Strong women – resistance is not futile
It’s commonly believed that women are the weaker sex but take a look at this YouTube footage of Kacy Catanzaro and you’ll almost certainly change your mind. Standing at just five feet tall and weighing slightly over seven stone, the ex-gymnast is the first woman to reach the finals of the reality TV programme American Ninja Warrior.
The diminutive athlete completed what has been billed the “world’s hardest obstacle course”, succeeding where men twice her size failed and the reason she succeeded is because she’s incredibly strong. What a great role model for women everywhere.
Before I worked in the fitness industry I, like most women, was obsessed with cardio. As soon as I got to the gym I’d hit the treadmill or cross trainer and sweat it out for 45 minutes. Afterwards, when I was exhausted, I’d do a half-hearted 10-minute session on the weights machines. This wasn’t because I enjoyed it, in fact I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it beyond the fact the instructor had told me to during my gym induction.
My epiphany came when I happened to catch a re-run of Terminator 2 on TV and the sight of Linda Hamilton doing pull ups blew my mind. I began reading up on resistance training and, for the first time, ventured into the free weights area at my gym.
Many women avoid resistance training because they’re concerned about morphing into a female body builder. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I personally don’t aspire to that kind of physique but I’m full of admiration for those who achieve it.
Getting big or being bulky are commonly-expressed fears among those new to strength training but ladies, unless you train for hours a day and eat a strict diet as, you will never look like a female Arnold Schwarzenneger. Men may develop muscles seemingly overnight but women have far less testosterone and human growth hormone and will therefore not experience similar size gains.
And let’s not forgot Kacy the Ninja Warrior. She may be super-strong but she’s tiny with a very lean physique because of the way she trains i.e. primarily with bodyweight exercises as opposed to heavy weights.
Whatever your fitness goals, however you want to look, strength training should be a key component of your programme. It will help develop and preserve lean muscle mass and can change your body shape. It will boost your metabolism as fitter and more active muscles use more calories, even when at rest. It will strengthen bones and help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Resistance work also improves posture and helps control conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. A well-planned programme will have huge benefits for sports-related performance and will aid rehabilitation after injury or surgery.
There are two main effects of resistance training: strength and endurance. Endurance training improves the fitness of a muscle by increasing the formation of capillaries that supply blood to the muscle as it contracts. Exercise is performed with light weights but with a high number of repetitions (reps).
In order to increase the strength of a muscle, it must be worked at high intensity using heavier weights and fewer reps. This increases the size and number of muscle fibres, which results in the muscle appearing larger and therefore more shapely.
It is this effect that most women are striving for when they say they want to look ‘toned’. The bad news is that it is not possible to spot reduce ie tone a particular area of your body by resistance training alone. If you want a flat stomach, for example, you will not succeed simply by performing lots of crunches. You may well develop strong and shapely abs but if they are still covered by a layer of fat, you will not be able to see them. You must complement your resistance training with a cardio programme to reduce overall body fat.
Many women are intimidated by the weights area of their gyms which tend to be dominated by big and sweaty men but you should try not to let this put you off. You have as much right to be there as them and, in my experience, most people are so absorbed by their own workout that they will barely give you a second glance. If you are concerned or aren’t a member of a gym, you can train at home instead.
Regardless of age or fitness level, there is a form of resistance training to suit you. Machine weights are a good starting point for beginners as they permit movement in only one plane. This promotes good form and helps reduce the risk of injury.
Free weights require more joint stabilisation and are therefore more challenging than machine weights. They are also more versatile and functional, in other words, you can create exercises to replicate the movements of everyday activities.
Cross Fit, kettle bells and Olympic lifting have gained in popularity in recent years as has my own personal favourite, suspension training, but you don’t need expensive equipment or a gym membership.
Resistance bands or tubes can be used for a wide variety of exercises. They are available in different levels of resistance and are ideal for a home workout or if you’re travelling.
Even without equipment, it’s possible to put yourself through a good resistance workout using only your bodyweight. Exercises include press ups, pull ups, triceps dips, squats and lunges.
Tips for resistance training for beginners
- A full body workout, three days a week should be sufficient for a beginner to see improvements.
- Focus on compound exercises ie those which use more than one joint and therefore more than one muscle group. This will make for a more time-efficient and functional workout.
- Work the largest muscle groups first. A good order would be: legs, back, chest, shoulders. Leave abdominal exercises to the end as you will need strong core muscles to support your back while performing all other exercises.
- Ensure your workout is balanced eg if you do two back exercises, make sure you do two chest exercises. This helps to avoid muscle imbalances and injuries.
- Progress your programme. You must overload your muscles in order for them to develop. Once an exercise begins to feel easy you should increase the weight or the number of sets or reps.