It is common knowledge that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Whether it be jogging, attending a yoga class, or just taking a walk, implementing some sort of exercise is beneficial to your physical and mental health. However, somewhere along the way in starting to exercise, some women are led astray by unfounded claims and false promises made by self-professed exercise experts on TikTok, Instagram, and the like. Going to the gym, I see many women opting for cardio machines or light dumbbells and resistance bands, wearing waist trainers, ankle weights, and incessantly doing workouts in the sauna in search attempts to reach their goals. But honestly, most of these women are likely wasting their time. This actually makes me a bit sad, as many of these women likely engage in these silly practices out of desperation to achieve a particular look–one that makes them appear slim, toned, and curvy without looking “bulky” or overly masculine. In pursuit of the aesthetic, these individuals lose track of a more holistic approach to health and fitness, and miss out on the copious benefits different modes of exercise create in one’s life.
Based on a variety of data, and in my humble opinion, the best way to improve your life through exercise is resistance training. While women tend to be averse to weight training for one reason for another, it is probably the best type of exercise for women. Not only will resistance training help women reach the surface-level aesthetic goals, but it is likely the most effective method to achieve fitness goals while providing greater benefits to their overall health and livelihood, including improving body composition, aiding in pregnancy, balancing out hormones, benefitting mental health, and boosting confidence.
In terms of aesthetics, resistance training is perhaps the most effective method of achieving the commonly desired “toned,” yet curvy look. Take “toning,” for example. Many of the women I see desperately performing kicks with ankle weights are attempting to “tone” their legs, which simply refers to the tension of a muscle at rest. What these women really mean by a “toned” look is a more lean, muscular physique, which can be achieved through resistance training, specifically hypertrophy-focused training. While you can’t spot-reduce fat in a particular body part to achieve a certain “slim” or “toned” look, compound strength-based exercises help you focus on building muscle in a particular body part, while simultaneously working your entire body. For example, focusing on big compound movements like squats, hip thrusts, and deadlifts not only works your legs and glutes, but isometrically contracts your core musculature (abs and back muscles), providing a full-body experience. These types of compound movements performed at a high-volume (70-80% max, low to moderate reps and sets) will not only benefit overall health, but will build muscle and shed fat in a way that yields desirable aesthetics. These aesthetic gains will also aid you long-term, as greater muscle mass provides a youthful appearance.
You may have already heard of the concept of a plateau whereby a consistent exerciser suddenly stops seeing the results they initially achieved; this can certainly be frustrating to say the least, especially in terms of losing the infamous “last stubborn five pounds.” According to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), the body will eventually adapt to specific demands that are placed on it. For example, the body will quickly become accustomed to the demands of a three-mile run everyday, meaning your body may quickly stop producing aesthetic benefits. As noted by author and human performance consultant Ben Greenfield puts it, “If running is your only form of cardio or push ups are your only form of upper body training, eventually, your body will become so adapted to those demands that it burns fewer calories and experiences fewer gains in response to the stimuli” (Boundless 175).
To combat the plateau, one must take into account the concept of progressive overload, which entails progressively increasing the intensity of a workout to ensure one is continually changing the demands placed on the body and, thus, continually making positive adaptations. Thanks to progressive overload, resistance training is a more effective and efficient mode of exercise to improve body composition without as great a risk of plateauing. Resistance training provides plenty of room for growth and constant improvement, as one can manipulate different variables such as the type of compound movements, levels of resistance, repetitions, sets, rest periods, and styles of a movement to continue challenging oneself while achieving desired results.
Building muscle through resistance training doesn’t just have aesthetic benefits, but is better for overall health. Higher levels of muscle mass increase one’s metabolism and contribute to more effective insulin resistance and provide a defense against common chronic illnesses like obesity and diabetes. Greater muscle mass is also important for maintaining a strong immune system (which is of particular importance these days), as recent studies have discovered. As one ages, immunity isn’t the only way muscle mass protects one’s health; having greater levels of muscular and grip strength protect older populations from falls and injuries, which in turn contributes to a longer lifespan and healthspan, since falls and hip fractures can often lead to hospitalization and a downward spiral of health concerns for older adults.
Resistance training is an important for of exercise for pregnant women and new mothers, as strength training has been shown to help prevent aches and pains from pregnancy, strengthen the body for labor. Research has found that fitter mothers tend to have shorter labors, and report a lower rate of perceived exertion during labor. Healthier mothers also tend to have healthier babies, with fewer premature babies, fewer complications, and more mature brain development. Weight training also helps women prepare for postpartum recovery by helping you maintain strength (especially in your core and pelvic floor), as having a baby can take a toll on your body.
Hormonal health is often overlooked in terms of mainstream health and fitness, despite the fact that hormones play a prominent role in women’s health. In fact, a woman’s hormonal health in regard to her fertility and menstrual cycle is a good indicator of a woman’s overall wellbeing. For example, losing one’s period indicates that a woman is not fit to reproduce, and her internal systems are focused on survival and maintenance rather than reproduction; in other words, something is amiss.
Issues with hormones can range from abnormal levels of reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, as well as problems with other hormones including ghrelin, insulin, and cortisol. Oftentimes, women who experience typical hormonal imbalances are prescribed hormonal birth control, which can have a slew of negative side effects, including a decreased muscle generation and its own hormonal implications. Hormonal imbalances present in women are not just due to the pill, but may also stem from high stress, overtraining and undereating/malnutrition. As such, hormonal imbalances are a prominent concern for women, who, according to Greenfield, “seem to have more trouble with [hormonal] imbalances that specifically cause resistance to fat loss” (Boundless 178).
Research as reported by individuals like Greenfield have found that strength training increases one’s ability to drive glucose to muscle tissue, decreasing blood glucose levels and increasing insulin sensitivity, “even if you’re lifting weights that are 30% of your single-rep max weight” (178). Additionally, in her book Beyond the Pill, women’s health expert Dr. Jolene Brighten notes that “strength training [has] been shown to improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, which improves hormone balance and helps you avoid metabolic mayhem,” and that improving insulin sensitivity can “dramatically improve your hormones, not to mention reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease” (page 172, 228). Research also indicates that testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF), increase after strength training with sufficient overload whereby large muscle masses are trained and short rest periods are used. Increased levels of IGF last for up to 48 hours after the initial resistance training. While testosterone is important for male sexual development, testosterone is also vital for muscle growth and the repair of muscle tissues, even in females.
As women have been found to be treated for mental health issues at higher rates than men, mental health is an important component to many women’s health and fitness journey. While regular exercise in general has been proven to be an effective method for reducing stress, Dr. Brighten notes in Beyond the Pill that big muscle movements like jump squats, lunges, and kicks are more effective for curbing anxiety and stress. Unlike working out on a cardio machine, for example, many basic resistance training movements are considered compound movements that include multiple muscle groups at one time like the ones Dr. Brighten described. Additionally, resistance training has been found to improve cognition, self-esteem, and decrease depression across several randomized clinical trials (O’Connor et al., 2010). Several studies, including a randomized controlled trial of young adults published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that low-to-moderate resistance training (lifting a maximum of 70% of your one rep max) significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety. Anecdotally, resistance training has never failed to make me feel calmer, even on particularly stressful or anxiety-inducing days.
Besides abating feelings of anxiety and stress, resistance training has worked wonders for my confidence, and has done the same for many other women in my position. Many individuals, particularly young people, struggle with their confidence, especially in recent years with the advent of social media platforms that allow users to directly compare and quantify their social capital; as women of all ages are more likely to engage with social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook where one’s looks can be evaluated through likes, self-esteem issues seem to be increasingly prevalent among young women (see Jonathan Haidt’s findings in The Coddling of the American Mind). For me, a young woman who grew up with social media and was never that thrilled with my looks, strength training helped boost my confidence immensely. While it may be intimidating for novice female lifters to enter a weight room full of big, sweaty guys who seem like they know what they’re doing, the ability to hold your own in this environment will show you what you’re capable of, thus boosting your confidence. As I’ve discussed many times before, being able to challenge yourself and continually reach goals (such as reaching a new personal best for a certain lift) promotes self-efficacy, as you are more certain of your capabilities. Not to mention, the aesthetic adaptations and endorphins produced from exercise will contribute to an all-around positive feeling!
If you are looking to start your health and fitness journey, check out my Personal Training page, and feel free to contact me about personal training services!