Ask 100 women this year what their New Year’s resolution will be and a third will likely answer “weight loss.” Many of these women will join a gym (or start using their current membership more). They’ll spend hours on the treadmill, elliptical, or other cardio machine. They may even lose a bit of weight. But they still may be “skinny fat”.” And by the end of the year, only 20% will have been successful in keeping the weight off. There’s a much better approach than this called strength training, and there’s a lot of science to support it.

If you’re a woman who wants to achieve a toned, healthy look, strength training to increase your Lean Body Mass is the best way to reach this goal. In this article, we’ll summarize everything you need to know about resistance training. We’ll separate fact from fiction. We’ll look at the benefits and safety implications of strength training. We’ll give you some examples of famous women who strength train (and show you their amazing results). And hopefully, we’ll encourage some of you who are on the fence about strength training to get on board and start experiencing its many benefits.

Top 4 Myths About Women Who Strength Train

There are a lot of myths and rumors out there about strength training. A lot of them become serious roadblocks that encourage many women to disregard or dismiss strength training. Let’s take a look at a couple of the more problematic myths and put them to rest.

Myth #1: Strength training causes women to “look bulky”

Let’s get this one out of the way straight out of the gate. Many women associate resistance training as bad and something only men should do because they believe it leads to weight gain and a “bulky look.” Here’s the truth about strength training: yes, it may cause you to gain weight. In fact, you can probably count on it. But that’s perfectly okay, and here’s why: if the gains you experience are gains in Lean Body Mass, this means your weight can stay the same, or even increase, but you will look more lean and toned.

Muscle is denser than fat, meaning it takes up less space on your body. By losing fat and gaining muscle, you can stay the same weight – or even gain some – but actually be slimmer than you were before. Think of strength training as an investment that pays serious dividends down the road. The more muscle you have, the more calories (and fat) your body can burn over time. We’ll explore the science behind this more below.

“Healthy” is not a number on the scale—it’s how you look and feel.

So don’t think in terms of what you want to lose and focus more on what you want to gain, both physically and emotionally. Please, etch this thought deep into your brain: as long as you’re noticing positive changes in how you look and feel, that arbitrary number on the scale doesn’t make a bit of difference. In fact, it’s likely to lead you astray.


Myth #2:  Getting toned comes from cardio – no lifting required

For women who are obese, aerobic exercise is important to help reduce heart disease risk as well as body fat. But let’s face it: most women and men don’t exercise just because it’s good for your heart—they do it because it makes their bodies look better. While cardio has benefits for your heart, research shows resistance training is a proven method for increasing Lean Body Mass and reducing body fat for women.

More lean mass is what you should be striving for if you want a tight, toned, athletic look. Running on the treadmill 4 days a week may help you lose body fat, but without adding on muscle, it won’t give you that tight, toned look. Think about your friends, for example. Which ones do you think look more toned and athletic? The ones who only do cardio or the ones that do strength training?

Even if your main goal is fat loss, if all you’re doing is cardio, you may be losing muscle mass as well.


Myth #3: Lifting huge and heavy is required

When you take a look around the gym and at the people who are lean and muscular, you often see them – especially the men – lifting what looks like an unbelievable amount of weight: 2, 3, even 4 plates on each side of the barbell. Many times, they’re lifting heavy, but only lifting a couple of times for each set. That can be intimidating.

Good news: first of all, lifting heavy with low reps is just one style of strength training, and secondly, if you’re just trying to tone up and have no desire to look like a bodybuilder, it’s not necessary.

A study on women found that regardless of what the training style was – heavy lifting with low reps or low weights with high reps – strength and muscle gains occurred.

This means you don’t need to be able to deadlift 2x your bodyweight or flip tractor-trailer tires in the gym. Strength training at whatever level you’re comfortable with yields positive results, and if an attractive, toned look motivates you, you will be able to work towards that goal with low/moderate resistance exercise.


Myth #4: You can be too old to strength train

“Sarcopenia” is the gradual loss of muscle mass that begins for most women after age 35. Contrary to popular belief, this decline in muscle mass and strength is not a result of the aging process; rather, it’s due to inactivity.

Studies show that resistance training is the best way to prevent and reverse loss of muscle for older adults. For women, in particular, resistance training is an effective long-term strategy to preserve muscle and positive changes in body composition. However, current dogma around resistance training among elderly women has been a barrier. Researchers Stuart Phillips and Richard Winett wrote:

Few would argue that some form of resistance training should not be part of a complete exercise program; however, the bulk of literature on the cardio-protective effects of aerobic exercise has continued to make this form of exercise preeminent and the central focus of many physical activity guidelines in Canada, the United States, and many other countries.

If you’re an older adult, you don’t need to fall for the “adults shouldn’t lift” myth.  The science is clear: improving your muscle mass is something anyone can (and should) do.

What Leanness Looks Like

Serena Williams

Serena is a perfect example of someone who strength trains and is very clearly in amazing shape. Williams weighs 165 pounds and stands 5’ 9”, which puts her just on the border of the “overweight” range of the BMI scale.

On paper, she would seem overweight. However, as is clearly obvious, far from being overweight, Serena is an elite athlete who has done a great job of building Lean Body Mass. Much of her weight is due to muscle, not fat.

Ronda Rousey

Rousey’s non-fight weight hovers around 150-155 pounds. At 5’ 7”, Rousey’s BMI of 24 is on the higher end of the “normal” range, very close to being “overweight” by BMI standards, similar to Serena.

Again, this weight is due to muscle, not fat.

Chantae McMillan

Olympic heptathlete Chantae McMillan is considered one of the world’s fittest women (she was featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Body issue). McMillan may weigh 152 pounds, but she’s solid muscle because of her strength training regimen.

Long story short, strength training is essential for building a strong body as well as a toned look. It may cause weight gain, but why should you care?

What matters is looking and feeling good, not a number that pops up on a bathroom scale.

Additional Benefits of Strength Training for Women

Ok, so now we’ve dispelled the myths about women and strength training and looked at some examples of super-fit women who lift. Aside from improving your body composition by increasing Lean Body Mass, there are several other benefits of strength training in addition to being stronger and looking fitter.

Healthier Bones and Joints

Women who don’t exercise can lose anywhere from 3 to 8% of their muscle mass each decade as a result of inactivity. Studies show that doing strength training can promote bone development, reduce lower back pain, and reverse several skeletal muscle aging factors.

Translation: Strength training is not only good for your muscles, it can help ease pain in your joints and help prevent bone loss.

Reduced anxiety

There’s a strong correlation between resistance training and stress reduction/anxiety. According to research, resistance training at a low-to-moderate intensity (<70% 1 repetition maximum)is best for reducing anxiety.

If you’re looking for a way to chill out and relieve some stress and anxiety, try lifting weights!

Improved body image

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of resistance training is that it can also help you feel better about yourself. According to one study, strength training is associated with “significant improvements in several dimensions of body image, health-related quality of life, and physical activity behaviors, satisfaction, and comfort.”

How Much Strength Training Do You Need?

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA)recommend 2 or more days per week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms) for all adults.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says adults over 65 should follow these same guidelines, unless you have a chronic condition (heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes). In these cases, ask your doctor what types and amounts of activity are safe.

For postmenopausal women, researchers recommend doing resistance and weight bearing exercise three days a week (on alternate days).

If you’re a newbie, start with a couple days a week and work your way up from there.

Ready for your turn?

Contrary to popular belief, the “tight and toned” look many women want is achieved by a mix of cardio and strength training, not just steady-state treadmill-style cardio. In addition, how you frame your exercise goals is important. So stop thinking in terms of what you want to lose and focus more on what you want to gain (both physically and emotionally).

You can set better goals too: If you set a goal of gaining Lean Body Mass instead of losing weight, you’ll be able to measure the results of your resistance training efforts in terms of lean mass gained instead of pounds lost, which can be quite empowering because it relieves you from caring about what the scale says about your body weight.

So where do you start … or how do you improve your current resistance training efforts? Setting body composition goals is a good place to start. Once you’ve done that, work with an experienced friend or personal trainer to show you how to perform resistance training exercises with proper form.

Make strength training a part of your lifestyle, and you will experience noticeable results to how you look and feel. If you’re a woman who hasn’t tried strength training or aren’t getting the results you wanted when you started, now’s the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon, or rather, pick up a barbell.



Resource: Scott Christ, Health and Wellness Entrepreneur, and Writer.