Women Need Heavy Strength Training to Counter Loss of Lean Muscle Mass
(Women need heavy strength training is another recommendation from Dr. Stacy Sims’ book, Roar. This is one is a series of articles about specific training information and advice based on her book. If you are a female athlete, or coach female athletes, this book should be required reading. It changed everything for me as a male coach!)
I see more women at the gym to lift heavy weights.
For good reason.
Women start out with less muscle than men, and lose more as they age because their hormones don’t help with muscle building.
Lean muscle mass decreases in women starting around 30 and decreases three percent per decade between 30 and 80, while strength declines 30 percent between 50 and 70 and gets worse after that.
Cardio exercises don’t build lean muscle mass.
The Only Solution is Heavy Strength Training
And by strength training, I mean heavy weights: High-intensity power training for pure strength.
This means doing power moves and low-rep, high-weight strength training because it helps increase the number of fibers recruited for contraction but don’t grow the size of your muscles very much.
You get stronger with less bulk.
Women need heavy strength training.
Women Need Heavy Strength Training That Includes Protein Intake
Men and women have generally the same muscle composition with the percentage of type I (endurance) and type II (power) fibers. The largest fibers in women’s bodies tend to be endurance, while the largest fibers in men are power.
Women can still push a lot of weight with their legs because women tend to carry most of their lean muscle tissue below the waist.
Lack of testosterone and high levels of estrogen and progesterone affect building muscle.
Estrogen turns down growing capacity of muscle and progesterone turns up the breakdown of muscle tissue.
This means it’s critical to take in protein with leucine or BCAAs before exercise and after.
Endurance athletes tend to slow down with age because their muscles aren’t as powerful.
Strength training counters that decline.
- stimulates your neuromuscular system, activating a lot of muscle fibers
- engages the fast-twitch powerful Type II muscles, which are the first to go
- adds punch to a foot strike and rebound while running
- adds more force to the pedals when riding a bike
- strengthens connective tissue that helps avoid injury.
Here’s what you need to do for optimize your strength training:
1. Lift heavy.
You need to challenge your muscles to make them grow. Lifting two pounds weights isn’t going to do it. There are exceptions to this, of course.
2. Build fatigue.
Lift a chosen weight eight to 10 times. If the last two repetitions are really a challenge, then you’re at the right weight. Make sure you maintain good form!
The key is to build fatigue in the target muscles. You want to feel like you might be able to do one or two more repetitions, but that’s it before you fall over. Too little weight is a waste of time, too heavy and your form will break down.
3. Lift often.
Three days a week seems to be the magic number, two is minimum for making progress. If you lift three days a week, you’re sending the message to your muscles that you’re serious.
Lift only once a week and you’re telling your muscles that this work is just temporary and they can go back to eating chips on the couch.
That said, you can easily spend less time in the gym or doing workouts if you lift to build fatigue.
I only do two sets of each exercise. The first is to find the right weight for the day, and the second is to do that exercise until I can’t anymore. Then I move to the next workout.
So you can do only about five sets a week to make serious gains.
But be patient with yourself: research suggests it takes four to eight weeks of lifting at least twice a week to start seeing gains.
4. Mix it up.
Do a routine with the same exercises for three to four weeks, then switch it up. If you focus on the six main movements (chest push and pull, shoulder push and pull, hip hinge, squat, plus core), you can change the exercise while still doing the movement.
For example, you can do bent-over dumbbell rows for three to four weeks, then do seated cable rows for another three to four weeks.
Your body gets used to the work. The only way to make gains, then, is to increase the load, increase the reps (which can be counter-productive), or change up the work to keep stimulating and challenging the muscle fibers.
What Exercises Do I Do?
When I work with clients, I focus on the six movements plus core. Core work is always at the center of everything we do.
We usually always use kettlebells, dumbbells, TRX straps, medicine balls, and/or cables to force a person’s core to engage while other muscles are being worked.
I particularly like working with unilateral movements because they really work the target muscles while creating a lot of stress for the core.
Syncing Your Menstrual Cycle to Your Strength Training
Research showed that women who synced their weight training to their cycle – lifting heavy on low-hormone days and resting or lifting light on high-hormone days – increased their strength by 30 percent
This is compared to women who gained 12 percent strength when they worked out the same way regardless of their cycle.
You will make greater gains during your low-hormone phase.
So if you’re tired and run-down during your high-hormone days, take a break and rest.
So What Now?
Women need heavy strength training.
That much we know.
But what kind of program, how often, what exercises. That’s the question.
I’m happy to talk through ideas with you. Fill out the form, and I’ll get back to you.
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Thanks for reading.