There are a lot of misconceptions about strength training for women, and there are a lot of reasons for those misconceptions. Women are less likely to be represented in exercise research, women are less likely to take part in strength training or compete in strength sports, and there are still a lot of societal biases against women lifting (heavy) weights.
Of course, to Perkins—who is on a mission to get women weight lifting—the benefits go even deeper. "Something magical happens when you reach for a heavy object and are surprised by your own strength," she says. "It's an incredible feeling to climb a flight of stairs and feel powerful, or when you find that you no longer need the help of a man to move boxes. It's time for women to find their power."
It’s also one of the very few ways to make bones denser, a perk that is especially important for women. Lifting something heavy, like a dumbbell, makes bones bear more weight, and in exercise, stressing your bones is a good thing (to a point of course). Bones are constantly remodeling, explains Anthony Hackney, an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina. “Your body is always adding calcium to your bones and taking calcium away from your bones,” he says.
But when I started college, I had to give up gymnastics to focus on my studies. That's when I quickly learned you can’t eat the same way when you’re training eight hours per week as you can if you’re doing almost no physical activity. Long story short: I gained roughly 20 pounds and just felt horrible in my own skin. So after the stress of getting into university was behind me, I decided it was time to “get in shape" (an expression I now hate, but more on that later).
As for muscle growth, there are certainly women who are genetically better at building muscle than other women… just like some men have better genetics for it than other men. But even then, the worst case scenario is that she builds whatever amount of muscle she’d like to build faster than the average woman can (which, by the way, is still fairly slow) and then just stops trying to build additional muscle beyond that point by simply training to maintain rather than progress.
With that being said, it’s certainly possible that there were differences in real-world training status that are basically impossible for a study to account for. For example, if the men tended to train like hardcore powerlifters or bodybuilders, and the women tended to do the sort of lighter, higher-rep “toning” workouts that are often recommended to women, it would make sense that the women would gain strength faster. In other words, “research tends to indicate that trained women still gain strength quicker than trained men, but I’m concerned those studies are hampered by methodological limitations, so I’ll continue to assume the null (similar relative rates of strength gains) until research on a more representative population is conducted” is also a very defensible position.
For each exercise you do, try to perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps with a weight heavy enough that by your last rep you can't eke out another one without compromising your form. To spark further muscle building, William Kraemer, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, suggests alternating moderate-intensity workouts of 8 to 10 reps with lighter-weight 12- to 15-rep sets and super-hard 3- to 5-rep sets. (For a more detailed fat-blasting workout, check out "Do This at Home," below.)
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Want to be strong, healthy, and happy, and feel 10 years younger? Then it's time to pick up the weights. "Strength training is no longer about being buff or skinny," says trainer Holly Perkins, founder of Women's Strength Nation. "It's as critical to your health as mammograms and annual doctor visits, and it can alleviate nearly all of the health and emotional frustrations that women face today. And it becomes even more critical once you hit 50."