Guest blog post written by Michelle Falzone, a Registered Kinesiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Toronto. Michelle also runs her own online health and fitness coaching business dedicated to building stronger and more confident women, in and out of the gym.
A question for all the women reading this - have you ever felt like the weight room at the gym was an exclusive testosterone-filled sea? I know I did when I first started going to the gym. My palms would sweat just walking by!
This “gymtimidation” has discouraged many women from lifting weights. Unfortunately this means that they can miss out on all the great benefits of strength training. Let’s learn more about the advantages of lifting weights regularly as women, as well as debunk some common myths we hear about strength training.
While there are several dozen benefits of hitting the gym, I'll discuss five that I hear often from clients that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Let’s dive in.
We all have habits when it comes to how we’ve trained at the gym and enjoyed moving our bodies. Maybe we’ve stuck to group fitness classes, followed circuit training YouTube videos or have stayed in the 12-15 rep range for a couple years. When it comes to building muscle and strength, it can be beneficial to work in all repetition ranges. Anything ranging from 1-20 reps will help you get stronger in some way.
Chances are, if you have been moving your body the same way for a while, it could use a different stimulus, such as a different rep or set range, a change in load or weight used, a change in tempo (speed of the movement), another variation of the movement or maybe even some corrective exercise.
Different stimuli can improve movement quality and encourage a new adaptation, such as an increase in muscle mass and strength. This means carrying groceries, lifting kids (especially as the little humans grow) and moving a couch can be done with more ease and confidence.
When talking about lifting weights, a common concern that comes up in conversations with women is the fear of getting bulky. Testosterone, a hormone that both males and females produce, helps build muscle. Men produce testosterone levels that are ten-fold greater than women.
The much lower level of testosterone that women produce makes it extremely difficult to put on large amounts of muscle. It’s actually easier for the body to lose muscle than it is to gain it depending on activity levels.
In essence, a safe and effective strength training program considers your:
When you’re in doubt and in need of more personalized guidance to get started or change up your routine, hiring a movement professional can be a game changer.
Lifting weights helps us feel more comfortable in our bodies. It helps us ease the pressure of forcing our bodies to look a certain way and places more attention on how we perform. When I get to the core of what the women I work with really want, it's to feel good about themselves. To feel confident and comfortable in their skin. To feel better. To wear the clothes they want (or no clothes depending on the context!) and to feel sexy. To perform better in their careers, to try a new activity they’ve dreamt of doing and/or be a more energetic mama, partner and friend. To travel without worrying about pain, injury and/or weakness.
Having better posture can also positively impact our mental well-being. Women who lift weights tend to have better posture. When we stand tall, it can decrease stress hormone levels and increase concentration, alertness, energy and confidence. Breathing is easier and deeper, our organs can function more optimally and we put less stress on our joints. When we strengthen or shorten or conversely relax or lengthen certain muscles, it improves our body’s alignment and prevents that slouching posture from creeping up.
As you can imagine, when we focus on strength, we begin to appreciate our bodies in a different light. We build mental strength and confidence when we look at a barbell and say, ‘Ready to move?’ It feels SOO good to accomplish something we may have doubted we could do - like when we finally get that first push up or chin up!
The result? An empowering journey that increases confidence in our body AND our mind.
Have you ever said, “I worked out today, I can enjoy some dessert” or “I need to workout, I’ve had too many treats this week”? For decades, diet culture has created the notion that exercise is punishment or a way to give yourself 'permission' to enjoy certain foods. This creates a problematic relationship between movement and nutrition.
When lifting weights, it really opens our eyes to our potential as women. Instead of focusing on exercising to shrink our bodies or gain weight if you’re on the petite side, it shows us that there is something greater that deserves our focus outside of what we see in the mirror.
We begin to fall in love with other benefits of strength training such as improved sleep, enhanced mood, and feeling reconnected with our bodies. Our appetite increases, a natural response that is intended to build muscle and accelerate our metabolism, which can help manage our blood sugar and body composition, and increase our energy levels.
With that being said, hitting the weights can help us tune into our body’s nutritional needs. We begin to honour our hunger, understand what foods truly satiate us and what foods we digest well. We also learn what foods can help promote recovery from strength training (the often demonized carbs being one of them). We begin to physically and mentally perform better, and trust and appreciate all that our body does for us. This improves our relationship with our body, with movement and with nutrition. Win, win and win!
As women, our bone mass peaks between the ages of 25-30 years of age. During menopause, specific hormones produced in our ovaries such as estrogen, progesterone and androgens begin to decline. Estrogen is essential for bone health as it promotes the activity of osteoblasts, which are the cells that make new bone.
With declining hormonal levels between the menopausal time of 45-55 years of age, women will experience muscle and bone mass loss. However, women who begin menopause with higher bone density, which strength training can positively impact, are less likely to develop osteoporosis than those who begin menopause with low bone density.
This means if we fall, there is a decreased risk of fracture. Even if we don’t fall, there will be a decreased risk of fractures in our spine over time. The bones that make up your spine can weaken and potentially collapse, possibly resulting in back pain, lost height and a hunched forward posture.
If we do experience an injury or fracture, having fit and strong muscles decreases fatigue during our healing phase because oxygen and blood can flow more efficiently through our body. Also, the neural connection from our brain to that specific recovering muscle group can be heightened when muscles are trained. This is beneficial in the rehabilitation process, as it promotes a faster recovery.
Alongside bone health, when our muscles are strong, it allows us to offload our joints. This means decreased risk of injury, muscle and joint pain, and increased ability to perform in daily tasks, physical activities and sports. This gives us the opportunity to get more out of life. Who doesn’t like the sound of that?!
Strength training before, during and after pregnancy (when medically cleared to do so) can:
Of course, life changes dramatically after giving birth. Finding time for your personal care often feels like you’re running with a carrot attached to your head that’s dangling three feet ahead of you all the time. Leveraging your support systems and other resources that help you save time and energy can help you carve out a little time for yourself- even if that means not necessarily exercising.
Before, during and/or after pregnancy it can be valuable to work with a kinesiologist or physiotherapist that focuses on pelvic floor strength so that you can move your body safely and effectively.
I recognize that this article may seem to just be tooting the strength training horn. I want to acknowledge the importance of finding a balance between all activities you enjoy. Giving attention to other components of physical fitness such as flexibility and aerobic activity, helps create longevity for your body and mind. Yoga, dancing, swimming, biking, playing sports are part of what makes moving our bodies a joyful experience! Find what moves you.
Michelle has her Bachelor of Arts in Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Ontario, where she concurrently completed the Fitness Assessment and Exercise Counselling Certificate.
After a few years in the field, her interest in behavioural psychology grew, and she completed the Wellness Coaching Post-Graduate Certificate program at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. As a Registered Kinesiologist, Michelle works in the Movement & Performance department at Cleveland Clinic in downtown Toronto.
Michelle also runs her own online health and fitness coaching business dedicated to building stronger and more confident women, in and out of the gym. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys woodworking, hiking and exploring new cuisines.
Foy, C. (2021, December 15). How Good Posture Can Benefit Mental Health. FHE Health – Addiction & Mental Health Care. https://fherehab.com/learning/good-posture-mental-health
Hart, P. M. T. (2020, December 30). Strength Training Program for Pregnancy - Pregnant Clients. Girls Gone Strong. https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/articles/strength-training-pregnancy/
Osteoporosis - Better Health Channel. (2019, March 4). Better Health. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/osteoporosis
Why Women Shouldn’t Fear Bulking Up During Weight Training. (n.d). Human Kinetics Canada. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from https://canada.humankinetics.com/blogs/articles/why-women-shouldnt-fear-bulking-up-during-weight-training
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