Women And Iron
Too often and much to my dismay, I hear women protest
against using any appreciable weight in their weight training program.
Moreover, many young women completely refrain from resistance training; instead
spending countless hours on the cardio deck in a fruitless effort to attain an
ideal physique. What is the ideal physique and why are women so afraid of
lifting a dumbbell that isn’t pink or red? The answer to the first question
lies in a complex paradox of social and cultural influences. In answer to the
second question, many women believe lifting weights will make them explode with
bulging muscles. Another reason is women believe they cannot lift anything
heavier than their makeup case. These are unfortunate idiosyncratic fallacies
amongst women. Generally speaking, women fear muscles. A sociological and
cultural discourse on women and self-perception would entail much more time and
space than allowed here. However, several recent books and articles address
those issues and will thoroughly engage those interested in pursuing them.
Nonetheless, I will address physical issues of why women should embrace
The Incredible HulkWomen who fear resembling the Hulk should
immediately put that anxiety to rest. It just won’t happen. For a simple
reason: hormones. Women are from the planet Estrogen; men are from
Testosterone. Although both genders produce both hormones, the relative ratios
are significantly different. Men normally produce higher levels (approximately
10 times that of women) of testosterone and lower levels of estrogen. Women
produce the opposite. The professional female bodybuilders that, until recently
graced the pages of muscle magazines gained their extreme muscle mass with the
aid of supplemental anabolic/androgenic steroids. Federally classified as
Schedule II drugs their usage carries legal ramifications as well as potential
physiological side effects.
Although both testosterone and estrogen are anabolic
(promoting the process where smaller units build bigger units in the body),
testosterone is primarily responsible for increases in muscle tissue
hypertrophy. Granted, some women have higher levels of androgens than normal
and therefore have a propensity to increase muscle mass beyond the average
woman. This attribute is genetically determined, and many of these women are
competitive athletes. But a woman does not have to be an athlete to increase
muscle mass. Any woman can increase strength and gain muscle.
Let’s talk about why women should partake in resistance training.
Life and weight loss: In our society, women are obsessed
with weight control. Unfortunately, that obsession normally centers on the
bathroom scale and does not consider changes in body composition (ratio of body
fat to lean body mass). Most fad diets result in a loss of muscle tissue as
well as body fat. A person can lose half of their body fat and remain alive;
but if you lose half of your muscle mass, you will most likely die. Because
muscle is denser than body fat, a person who is weight training may show slower
changes on the scale but faster changes in body composition.
Muscles burn fuel: Muscle burns more calories than body
fat. Muscle cells have organelles called mitochondria, often referred to by
physiologists as a cell’s ‘power plant’. They provide the energy for nearly all
of the metabolic processes that take place within the cell. Muscle cells are
very busy and the mitochondria constantly transform chemical energy into
mechanical energy. Reactions within the mitochondria break the bonds of fuel
molecules and release energy for cells to use. During endurance exercise most
of the energy for muscle activity is provided by mitochondria. This is used as
the primary argument for the performance of copious amounts of endurance
exercise. While it is true that calories are burned during endurance exercise,
only resistance training can increase muscle mass. More muscle = more
mitochondria = more fuel burned.
Weight training can increase basal metabolic rate: Basal
metabolic rate refers to the number of calories used by the body at rest, and
makes up 60-75% of the body’s total energy expenditure. While aerobic exercise
burns calories during activity (and a small amount afterwards), it has minimal
effect on basal metabolic rate. Additionally, extensive periods of aerobic
activity can decrease basal metabolic rate by causing muscle loss. In contrast,
a proper resistance-training program can increase muscle mass, and hence the
metabolic rate. For general overall health and weight control, weight training
is a necessary component of a woman’s exercise program.
Muscle inactivity leads to muscle weakness and wasting:
Muscle fibers must be physically active if they are to remain in good health.
Otherwise, they will degenerate and lose mass. We have all seen (or known)
older individuals who lacked the strength to walk without aid, or get out of a
chair under their own power. This represents an extreme of muscle and strength
loss. Less muscle mass also means the body burns less fuel. Most importantly,
less muscle mass means a decline in strength. Consequently, sedentary people
have an increased need to incorporate exercise into their weekly activities to
maintain muscle mass, strength and aid in weight control.
Connective tissue and joints: Resistance training also
stresses and strengthens connective tissue. This is the tissue that binds bones
together and attaches muscles to the skeleton. Sensible training with weights
will increase the cell activity of connective tissue in the muscle and those
which attach the muscles to the bones. Mechanical compression of the joints
stimulates healthy metabolism of cartilage within the joints. Inactive joints
have decreased macromolecule turnover in the tissue and may be more susceptible
to osteoarthritis and injury.
Helps prevent osteoporosis: Muscle wasting in the elderly
contributes greatly to osteoporosis, a major debilitating disease in women
after they reach menopause. Women have less muscle mass than men and also have
less bone density. Both men and women undergo hormonal and metabolic changes as
they age. Muscles start to deteriorate, fat accumulates more readily, and bones
begin to lose their density. This process can be slowed, especially with
forethought. Load bearing activities enhance bone mass. Studies have shown that
women who are active throughout their lives have greater bone density and
retard bone loss in later years. Recent research has demonstrated that weight
training can reduce, and possibly reverse, bone loss in pre- and postmenopausal
women. However, women should start and maintain some type of weight training
activity as early as their twenty’s for optimum prevention of osteoporosis.
Regardless, it is never too late to start, no matter what age.
Muscles and mass give women power over their own lives:
When was the last time you refused with a smile the bag boy’s offer to take out
your groceries? When was the last time you changed the tire on your car by
yourself? How soon did you huff and puff the last time you climbed those three
flights of stairs? How young will you be when you are forced to enter a nursing
home because your wasted muscle mass can no longer support your frail bones?
Muscles are required in order for women to take charge of their own physical
life. They are necessary to provide for a woman’s welfare and ability to fend
for herself. As well, muscle mass contributes to weight control, especially in
later life. Moreover, it makes women feel good about themselves.
By now you may have noticed that I use the two terms
‘weight training’ and ‘resistance training’ interchangeably. In the context of
this article, ‘resistance training’ is more applicable: to build muscle mass by
increasing the resistance the muscle must move. Exercise physiologists call
this ‘progressive overload.’ Muscles are amazing pieces of metabolic machinery.
They adapt quickly. If you can curl a 10-pound dumbbell with 12 controlled
repetitions (reps), it is time to increase the weight: not ‘tone’.
Toning is not resistance training. Nor will it build
muscle mass. Use the word ‘toning’ in a gym and watch the hardcore
weightlifters cringe and sneer. The term ‘toning’ is erroneously applied to
doing countless reps with small amounts of weight that don’t incrementally
challenge the muscle. That muscle adapts quickly to moving a weight for a given
number of reps and is no longer stimulated. The weight must be progressively
increased in small increments for muscles to grow.
For generations women have been perceived as being the
weaker sex. Not true. Strength and speed are not a monopoly of the male gender.
Women and men have the same capability to develop strength and speed. Relative
to fat free body mass, women have nearly the same strength as men. If one were
to take the same muscle unit from a woman and a man and put it in an identical
artificial environment with the same growth media and the same stimulation, the
muscles would grow at the same rate. However, in the body’s environment, the
hormonal and metabolic environment varies between men and women. Women have
smaller muscle fibers and ordinarily have less muscle mass. Nevertheless, women
are gaining in rate of competitive performance on a par with men in both speed
and strength. Women are realizing they can perform daily activities that
require strength that they previously thought they could not do. Physical
strength will increase a woman’s independence in everyday life.
A sensible program of combining resistance and aerobic
exercise will increase strength and stamina. Resistance training will stimulate
the muscles to remain strong and robust. A moderate amount of aerobic activity
will contribute to greater endurance and overall increases in efficient body
Sadly, women generally don’t realize how strong they are
or how strong they can be. Many women don’t know their own power and feel safe
within their imposed boundaries. They are afraid to exert themselves. It is
time to break that mold. Use as much weight as you can and move that weight
with intensity. Challenge yourself. Set goals and work hard to achieve them. Be
strong and feel strong. When you can curl that 10-pound dumbbell for 12 reps,
grab the next heavier dumbbell and do it again. Go for that extra rep. Embrace
the feeling of contracting muscle. Push yourself and rejoice in your
“Women need muscle, as much as they can muster. They
need muscle to shield their light bones, and they need muscle to weather
illness… And being strong in a blunt way, a muscleheaded way, is easier than
being skilled at a sport. It is a democratic option, open to the klutzes and
the latecomers, and women should seize the chance to become cheaply, fowzily
strong, because the chance exists, and let’s be honest, we don’t have many.
Being strong won’t make you happy or fulfilled, but it’s better to be sullen and
strong than sullen and weak.”