Women are indeed quite different to their male counterparts. Although I am one for gender equality, and many fitness coaches will say that men and women should train the same, their goals and training responses can greatly vary. Most females want to look lean and toned. Women also have a naturally higher body fat percentage, which makes it more difficult to reduce body fat. Read on for some insights into how to incorporate strength training into your life.
The aerobic exercise myth:
Ever noticed the weights room is stereotypically the “male” section and the cardio machine /aerobics room is stereotypically the “female” section? When asked about this phenomenon, women typically respond with; “I’ve heard I need to do lots of cardio to lose weight”, and “I don’t want to get bulky”.
Initially, most people will have small to moderate weight loss with aerobic exercise. Thereafter their bodies adapt, becoming more efficient and so fewer calories are burnt. So why are distance runners so skinny? A lot of aerobic exercise will stimulate the production of stress hormones (cortisol) which are catabolic in nature (they are tissue breakdown hormones). Your body perceives the experience of a stressful situation. These stress hormones oppose the development of muscle mass and with chronic exposure they breakdown muscle tissue, as well as other tissues including bone.
Stress hormones also tell your body to hold onto existing fat stores, just in case that lion comes again and you’ll need to run for hours! The body is swept into a sympathetic (flight-or-fight) state, whereby blood is shunted away from the internal organs to the peripheral muscles in preparation for you to take action (fight or flee from danger). Chronic or long-term exposure to these stress hormones compromise your tissue building and repair, digestion, production of vital hormones and many other parasympathetic functions which are essential for our survival. Disorders destined to develop are likely to include diabetes, osteoporosis, infertility, menstrual problems, digestive disorders, heart disorders and impaired immune function.
Intense short bouts of exercise or interval training elevates the metabolism greater than steady-state continuous exercise. Aerobic exercise stimulates the metabolism up to 12 hours after exercise; high-intensity resistance exercise stimulates the metabolism up to 48 hours (and in some cases, up to 72-hours). Sprinters have the best bodies in the fitness industry, ripped muscles and minimal body fat. A typical long-distance runner will on average have a higher percent body fat than a sprinter.
Combine both steady-state and high-intensity interval training for long term benefits. Too much high-intensity anaerobic exercise over a period of time can be just as exhausting and detrimental to your health as too much aerobic exercise. Alternate aerobic with resistance training sessions to keep your body guessing, making it hard for the body to adapt. Use compound, free weight exercises requiring recruitment of stabiliser muscles, such as the squat or lunge.
Exercise machines versus good old-fashioned free weight training
Machines have a guided resistance and most often require a seated position, eliminating the need to recruit the stabiliser core muscles or postural mechanisms of the body. People who exercise on machines can subsequently get away with not recruiting their stabilisers and inner core muscles (including the transverses abdominus or TVA) and thereby may develop faulty muscle recruitment patterns. Free weight or bodyweight exercises, performed with good technique are gold in the gym, which when chosen correctly will condition the entire body – no need for 100 crunches ever again.
Will I develop bulky muscles?
Personally, I used to be very cautious about weight training, having a naturally mesomorphic (muscular) body type. With weight training, you will certainly develop muscle tone, however Arnie’s aesthetics are a far reality. Females naturally have much lower levels of testosterone, a muscle-building hormone. Estrogen also suppresses large increases in muscle mass. Female body-builders spend somewhere between 3–5 hours a day on a specific hypertrophy program (5-10 sets per ex), not to mention the challenge for women to gain large amounts of muscle and so many female body builders turning to anabolic steroids for assistance. To reduce the chance of bulkiness you either want to reduce the intensity to less than 65% (> 14 reps) or increase the intensity to greater than greater than 90% (< 5 reps) for advanced athletes. Reduce the number of sets per exercise and reduce the number of exercises per body part of concern. Starting or ending with cardiovascular exercise also opposes muscle growth.
Women have greater joint laxity or flexibility, which is associated with dysfunctions of the shoulder, lower back, hip, knee, ankle, and foot. Check with a qualified professional to determine if you are hypermobile and whether Yoga is or is not a good idea for you.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series next week!
I invite you to visit my online coaching for practical exercise programs!