Body By Barbell: Why Girls Should Lift

[Editor's Note]  Many apologies to readers for the long break.  I’ve had company staying with me for the past two weeks, which has consumed many of my post-work hours.  Thankfully, today we have a guest post from Stephanie Caudle.  Regular posting schedule should resume from today!

If you’re a girl, you have probably always heard that your fitness regime should consist mostly, if not solely, of  long-distance cardio performed in the “fat burning zone” (read: very slowly).  Throw in some stretching, and you’re all set.  Weight training, if performed, should include nothing larger than a 5 pound dumbbell, with which you will do no fewer than 15 reps.  You’ve probably been told that anything more will make you “bulky” and will surely not result in fat loss.

Your goal, of course, is to “tone”.  I hate the word “tone.”  Its medical definition (“normal degree of vigor and tension; the resistance to passive elongation or stretch”) has nothing to do with how you look in a bikini.  That firm-bodied look you envision when you use the word “tone” really refers to a physique with lean muscle mass and low body fat.

Barbell body

Kisha Wilson, figure competitor
(she lifts heavy)

To achieve a “toned” physique, you must address both of those goals: 1) increased muscle mass and  2) decreased body fat.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the classic female training program of slow cardio and pink dumbbells isn’t going to be effective or efficient in addressing either of these two goals.  Strength training, on the other hand, is effective at both.

Not only will strength training help you achieve your desired look by adding lean mass, but increased muscle mass actually helps you burn more calories!  A person with a greater muscle mass will burn more calories throughout the day than a person with less muscle mass, which equates to faster fat loss.  It’s a double win!  More sexy lean muscle and less fat!

“But won’t lifting heavy weights make me bulky?”

Unlikely.  Yes, lifting heavy weights will help you build muscle mass.  That’s the point.  However, women have much lower testosterone levels than men, which slows the rate at which they put on muscle mass and makes it much more difficult to put on a large amount.  Most women would have to take anabolic steroids to achieve a “bulky” look.  Also, even if you were genetically capable of putting on a ton of muscle mass, it wouldn’t happen over night.

Half the goal of achieving a firm body is to increase muscle mass, in order to accomplish this goal there is no denying that you are actually going to have to get in the gym and build some muscle.  You have two choices; you can either do it relatively quickly/efficiently by lifting heavy or slowly/inefficiently (or not at all) by lifting pink dumbbells.   The best way to build some lean muscle, and build it fast, it to strength train heavy and hard.  This means doing sets with heavier weights and fewer reps.  Sets of 10, 8, or even 5 are all excellent choices.  If at some point you feel like you’ve reached your goals, you can always back down on the volume of training to maintain your progress without adding more muscle mass.

Don’t get me wrong, as a physical therapy student, I know that high volume/low load training, cardiovascular conditioning, and mobility all have their place.  However, if you’re an uninjured, healthy girl looking to turn heads in a bikini, the elliptical trainer and 5 lb wrist weights aren’t going to get you anywhere fast.

“But cardio burns calories (and fat)!”

Yes, steady-state cardio does burn calories; however, the caloric expenditure of steady-state cardio stops as soon as you hop off the treadmill.  The caloric expenditure of a weight-lifting, on the other hand, continues for long after you’ve re-racked your dumbbells.

Keep in mind, the calories you burn while exercising are not all that impressive.  It’s the calories you burn all day long that make up the bulk of your energy expenditure.  Building muscle mass increases your metabolic rate, which means more calories being used 24/7.

Heavy lifting (especially when combined with eating right) can, and does, result in sexy, feminine figures (like Kisha Wilson’s below).  As a former cardio-junkie, I have a huge appreciation of the physique changes I’ve gained from heavy lifting.  Give it a try, I think you’ll love weight training and your new firm body.

Body By Barbell

Body by barbell: Jamie Eason

For more info on why girls should lift, check out these articles:

4 Things Your Girlfriend Should Know by Tony Gentilcore

Fun With Women! by by Christian Thibaudeau with Patricia Smith and Jennifer Blomquist

Also, fan Kisha (top picture) on Facebook.  She’s competing in the Jr. Nationals next month!

Post author Stephanie Caudle is a physical therapy student at the University of South Carolina with a BA in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina.