If you’re reading this, hopefully my previous post- 33 reasons why strength training is fantastic for women, has convinced you to start taking your strength seriously.
But, I’d also expect you to maybe be a little reticent.
After-all, there has been a long tradition of scepticism around female weight training. Particularly about women getting bulky or looking like men if they start weight training!
Thankfully, over the past few years I personally have seen this begin to die the death it deserves to and more women are beginning to reap the benefits of progressive, well thought out strength training programmes.
Back in 2008 when I started my own journey into the world of running, jumping and lifting my way to a stronger, more resilient body (and a much better outlook on life in general as a result) a female in a weight room was a rare beast. Mythical almost. Men would stop what they were doing and stare.
Some may even have judged, or worse, offered their unsolicited advice.
However, when we fast-forward 9 years into the current fitness renaissance we are experiencing, more and more women are beginning to master free-weight training in the corners of the gym previously reserved for men.
As a result, seeing a woman lifting a barbell or squatting more than her own bodyweight has become far more commonplace and the male denizens of the gym have all rolled their tongues in.
A woman in the weight room no longer raises an eyebrow.
They’re certainly unlikely to be the only woman in there anymore. Are there as many women as men?
No. There’s not.
But there should be. So don’t let fear of being judged, watched or approached stop you from reaching YOUR POTENTIAL. It doesn’t really happen anymore anyway.
With that point of trepidation dealt with, let’s cover some of the other myths that may be holding you back from unlocking your true strength.
MYTH 1- Lifting weights will make a woman bulky/look like a man/blokey/insert other derogation here….
When women say this, I assume they’re mostly talking about upper body muscle growth. It’s the bulging biceps and barn door back you’re all really afraid of. When it comes to training below the waist, women often seen less worried about gaining a little mass.
Toned legs and bum, anyone?
LIFTING WEIGHTS WILL NOT MAKE A WOMAN BULKY!
Let me explain why your upper body is very unlikely ever to look like a man and why you’re far more likely to achieve muscle and strength gains in your lower body (where you all want it!) more easily.
Unless you are a statistical outlier with the athletic potential of an Olympian, you’re unlikely to gain a significant amount of muscular mass in comparison to a male.
The deck isn’t stacked in your favour. Particularly when it comes to the upper body.
On average, women have fewer muscle fibres in the upper body than men and the fibres that they do have cover a smaller cross sectional area.
Women also tend to have a slightly different ratio of muscle fibre types than their male counterparts. Whereas men have an even range of muscle fibre types across their upper bodies, women tend to have a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres. 3 out of 4 women on average have a higher percentage of type 1 muscle fibres.
These are the fibres that are fantastic for endurance, but when we are talking about strength, power and muscle size, then they don’t lend themselves very well to adapting to that purpose.
What this means in terms of ‘bulking up’ is that as a woman, it’s likely that you have fewer fibres that are responsive to weight training that will significantly hypertrophy (get bigger). This is particularly true of the upper body.
This doesn’t mean women can’t get bigger in their upper bodies.
You certainly can and should actively strive to develop strength and lean tissue mass in your upper body! Developing your upper body will always improve your athletic performance and, as a little bonus, make you look awesome!
If anything, a woman with a well developed upper body is even more striking than a guy with a solid torso. A little bit of muscle on a female figure really pops!
Myth 2- Women should train differently than men.
Again, absolutely not true.
Men and women both respond to training stimulus through the same biological processes!
Women’s bodies don’t get stronger any differently than a male body will. The same basic principles apply across everybody whether you have more Y chromosome or X chromosome.
That means women should strive to gradually increase the intensity and load of their training over time.
That they should focus on compound movements that mimic functional movement patterns.
That they should challenge their bodies with heavy weight!
The age where women did aerobics and only lifted the tiny, often multi-coloured dumbbells is over.
Women should be lifting weights.
Women need to be challenging themselves and expecting more from their training. You need to be challenging your body sufficiently that it has a reason to make your bones, your tendons, ligaments and muscles stronger!
There are only two ways in which women might consider training different to men.
Women can often train at higher volumes (i.e do more work- where isn’t that the case?!) than males and handle weight closer to their one rep max for more reps.
Because women tend to have a higher percentage of type 1 muscle fibres it is especially important that they do train with heavy weight (relative to them). This is due to a process known as the size principle.
The size principle states the following-
That motor units (motor units are a nerve and the bundle of fibres it stimulates) are activated from smallest to largest to meet the demand being placed on the body (i.e to lift a weight).
A light weight will require comparatively few motor units to lift. Your basic type 1 muscle fibres can handle this task.
However, a heavier load will overwhelm the small motor units and they’ll need to call for back-up!
That’s when the more powerful, larger motor units are activated.
What this means is that in order to stimulate all of your muscle, we need to give those heavy hitting motor units a reason to get involved!
This doesn’t mean in order to gain muscle and strength you can only train with heavy weight, but it does mean that your plan should include some heavy weight that is programmed to continuously progress as you get stronger.
Myth 3- Women can’t get as strong as men can.
This myth needs to die.
There’s no reason a trained woman cannot be pound-for-pound as strong as a trained man. Some can even be stronger in absolute terms too.
It is somewhat harder when it comes to developing the upper body, but when it comes to lower body strength, women can actually put A LOT of men to shame!
The muscle fibre discrepancy between males and females in the upper body is way less prevalent in the lower body. What this means ladies is that on those squats and deadlifts, you can really shine.
Especially in the last couple of years, with the rising popularity of raw (which means no assistive equipment) powerlifting, a sport where the aim is to lift the largest squat, bench and deadlift possible, we have seen the emergence of some absolutely PHENOMENAL female lifters.
If you want some inspiration, look up the following female athletes-
Kimberley Walford- deadlifted 242kg weighing 72kg!
Marisa Inda- squatted 150kg weighing 52kg! plus, she can do pull-ups better than 99% of male athletes.
And just to show that women can get crazy strong upper bodies too, look up Jennifer Thompson, she recently bench pressed 140kg!
And that’s just in powerlifting. One relatively small sport.
Just think about all of the awesome females athletes in other sports too!
the Williams sisters (funny story- my Grandad was once interviewed after watching Venus Williams win a match at Wimbledon. In the interview he really insulted my mother by saying he wished that Venus Williams was his daughter instead.)
There are literally hundreds and thousands of crazy strong women out there! Women that are much stronger than almost all of the men walking the face of the earth!
Do you think any of them let the perceived notion that women shouldn’t be strong hold them back?
Then why should you?
Hopefully this article has shown you that you don't need to worry about getting bulky, you don't need to train any differently if you're a woman and that you can get super strong if you want to!
So now that those out dated notions are out of the way, what should you be doing to begin your journey towards being as fit and strong as possible?
Well that’s what we will cover in part 3 of Ladies Should Lift! You can find it in the article section of my website- www.runjumplift.co.uk, along with many other useful resources to help you become as awesome as nature intended you to be.
If you missed part 1- 33 Reasons Ladies Should Lift- you can find it here.
You can find more info and advice on my social media. Instagram @run_jump_lift and facebook @runjumplift1.
If you’ve got any more questions burning to be answered before you read part 3, feel free to email me- firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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