5 FEMALE FITNESS MYTHS DEBUNKED BY SCIENCE
Reader's Digest Version:
1. Lifting weights won’t make women bulky, but it will make them strong, lean and healthy if you’re interested in that.
2. Save the pink dumbbells for a doorstop, ultra high rep training is a dead practice. Sticking to strategic rep ranges will build the body of your dreams.
3. Weight lifting is not inherently dangerous; being brutally weak is actually a more risky daily practice.
4. Cardio may help you lose weight, but that “weight” may be muscle mass, which can lead to the dreaded skinny fat appearance. Not exactly the long-term result you had in mind from your daily run.
5. Protein should be prioritized, and eating more with goals of building muscle won’t leave you fat and dumpy. It will help you stay satiated and recovering from training more effectively than ever.
The Female Fitness Industry
Step aside, guys! It’s time to share the squat rack. We are currently living in the new age of fitness. As men, you are no longer the only gender passionately pumping iron with goals of chiseling a strong physique that will turn a few heads while tossing around a few plates.
While men have traditionally dominated the global strength scene, the change is becoming blatantly clear; women are lifting, training and dominating the iron game more than every before. And no, it’s not just about toning up the muscles with pink dumbbells and yoga!
According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, the number of women who participate in strength training increased significantly from 1998 to 2004 (Kruger, Carlson and Kohl III 2006). Just think that was more than a decade ago, before the rise of CrossFit, The Glute Guy and our American obsession with the backside.
While it’s about damn time that more and more females are starting to prioritize strength, it’s a damn shame that droves of misinformation about women and strength training still exist.
Though zombie lies are as hard to kill as the monsters themselves, we need to set the record straight once and for all.
Here is where I stand on dispelling the five most heinous mainstreamed fallacies that the fitness industry force feeds down the throats of vulnerable women looking to improve their bodies and health.
#1 Lifting Weights Will Make You Bulky
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding females and strength training involves the notion that lifting weights will make them appear bulky.
Unless females take anabolic steroids or double their clean food intake, that simply won’t happen.
Hormones factor heavily in determining an individual’s size. According to Medline Plus, women naturally produce about only 5-7% as much testosterone as men.
That means men produce 14 to 20 times as much testosterone as women, so women won’t increase muscle mass at nearly the same rate unless they supplement with steroids or other performance enhancing drugs.
They can work at the same intensities as men and build lean, slender physiques like fitness models instead of massive bodybuilders. This is absolutely possible, but the bulk thing? Not so much.
According to a 2004 study by Dr. Andrew Fry, “In general, females do not exhibit as great an absolute hypertrophic response when compared with males, although relative gains may be similar” (Fry, 2004).
Ladies aren’t going to throw on big slabs of muscle even if they exert the same level of effort as men. Whether this is good or bad is for you to decide, but being informed of facts, not opinions or anecdotal case studies of one, is necessary.
If women want to build muscle while losing weight, they should focus on maintaining a negative energy balance and burning off more calories than they consume. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. And guess what? That same tip can be used for men! Who would have thought?
To take it to the next level, females should work on reducing stress and getting a requisite amount of sleep per night. Again, this is not rocket science, but it has been shown that getting decreased number of hours of sleep reduces anabolic hormone levels and increases catabolic hormone concentrations (Cook, Kilduff and Jones; 2004).
While the very word “anabolic” may scare some women, it’s actually an important hormone for building lean muscle and burning fat. You’re either building muscle or losing muscle, and you definitely don’t want to decrease muscle mass because muscle burns more calories than fat.
So if females want to remain lean, they had better prioritize staying in an anabolic state.
That means ladies should aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night and consume plenty of high quality, unprocessed foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts. And yes, it can be that simple. Master the basics to move your goals forward.
#2 If You Want To Tone Muscle, Lift Light Weight For High Reps
Women need much more than five-pound pink dumbbells to build the bodies they desire.
If you don’t think women should lift heavy weights, take a trip to your local grocery store to find women of all types hauling massive grocery bags and lifting children over their shoulders.
First off, “heavy” is a relative term. What’s heavy for a 110-pound female will be different than what’s heavy for a 200-pound male.
A certain level of stress must be placed on the body’s muscles and joints in order to create adaptations to allow for lean muscle growth.
According to a recent research review by Brad Schoenfeld called The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and their Applications to Resistance Training, “Intensity (i.e. load) has been shown to have a significant impact on muscle hypertrophy and is arguably the most important exercise variable for stimulating muscle growth (Schoenfeld, 2010).”
Schoenfeld also indicated, “The use of high repetitions has generally proven to be inferior to moderate and lower repetition ranges in eliciting increases in muscle hypertrophy.” And we’re talking lean, toned muscles.
It should be noted that women who use strictly high repetitions will develop sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the build-up of non-contractile fluid in muscle cells. This type of training makes muscles appear puffy. Not exactly what you are shooting for, right ladies?
Most women probably prefer to build lean, dense muscle. In this case, they should use fewer reps to achieve myofibrillar hypertrophy, an actual increase in the size of the muscle fibers.
Since we’ve already established women won’t get big and bulky unless they take steroids or eat massive amounts of food, let’s discuss the rep ranges women should use.
The majority of women (and men, yeah you guys!) exercise mainly to improve their physiques, so they don’t necessarily need to perform one-, two-, or three-rep maxes like strength athletes.
Sticking between six and 12 reps should be sufficient for optimal lean muscle development, assuming you’re working at a maximal level of intensity.
Women should make sure to use compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, push-ups and pull-ups to stimulate their nervous systems to the highest degree.
#3 You’ll Get Hurt If You Lift Weights
You may actually increase your chances of getting hurt if you don’t lift weights. Like my man Bret Contreras says, “If you think lifting weights is dangerous, try being weak. Being weak is dangerous.”
A lot of females possess great flexibility, but lack stability. According to a 2012 report from the University of Colorado Hospital, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are four to six times more likely to happen in women than men (Osborne, 2012).
ACL injuries are more likely to occur in sports that involve jumping and changing of direction, so improving core stability and developing greater strength in the posterior chain can assist in reducing the possibility of injury.
While it’s important to have some level of flexibility, women who focus solely on stretching-based routines like yoga are short-changing themselves.
According to a 2012 study published in Yoga Journal, more than 82 percent of the 20.4 million yoga practitioners in the United States are female (Yoga Journal, 2012). The point isn’t to entice the guys to sign up for stretch class, but to put a number on the popularity of fitness fads.
Yoga is certainly a wonderful practice, and many women who are already flexible are naturally attracted to it because it’s something with which they’re going to have success. On the other hand, men tend to stick to weight lifting because they’re stronger and have more muscle mass than women. Perhaps many of them would benefit from doing more yoga.
Women can certainly get hurt lifting weights. Men can too.
Attempting to squat or deadlift under heavy load without proper form is a recipe for disaster.
That’s why; if you’re not confident with your form, seek out a qualified professional to learn proper exercise technique. You can then make sure you’re performing the proper progression for each exercise and you’re focusing on quality movement and form and build a foundation of strength to work towards for the long term.
Once you’ve gained confidence in your ability to complete a lift with perfect technique, you’ll be able to increase the weight without worry.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll start putting some men to shame with the amount of weight you have on the bar. No shame in showing up the boys every now and then!
As long as all of the movements are being performed correctly, adding in some form of resistance training is highly beneficial for females from an injury prevention standpoint. Start slow, master your movement, and you will progress faster than you would have ever dreamed.
#4 You Need To Focus On Cardio To Get Lean
Just about all of us have walked into a commercial gym to find dozens of exercisers on a treadmill or elliptical moving at a slow and steady pace for prolonged periods of time in an attempt to burn fat.
While there’s no question cardiovascular exercise can help you lose fat, you would be remiss to ignore strength training.
If you focus only on cardio, you’ll likely lose weight if you ensure your diet and recovery are also on point, but you’ll lose muscle if you don’t engage in resistance training.
Having more muscle speeds up your metabolism because it burns calories at a faster rate than fat. If you perform too much cardio, you can actually lose muscle. That is worth repeating, but I’ll save you the burden.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, “Chronic, high-volume running creates a catabolic response that can lead to muscle degradation and reduction in power (Campbell and Spano, 131).” In case you read that quickly, this is not a good thing.
If improving body composition is your goal, it’s important to incorporate, if not prioritize weight training and other exercise methods that involve working at high intensities for shorter periods of time to place your body in an anabolic state.
Protein synthesis is elevated after bouts of strength training and can remain elevated for up to two full days following your workout (Campbell and Spano, 100).
For strictly aesthetic-based goals, ladies should implement at least two or three strength-training workouts and a couple of high-intensity interval routines each week.
Steady-state cardio is OK to use occasionally, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of any exercise regimen focusing on physical appearance. This can even be said for the high level triathletes I train on a daily basis.
Ultimately, women must have a negative energy balance to lose weight, so they must make sure diet and recovery are up to par first before focusing on exercise methods. You certainly can’t out-train a bad diet, no matter how hard you train. Sorry to burst your bubble!
#5 You’ll Get Fat If You Eat Too Much Protein
Exercise is important, but your diet will have a much greater impact on your physique and your health for that matter.
Making sure you have a good balance of all your macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) is essential.
Protein is often talked about among men looking to bulk up, but it’s equally as important for women seeking to burn fat. Protein supports muscle and tissue growth, so it’s essential for the development of lean muscle mass, which elevates metabolism.
The Center for Disease Control recommends 56 grams of protein per day for men and 46 grams for women. But recommendations you find on food labels are generally for sedentary individuals.
Women who are active need more protein even if their goals are to lose weight and body fat.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends you consume between one and one-half and two grams per kilogram of body weight per day and to “maintain or slightly increase protein intake…when following a hypocaloric diet (Campbell and Spano, 192).”
So even if you’re only a 50-kilogram (110-pound) female, you should still take in between 75 and 100 grams of protein each and every day.
Also, eating protein can help you eat fewer calories overall because protein has a high thermic effect of food. It requires more energy for the body to digest than the other macronutrients.
Think about it. Have you ever eaten a piece of steak before and felt stuffed? The portion you ate was probably only a couple hundred calories at most.
You’ve probably also eaten a large bag of potato chips and still felt hungry. That bag could have been more than 1,000 calories, but because chips are mostly carbohydrates, your body processed them really quickly.
Precision Nutrition, among the world leaders in nutrition coaching, recommends females have one palm-sized serving of protein with each meal. You should be able to fit about 20 to 30 grams of protein in your palm. If you have three meals, that’s a total of 60 to 90 grams.
So, ladies, start getting in more protein if you want to build your dream body. And skip the potato chips while you’re at it!
Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.
Campbell, Bill I., and Marie A. Spano. “NSCA’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition.” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011. Print.
Cook, Christian J., Liam P. Kilduff, and Marc R. Jones. “Recovering Effectively in High-Performance Sports.” High-Performance Training for Sports. N.p.: Human Kinetics, 2014. 325. Print.
Fry, Andrew C. “The Role of Resistance Training Intensity on Muscle Fibre Adaptations.” Sports Med 34.10 (2004): 663-78. Web. Female Fitness
Kruger, J., S. Carlson and H. Kohl, III. “Trends in Strength Training – United States, 1998-2004.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 July 2006. Web.
Osborne, Maria. “Why Do Females Injure Their Knees Four to Six Times More Than Men…And What Can You Do About It?” University of Colorado Health (2012): 1-6. University of Colorado-Denver. Female Fitness Web.
Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24 (2010): 2857-872. Web. Female Fitness
Yoga Journal. “New Study Finds More Than 20 Million Yogis in U.S. – Yoga Journal.” Yoga Journal. N.p., 05 Dec. 2012. Web. Female Fitness
Via Dr. John Rusin