Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ladies, lift heavy (for you) things!

Before you completely move to a different blog or go back to FB to laugh at a cute puppy photo, give me a few minutes and let me explain.  I’m not asking you to give up your fitness routine, whatever it may be, that keeps you sane.  We all have the things we do because we love them and they keep us from killing people, so I completely understand keeping your yoga class, your run or whatever it might be.  I’m asking you to give lifting weights a try as well.

I am not going to sell you on health specifics as to why lifting weight is good for you, because there is good reputable information out there to endorse it, from the Center for Disease Control to Wikipedia and everything in between.  

I’m simply going to sum it up for you.  Lifting weights will raise your basal metabolic rate (boost your metabolism), increase bone density, make you stronger to take on life, and improve range of motion and balance.  These are only a few of the physical aspects that it can affect.  I was getting heartburn 3 or 4 times a week.  I was waking up repeatedly through the night and it was taking me forever to get to sleep.  I also noticed my PMS symptoms were getting worse.  Since I started eating better and working out, all of these physical conditions have disappeared.  I sleep for 8-9 hours a night and feel great when I wake up.

One of the things that is rarely discussed is how lifting can affect you psychologically.  I feel much more capable and confident than I ever have before.  It gives you pride in your body because you made it that way.  The moment you go up in weight will make you feel like you can take on the world.  Being a strong woman is awesome. I now want to get out and try other things because of my improved confidence level. 

I am on a social networking site for fitness and health called Fitocracy and I repeatedly see women concerned about getting “bulky” from lifting weights.  This is far from the truth.  Women don’t have the hormonal make-up to layer on muscle; strength training results in a leaner physique. It will change your body substantially more, and more rapidly, than a cardio-only or cardio-based fitness plan. You will not get big, you will not get bulky.  There is one caveat to this statement:  if you don’t lose the fat sitting on top of the muscle you will “bulk up”.  You can’t out-train a bad diet. Read our previous posts, "Our Healthy Transformation (Part 4)", and "Where do we Start? (Part 1)", for nutrition planning.

I also see many women asking about getting “toned”.  Toned doesn’t mean anything.  You either lose fat or gain fat.  You can either lose muscle or gain muscle.  As you lose fat, your skin starts to get loose and jiggly (“jiggly” is my own made up word for loose skin that just jiggles around).  The tone you speak of is building muscle to make your body solid.

I also hear some of you saying, “Well, I use the machines and lift weights so I’m good right?”  Free weights are far better for you than machines.  Those machines isolate one muscle at a time, but also put you in awkward positions.  Those machines do not imitate any movement you will ever do in real life.  Lifting with free weights not only engages the primary muscles for an exercise, but also the stabilizing muscles. 

Whether you realize it or not, you have already worked out with free weights.  How many of us have bent over and picked up a small child?  If you are using the correct form, bending your knees and not your back, you are performing a deadlift. 

The next thing I commonly hear is that the gym and specifically the free weight room are intimidating.  I completely understand this feeling.  First, remember everyone starts somewhere.  You are taking control of your health, strength and appearance.  Just taking that first step can seem almost impossible, but you are doing more than people sitting on a couch.  I promise you it will get much easier and before long you will march in there like you own the place because, well, you do. 

Now that you’re committed and want to do this you’re asking well, where do I start?  I'm glad you asked!  Our "Where do we Start? (Part 2)" post gives you everything you need to set up your own starter program.

The next thing I want to discuss is how much weight to use.  When you start doing an exercise, if you can do that exercise with the weight you are using over 12 times, then you need to use more weight.  So, let’s say you’re starting to bench press and you’re using dumbbells.  You go over and pick up 2 10lb dumbbells (because we all underestimate ourselves) and you can do 20 reps.  Well, that means you need to add more weight.  You should barely be able to finish off your set of 10.  I had very little upper body strength to begin with; I started out bench pressing with 2 17.5lb dumbbells.  I’m now up to using the bar and adding weight.  I can do 70 pounds, so I have doubled the weight I can do in 6 months!  Move away from the colored weights made for women (don’t get me started on this subject) and lift heavy (for you) weight.

I know some of you really like your cardio.  Personally I don’t understand that because I hate it.  I spent 22 years in the military and if I never jog again it will be too soon.   If you must do cardio, do it after you lift weights (if it has to be on the same day).  You don’t have to do cardio to change your body and lose fat.  But if you want to do cardio, don’t exceed more than 30 minutes at a go.  I personally prefer sprint intervals and do that on the days I’m not lifting.  I understand that many people are on a time crunch and still want to do cardio (for some unknown reason).  If you do both cardio and weights on the same day, then it’s weight lifting first and then cardio.  You will be more able to handle the weight and you will be more ready to burn fat after lifting.

The last thing I want to discuss is sleep, get it!  When you lift weights you are basically damaging your muscle.  When you eat you are feeding it.  When you sleep your body is repairing your muscle.  Get 7-9 hours/night. Sleep is the best thing in the world for you, and you probably don’t get enough. Make it a priority. You will not see progress in the gym or in your body without adequate rest.

These are the basics.  I love weightlifting.  It has given me the ability to reshape my body.  I have now lost the fat I wanted to lose and I’m in the process of putting on more muscle.  This journey has helped me love my body.  I no longer nitpick it and only see the things I want to change.  When I get done lifting I see a strong, capable body.  I see a body that squats 135lbs and deadlifts 165lbs.  I see a body I have shaped and earned.  I see a strong, beautiful woman.  Isn’t that what we all want?


  1. I'm not a woman, but I do have a lean frame/small bones, and my primary interest is in running, so a lot of what you've written is applicable to me as well. (I won't proselytize about why running is so awesome, although it is, and hopefully you'll understand when I completely disregard the suggestion about limiting cardio to 30 minutes.)

    Anyway, I force myself to go lift weights at least once a week, even though I find it to be drudgery, for the reasons you've laid out: increased range of motion, bone density maintenance (important for us fortysomethings!), functional strength, etc. I haven't found any increase in bulk -- which is good, since for me, bulky upper body muscles would just be useless weight to lug around while running.

    On the other hand, my wife has noticed that I seem to be much stronger about carrying things around the house, etc. Also, before I started lifting, I'd find that sometimes I'd stretch maybe awkwardly for something, and all of a sudden, I'd have a slight muscle pull. That doesn't happen any more.

    I still don't like lifting, but the benefits of it seem indisputable.

    Oh, and I completely agree about free weights. I used to use the machines, but the "weight" on the machines is completely unreliable and varies from one machine to another. Now I do my dumbbell sets first, and then move on to barbells, with pull-ups and dips mixed in. And then when that's done, I reward myself with a nice easy 5 mile run on the treadmill. :-)

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I completely understand that some people love running and it keeps them sane. I'm glad to hear that you are seeing the results you want as in better mobility and joint strength. That is what this is truly about. This whole journey has taught me that you really need a combination of things to keep your body functional and also make you stronger for later in life. Even if that combination includes a nice easy 5 mile run. I have never used those last words in sequence like that by the way and probably never will again.

  2. I followed your link on Fitocracy to get here. : )

    I have questions, but first let me start by saying I lift. I have always been strong, and I've always lifted. In my teens it wasn't weights. It was hay bales, 50# feed sacks, and 3 at a time cases of canned drinks and 5 gallon buckets of ice (loading a catering truck). At 45 I'm now lifting weights and losing all the baby weight. So I'm not against lifting. I should have been an engineer I guess because I think like one. Here's one question bumping around in my head - How do we know many women won't bulk up? I understand the reasoning, but I also understand that more and more women have metabolic syndrome where they have excess testosterone. Where's the evidence they won't bulk up? I would love to see studies and data, but all I ever read is logical reasoning and personal experience. Those things are valuable, but not always applicable. I'm all for logic, but since the human body is very complicated we could be applying logic to only half (or 3/4) of the pieces of the puzzle. I hope this makes sense. I'm not against lifting. I do it every other day, but I want a clearer picture of what to expect by finding the scientific evidence.

    So far (read about 10% so far), even the New Rules of Lifting for Women is pretty sparse on science and heavy on logic, at least in regards to bulking. Lou Shuler says in NROL for Life, that he addressed his books to the "undamaged ones." Most of us, other than teens and 20 somethings, have some sort of life issues we have to work around (if we believe the statistics). Lou also says "The math and physiology appear simple only if you refuse to acknowledge complexity. There are too many individual metabolic variations, and they're too poorly understood." He's talking about weight loss, but as far as I can tell, that applies to the affects of lifting on women, too. I don't doubt that lifting is great for women. That, to me, has been proven. My beef is mainly about bulking - how easily and how common it could be (if more women lifted). I want this information so that I can be a better, smarter lifter - not to excuse me from lifting.

    Finally, I hope it was ok to post these questions here. I have asked about these things in different circles, and it seems that questioning the non-bulking idea can be antagonistic. That's not my intention. I just want to understand the whole thing better so that I can use that information to become more fit. Thanks for writing this blog post and for asking for questions on fitocracy! I'm going to go follow you, : )

    1. Marcy,

      Thanks for your query. It is more than Ok to ask questions on here. I really believe that health and fitness is an ongoing learning experience and to question things is to learn. I do not have any specific reference material on hand to pass you on increased testosterone production due to metabolic syndrome on hand but I will do some digging and let you know what I come up with.

    2. I found a few studies on PubMed related to elevated testosterone levels in women and metabolic syndrome. I don’t have an account so I could only get access to the synopsis of some of the studies. The only study I could find that gave actual amounts for testosterone levels associated with metabolic syndrome for women was in postmenopausal women. It’s the first study below. I wanted specific numbers because even if they say it’s elevated I didn’t feel like I could make a solid comparison without numbers. They measured total testosterone and free testosterone. The free testosterone number is what is available to make muscle. So, that study says the highest free testosterone level was around 2.3 pg/ml for some of the indicators of metabolic syndrome and the normal range was around 1.7pg/ml. A healthy range for an adult male is 5-9 pg/ml according to the endocrine society.

      The second study I found was on menopausal women and metabolic syndrome. It does discuss higher testosterone levels and metabolic syndrome. It does not give any specific numbers for those levels.

      I completely get that metabolic syndrome influences various hormones. Insulin is a hormone and one of the major indicators is insulin resistance which of course is a precursor for diabetes. It makes sense that testosterone levels would be influenced as well.

      I also understand that “bulking up” is completely subjective. However it takes so many factors to gain muscle. One of those is of course testosterone level but it is also affected by diet, workout, rest, lifestyle and so on. The other thing I just want to add is that exercise and lifting weights is suggested to improve the indicators of metabolic syndrome.

      I just want to add that I am not a doctor and may have totally read these results wrong but take a look and see if this helps at all. I know these studies may not be exactly what you are looking for but it’s a start. Let me know if this helps or if I've gotten it completely wrong.

  3. Wow! That's awesome! You have some great research skills : ) Thank you! Just knowing the numbers is a big help, though! I will look and see if I can find some numbers for PCOS. PCOS is sometimes described as metabolic syndrome, and polycystic ovary syndrome is a common cause of infertility. It occurs in all ages of younger women. Thanks so much for finding this info! Thanks, thanks, thanks! I can't say it enough : ) You're amazing!


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