What is Strength Training and why is it important?
As the name suggests, strength training is the type of exercise that typically involves weights to improve strength. Its benefits have been extensively studied and it is well known to have many positive long term impacts on overall health. Women are often lead to believe that they should exercise differently than men. There is a misconception that women who lift very heavy weights look masculine. Let me delve further to explain why this is fake news!
It all begins with hormones. I am a reproductive endocrinologist after all!
In men, total testosterone ranges between 300-1200 ng/dL compared to women with a normal range of 8-60 ng/dL. You see, even a male with considerably low testosterone (300 ng/dL) compared to a woman with a higher range of normal testosterone (60ng/dL) has a 5 fold higher T level. This factor alone contributes to significant differences in body composition and muscle mass. Unless you are administering anabolic steroids or exogenous testosterone, you will not build even comparable muscle mass!
In fact, because of our physiologic differences, women have higher absolute and relative body fat percentage and significantly lower lean muscle tissue. The maximal strength a woman can achieve is approximately 50-70% of that of men (Nestler et al., 2017; Leyk et al., 2015; Laubach, 1976). As a result, women are much less effective at strength training and obtaining more lean muscle.
So knowing this, why is the media's portrayal of a physically fit appearing woman lifting 5 pound dumbbells with a waist trainer? Or running on the treadmill for one or more hours? Although great for cardiovascular health, this type of exercise will over time result in reduction of lean muscle tissue and increased body fat percentage. It's no wonder that you have such little progress! But of course nutrition also plays a HUGE role in this too.
Here are some of the many benefits of strength training:
1. Increased lean muscle mass
2. Reduction in visceral fat
3. Increased insulin sensitivity (this incredibly important in PCOS women for prevention of developing type 2 diabetes!)
4. Decreased Hemoglobin A1c (or HbA1c) for type 2 diabetics and pre-diabetics
5. Enhanced cardiovascular health with reduction in resting blood pressure, increased HDL (good cholesterol), lower triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol)
6. Increased bone density and strength
7. Increased resting metabolic rate
8. Improved physical performance, functional and cognitive ability in addition to self esteem
...The list goes on...
Convinced yet? Good!
Before moving on to exercises, there are some important facts to tackle first.
Once again, don't be afraid of bulking! You will not bulk. You want muscle hypertrophy; this is the only way to build lean muscle. The premise behind resistance training is that the body must adapt to the stress you put it through. This adaptation includes increased muscle endurance, strength, hypertrophy, reduces body fat and improves your health.
Every time you lift heavier weights, you're stronger than you were yesterday! Now, if you're a beginner always remember: form over ego! Start with lower weights until your form is perfected in an effort to minimize injury.
The journey to begin weight lifting can be scary and frankly intimidating. Starting with a good understanding of the main compound exercises is a great place to start!
Below, I describe key concepts to weight training as well as the various compound exercises are and what main muscle groups they target.
Key concepts: Muscular endurance vs. strength vs. hypertrophy
Different types of exercises yield different results. To understand how and why, we must understand how our muscles respond to different types of stressors.
Muscular endurance: this refers to the ability to sustain an activity for a prolonged period of time. No matter what type of exercise you do, endurance is critical. It is what allows you to push yourself to achieve strength and hypertrophy. It primarily involves using type I (slow twitch) muscle fibers, a high number of repetitions (15-20 per set) and little rest.
Muscular strength: This is the muscle's ability to withstand force. This involves increasing the load you lift to recruit more muscle fibers; beginners will notice the most progress and are able to rapidly increase strength in a relatively short period of time, especially the first 12 weeks of training. Advanced lifters have typically plateau'd and have to modify their workouts to further progress. Strength training involves your type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers which tend to fatigue quickly and so, lower number of repetitions at higher weights and longer rest.
Muscular hypertrophy: As the name suggests, this refers to muscle growth. This takes a long time to see, no matter how strenuous your exercise is. Muscle hypertrophy is what helps improve body composition, so for lean women who weight train, they may not lose weight but their composition will change. This usually involves rep range of 8-12.
Although most people start off exercising to improve their overall health, your goals may shift over time such as looking to improve athletic performance, increasing muscle mass for body building or for aesthetic purposes. As you become more experienced, understanding these concepts can help you better design your own work-outs to achieve your goals.
Key concepts: Workout structures
Most resistance training workout programs are designed by olympic lifters, power lifter and bodybuilders. These are most popular because, well, they work.
The part where it gets confusing is when you get too many options: single sets, multiple-set, superset, drop-sets, circuits, pyramid, etc. The reality is that most of these are great for both novice and advanced individuals and is a matter of personal preference, and so here I will focus on my two favorites: multiple-set and supersets.
I personally always do multiple set per exercise, and gradually increase volume (weights) or if plateau'd the number of reps and/or sets. Without this gradual increase, you will not see improvement. I tend to do a pyramid system (warm up with light weights and make my way up to my working weight, adding on a little extra weight with each set).
Another personal favorite. Supersets are great for burning out the target muscle group or for saving time when you're in a rush by performing agonist/antagonist exercises. An example of doing supersets involving antagonists is performing biceps curls followed by tricep extensions back to back for 8-12 reps each time without rest in between. This is really popular amongst bodybuilders who compete.
The split-routine system is very popular and effective. This involves working out different muscle groups on different days. This can be as simple as upper body vs lower body or can be even more specific (chest, shoulders, arm, legs) on separate days depending on the number of days you exercise per week.
You can either perform each exercise performing all sets before moving on to the next exercise (horizontal loading) or perform one exercise after the other until you completed the template and repeat from the beginning until you've completed all sets (vertical loading).
Key concepts: Compound exercises
There are so many types of weight training exercises that can either be compound (ie. working multiple muscle groups at once) or isolating exercises. Here are some compound exercises that are probably the MOST beneficial and should be incorporated in your exercise routine. These also happen to be the ones that many women feel intimidated by, but don't fret. Your time has come to conquer these movements!
Barbell Deadlifts: one of the all-time most important exercises! It's basically a full body exercise if done right, works your leg and back muscles, as well as your traps, abs and obliques. Doing this with heavier weights over time can also help improve other compound movements like pull-ups (which many women struggle with)
Barbell Squats: incredibly effective for overall strength and muscle gains. This mostly hits your legs (quads, hamstrings, glutes). Squats and deadlifts are a weekly MUST, and the most benefit is seen with using progressively increasing weights
Lunges: Splits the work between your anterior and posterior chain. Therefore works your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Similarly bulgarian split squats are great too! You can do these with dumbbells or a barbell
Dips: over time strengthens and tones the chest, shoulders and triceps; you can start with seated/assisted dips and gradually make your way towards your body weight. If you can do bodyweight dips you can increase the difficulty further by holding a dumbbell between your feet
Bench press: This is a great upper body exercise that women often shy away from. DON'T! It's a huge part of my work-outs! Bench press targets your pectoral muscle, anterior deltoids, triceps and lats (latissimus dorsi- that massive back muscle you have)
Military or overhead press: Similar to bench press this mainly works your deltoids (shoulders) and triceps.
Pull-ups: An exercise most women feel is unattainable, but don't fret it is! Serial exercises of all these compound movements helps to attain pull-ups. Pull-ups is a great compound movement in and of itself, with proper technique. This is mostly relying on your lats and trapezius but also works on spinal muscles (great for posture and back support!)