The Strength To Try

Misconceptions about strength training are causing some women to miss out on its benefits

When discussing fitness, there are some common goals among women: weight loss, more energy, good metabolism and better mood.

Building bulk? Not so much.

In fact, the idea of looking like a bodybuilder can discourage some women from trying any kind of strength training at all. That’s a mistake, according to exercise physiologist Katie Macmillan in St. Joseph’s/Candler’s Wellness Center.

“Strength training is great for your muscles and connective tissues,” she says. “It helps with injury prevention and with staying toned after you’ve experienced age-related muscle loss. It also burns calories while you are at rest.”

Feeling The Afterburn

Strength training, also known as resistance training, involves working your muscles against some sort of force. Think weights and dumbbells, but also your own body weight and gravity, as with plank exercises. Macmillan says even common household items such as milk jugs and soup cans can provide that resistance.

Strength training exercises are typically done in a set number of reps—based on your goals and current strength level—and then making sure to rest in between sessions.

“Through this process, your muscles are actually breaking down and then rebuilding,” Macmillan says.

Not only are your muscles coming back bigger and stronger, they are burning calories to do so, all while you are at rest. This is called afterburn.

“That’s why strength training also increases your metabolism over time,” Macmillan says.

Afterburn is another reason why Macmillan encourages her clients to do both cardio workouts and strength training, rather than choosing one over the other. But many women hold the misconception that cardio is the better way to stay fit.

“If you think cardio will take care of everything, you are not getting the effects of afterburn and the other benefits of strength training,” she says.

Starting Light

Rows of cast iron and steel dumbbells and stacks of weight plates emblazoned with numbers like 25, 35 and 50 may not be the most welcoming sight in the gym. Nearby bodybuilders straining and grunting probably doesn’t help either. But Macmillan says there’s no reason to be intimidated.

“Even if a person needs to modify their strength training to their individual needs, it still counts,” she says. “It is not defined by lifting heavy weights.”

People with time constraints can also do a combination of cardio exercise and strength training at the same time. For beginners, the recommendation is to incorporate strength training two times a week.

Along with the long-term benefits to your muscles, bones and connective tissues, Macmillan says that you also won’t be unhappy about how you look.

“Some women think that if they strength train, they are going to bulk up and look big and heavy,” she says. “But that’s not true.”

Part of the reason is physiological. One of the roles of testosterone in the body is to build muscle mass. But women don’t produce as much testosterone as men. Consequently, the muscle they build from strength training will be more defined and toned than before, but not bulky.

“You’re not going to bulk up accidently,” Macmillan says. “You will only look like a bodybuilder if that is a goal of yours and something you work toward for a long time.”

How It Fits

Another misconception about strength training is that it can be used to spot reduce areas of the body where you may be carrying extra fat.

“If you do 100 crunches a day for a month in order to get a thin stomach with six-pack abs, you’re going to get discouraged,” Macmillan says. “Each person loses weight in a certain order based on their body. As you progress in your routine, you may lose more weight in your face than in your hips, for example. Or vice versa.”

Macmillan also makes sure her clients don’t forget an equally important part of the equation—a good healthy diet. This means a focus on foods that are not processed or at least minimally processed, high in fiber and protein and low in sugar and saturated fats.

Even though strength training doesn’t work to spot reduce, it still plays a role in both weight loss and general wellness. Macmillan hopes women—and men—will fit strength training into their wellness routine along with cardio exercises, a healthy diet and sleep.

“Just remember that you can do this at your pace and level,” Macmillan says. “And if you see other people doing a level of strength training that you can’t do, don’t get discouraged. Stick with the plan that works for you. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

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