Women and Weights: Resistant to Resistance Training?

Do women need weight training?

Posted Mar 16, 2012

 The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has published its new guidelines for exercise prescription. These include more detailed recommendations for resistance exercises that improve muscular fitness. Good muscular fitness, in turn, improves cardiometabolic health and prevents functional limitations and osteoporosis. In addition to disease prevention, it is known that resistance training improves body composition: larger muscle mass through weight training creates a bigger portion of ‘fat free mass' and thus, proportionately decreases the fat mass in one's body. It also burns more calories further decreasing one's fat mass. It is recommended that we work our major muscle groups 2-3 days/week with different intensity guidelines for strength, endurance, and power. In addition, there are now different guidelines for appropriate repetitions and sets for novice, intermediate, and experienced weightlifters.

In general, resistance training refers to working against weight to improve muscle strength and/or endurance. Resistance can be created in different ways, with or without equipment. One can work against one's own body weight or gravity such as doing push-ups where one uses the upper body muscles to lift one's body weight against gravity. The so called ‘toning' exercises in group exercise classes usually work different muscles against gravity. One can also create resistance with different equipment such as bands to increase resistance against gravity. However, commonly when we think of resistance exercise, we think of weight training. In this type of training, weight training machines or free weights provide the resistance against which the muscles work. As weight training can be an important part of women's exercise routines, I asked Joy, an experienced fitness instructor, how she inspires her clients to enter the weight room. I was quite astonished with her answer.

‘I hate weight training. This is my dirty little secret,' she confessed, ‘I know the benefits of weight training... or as it is correctly termed: resistance training... but I still find it difficult and boring. I have extensive training, education and twenty years of experience in fitness as an instructor, trainer of instructors, and fitness instruction teacher, so my little confession is probably surprising to most.'

While I was surprised to hear Joy's confession I was also relieved: I remember the countless times I have stood by the entrance to a weight room thinking which machines should I use and then decided to use none at all. Instead I train my muscles in other ways that I find more meaningful. Joy described resistance training as tedious and limited, ‘being confined to a stuffy weight room and the limiting movements of machines, free weights and cables is often boring, difficult and sometimes painful. Even using balance equipment, banded resistance and other apparatus modalities, the principles are the same: counting repetitions, adding sufficient resistance, and a dull, meaningless format.' Joy or I did not think the equipment too complicated and also had a lot of experience in devising weight training programs, but we could also imagine that a beginning exerciser who enters a weight room the first time, might not even know which way to seat herself into the machines, let alone to determine the appropriate set, repetitions, and amount of weight.

In her study, Shari Dworkin found that women were intimidated by the weight room in the gym, because it was populated mainly by men who seemed to readily know what to do. She also discovered that many women didn't feel like they needed to be stronger and the ones who did weight train, did not train much. Why don't women want to be stronger?

Looking more closely at what women mean by ‘strength' provides some answers. The official definition of (absolute) muscle strength is the maximum amount of force one can exert. For example, how much weight one can lift in one attempt. That is why improving muscle strength requires a person to lift very heavy weight but only a few times (e.g., 1-3 times). In everyday life one needs strength, for example, to lift a very heavy box once. Muscle endurance, in turn, refers to muscles' ability to contract and relax repeatedly. We train muscle endurance by lifting a moderate amount of weight several times (e.g., 20 times). In everyday life, one needs muscle endurance to perform repeated tasks: lift a child repeatedly, lift up bags several times, lift our legs several times.
Weight training machines can be used to train both strength and endurance. They are designed to exercise one muscle or muscle group (e.g., biceps or triceps in the upper arms, deltoids at the shoulders) at a time to provide maximum specificity for the training: to make sure that one is training the intended muscle. However, we seldom use only one muscle when we have to act against resistance in our daily lives. Even opening a heavy door requires one to use several muscles in the arm and the upper back. This means that while weight machines can effectively train a particular muscle, the strength or endurance gain is not always translatable to improved performance in everyday life.

It was the usefulness of weight training that Joy was concerned with when she found resistance exercise meaningless. She provided an example: ‘How many times in a day, if ever, do you lift bags of groceries laterally out and straight upward from the sides of your body? This does not appear to be a functional movement used in daily life. Yet that is a typical deltoid lift that trains the medial deltoid efficiently'. She continued that ‘the deltoid muscles are a relatively small band of muscles on the top of the shoulder, so isolation exercises performed to strengthen these muscles can be discouraging, as it takes very little weight to provide sufficient challenge and this may cause feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy, when lifting beside others who are using much heavier weights.' While Joy and I might find the function of weight training, what it can help us to do, problematic, many women do not refer to strength in terms of their bodies' capacity, but rather strength is related to how their bodies might look as a result of weight training.

In Dworkin's study, women were afraid of lifting (too much) weights because they became ‘bulky.' I also found that women in aerobics classes considered ‘toning' exercises effective as they, like weight training, definitely trained one area of the body at the time. While these exercises were boring and often performed in rather ‘abnormal' and uncomfortable positions, they helped to ‘tone' the ‘flabby' areas of the body: the underarms, the abdominals, the ‘lower half.' No one, however, wanted to look ‘too muscular,' but rather toned muscles were lean and tight, not big and bulky. There seemed to be a very fine line between being ‘too big' and being toned. Some women even talked about starting weight training, but then got 'too big' and stopped. In these accounts, resistance training is connected to the looks of the body, not the functional capacity of the body or what the muscles can help us do in everyday life. Why are we so concerned about becoming 'too bulky' when having stronger muscles is clearly helpful in everyday life?

My own research suggests that the most common reason we as women exercise is to attempt to shape our bodies into the ideal feminine form: the toned, tall, lean, young body. Whether we do this on a conscious level or not, we are influenced by images in the media of tall, lean, toned, tanned, young female models, and see the marketing for diet, exercise, and cosmetic as solutions to attain such an ideal body. Having 'big' muscles, particularly in the upper body, is a part of a masculine, not ideal feminine, body. Why do we believe this is the case?

Biologically, both women and men need musculature to move their bodies. The muscles will become bigger in size, they hypertrophy, when there are trained. Hypertrophy of human muscles is a result of an increase in muscle fiber size, not an increase in the amount of muscle fibers. So called anabolic hormones promote muscle hypertrophy. For example, testosterone and growth hormone are the body's natural anabolic hormones. In general, female bodies contain less testosterone than male bodies. Nevertheless, training muscle fibers by increasing the weight (force) against which they have to work, will result in hypotrophy as the muscles now have to use more fibers to be able to overcome the force. In addition, all muscles will become bigger in size when they are trained. Consequently, there is nothing unnatural about women having muscles, also upper body muscles, although our muscles, in general, might not grow as big as male muscles due to smaller amounts of testosterone. If it is natural to have muscle hypotrophy, why don't we want to show off our muscles?
As having muscles is natural and increasing their fitness is good for health, obviously our fear of a muscular look is more socially than biologically based. We want to conform to what is established as a normal, feminine body in our society: toned, lean, long, and young. We are willing 'to sculpt the body,' but there is a limit to the size of musculature that most women are willing to build, as this does not portray the ideal feminine form. It is, nevertheless, difficult to have the ideal body and still function in contemporary life. Consider the fashion industry and the difficulties models have maintaining their body shapes. I heard a story of one model who started dance lessons to stay thin, but had to stop because her muscles became visible and thus, unsuitable for her profession. As the feminine body ideal is impossible to live up to, we should not base our fitness training on such an arbitrary premise. It is important to remember that the current feminine body ideal has not always been considered ideal. Thus, as it is socially rather than biologically based, it can be changed. We can all be part of this change by promoting exercise practices differently.

Some fitness instructors console us that, with the female hormonal make-up, it is impossible for women to have big muscles and thus, we can train them as much as we like without the fear of 'bulk.' Female muscles, nevertheless, will hypertrophy or grow in size, when there are trained. However, improving one's muscle fitness should not be based on an assurance of no visible muscle size, but rather a celebration of the abilities that increased muscle fitness can provide. In addition, as Joy would assert, we could think what we want the muscles to do for us rather than what they should look like. She concludes:

'I still think there may be another way or perhaps better ways to achieve the same or similar health related benefits without the tedium and discomfort of traditional weight training routines, and the potential social issues connected with ideal feminine body. However, strength gains from resistance training are easily measured and this is why it is currently the gold standard in training the muscles.'
She does not have any immediate alternatives but she calls for some creative solutions: 'It is very important,' she reminds, 'to be honest with oneself to determine the reason why we exercise, whether for illness prevention, general health and function, physical appearance, or some combination thereof. Perhaps as a starting point for change, we can look into alternative forms of functional movement.'

What are these alternatives? That is a point for continued discussion on resistance training.

References cited:
Dworkin, S. (2003). A women's place is in the...cardiovascular room? Gender relations, the body, and the gym. In A. Bolin & J. Granskog (Eds.), Athletic intruders: Ethnographic research on women, culture, and exercise (pp.131-158). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Markula, P. (1995). Firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin: The postmodern aerobicizing female bodies, Sociology of Sport Journal, 12, 424-453.