One of the unfortunate side effects of being overweight for most of my life was the time I wasted pouring over diet books and magazines desperately trying to find a weight-loss fix. Mostly, I was looking for a quick fix. I wanted a diet (and minimal exercise) plan that would shed the 60+ pounds of excess weight I had as quickly and painlessly as possible. I loved the idea of a 30-day weight loss plan because I didn’t believe I could hold out longer than 30 days before rebounding back to my “now-normalized” overeating.
For decades, I played a game with myself, ultimately wasting a lot of time, putting my health at risk and reducing my quality of life as the weight restricted me from having the stamina to get through my day (or do the things I love). Everyday tasks like walking up subway stairs on my way to work were difficult, and pleasures like snorkeling while on vacation or completing a 5K with my teenage daughter were harder than they should have been as I approached my 50s.
Despite my vast “knowledge bank,” much of what I read about exercising was either untrue, out of date or simply stupid. For example, I must have read a hundred times that I should focus on cardio to burn calories for weight loss. Years ago, aerobic exercise was king when it came to weight loss. You ate as little as you could stand and then burned as many calories as possible, sweating it off on some cardio machine (or group aerobics class). Cardio is still helpful for weight loss (and heart health), but we now understand the role of strength training in boosting metabolism and reducing overall body fat. In fact there is a long list of benefits to lifting weights (including heavy weights) for women over 40 when it comes to fat loss and easing menopause symptoms.
Strength Training: the Myth Factor
We don’t even see the term “aerobics” much anymore (except in government health guidelines), so you know this advice is old. Researchers and trainers now know that strength training is at least as important (some would say more important) for fat loss as cardio and should be prioritized during weight loss. The focus on cardio over the years translated into women deprioritizing strength training; many of us didn’t aspire to gain muscle strength, endurance or mass. I’ll tell you later why this is such a shame as I believe strength training is an essential exercise for every woman (and especially vital for women over 40).
The corollary to the cardio is king adage is the “don’t worry about getting big and bulky ladies when lifting weight – you’ll just get toned.” Ugh, really? First off, a woman can’t get big and bulky because we don’t have enough male hormones (testosterone) to support that type of muscle mass. Second, it takes years of dedicated work to gain a muscular physique. They aren’t giving out muscular, tight bodies at the gym just because someone picks up some 2-pound pink weights for 30 minutes. You have to put in some serious work to gain muscles!
Of course, I was only too happy to hold on to the myth of big, bad, bulky muscles defeminizing my body if it meant I could focus on eating salads and doing a 30-minute session on the bike instead. I was fooling myself, even when I knew that the advice was wrong. For a long time, I pulled the wool over my own eyes until changes in my health (as a result of entering peri-menopause) caused me to commit to losing weight.
Luckily, I lost the weight (in my early 50s) once and for all and am now healthier. To keep myself looking and feeling my best, I prioritize healthy eating and exercise. My exercises of choice: rowing, strength training and dance. Luckily I don’t have to read diet books anymore, but I’m an avid health news reader (and I love researching new topics), so I read quite a bit about health and fitness. Around this time of year especially, as people gear up for a “new year/new me” transformation that will begin in January, I’ll read lots of fitness myth-busting articles. I hope I’ve dispelled one myth here once and for all: the myth of the big, bulky woman who lifts weights!
Strength Training is Essential for Women After Age 40
To set the record straight and never have to speak about this bulky muscle myth again, I’d like to highlight some of the facts regarding the value of strength training. Please note: check in with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.
Bulky Muscles Are Not In Your Future
Women can’t gain enough muscle to develop bulky, large muscle mass because they don’t have high enough levels of hormones (testosterone and human growth hormone) needed to build it. Female bodybuilders utilize strict training protocols that may include years of training, performance-enhancing supplementation and specific diet protocols. Developing large muscles are not possible for any woman who is using a pair of pink 2-pound weights—hell, it isn’t even happening to me, and I have been using a rack of weights and barbells with a capacity of more than 100 pounds!
It takes years of progressive overload (workouts where you progress to lift heavier, lift more frequently or do more reps) to build a more muscular physique. If you haven’t been called a “gym rat” and don’t work out at least five times per week, I doubt you will build large, “bulky” muscles. The dedication, time, technique and attention to training that the fittest, most muscular athletes have is not the same as a typical woman training 3-4 times per week.
Who Does The Myth of the Bulky Muscle Serve?
I think this myth allows some women (like me) to fool themselves into thinking that there are negatives to weight training. The reality is that most women aren’t committing to enough physical exercise to preserve the muscle mass they currently have as they age. Approximately 19% of women report that they get sufficient activity to meet government aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines. With so few women engaging in regular exercise, I don’t think we are at risk of gaining too much muscle mass, but instead should be very concerned with not preserving the muscle mass we have.
The myth of the bulky muscle doesn’t serve any woman, some of whom may not know where to start, or may not be in a place or situation where they feel they can take care of themselves in this way consistently yet. I’ve been there, so I know it’s daunting, but when you commit to weight training just two times per week, you will begin to realize the benefits that come from following a consistent weight training regime, and you can be assured that your quality of life will improve. These stats show us that the women I see at my gym, especially those lifting weights, are exceptions to the rule. Besides, if you were to pick up weights and defy the laws of nature to grow big, bulky muscles, putting down the weights would reverse the process. It’s not happening. Let’s move on to the good stuff. Here’s what you gain by lifting weights.
Double Down on Fat Loss
What if I told you that instead of focusing on “toning” your body, you should be thinking about these benefits of lifting weights: leaning up and reducing overall fat from the body, building nicely-defined muscles that add definition to your curves (but don’t obscure them), improving your posture (so body alignment signals your vigor and health) and gaining a tighter, firmer look and feel to your muscles? Sounds pretty good.
Fat loss is the benefit I’m most interested in, and it’s connected to the boost in metabolism that I get when I lift weights. Although it’s a modest boost, every bit of muscle I carry around is burning fat at a faster rate than my fat, so my muscles are working overtime to help me slim down. When you combine cardio and strength training in your workouts you get the heart-healthy and calorie-burning benefits of cardio with the metabolism boost, fat loss and muscle building benefits of strength training.
The One-Two Punch to Menopause
If you are over 40 and facing peri-menopause or menopausal symptoms, weight lifting can be an excellent exercise for staving off the weight gain and loss of muscle mass that often come with menopause. Strength training also helps protect against the risk of osteoporosis by stressing your bones to help increase bone density and reduce the risk of fractures.
While I haven’t found any research to conclusively link weight training (or other exercises) with a reduction in hot flashes, my own experience has shown me the power of weight training in fostering better health. Since I started eating a healthy, whole-foods diet and working out (cardio and strength training) consistently, my heart palpitations and itchy skin have stopped. I’ve also seen a drastic reduction in hot flashes; my hot flashes have gone from near-daily occurrences to once every few months (and their intensity has lessened dramatically).
I’m not able to tease out the effect of eating a whole-foods diet versus the effect of exercise on my menopausal symptoms. Still, I can say with one hundred percent certainty that both have helped me lose 60+ pounds, gain muscle strength, endurance and mass. I’ve also seen improvements in cardio stamina, posture, stress management and my overall mood. That’s my one-two punch to my menopause symptoms. Strength training does make me feel like a badass, and at 55, that’s a position of strength that I hope all women will feel.
So, let’s not speak of the myth of weight training causing big, bulky muscles for woman ever again. Let’s move on to what women over 40 should be prioritizing in their fitness. Namely: lifting heavy weights! Oh yeah, put the pink two pounders down and step over to the barbell, the cables, the heavier 20-pound dumbbells and your own fabulous body weight. You’ll have to work up to heavy weights, but you can handle it. Now that the absurd “bulky” myth has been laid to rest, we can be honest with ourselves and reap the benefits of strength training.
Get Started Lifting with These Free Resources:
- MyFitnesspal app: This free app is great for tracking calories and workouts, but it also has an extensive blog section with articles on all types of exercises, including strength training. Here’s a beginner’s guide to five bodyweight exercises that will get anyone started with solid weight training moves. Please check in with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
- Nia Shanks’ Strength Training Guide for Women Over 40: This guide will walk you through important considerations for lifting after age 40, including the importance of warming up, proper form and modifying movements. You can check out her YouTube channel as well for extensive instruction and movement guidelines for many popular weight-lifting moves (deadlifts, squats).
- If you’re not sure how much weight to start with, read this article. It will walk you through how to determine a good starting weight to lift (one that’s heavy enough to actively engage your muscles while safe and appropriate for your body’s current conditioning).
Have you been crushing it in the gym with weights? Finding that your menopause symptoms have eased through strength training? Losing weight and fat as a result of adding weight training to your exercise routine? Tell us about it. Sharing our experiences keeps us all motivated as we support one another to lose weight, feel better and get more out of life!
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