Only one per cent of women strength train regularly, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. One of the main reasons they avoid it is fear of bulking up. But is this fear founded?
“Women don’t have the levels of testosterone in our bodies to bulk up,” assures Natasha Vasilevski, a personal trainer at Fernwood Preston.
“Women who are huge take additional supplements and are in a completely different field to the average person.”
Now that we’ve busted that myth, read on to discover all the reasons why hitting the weights is the best idea you’ve had all year.
1. Muscle torches fat
Maintaining muscle burns more kilojoules than maintaining fat, so not only does muscle help you to appear leaner by taking up less space (muscle has a higher density than fat), but it also raises your metabolic rate so you continue to burn kilojoules, even at rest. “The beauty about weight training, as opposed to cardio, is that you actively continue to burn kilojoules for 24 to 36 hours post-training. It’s a good option if you’re looking for quicker results,” says Vasilevski.
2. Lower your diabetes risk
Exercise in general is a key factor in the prevention of type 2 diabetes, but resistance training can play a more specific role. “Any sort of exercise, including resistance training, helps to increase insulin sensitivity. This means that muscles become more sensitive to the action of the hormone called insulin, and therefore more glucose is able to enter the muscle cells to be used up as energy,” explains Adele Mackie, accredited practising dietitian at Diabetes Victoria. “This increased insulin sensitivity can last for hours, depending on the duration and intensity of the exercise. Resistance training also helps to build more muscle mass, which in turn increases metabolism and helps with weight management. Maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the key factors in diabetes prevention.”
3. Stabilise energy
A body that effectively self-regulates blood sugar helps to minimise cravings for foods that lead to excess kilojoule consumption and sugar highs followed by inevitable crashes. “Muscle is one of the biggest users of glucose from the blood stream. If someone is able to build up their muscle mass, then their muscles are going to be continually using up the glucose from the blood stream,” explains Mackie. “So the more muscle you have and the more active you are, the more glucose you use up. This can help to maintain blood glucose levels within healthy ranges and reduce the risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
4. Better bone health
Vigorous exercise throughout childhood builds strong bones, but maintaining bone mass is just as significant in adulthood. “Exercise is vitally important to bone health at every stage of life,” says Professor Maria A. Fiatarone Singh, MD, a member of the Osteoporosis Australia Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee. “After reaching peak bone mass (usually by the early 20s), most people will gradually lose some bone over the course of their life, with women losing at a particularly fast rate around the time of menopause.”
But not all exercise is useful for bones. Although they have benefits, non-weight bearing exercises such as swimming and cycling have little impact on bone health. “The best exercises to improve bone health include high impact and multi-directional loading of the kind you would experience playing weight-bearing sports like netball, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, squash or jumping,” explains Prof Fiatarone Singh. Weight lifting is also an effective form of exercise to improve muscle strength and bone density – as long as it is done at high intensity (using approximately 80 per cent of your peak strength) and is progressive over time as you get stronger.”
5. A healthier heart
The Heart Foundation identifies young and midlife women as high-risk groups for developing cardiovascular disease, due to factors including lifestyle, high rates of weight gain and metabolic changes around menopause. Most women also underestimate their risk factor for developing the disease. The foundation advocates gym-based weight training and body weight exercises such as push-ups, squats and lunges at least two days per week.
6. Boost your brain
Increasingly, the brain is being viewed as a muscle. The motto “use it or lose it” may not be new, but science continues to shine light on the capacity for old brains to learn new tricks. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have put resistance training to the test, with findings of a study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society suggesting a minimal threshold of weight training can beneficially change the structure of the brain. Measuring the progression of white matter lesions (which develop with age as a sign of deteriorating memory and thinking), they studied 54 healthy women aged 65 to 75, who participated in a supervised program of once-weekly resistance training, twice-weekly resistance training or balance and stretching exercises. The ability of those who performed weight training twice a week to fight certain effects of age-related brain decline was significantly greater than those in the other groups.
7. Improve functional movement
Let’s face it: most of us don’t want to spend our entire lives in the gym. But quality time spent in the gym improves the quality of our lives outside of it. Learning to engage the musculoskeletal system correctly through weight bearing exercises that work your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles through a full of range motion is invaluable training for bracing your core when you pick up a heavy box of groceries or a young screaming child, or engaging muscles for correct postural alignment when sitting at a computer. The investment you make now in training and strengthening your body through these functional movements can prevent a world of pain, discomfort and physio bills later.
8. Lift your mood
Feeling overwhelmed or stressed? Channelling tension by lifting a challenging weight and learning to summon and release tension within each muscle group tones the mind as well as the body. Although there is limited literature exploring the specific effects of weight training on anxiety and depression compared to other forms of exercise, the feel-good effects of resistance training are well documented. If you doubt the ability of pumping out a solid weights session to leave you feeling anything but strong, resilient and overflowing with confidence, try one and see for yourself.
Vasilevski advises resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets and alternating weights days with high-intensity cardio days to get the best fat burning benefits. “If you’re just starting out, rest and recovery is going to be more important. I recommend a minimum of 24 hours following a weights session, but this will depend on how DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) affects you,” she says.