Let’s talk about gyms. Despite many great efforts, they are places that can still be ridiculouslygender-specific, and the expectations that get created in gyms can spill out into all forms of exercise in general. This is a bad thing for many reasons, one of which is that these dated expectations limit women from doing some of the most beneficial, life-changing exercises out there: lifting weights.
The amount of women who simply never start any kind of weight training due to a fear of becoming ‘too muscular’ is far too big and widespread. So we’re here to figure out how this happened, why it’s expressly not the case that you’ll become a bodybuilder if you start lifting weights, and why, in fact, it’s fundamental to your exercise routine that you start doing so.
WHY ARE WEIGHTS SO FROWNED UPON BY SOME?
This is a pretty big question to answer, but it comes down to two interrelated things. One is a misconception about weights themselves, and the other runs along those ever-shifting gender lines.
First, the misconception: lifting weights is not a binary activity. It’s not all or nothing. There are a ton of different ways to go about doing it: there are varying levels of resistance, theories and philosophies on repetition, specific plans to greatly increase bulk muscle, to become lean, to get stronger without a huge change in physical appearance, and many more. Lifting weights is not simply about gaining muscles. Try your best to keep that thought out of your head as much as you possibly can.
Our second reason might explain why that’s easier said than done, though, especially for women. See, going to a gym is usually an nice experience, but even for a guy who just wants to ‘stay in shape’, the group of 6 thick-necked guys spotting each other at the bench press can be slightly intimidating. It’s precisely this culture that led to a rise in female-only, aerobic-focused classes, to the great disadvantage of women everywhere. Making weights a men-only thing has deprived millions of women from a weight-loss secret that can save countless hours in aerobic exercise.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with bodybuilding, but because it tends to rest near the extreme end of things, it has taken on certain characteristics that aren’t as pronounced in other sports. Sure, we might know a maniacal runner or aerobic exerciser who is insanely devoted, but it’s only the bodybuilders who manage to seemingly double their body weight and radically transform the way they look, grunting and sweating and going crazy over there, in the corner.
This creates a strange problem for some women — they really stand to benefit from everything that weight training offers, but get seriously deterred by the irritating, macho culture that pervades much bodybuilding.
WHAT WILL LIFTING WEIGHTS ACTUALLY DO FOR ME?
Lifting weights is an essential exercise. Aerobic training is fine, but if you compare the amount of effort, it’s simply far easier to lose weight through lifting some weights than it is doing hours and hours of aerobic exercise.
The key is in lean muscle. As you lift weights, you develop it. It’s not bulky, it’s not big, and it’s not the kind of muscle you’d find on a bodybuilder. Nope, this is the kind of muscle that burns calories to maintain itself, that continues to burn those calories long after your workout is over.
If you are doing aerobic exercise to burn fat, you are concentrating on just that — burning fat. It takes a hell of a lot of cardio to burn all the fat you probably want to burn, and when you’re at rest, your muscles — although they might have gotten a reasonably OK workout through 60 minutes of dancing around — simply won’t be doing all they can to help you burn more.
If you start lifting weights, your muscles will get a workout, not just your body in general. You’ll build that lean muscle, which not only looks great, but does so much more work for you when you aren’t working out.
Have you ever watched a marathon? There are many, many runners around the world who are able to run that amazing length — 42km — but still have, for example, a spare tire around their belly, or significant weight all over. How is this possible? How can all that running, all that training, not just cause the pounds to melt away?
Because they aren’t really building up their muscles. Now, before you think we’re negating an entire type of exercise, we should say: long-distance training, just like doing 2 hours of aerobic dance classes, does wonderful things for your body — don’t get us wrong.
Your base fitness level will get higher, you’ll burn calories, your lung capacity will be fantastic, and if that’s the route you choose to take, or you just love running and working out for long amounts of time, more power to you. Anything is better than the couch.
But — and it’s an important but — adding weights into your routine not only saves you the time drain of endless, repetitive cardio workouts, but it works many, many times faster than your normal cardio workout. Your muscles really will work while you eat, while you sleep, and even while you sit around (although your increased metabolism won’t allow for as much of that). It literally powers your fat loss into overdrive, and it’s why we focus so much on it here on the site. It’s time to get away from counting calories on a stairclimber and into a better, more well-rounded approach to your fitness.
WILL I LOOK LIKE A BODYBUILDER? (NO, YOU WON’T.)
This is a really unfortunate myth, and it’s one that has prevented a lot of women from getting the most out of their exercise.
It’s very difficult to break free of the idea that lifting weights — that doing any kind of resistance exercise — will create large, defined, bulky muscles. The fact is, your lean muscles will be more defined. But the keyword is lean muscle. There is a large difference between bulked-up muscle and lean muscle.
In order to look like a bodybuilder, you need to eat like a bodybuilder. You need to go on a very specific program that involves all sorts of complicated phases, where you eat specific foods in order to gain weight, and then do weeks of exercises in order to convert all that newbulk into muscle. It’s called bulking and cutting (or various other things — there’s lots of jargon).
On the other hand, building lean muscle is the act of making small, specific adjustments to your already-existing body, not doubling up its muscle mass. Tightening up, not bulking up — ensuring that your body works better, is stronger, leaner, and more toned.
When you start lifting weights, you also start losing weight, you build lean, attractive muscles (just look at Michelle Obama), and you blast your energy level through the roof. Every bite of food you have will feel earned, because you’ll be burning calories and building that lean muscle, 24/7.
ONE LAST THING ABOUT WOMEN, MUSCLES, AND MEN.
The last thing I want to mention takes us further into gender debates than the rest of what we’ve talked about, but that’s OK: I’ve often heard it expressed that many men simply don’t find ‘muscular’ women attractive.
I’ve also heard it expressed (from women) that because lifting weights (minus the cutting/bulking) is technically the same process that female bodybuilders use to become big, many women would rather take the aerobics route in order to avoid any risk of that ever happening, as though you could just wake up, overnight, with huge biceps. Nope — won’t happen.
Besides the fact that this silly preference among men is irrelevant, out-of-date, and rather sexist (it forces women to stick to some kind of standard of exercise that is supposed to keep them thin and beautiful but also soft and not too strong), it has contributed to this idea that the only proper exercise for losing weight or for getting in shape is aerobic — endless cardio, endless running, endless dance routines.
Forget about this.
First of all, unless you really, really start eating specific carb-heavy foods, you won’t see a huge difference in your muscle mass when you begin lifting weights. At first, it will only contribute to your weight loss, and help any general attempt to get into shape (there’s that lean muscle again).
And please: ignore the men who complain that they don’t like women who exercise like this, who lift weights, because it might give them the slightest hint of strength. They’re living in the 1950s.
Instead, take advantage of the huge benefits that lifting weights can give to you, watch how your weight loss will accelerate, you’ll feel better than ever, and you’ll actually start burning fat when you aren’t even working out. Bust out that resistance, super-charge your workout, and explode those old-fashioned myths. What are you waiting for?