Traditionally, weightlifting has been seen as a man’s activity. Many women shy away from it, worried that they will become too muscular and masculine. However, this is a misconception based on female athletes whose “fitness” regime involves extreme workouts or even performance enhancing drugs. Dr Darren Morton, internationally recognised lifestyle medicine expert, explains: “Men want to become ‘bulky’ and still find it hard, even though they have a lot more testosterone in their system! It isn’t something women normally need to worry about.”
This can be compounded by the variety of fitness regimes being advertised nowadays. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) like F-45, new forms of strength building like Crossfit, home workout programs, low intensity, full body workouts. . . the variety can sometimes be overwhelming. With all the options, it is unsurprising that weightlifting can sometimes take a back seat for women.
Strength-building through lifting weights can help women to reach their health and fitness goals, such as losing weight by reducing body-fat percentage, toning, shaping and helping to build muscle. Weightlifting—whether it involves free weights (barbells and dumbbells), fixed weight machines, or just lifting your own body weight—can increase both confidence and quality of life long-term.
Ten benefits of strength training are explored below, including some that may be surprising—keep an eye out for the one on osteoporosis. Note that I’ve used terms interchangeably—weightlifting, weight training, strength building, resistance training. Same thing.
#1. Highly effective for weight loss
You may have met “that” trainer at the gym who finds amusement in making you pay penance for your favourite treats by pushing you to run like a gazelle on cardio machines like the treadmill or the elliptical until your lungs feel like they’re going to burst and your hamstrings threaten to snap from exertion. My personal discovery was that I don’t run like a gazelle; when I tried the treadmill for the first time, I ran like a drunken chicken on a rolling barrel, before taking a misstep and flying off the end! I wonder why that trainer never told me the sneaky secret of strength training? It is even better than cardio workout for weight loss, because it works for you even when you’re not working. One study in women around 60 years old who were put on a resistance training regime, showed they had a higher total energy expenditure and they were burning more calories even while resting.
#2. Improved movement
Resistance training improves every physical and movement related activity, increasing confidence and making daily tasks easier and more fun. In studies of elderly people who did regular strength training, it was found they were more likely to move spontaneously rather than worrying about injuring themselves every time they got up from a chair. Thinking long term, we imagine enjoying our retirement by travelling, spending time with loved ones or doing hobbies, not suffering from disabilities. Increased muscle tone reduces strain on joints and bones and increases our confidence to be playful and enjoy the moment.
#3. Increased energy
Who doesn’t need more energy? Ernestine Shepherd, one of the oldest female bodybuilders, started training in her fifties and is still walking or cycling around two hours every morning, as well as lifting weights. She’s now 84 years young! The ideal of a physically active woman, however, goes back many more years—millennia in fact! The reflections of King Lemuel on the value of a “virtuous and capable wife” include the descriptor that “she is energetic and strong”, or, as the New King James Bible translation renders it, “She girds herself with strength, and strengthens her arms” (Proverbs 31:10,17 NLT). I wonder if she did her bicep curls daily!
#4. Reduced stress
Short bursts of stress are normal and no problem for our bodies to deal with, but long bouts of chronic stress without a stress release are damaging, as is often the case with the pressures of modern society. Resistance training is a great stress release as it helps to remove stress hormones from the body. It also requires so much energy and concentration that (at least while doing it) you may not have the energy to worry or feel upset about the rest of your life, because you need all of your energy and focus for your muscles to complete that push up or leg press. Research published in Psychology Today presented evidence that exercise can even reduce anger.
#5. Reduced depression
According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, women who did two or more sessions of strength training per week saw a significant fall in their symptoms of depression—those who most needed a lift seemed to see even more benefits.
#6. Building bone density and reversing osteoporosis
I had the privilege of seeing this in action, since I got to work out in the same gym as an elderly gentleman who was enthusiastic about his increased bone health. Recent studies have confirmed that even the elderly can increase their bone density, because the right type of resistance exercise—called “power training”—can even encourage new growth in bone cells.
#7. Resistance training has benefits for cancer patients
Resistance training has recently been trialled on women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. They started the training within the first week of their treatment at three Swedish university hospitals. Their energy, stress and nausea improved significantly after resistance training.
#8. Cosmetic benefits
According to the Victorian Cosmetic Institute, some popular plastic surgeries include the “tummy tuck” and “Brazilian butt lift”, where fat is taken from unwanted areas via liposuction and injected into the buttocks. Many women are willing to go under the knife with dreams of becoming Barbie with a tiny waist and well-cushioned rear. Benign-sounding procedures can have deadly complications however, including lung and heart failure (not to mention the risk of death, which for an unnecessary procedure should be a total deal-breaker). It’s time for us to remember that we’re not a surgeon’s guinea pig or “doll”, but something much more magnificent. Why risk pain and death (or being “botched”) and waste all that money when we have vast potential to develop our body at little cost, with value-added benefits? In many cases, the reduced body fat and muscle tone achieved with strength training will do wonders for common “problem areas”. A personal trainer who can coach you on good form in your weight training is far cheaper, and far better, than a personal surgeon.
#9. Benefits to patients with eating disorders
Strength athletes, such as fitness model Imogen Parfitt, say that focusing on becoming strong and healthy helped them to beat anorexia—using natural bodybuilding, not competitions that involve extreme diets and dehydration to look more “cut”.
#10. Keeping fit during pregnancy
A good start is to modify what you already do by adding some bodyweight resistance training to your daily routine, using everyday objects such as cans or water bottles, or carrying some weights while you do your daily walk. Dr Darren Morton recommends two or three resistance sessions a week as a good goal, and says, “There are many benefits of resistance training for women, including muscle and bone strength. Obviously, it is important to be a little more conservative during pregnancy, but as long as the weights aren’t too heavy, and you remember to breathe during the exercise, they can be very safe. I suggest only lifting weights that you could perform at least 12 to 15 repetitions with.” Every pregnancy is different, of course, so it’s wise to seek medical advice before embarking on a strength-training regime. Rest days are already important under normal circumstances, so make sure your workout plan or workout routine is designed to accomodate your changed circumstances.
Using our muscles as women can help us improve our quality of life. And, in fact, it seems that our bodies are designed in a way that requires us to challenge our muscles regularly for optimal health and wellbeing. So the next time you decide to exercise, whether it be a total body workout or something focused on your triceps or glutes, maybe try exercising those muscle groups with some weight training.
Leesa Briones is a lifestyle medicine student with a background in education. She lives with her family in Melbourne.
Please note that the advice given here is general and may not be suitable for your particular situation. If you have any doubts, consult a health professional first.