We live in a culture that idealizes female petiteness. Many women have internalized the belief that it is better to be small than strong.
There is nothing wrong with being petite; women come in all shapes and sizes. What’s problematic is the idea that one specific body type is best, and that it can or should be “achieved” by any means necessary – even when it doesn’t support health or happiness.
Yes, to some extent the times are changing, and I am glad for it. We are more mindful of the messages sent to young girls. Books like Strong Is The New Pretty celebrate all of the beautiful aspects of girlhood, such as confidence, creativity, and determination. Blogs like Girls Gone Strong and Coconuts and Kettlebells – two of my personal favorites – dispel the myths that fitness means food restriction, chronic overtraining, or maintaining one particular physique. And society in general has warmed to the idea that women of all shapes and body compositions can be strong without sacrificing their essential femininity – whatever that is!
But certain discouraging messages persist. Every so often, advice columns offer up pearls like “women should never lift more than three pound weights” or “how to get a bikini body without bulking up.” Well-meaning? Perhaps.
But come on!
Of course, we all want different things for our bodies, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Each one of us deserves the freedom to pursue her own goals. I would never intentionally dissuade a woman from doing so – so long as her goals are intrinsically motivated, safe, and not about meeting a societal ideal that may not be in her best interests.
And by that, I mean the antiquated idea that there is only one acceptable female body type!
More women are taking up strength training, but in general, we continue to lag behind men and fall short of the CDC’s fitness guidelines. Only one in five women strength train twice per week, as compared to one in three men. That’s unfortunate, because strength training is so good for us – and for reasons that do not involve forcing our bodies to conform to a particular shape or ascending to the upper echelons of Instagram fitspo.
It is true that strength training increases lean muscle mass, which in turn boosts metabolism and speeds fat loss. But it does so much more, and it supports female health in a number of significant ways.
Your body can do amazing things. Why shrink to fit someone else’s ideal? Here are five better reasons to take up strength training.
Why Women Should Strength Train
- You’ll be stronger, both physically and mentally. We all know that strength training is the ticket to building lean muscle. But a growing body of evidence indicates that it’s also an effective mood-booster. Regular strength training is associated with improved self-esteem and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- You’ll support your bone health. After age 40, we begin to lose bone mass at an approximate rate of 1% per year. Women are more affected than men, partly due to the fact that we have smaller skeletons to begin with, and partly because of the role that female sex hormones, such as estrogen, play in bone density. This means that the older we get, the higher our risk for osteoporosis, bone fractures, and mobility problems. Fortunately, strength training not only slows the rate of bone loss, it can actually increase bone density. Plus, strong muscles mean better balance, and better balance means a lower fall risk.
- You’ll reduce inflammation and your risk of chronic disease. Strength training reduces systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a known contributor to the development of most – if not all – of the most common chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Strength training can help increase your healthspan – the number of years of the best possible health you enjoy over the course of your life.
- You’ll age better. As previously mentioned, strength training protects bone health later in life. But strength training also slows age-related sarcopenia – muscle loss – which occurs at a rate of up to 5% per decade after age 40. What is the primary treatment for sarcopenia? Strength training! And what is an effective predictor of longevity in older adults? No, not body fat percentage – muscle mass!
- You’ll feel better. Studies indicate that strength training improves body image, confidence, and overall physical activity. And strength training can help women, in particular, develop healthier relationships with their bodies, built upon becoming strong and capable rather than shrinking to fit societal ideals.
Get Into The Habit Of Strength Training
As a child of the 80s, I spent much of my life convinced that “exercise” meant “constant cardio.” In the age of Jane Fonda, that kind of thing was all the rage. But strength training is a little different. Marathon workouts are unnecessary, which is fantastic news for those of us leading hectic lives (i.e., most everyone). Plus, it doesn’t require much in the way of space or equipment.
- Start small. If you are brand new to strength training, consider starting with bodyweight exercises. They are simple, yet still pack a significant fitness punch. There is a tremendous amount of information available online, and a variety of free workouts available on YouTube.
- Focus on form. Reduce your risk of injury by taking the time to learn proper form. Form is more important than intensity or duration. For example, squats may be the king of all bodyweight exercises, but if done incorrectly – such as when your toes don’t track over your knees or you strain your lower back instead of working your glutes – they can be a royal pain. Like from an injury.
- Find something you enjoy. The most effective exercise is the exercise you actually do, so don’t waste your time on something you truly despise. I don’t particularly enjoy barbells, but I love kettlebells, so I use them a lot. If you don’t have an affinity for any kind of free weights, continue to develop your bodyweight exercise routine or try a strength-building form of yoga.
- Slow and steady wins the race. Unless you have certain specific strength goals, consistency is more important than intensity. Five-minute bodyweight exercises done consistently will yield positive results. Lifting more weight for more time will yield positive results a little faster. But this is not a race. Pushing yourself to do more than you are able is asking for burnout, or worse yet, injury. Take your time. Have faith that your body knows how to adapt and get stronger. Enjoy being in your body and realize that it is working for you.
- Celebrate your progress. What does being strong mean to you? Is it the ability to carry your not-so-small child home from the park without too much difficulty? Is it getting all of the grocery bags into the house in one trip? Is it deadlifting a certain amount of weight? Or something else? Whatever it is, pay attention to your progress and celebrate your strength. Your body is remarkable and constantly evolving. That was true yesterday, it’s true today, and it will be true tomorrow.
Create A Strength Training Routine That Works For You
As always, don’t be afraid to try different approaches until you find the one that works best for you. Consider your reasons for strength training, and proceed accordingly. If you are primarily motivated by the health benefits described above, you’ll likely find that a little strength training goes a long way.
If you are serious about lifting heavy and getting strong, consider working with a fitness professional, such as a personal trainer, to tailor the most effective routine. And before embarking on any new fitness routine, check with your doctor or healthcare professional to ensure you’re doing what is appropriate for your own, unique body.
Stay safe and be strong!
Do you strength train? Why or why not? Tell us about it in a comment!