Many women make cardio activities the cornerstone of their fitness regimen when what they really need is strength training. I’m not bashing cardio – I personally spent many years training for endurance events and still perform some cardio every week. But how many of us truly envy the physique created by hours upon hours of cardio exercise? I think most women would rather have a body that looks strong and shapely in addition to lean. This is precisely the type of body that proper strength training can create.
The physiological adaptations associated with strength training represent the holy grail of exercise: increased lean muscle; a substantial metabolic (calorie-burning) after-effect; hormonal changes that help us stay lean and healthy; and improved cardiovascular function. Why then do so many women avoid strength training? Well for starters I think many women have fears and misconceptions about strength training. These include: lifting heavy weights will add bulk to your frame; weight training will sabotage your efforts to attain a “long and lean” physique; and weight training is inferior to cardio when it comes to burning calories. All of these assertions are hogwash. So let’s take a brief look at each of these and dispel some myths.
By most people’s definition, “bulk” is unwanted body mass. None of the women I know are interested in increasing the size of their bodies. Thankfully, one need not get bigger to reap the benefits of strength training. “Hypertrophy” training is the term used for the type of strength training that bodybuilders employ to achieve a considerable increase in muscular size. For the most part, these folks: perform isolation (i.e., single-joint / single-muscle) exercises; use slower lifting tempos; and are seldom if ever seen breathless during the course of their workout. Now contrast that with strength training that utilizes full-body movements; quick lifting tempos; and leaves you panting for breath. Clearly there’s a big difference between the two approaches. Strength training of the later variety will not pack unwanted weight onto your frame.
As for the proverbial “long and lean” physique, and suggestions that one type of training or another is better suited to achieving this look, please! Long is a function of limb length, muscle attachments, and the like which none of us can control. Being lean, on the other hand, is something we all aim to achieve with proper exercise and nutrition. My point here is that no specific exercise or training modality will make short legs long or thick ankles thinner. However, I know of no better way to create a lean, mean, sexy machine than strength training combined with a good, wholesome diet.
Lastly, the amount of calories burned during any activity is primarily a function of work intensity. The higher the intensity, the more calories expended. Strength training by definition is a higher intensity undertaking than cardio. Cardio, aka endurance training, involves a lower intensity of effort because you simply can’t “endure” for very long otherwise. But there’s more. Our metabolism remains elevated after exercise, creating a sort of “after-burn” involving higher caloric expenditure. An important advantage of strength training is that it creates a larger metabolic after-burn than does cardio exercise. One landmark study involving a resistance (strength) training protocol lasting only 31 minutes measured an “after burn” that persisted for up to 48 hours after the exercise bout. In women the elevation in metabolic rate lasted 16 hours; a lower response than for men (likely owing to less muscle mass and smaller levels of testosterone), but substantial nonetheless.
So what’s the bottom line on why you should be strength training? Well for one thing, I think many of us actually favor the physiques created by strength training – lean, fit, shapely and strong. Simply put, cardio exercise is far inferior to strength training when it comes to developing shapely muscle. Moreover, strength training has a more substantial and longer-lasting effect on metabolism. So why not use weights to burn calories and boost your metabolism while forging a hard, shapely body in the process? Are you ready to give strength training a try?