When you think of going to a gym and lifting weights or working out on Nautilus machines, do you picture big, sweaty young men in bulging tank tops? Think again! Weight lifting and strength training are a necessary part of a woman’s fitness routine, and from the looks of it at the health club I attend, the women there agree with me. On any given day, there are as many women as men “pumping iron.”
Strength building exercises are important for everyone as they age, especially so for women, as they have more fat and less muscle than men. According to Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., the author of “Strong Women Stay Young,” women face a greater risk of osteoporosis after menopause when they lose the natural protection of estrogen. Most women begin to lose bone and muscle mass at about age 40; in part because of this, they start to become less active.
Inactive adults lose about one-half pound of muscle per year, and since women continue to eat as much as usual, these extra calories get stored as fat. A pound of fat takes up more room than a pound of muscle; so as you lose muscle and gain fat, your weight might remain steady, but your waistline & hips will expand!
Experts say strength training is as important, and maybe even more important, to fat loss and overall health than aerobic exercise. That is due to the resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is the number of calories burned by the body while at rest. A pound of muscle burns 35 to 50 calories a day compared with only two calories from a pound of fat. Women tend to choose aerobic activity over strength training, especially when they’re short on time, because it burns the greatest number of calories. However, adding muscle will raise your RMR and will increase the chance that fat loss will be maintained. Also, with aerobic exercise, the RMR is elevated temporarily – only up to a few hours afterwards. Strength training elevates the RMR permanently.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, and author of “Building Strength and Stamina” and “Strength Training Past 50” says in one of his studies, more than 700 women performed about 25 minutes of strength training (13 Nautilus exercises) and 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (treadmill or cycle) 2 or 3 times a week for two months. On average, they added almost 2 pounds of muscle and lost about 4 pounds of fat. They also increased their muscle strength by over 40 percent, which greatly enhanced their physical abilities and performance levels.
Women traditionally exercise from the waist down, due to battling traditional problem areas such as the hips, buttocks, and thighs. But by balancing your workout by adding upper-body strengthening, you will appear less bottom-heavy with more defined shoulders and a stronger upper back.
When starting with a strength training routine, you need to warm up for at least 5 minutes before each workout by walking, biking or stair-climbing at a light pace. Cold muscles are stiff, and if you go straight into your workout without warming up, they can tighten up and make your workout painful, as well as increasing the risk of injury.
If you’re new to strength training, start out with less weight than you think you should. The first few repetitions should feel easy and you should be able to maintain this weight for 10-12 repetitions with the final 2-3 repetitions being challenging. You can increase the weight when the last few reps are no longer challenging, which will probably be a few weeks. After your workout, it is just as important as the workout itself, to stretch each muscle group and hold for at least 20 seconds.
In 4-6 weeks, you will notice more defined upper arms and legs and squared, instead of rounded, shoulders. Your clothes will fit better, people will probably start asking if you’ve lost weight, and you will be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (well, not quite)!