By Dale Barr
“There’s just something about lifting heavy weights that makes you think you can conquer anything.”
As a busy father of two young children, I know that those of us who are committed to a fit and healthy lifestyle need an exercise program that offers maximum results in the least amount of time. You don’t have to spend hours and hours a day at the gym to get great results. Rather, you need a well-planned strength-training program that includes lifting weights. While lifting heavy weights is good for both men and women, in this issue I focus on its enormous benefit for women.
One of the biggest pushbacks I hear from female clients when they start lifting weights is they don’t want to get bulky. What do you mean by bulky? I ask. I want to be toned, they will say. OK, so is bulky, fat? Is it muscle? Muscle is toned, right? So, what is it? We then go through the normal assessment and warm-up, do the weigh-in and body fat measurements.
Nine times out of ten the woman will have a body fat percentage of 30 to 35 percent. Hate to break it to you, but that’s bulky! Normal body fat ranges for a healthy woman should be 25 to 30 percent; fit, 20 to 25 percent; and athletes less than 20 percent. These are all ranges of course but when you can’t describe what bulky is and you’re body fat is in the obese range, we have a disconnect. It’s not the weights that will make you bulky: it’s most likely your nutrition and whatever your current exercise regiment is (or isn’t) that’s making you feel that way.
Everyone is different. Therefore results will always be different. But we know that women lack the hormonal makeup to gain a ton of muscle. Can it happen? Sure, but it’s rare. Maybe not getting struck by lightning while riding a unicorn rare, but it doesn’t happen unless you are specifically training to gain mass with a diet and nutrition strategy to support such a gain … and it takes a long, long time.
My point here is most likely it’s NOT going to happen to you and it certainly won’t happen after two weeks of lifting. When your “shirt feels tighter in the arms,” that’s a body fat and nutrition problem. Here are some benefits you will get from lifting:
Keep or gain muscle! Starting around the age of 30, our bodies naturally lose muscle mass. I’ve seen estimates for muscle loss as high as one-half pound per year. The lower testosterone levels in women make it harder to keep muscle on; by age 70 women generally have only 50 to 55 percent of their muscle mass left. You can fight this loss by lifting and keeping the muscle you have and maybe gain some in the process.
Burn more calories, lose fat! Muscle is our most metabolically active tissue, meaning muscle burns more calories than any other tissue in our body. Think of your metabolism as a fire and each pound of muscle you have is another dry piece of wood that keeps it roaring. Without muscle our metabolism smolders. More muscle means more calories burned. Lifting burns calories both while doing it and for the next 24 to 48 hours as your body recovers.
Increased bone density! Older women lose bone density at a much faster rate than men, making them far more susceptible to falls and broken bones. A 2011 study by Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that women ages 65 to 69 who break their hip are five times more likely to die within one year than women of the same age range who don’t break a hip. Yikes! Lifting can help prevent such a break and improve bone density even in osteoarthritic conditions. Fran, a longtime client of mine who has osteoarthritis and low bone density saw her density improve by 5 percent! Unheard of without medications!
Confidence boost! All of my female clients tell me they feel so much more confident after lifting, not just physically but also mentally. There’s just something about lifting heavy weights that makes you think you can conquer anything.
OK, so you get it—and I am speaking to women of all ages—you need to lift. You can lift heavy weights in the 1–3 rep range for strength, or keep your rep ranges between 5 and 12 but you have to continue to increase the weight and challenge yourself. If you’re lifting 10-pound dumbbells for 12 reps in week one, and still using 10-pound dumbbells in week six, or in some cases a year later, you’re doing it all wrong.
You don’t have to spend hours and hours in the gym to get results. Running, biking or swimming can be good cardio, but lifting weights is more efficient if you want to reduce fat and gain muscle. To ensure proper technique and safety, it is best to lift weights with the guidance of an experienced trainer.
Don’t be scared of getting “bulky or big.” You want to be lean, strong, avoid falls and breaks, and have the energy and confidence to do whatever you’d like no matter if you are 50, 60 or 70 years young. Weights are the fountain of youth!
Dale Barr, owner of d3 Fitness, is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE), as well as a Certified Venice Nutrition Coach and CrossFit Level I and CrossFit Endurance Coach. Dale and his wife Risa are raising two lively young boys in Annapolis. For more information and training options, visit d3fitness.com.