There are so many myths floating around about the best way to lift weights, it’s no wonder women are confused. Lifting heavy will cause me to bulk up. I need to do tons of cardio to lose weight—then I’ll start lifting to tone up once I’ve hit my goal. Doing crunches will give me a flat belly AND a six-pack. But the reality is that strength training is essential to getting the body you want, whether it’s one that’s leaner, stronger, more flexible, or more pain-free.
Unfortunately, much fitness “advice” is perpetuated by those trying to make money by telling people what they want to hear—not what’s best for them. How, then, to separate the good advice from the bad? Since many of us get our diet and fitness information from the Internet, it’s best to make sure any information comes from a certified professional, ideally someone with both a degree in exercise science and a nationally recognized certification such as NASM, ACSM, or ISCA. (Any personal trainer you speak with should meet these criteria as well—don’t be afraid to ask.)
Weight Training and the Bulking Up Myth
Whether they hear it from other women or by watching Oprah, many women are still very concerned that working out with weights will give them that thick, bulky look. The myth is that using dumbbells over five pounds will contribute to muscle hypertrophy, or increased size, and that the way to build muscle tone without bulking up is to perform a high number of reps using light weights.
There are three components required to achieve hypertrophy. One is a very high volume of training. Those looking to add bulk need to lift as many as six days a week, performing multiple exercises per muscle group (e.g. a bench press, incline press, and dumbbell press for chest) at a high number of sets (at least four to six) and low to moderate number of reps. Full-body strength training two to three days per week for 45 minutes, a program typically recommended to women wanting to lose weight and tone up, is not enough volume to produce significant size gains.
The second component is nutrition; it’s everything to putting on muscle. Bodybuilders follow a very specific dietary regimen low in fat and high in specific amino acids. They also have to eat a ton of calories—think 3,000 to 6,000 per day—to support muscle growth. The average woman is simply not doing this. The final component to bulking up is testosterone. Testosterone is required to build muscle mass, and most women don’t have enough of it to get big by lifting weights.
Lift Weights to Lose Weight
Ever noticed that the leanest, most toned people in your gym are found not doing cardio, but in the free-weight area? Many women still believe that doing lengthy cardio sessions is the way to lose weight, when in fact strength training plays a bigger role in body composition. Cardio, while necessary to train the heart and lungs (the reason it’s called cardiovascular exercise), tends to burn off muscle tissue to make the body more efficient at utilizing oxygen. That loss of muscle before long will lead to a drop in metabolism that will make it subsequently more difficult to lose weight or maintain weight loss.
By balancing strength training with shorter cardio sessions (think 25-35 minutes), you’ll put on lean muscle tone and keep it on. This is a good thing, because muscle is the body’s biggest calorie expender. Therefore, the more muscle tissue on your frame, the higher your metabolism, and the more calories you’ll burn per day even when at rest. Those extra calories you’ll burn over time from added muscle will far exceed any calories you’ll manage to burn from excessive cardio training. In addition, dialing back the cardio will make you less prone to boredom and injury.
Crunches Won’t Help You Lose Belly Fat
Women who otherwise avoid weight training will often still follow up their cardio session with several minutes of crunches in the hope of achieving a leaner, flatter midsection. This is a particularly pervasive fitness myth, as exercise professionals have known for many years that crunches do not burn abdominal fat; you cannot, in other words, spot reduce. Yet people continue to end their workouts with lengthy ab-training sessions.
The abdominals should be regarded just as any other muscle group: they shouldn’t be ignored all together, but one or two exercises per workout (two or three sets, 10-15 reps) should be plenty. Anyone who doesn’t feel challenged by this amount needs to select more difficult exercises and vary the movement; crunches only work one set of muscles, so twisting and lateral-bending movements should be included as well.
When it comes to losing fat from a particular part of the body, remember that full-body strength training, proper nutrition, and variable-intensity cardio workouts are all the tools you’ll need.
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