, and host of the podcast “Lift Like a Girl.” But the message is finally getting through that to really boost your resting metabolism (lab-speak for how many calories you burn all day, not just when your body’s in motion) requires picking up the weights to increase your lean mass. “The muscles of a strength trainer burn 50 percent more calories than the muscles of a runner or walker,” says Westcott. That translates to you burning an extra 100 calories per day just by staying alive; over the course of a month, you could lose as much as 1.5 pounds of fat — without dieting.
- It’s hard to regain muscle once it’s gone
While it’s true that preventing muscle loss before it starts is the best way to stay healthy and strong—and keep your metabolism rocking like it did in your 20s—it’s never too late to undo the damage. When Westcott’s team recruited 1,619 men and women aged 21 to 80 to follow a progressive strength-training program, phenomenal things happened to their bodies. “In just ten weeks, they replaced an average of three of the five pounds of muscle they had lost in the previous ten years,” explains Westcott, who published his findings in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine in 2009.
- Light weights are all you need
When you’re just starting out, those 5-pounders can do wonders for your strength and body. But the ultimate goal is not only to increase your lean mass, but to make that muscle stronger, denser, and devoid of harmful fat—which is why regularly increasing the weight you’re lifting is so imperative. “Every time you challenge your body with a heavier weight you’re creating more microtears in the muscle,” says Perkins. “As your body repairs those tiny tears with amino-acids, your lean mass becomes stronger, tighter, and more compact.” So how much should you be lifting? “You’ll be able to tell you’ve got the weight right if your form starts to get “a wee bit sloppy” on the last two reps, says Perkins. “Once 12 reps are a breeze, it’s time to move up.” Increase in increments of 2.5 to 5 pounds for free weights, and about 5 percent (of the total weight) for machines.
- You’ll never have time to fit it in
It’s already ridiculously hard to fit in your weekly walks and runs, right? Well, the great news is that it doesn’t take a lot of resistance work to make a major difference. Two full-body strength training workouts a week have been shown to be just as good as three when it comes to increasing strength and muscle mass, says Westcott.
- You need a gym
While Perkins is on a mission to get more women into the weight room, if it’s not your thing, that’s OK. “Home-based weights workouts are a great place to start, and can help you accomplish a lot,” she says. But if you’re interested in learning to regularly increase the weight you’re lifting, remember that you have just as much right to be in the weight room as the sweaty dude next to you. “Strength training is absolutely critical to your overall health and well being,” says Perkins. “Don’t let intimidation keep you from the powerful benefits that can change your life.”
- It’s all about muscle
If promise of a stronger, fitter bod isn’t enough to get you to pick up the weights, consider that it’ll also help protect your brain. When sedentary older adults began a program that combined progressive strength training and aerobic exercise, their cognitive function improved significantly more than folks doing aerobic activity alone, according to research by psychologists at the University of Illinois. Other studies have shown that just 10 weeks of progressive strength training can reduce anxiety, fatigue and depression and boost a sense of tranquility and revitalization in older adults.
- Bodyweight exercises are just as good
So, what about yoga, Pilates, and good ol’ fashioned bodyweight moves? Westcott and other experts agree that these kinds of workouts are a good an introduction to strength training, because you do use your own body weight as resistance. “But you’ll never be able to lift more than your body weight doing these types of programs,” notes Perkins. “I want women to think bigger.”
- You’ll see results instantly
While strength training is the most effective way to shrink-wrap your body with lean, shapely muscle, like with most good things, it still doesn’t happen overnight. “If you stay consistent with a strength training program, you will see the real and accurate results after 6-8 weeks, and not before,” says Perkins. So make the commitment, and then stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.
Jari Love – original creator of Get RIPPED! DVD series and group exercise classes. The hot-selling and critically acclaimed Get RIPPED! series enables individuals of any fitness level to burn up to three times more calories than the traditional weight-training program, and has received rave reviews from fitness critics throughout North America since the first title debuted in late 2005.