This one's for the Ladies: Lifting Weights is Making me Bigger. Fact or fiction?
When’s the last time you were perusing the magazine rack while waiting to pay for your groceries and picked up one of the “female” targeted fitness magazines? Practically every issue claims to have the secrets to “tone” our bodies, how to lose weight in an unrealistic amount of time or how to target a certain “problem area” with this one amazing exercise. Don’t forget that they also have a super realistic meal plan where we would only be consuming about 1200 calories a day. Sounds super doable and healthy right?
If you haven’t already guessed, I have beef with the messages these magazine send to women, especially teenagers and young adults. I will admit that they have improved in the last 10 years, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to bust all these myths promoted to women. For example, the age old legend that women get “bulky” or “big” by lifting heavy weights is still supported by various fitness programs and promoted in the media. Because of these messages, we start to believe that we shouldn’t use more than 8 lb. weights. I don’t know about you, but I regularly pick up a lot of things that are more than 8 lb. (grocery bags that I overfill because I forgot my reusable bags, kids, furniture, etc.), and I want to have the strength to do that without injuring myself.
Sure, sometimes you do see women (usually professional bodybuilders or athletes) that look like they are “bulky”. This is because they dedicate their life to look like that. They spend hours a day lifting heavy weights, taking supplements, eating a very strict diet…it’s a full time job! It would be extremely hard or nearly impossible for a woman to come to GF Strength and Conditioning classes 3-4 times per week, lift heavy weights that are really challenging and get a body like a bodybuilder.
Now that we’ve addressed the myth, let’s look at the reality. When you pick up heavy weights, your muscles will absolutely get stronger but not necessarily bigger. However, if you’ve never lifted heavy weights before or don’t have a ton of muscle to start, it may seem like you’re getting “bigger”. This is because you start to build muscle before you lose the fat surrounding the muscle, which may result in you feeling or thinking you are getting “bigger”. Maybe you might start to think “I’m going to take a break from this class or use lighter weights, because I’m getting bigger and don’t like it.” Before you make that decision, let’s explore what is happening and what you should do about it.
What is happening
First things first, we need to recognize and admit that everybody has different body compositions, shapes and sizes. While exercise plays a role, there are so many other factors that go into it some of which are out of our control, like genetics. Your body is genetically predisposed to storing fat in certain locations in a certain order. When you start to lose weight, your body will lose the fat you currently have in a certain order as well and this order is different for everyone. Despite what the magazines tell you, no amount of targeted exercise will change how and where fat disappears.
However, heavy compound full-body movements that require us to use many muscle groups are more effective than targeted exercises like bicep curls. When you lift lighter weights for multiple reps (20+) you are building muscular endurance, not strength. In order to build dense, strong muscle, you must pick up heavy things and continue increasing that weight as you get stronger.
The reality is that your body absolutely will change from lifting heavy weights. Women with little to no muscle will probably increase their muscularity rather quickly. This won’t be anything dramatic, but it will be noticeable and very healthy as it is important for women to have muscle as we grow older. Some parts might get bigger, others will get smaller and your body may change shape altogether. Your body is in a state of transition. One thing that will definitely happen is that your whole body will get stronger and that’s pretty awesome.
As your body gets stronger and you continue to gain muscle, you will begin to lose fat (as long as you are also fueling your body with nourishing foods and staying hydrated). The time this takes will vary for everyone. If you are someone with a lot of body fat to lose, you will lose that body fat and become smaller over all. But if you are someone with just a little bit of body fat to lose, you might notice a few things feeling bigger before you start to notice your overall size decreasing. Remember, we are all different, so this will vary based on your body composition, lifestyle and genetics. Most importantly, do not quit and do not stop coming to class. If you want to see and feel results, this is the last thing you should do. Please, DON’T STOP lifting heavy weights because you think you are starting to look “big”. Keep at it and you will start to see the results you are hoping for in addition to feeling stronger and more confident at the gym.
Why women should lift weights
Strength training is the best training technique a woman can do to change her body composition and improve health outcomes. The huge benefit to strength training is your body’s ability to burn fat during and after exercise. When you lift weights, your muscles are broken down, and then rebuilt over the next 24-48 hours. While your body is rebuilding those muscles, it’s recruiting more calories and energy to make the process happen. Basically, this means you are burning more calories even after your workout (aka the “after burn”). Also, lean muscle mass naturally burns more calories than fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn at rest. Pretty neat right? The key part here is that we must lift heavy weights to create this lean muscle mass.
While “looking good” is often a main exercise motivator, it’s important to recognize all of the benefits, both physical and mental, that exercise provides. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that people in general are quite stressed. From work, to kids, to home life, to maintaining a social life…there’s just a lot going on! Exercise, strength training especially, is very effective at helping us manage and alleviate stress. I personally think there is nothing better than lifting weights and feeling strong to help me cope in difficult situations. So, next time you need to blow off some steam, try hitting the weights as a healthy and very efficient coping strategy!
Strength training also improves sleep quality, specifically making it easier to fall asleep faster, spend more hours in deep sleep and wake up less throughout the night. Sleep is critical for your ability to recover after lifting weights. We need to give our body that time to rest and recuperate so aim for 7-9 hours a night to reap the physical and mental benefits of strength training.
As women age, we are at risk of losing bone density and muscle mass. Postmenopausal women, in particular, are at a greater risk for osteoporosis because the body no longer secretes estrogen. The earlier you begin lifting weights, the better off your body will be. However, you will experience benefits from lifting weights and decrease your risk for osteoporosis even if you start later in life. Specifically for older adults, strength training will improve your balance and decrease your risk of bone breakage from falls. Have I convinced you that every woman should be incorporating strength training into their life yet?
What should I do?
What happens when you try something new in life, maybe a new job? There’s usually an adjustment period before we start to feel comfortable in that new role. Rather than getting frustrated, you give yourself time to adjust. You need to practice that same compassion with your body when it’s experiencing a transition. Yes, you might gain a little weight after a few weeks of strength training, but in a few more weeks, consistent effort in the gym will give you the results you’re really looking for.
In addition to being patient and not giving up, remember that the foods you eat play a major role in this process as well. While I could shout the benefits of strength training from the rooftops, nutrition is the main factor in determining our body composition. As the saying goes, “you can’t out train a poor diet”. In addition to eating nourishing foods and staying hydrated, you need to make sure you’re eating enough food. Remember those fitness magazines that tell promote the 1200 calorie diets? Please don’t do that. If you only consume 1200 calories per day and try to exercise (especially strength train) your body will not be very happy, you won’t have energy and your body may go into “starvation mode” and hold onto calories instead of burn them. Eat enough food to provide your body with energy to get through the day and your workouts. If you’re not sure what types of foods and how much you should be eating, talk to Coach Liz about setting up a consultation!
Finally, probably the most important thing you can do is to change your mindset. Ask yourself, why am I so concerned with being smaller? Why does the thought of being “bigger” as my muscles grow, make me want to stop something I know is extremely good for me to do? If it makes me feel great, why am I so concerned about how my body looks? Women, unfortunately, have been sent the message for generations that we need to be smaller and take up less space. Well, I say it’s time we change that. Let’s start celebrating strong quads that allow us to hike up mountains and give our kids piggy back rides. Let’s start celebrating strong shoulders that might not fit perfectly into blouses, but allow us to carry all of our grocery bags in one trip. Strength training allows us to feel incredible, powerful and confident in everything we do, so unless you absolutely hate lifting weights, do not quit. Keep coming to class to get stronger, have fun and improve your overall health and well-being, because you are worth it.