If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve been exposed to a swirling vortex of expensive skincare, sleeping positions to avoid, “preventative” Baby Botox, hanging upside down, bouncing in the morning, freezing and steaming our bodies in turn - all with the purpose of reversing the natural aging process. It’s no secret that this messaging specifically targets women’s brains and wallets. According to Forbes, the Anti-Aging Industry will be valued at $271 billion by 2024 - with “no signs of slowing down”. The pressure to maintain a youthful body is harsher than ever, but the most effective solutions are simpler than you might think!
Meanwhile, women are oversold and underserved by the wellness industry, with new products popping up daily to detox and debloat, bogus claims about the effects of exercise on the body, and misinformation spreading like wildfire. Women are often scared away from strength training under the threat that they will “bulk up.” The truth is, we should ALL want to bulk. Even the elusive “toned” look is caused by building enough muscle to be visible under a lower percentage of body fat. The term “bulking” comes to us from the bodybuilding community, where athletes are laser focused on hypertrophy (muscle growth) - rather than overall strength or fitness - with highly regimented training programs, food intake, and supplementation to support those goals. More important than the aesthetic effects, building muscle is necessary if your goals are strength, general fitness, or maintaining a high quality of life for as long as possible.
Strength training is one of the best investments we can make in terms of long-term health. Building more lean body mass means improving bone density and joint health, resisting age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), and maintaining the ability to perform daily activities. It’s also linked to many cognitive and emotional benefits, like improved mood regulation, problem-solving skills, feelings of confidence, and self-sufficiency.
So what is strength training?
The exact definition depends on who you ask. To start, focus on challenging your muscles through resistance. You can keep it simple with bodyweight movements like squats and planks, or add external resistance like weights, bands, or cables. We get muscles to grow by introducing them to a new, challenging stimulus that asks them to adapt.
Our bodies are constantly breaking down proteins into amino acids to build up tissues in the body - the breaking down (catabolic) and building up (anabolic) processes are always happening simultaneously. If we want to build muscle, we want to perform activities that support the anabolic process, like resistance training, eating enough, and getting adequate sleep. Muscles don’t actually “grow” during your workouts - it’s while you’re recovering that they are able to rebuild. This rebuilding process is triggered by a few specific things - mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. When we ask the muscles to do harder work than they’re used to, the damaged muscle fibers rebuild in size (and number!) so they’ll be more capable of performing the same work the next time around.
Strength Training for Women
While it’s true that men have about 10-15 times more hypertrophy-promoting testosterone than women, women are not significantly disadvantaged in building muscle. In fact, research suggests that all genders have the same relative capacity for hypertrophy. The larger your body, the more mass you have, and the quicker you’ll build muscle. Women have about 9x the estrogen that men do, which aids in recovery, maintaining muscle mass in periods without training, and keeping us metabolically healthy. With a greater capacity for recovery, women are also able to take on a greater training volume than men. Additionally, a greater density of Type 1 muscle fibers means less fatigue during endurance activities. Women are not a monolith, and these differences indicate patterns rather than prescriptions. Whether you choose to take advantage of extra reps or shorter rest periods, there’s no reason to think women are any less suited to resistance training, or less likely to experience satisfying results.
The adaptive response works similarly on other tissues in our bodies. Weight-bearing movement, especially progressive resistance training, has been identified as the most effective intervention for preventing osteoporosis later in life. Our bodies respond to the physical stress of resistance training by increasing the density of our bones to meet the demand. Strengthening the supporting musculature also aids the joints, and can help prevent pain and discomfort, while promoting good posture and coordination.
For the 86% of American women who will give birth in their lifetimes, increased strength and endurance could lead to an easier labor and delivery. It can also help prepare for the demands of parenthood - a baby is a heavy load to carry!
All of this becomes even more important as we age. Something as simple as falling represents a significant risk to the elderly population. 95% of hip fractures are caused by taking a sideways fall, and can lead to hospitalization, loss of self-sufficiency, and a severely increased mortality rate within as little as one year. These risks increase with age, and American women are also living an average of 5 years longer than the men in their lives. Exercise helps us maintain proprioceptive function, or our awareness of our body’s movement in space, which is essential to our ability to balance, walk on different surfaces, or recover from small trips. Research also suggests massive cognitive benefits to exercise, including a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Another muscle-building bonus: if we take lean body mass into account, the metabolism stays stable from the ages of 20 to 60. For healthy bones, joints, brains, and muscles, resistance training remains the simplest and most effective intervention at our disposal. In general, the risks associated with sarcopenia and a slowing metabolism are overstated if we are able to blunt their effects by staying as active as possible for as long as possible. The longer we participate in resistance training activities, the longer and greater benefits we will experience - you can think of it like compounding interest! It’s NEVER too late to start.
How often should I lift?
Strength training doesn’t have to involve spending hours putting together a perfect program, loading up a barbell with heavy plates, or making the gym your new personality. Just two thirty-minute sessions per week can be enough to experience muscular adaptations and a host of other amazing benefits. Keep it simple, do-able, and fun. The less friction you experience in maintaining your routine, the longer you’ll stick to it, and the more benefits you’ll enjoy.
It is easier to put on muscle - about 1 to 2 lbs per month, depending on factors like genetics, and how aggressively focused the lifter is - at the beginning of your resistance training journey. You might start noticing progress in as little as 6-8 weeks. This progress is often referred to as “newbie gains” and tends to taper off after about a year of training. The more advanced you become, the longer it will take to gain noticeable amounts of muscle.
My favorite way to track progress is by focusing on how you feel - can you move the same weight easier than you did before? Are you sleeping better? Do the stairs feel easier? How’s your energy level? If you’re tracking your workouts, add in a spot to check in with how you’re feeling. That can be a powerful long term motivator, whether or not you’re seeing aesthetic changes.
How do I get started?
Medium rep ranges tend to work best for hypertrophy. That means 6-12 reps of exercises for 10-20 sets per muscle group, per week. The most important thing is that you’re training close to failure. This doesn’t mean all out, 100% every session, but it does mean that you’ll see more muscle growth if you’re choosing exercises, weights, and rep schemes that challenge you. This is referred to as “progressive overload” and it can also be achieved through experimenting with factors like range of motion, time under tension, or instability. If you notice a plateau in progress, it’s time to add in a new challenge. If you’re more interested in maintaining the work you’ve done, it’s perfectly okay to take a step back in intensity. You can still enjoy the benefits of a regular movement practice without having structured goals.
If you are interested in building strength, focus on compound movements (like a squat or overhead press) and fewer, more challenging reps. If you’re laser focused on hypertrophy, add in some accessory work where you’re focused on a single joint movement, like a hamstring curl. It’s important to remember that the body works as a team. Isolation exercises can make your compound lifts stronger. You don’t have to pick a side, and experimenting with your training style can help you find a routine that you can stick with long enough to make meaningful progress.
Make sure you’re resting enough to support all that work - about 24-48 hours between working the same muscle group. We want to focus on creating controlled muscular fatigue (to get those adaptations!) while minimizing systemic fatigue, or the “full-body tired” you get after a particularly hard session. 2 to 3 sessions per week is enough to see progress, although advanced lifters will often split their training into 4 or 5 sessions - the important thing to keep in mind here is that those people enjoy it.
If you are engaging with structured exercise, you deserve the respect that you can trust yourself in determining what style and volume of training works for your life long term. My goal as a coach is to keep people happily resistance training as long as possible, so they can experience the amazing benefits for as long as possible.