Weight training has been sorely misunderstood for the longest time. It is often associated with sweaty, bulky men in male dominated masculine looking gyms, surrounded by other sweaty and ‘beef cakey’ men, attempting not to burst a blood vessel whilst adding half an inch to a bicep. This association, coupled with statements such as “Don’t [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Going heavy or staying light: Women and the weights issue


Weight training has been sorely misunderstood for the longest time. It is often associated with sweaty, bulky men in male dominated masculine looking gyms, surrounded by other sweaty and ‘beef cakey’ men, attempting not to burst a blood vessel whilst adding half an inch to a bicep. This association, coupled with statements such as “Don’t do weights child, you will become bulky and broad and start looking like a man” (or various versions of it) is one that women – young and old – often hear from relatives and well wishers offering advice on the topic of health and fitness.

As I have said before, I have been on some sort of diet or another for most of my life. At various stages, the regime has changed to accommodate a particular goal in mind: Be it health, sports, vanity, increasing energy and fitness, fitting into a costume for a stage production, getting back into a favourite dress, wearing pre-motherhood jeans post childbirth, increasing mental strength etc, etc. This time however, having come to the realisation a few years ago, that one can change within the frame but not necessarily the frame itself, it seemed to make sense to ensure it was the ‘best’ frame possible. Bearing in mind that ‘best’ means different things to different people, my definition of it included the words strong, fit and toned, in addition to the ever popular ‘slim’. So once again, I turned to one of the few consistent things in my health and fitness regime: weight training. Interestingly it would appear that, so have many other women.

According to Annie Ross, reporting for the Evening Standard in April 2016, “While women in the weights areas of gyms are still few and far between, research shows that more female members than ever are using weights to achieve a strong, healthy physique.” She also goes on to identify the general problems that arise with regard to women and weight training and attempts to surmount them: “It’s true that weights can be intimidating and confusing, so let’s eradicate any barriers to entry and get more women reaping the benefits of weight lifting.”

Whilst there is an obvious aesthetic rewards for women – and men – who actively weight train, research shows that there are real health benefits which outweigh the purely visual ones. Adam Campbell writing for Women’s Health Magazine in “12 Reasons You Should Start Lifting Weights Today”,identifies a dozen such benefits. There are the obvious ones such as clothes fitting better, increasing the metabolic rate, burning more calories and getting into shape faster. Interestingly, he also identifies several benefits we would rarely associate with weight training, such as handling stress better (scientists determined that the fittest people exhibited lower levels of stress hormones than those who were the least fit and that after a stressful situation, the blood pressure levels of people with the most muscle returned to normal faster than the levels of those with the least muscle); Being happier (significantly improved scores of measuring anger and an overall mood); Building stronger bones (increasing hip bone density and elevated levels of Osteocalcin – a marker of bone growth); Having a healthier heart (University of Michigan researchers found a decrease in diastolic blood pressure, which can reduce risk of a stroke by 40% and a heart attack by 15%); Being more productive, Living longer (University of South Carolina researchers determined that total-body strength is linked to lower risks of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Similarly, other scientists found that being strong during middle age is associated with “exceptional survival,” defined as living to the age of 85 without developing a major disease)and even; Becoming smarter (muscles strengthen your body and mind, enhances cognitive function, which result in better short term memory, improved verbal reason and a longer attention span).

There are also many myths that keep women away from weights in general. Fitness expert, Steve Kamb identifies seven such misconceptions that may be costing women dearly in their bid to becoming fitter and stronger and getting into shape more efficiently. Myths which include being able to ‘spot reduce fat’ in specific locations in the body. Kamb explains that “Your body is genetically predisposed to storing fat in certain locations in a certain order. When you start to lose weight, your body will lose the fat you currently have in a certain order as well…No amount of targeted exercise will change how that fat disappears.” He suggests the best way to make the fat disappear faster is to Eat Better. “Your diet will be responsible for 80-90% of that fat loss. Strength train, not with targeted exercises, but with big compound movements that recruit lots of muscle (and thus force your body to rebuild lots of muscle, which requires extra calories burned, even after the workout is done)”.

There is also an idea that women will ‘bulk up’ if they train with weights, when in fact the opposite is true. The heavy weights build up the muscle, which in turn increases the muscle mass beneath the layer of fat under the skin. This increased amount of muscle raises the metabolic rate and burns the layer of fat, exposing the real, ‘lean’ shape of the muscle and gives a more toned appearance.

One that seemed to stand out particularly was that ‘After reaching menopause, and the potential for osteoporosis kicks in, many women tend to shy away from strength training for fear of injuring themselves.’ According to Kamb, this is actually “the Perfect time to strength train…Studies have shown that strength training preserved bone density while improving muscle mass, strength and balance in postmenopausal women…In addition, research has also shown that strength training helps correct issues relating to cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and inactivity.”

In the end however, irrespective of what the experts have to say, a person has to believe that what they do will help them reach their goal in the end. Be it with regard to weight training for women, or anything else for that matter. Personally, given a sporty past, I have always had a fondness for weight training and have always been aware of the benefits of incorporating them into my regular training routine. The results have been evident not only in a superficial sense, but also in the way it affects my daily life: Being able to pick up our kids with ease, carry my luggage onto the baggage belt without help, perform for two hours without breaking a sweat, have the energy to pen an article for a column at the end of a gruelling day – all whilst feeling like my clothes fit better.

So perhaps it’s not so much about ‘Going Heavy or Staying Light’ that matters, but rather that we women should not be afraid to let the myths relating to training with weights, prevent us from working with an entity that may in fact not simply reshape our bodies, but also our lives as well.

All comments, suggestions and contributions are most welcome. Confidentiality guaranteed.
Please email: KJWVoiceforWomen@gmail.com

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