Welcome back to the second instalment of this article on women’s training. So last week we looked at some of the common myths involved with women doing some proper weight training. In this article we’ll look at some of the benefits; otherwise known as:
What Will Happen
Firstly, I’d like to emphasise that the differences in exercise physiology between men and women are actually pretty small. There are definitely hormonal differences, which lead to the gap in muscular development we covered last week, however this concept that women need their own specialised exercises, classes, and protein powder, is a total myth. It’s generally propagated by people trying to sell you something.
I’d like to clarify a few things before we go on. There is no such thing as toning. There is no difference between ‘toned’ muscles and ‘big, bulky’ muscles besides size. When people get ‘better definition’ or ‘toned’ what they have actually done is either increased the size of their muscle, or lost some body fat. ‘Long, lean muscles’ may be an effective marketing phrase, but it’s pretty meaningless in terms of exercise physiology. You might genetically have long muscles or bones but you’re certainly not going to lengthen them by doing high reps with extremely light weights.
Also, muscles are, by definition, lean. You cannot put on ‘unlean’ muscle. When people say they put on 8kg of lean muscle, what they mean is that they put on 8kg without their body-fat going up. Lean muscle as a term makes about as much sense as lean bone.
So ‘getting toned up’ really just means that you have gotten bigger muscles, while dropping your bodyfat percentage. And if you’re looking to gain muscle, the barbell is a lot better tool than 2kg pink dumbbells.
Please pay attention to this next bit, and try to keep an open mind: the number on the scales doesn’t mean anything. Absolutely nothing. Quick question: take a guy who is 84kg. Is he in good shape? Yes? No? Of course you have no idea. Is he carrying a lot of fat? Is he lean and muscular? His body weight alone means nothing. The medical profession like using the BMI (Body Mass Index), which is simply bodyweight relative to height. This is slightly more meaningful, but not much. A large number of Olympic athletes are technically obese.
When people ask me about weight loss, the first thing I always do is clarify that what we’re really talking about is fat loss. This might sound pedantic, but it’s really important. If your goal is weight loss and in six weeks you put on two kilos of muscle and lose two kilos of body fat, then the scales have gone nowhere; you’ve failed. But you look much better, you perform better, and you probably feel better. You haven’t failed at all. If you’re measuring how much body fat you’ve lost by how much weight you’ve lost, then you’ve immediately gotten off track.
If you’re trying to starve yourself lighter, there’s a good chance that all you’re doing is losing muscle. You might end up lighter, but you’re still just as flabby – and that probably wasn’t your goal.
Click on this picture:
In the left hand photo, she clearly has higher body fat. In her after picture she’s leaned out and looks in much better shape. Her bodyweight has gone from 59.5kg to 64.5kg. She’s gained 5kg. She won’t win any prizes for weight loss; but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. Staci’s story is definitely worth a read, but a take-home fact from it is the she had tried the treadmill-and-starvation route and had gotten skinnier but wasn’t happy, and then reached her goals with barbell training. She also deadlifts 140kg, which is pretty damn impressive.
I’ll cover the aesthetics topic now, before we go on to talk about health and performance. Different people want different things from their training, and have different motivations. If you’re not worried about health or performance, and most just want to look better naked, then the barbell is still the answer. The standard fitness industry answer for fat loss is Chronic Cardio (Mark Sisson came up with the catchy name). In my experience, 45-60 minutes of cardio in the fat-burning zone doesn’t usually get people where they want to go. If they’re quite overweight to be begin with, they drop some body fat, but they don’t usually get lean out of it. Generally what I see happen is that people end up losing muscle, get smaller but still have a wobbly stomach.
Now, I always hate reading an article about ‘what all men want’ because it’s silly to think that 50% of the population all agree on everything just because they’re male. However, I spent 12 years in an all-male workplace, and when discussing who and what we thought was hot, skinny was a word that very rarely came up. Yet most women I know treat skinny like it’s the Holy Grail of attractiveness.
This video of Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke at Junior Worlds went viral in 2012, and has about 25 million views. I think most people would agree that she has a good body. I’d like to point out that a) she definitely isn’t skinny, and b) her training is made up of sprinting, plyos and strength work.
I’ve talked before about how crucial strength is to athletic performance. Even in sports that don’t seem like strength sports, barbell training can lead to great improvements. A friend of mine began lifting in the off-season for soccer, and she noticed that when she got back on the pitch she could sprint so much faster because she was stronger. I hate seeing when female athletes get steered away from something that will make them better because coaches don’t understand it. They deserve better than that.
Proper strength training is good for health, as well as injury-proofing. The stronger you are, the less likely you are to hurt your back helping to move a couch. Also, barbell training is the most effective way to prevent osteoporosis. The bone adapts to the force placed on it and the body reinforces it. Also, think about what puts old people into retirement homes. It isn’t because their half-marathon times aren’t good enough; it’s because they don’t have the strength to pick up their grocery bags off of the floor or stand up from the toilet.
In summery, whatever your goal is, a properly designed barbell program will help. You’re not going to look like a man because you did a few sets of squats. If you start lifting, it will be good for your health, good for your fitness, good for your body, and good for your confidence. Just give it a shot.