For some reason, women and strength training seems to evoke an odd response in many people. “Why do you want to lift weights?” “Be careful you don’t bulk up too much!”, “Why do you want muscles?”, “You’ll look like a man!”, “Surely you just want to tone up? You can do that with cardio!”
I know many of these questions and statements are borne out of ignorance rather than malice, but it is still quite frustrating. And even women who I assume to know something about this sort of thing still go on about toning up. In real terms, a toned woman is one who has some muscle, and a low enough body fat to see it. You cannot look “toned” without having some muscle. You’d just look skeletal otherwise!
I’ve had a conversation that was full of misconception about what training with weights can do in the past with someone who didn’t even know me: Perceptions of Women Who Lift Weights!
I’m also unsure (other than perpetuated myth) why women think that being strong is a bad thing? Does anyone question them wanting to pick up a child or pet? They can be heavy! Lugging the weekly shop can involve a fair amount of weight being carried. Sure those are demonstrations of functional strength (something we should all strive for), but no-one bats an eyelid. Using heavier weights for controlled movements in the gym will give you a stronger body to make those tasks easier and less injury prone. Plus I like the fact that some of the guys in the office say get me to move heavy stuff. It’s a compliment!
It is important to realise that there is no exercise that will make you toned in and of itself! Working your muscles will provide a stimulus for them to get stronger, and as a side effect you will look better. And by being in a calorie deficit you will lose body fat (while preserving muscle if you consume enough protein and work your muscles) in order to show that muscle. Any exercise that works the muscles, from body weight ones to using the barbell with compound moves, will impact your body in a positive way.
Don’t make the mistake of so many women and fall into the trap of thinking cardio is the only solution. This way you may get smaller, and look thinner, but you won’t look toned. You will be skinny fat. A lower body weight sure, but the ratio of fat to muscle will be much worse. And you want muscle as it is metabolically active. Being metabolically active means that it needs calories to maintain itself. So you can eat more and stay the same size/weight! Who doesn’t want that? Enjoy food and heavy things. Don’t avoid them!
Mistakes women make with diets covers a lot of good points, but the most important for the discussion here is point four: Obsessing Over Fat Loss and Not Eating for Hypertrophy. As they say, most fat loss strategies work initially because most people are a lot more aware of what and how much they are eating and are very focused at the start. But over time that diminishes. You need to eat to fuel your training to shape the body you want. As I said above this creates muscle that works to burn calories at rest. But also it requires a sensible intake of food, involving both carbs and fat as well as protein. Do not demonise food or any macro (see points seven, eight, and nine in the same article). Then train hard enough to work the muscle!
A hard truth is that it isn’t training that makes anyone look bulky. It is carrying too much body fat. The benefit of heavy weight training as part of trying to get lean is that it will help strip the fat away and leave the muscle there. Adding strength does not mean adding size at all. Especially for women. We just don’t have enough testosterone to be able to do so. Which for the women who are trying to bulk up (for whatever reason – that’s their choice remember!) means they have a much harder time than a guy would. The other side of gaining strength is mental! It’s a neurological process involving the CNS.
I hope this has allayed any fears you may have had, or encouraged you that you are doing the right thing if you didn’t. I like strength training for the benchmark it gives me against my bodyweight. Whether someone can safely deadlift 100kg is going to be a function of their training level, sex, age, height, and weight as well as the more obvious strength. If it’s less than you weigh, it shows less functional strength than if it is twice your bodyweight.
There are various strength charts out there, but strength standards for women is a good place to start. That chart takes into account the physiological differences between men and women (such as variances between upper and lower body strength) and has been revised based on feedback. It also covers bodyweight strength markers as well as the big lifts. (There is also a version where you can choose whether you want the numbers in pounds or kilograms at ExRx.net, and it tabulates various body weights and targets.) Have a go at some of them and see where you are. You might enjoy the process so much you try and improve on it 🙂
And then for a bit of laugh while recovering from your heavy weights session, have a read of 10 Signs You’ve Turned into a Fitness Chick! Some funny images, but with good points. Number 6 applies to me!