Why Women Shouldn't Fear The Gym


Let me warn you in advance that I don't mince words and I'm not starting now.

There are many myths in the training/fitness and nutrition world that have started from urban legend, the internet, or just plain ignorance. And one of the greatest myths of training & fitness is the idea that strength training for women will "bulk them up."

Thus the reason many women avoid strength training altogether or do poor substitutes for it with pink dumbbells and the like.

This myth was further perpetuated in a recent NY Times article where the gist of the article was about how many women on the professional women's tennis tour avoid true strength training like it's the plague.

Even Serena Williams whose physique is muscular and athletic said the mere sight of weights put "bulk" on her frame. Really?!

Oh, that it were that easy especially for women. The whole tenure of the article was both maddening and sad. Maddening because there was no counterpoint from an expert who might actually allay some of those fears.

The continuous body image issues that even elite female athletes have to deal with as they are constantly bombarded with images, both subtle and not so subtle, about what the ideal female body type should be is incredibly saddening.

Let's set the record straight about this strength training myth:

  • The vast majority of women (well over 90%) are in no danger of "bulking up." They simply don't have the hormonal levels necessary to do so.
  • A good strength training program is as much about injury prevention/reduction as it is about performance. To exclude a cornerstone of sound, scientific training based on myths is a disservice to the athlete. Shame on their trainers!
  • In most sports, tennis included, the crux of performance centers around power. A simple formula for power is — force x speed/distance. What develops force? Strength. Elastic bands and pink dumbbells won't cut it.
  • The only type of training that truly develops muscle is strength training. You can do "cardio" 'til the cows come home which is all well and good for your heart and lung health but will do nothing to develop muscle.
  • Why is muscle good? It's the engine for function, it's much more metabolically active than fat which means it burning more calories even at rest, it strengthens bones (heard of osteoporosis?), and it takes up less space than fat as it is denser. You could actually gain muscle, lose fat and go down several sizes. I've seen it multiple times with clients, both men and women.
  • The training protocols that many women use in the pursuit of "long, slender" muscles are actually the protocols that are more likely to add bulk. Hypertrophy training, or muscle building, is based around sets of 8-10 reps, with lighter weights and shorter rest periods which are precisely the schemes many women use in the erroneous belief that they won't "bulk up." On the other hand, heavy weights/resistance and lower reps develop strength without bulk as that method is primarily training the Central Nervous System and making it more efficient in delivering force.
  • You also have to eat the requisite calories to "bulk up." If you eat wisely and well then no matter your training you won't bulk up as there aren't sufficient calories to sustain muscle growth.
  • Good strength training programs enhance function as the everyday activities of living, and sport, are easier and more efficiently done if you're stronger. One of the great issues of aging is loss of strength and the almost linear relationship with loss of function. Climbing stairs, getting in and out of chairs, in and out of your car, and even walking are all enhanced by greater strength.
  • Posture, and thus function, are enhanced by strength. You need strength in your trunk muscles to ensure good posture. Without good posture function of any type will always be less than optimal as there will be compensations made to account for the fact that the body is not aligned properly.
  • In terms of training protocols there is nothing that gives as much bang for the buck as a good strength training program. It can improve strength, build muscle, improve function, enhance mobility when done through full ranges of motion, strengthen bones, and even improve conditioning/fitness. I can't think of another training protocol or method that can legitimately make those claims. The fact that they say so doesn't make it the truth!

I hope this is a small step in the direction of correcting this commonly held belief about strength training for women. I've trained hundreds of females, both athletes and non-athletes alike, and I don't change my programming because they are female. The resistance or weights may differ but not the general system and approach to training. Strength training has enhanced the lives of countless males over the years and so should it empower females as well. Let's not let myths and scare tactics change the fact of it's myriad benefits.

The social media and cultural issues about body image for women is a whole other can of worms and that is not the intent of this article. We might have to leave that for another time! :)