Home Blog Strength Training for Women: 7 Myths

Strength Training for Women: 7 Myths

Written on December 5, 2013 at 8:52 am, by Eric Cressey

The regular frequenters of EricCressey.com are typically more "hardcore" training enthusiasts and fitness professionals, but we also must recognize those among us who are newer to the iron game and may need to be brought up to speed.  Additionally, we all know a female in our life who can benefit from hearing about the virtues of appropriate training for women in spite of what the mainstream media tells them. With that in mind, today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern, Sohee Lee, who specializes in this realm. Please help spread the good word! -EC

This much I know is true: I’ve been strength training for six years now. I can rock out chin-ups, pull heavy weight off the floor, and squat more than some guys I know. I drink protein shakes almost daily and sometimes take creatine as well.

This much is also true: I’m still small. I’m still petite. Still lean. My muscles aren’t big and, when fully dressed, no one has ever asked me, “How much do you bench?” And I’ve never been called “too bulky” in my life.  

There are a myriad of myths regarding females and strength training – too many to count. Yet despite the growing number of women out there slowly converting to lovers of iron and ditching their cardio bunny ways, there are even more women who still believe that strength training is for men only, and that no proper lady would touch anything more than a pretty pink dumbbell.

I don’t blame them, really. We have certain celebrity trainers touting their 3lb dumbbell hour-long workouts to develop long, lean muscles – and others claiming that squatting with a barbell will make your thighs explode overnight. The celebrities themselves rave about these special methods - and we believe them, naturally.

My job today is to convince you amidst all the buzz that the grass is truly greener on the other (strength training) side. At best, I’ll talk you into getting under that barbell today. At worst, I hope to plant a single inkling of curiosity and that you will soon find yourself venturing over to the heavy weights.  

Below I crush a number of the most common myths out there surrounding females and training.

sohee-lee-big3

Myth #1: You should steer clear of heavy weights because it will make you look like a man.

Ah, this is the King (or Queen) of all myths and is one that I am convinced will unfortunately never effectively die out.

There are a number of biological differences stacked against us as women. First and foremost, we only have approximately 5% of the of testosterone men possess. This means that the average male has twenty – twenty! – times as much testosterone than the average female. And given that testosterone is the hormone primarily responsible for muscle gain, we’re facing a major uphill battle if we are truly striving to look like The Hulk (1).

But, you claim, last time I lifted heavy for a month and I got thicker and looked gross! The culprit is very likely inadvertent increased caloric consumption that came along with the new change in exercise. What I mean is that typically, the culprit is increased bodyfat – not necessarily increased muscle mass – that is responsible for what many women call the “big and bulky” look. Often, increased bodyfat “coated” on top of muscle is mistaken for muscle mass, which turns many women away. Can you honestly tell me, though, that when you began lifting weights, your caloric consumption didn’t spike?

There’s this notion out there that after a tough workout, we need to fuel our muscles – which is true, but not to the tune of one large pizza and three protein shakes. It’s too easy to convince yourself that your body is all of a sudden devoid of nutrients and that you have to feed it at all times of the day. But when your body takes in more calories than is needed to maintain your current bodyweight, that’s when weight is gained in the form of fat mass and/or lean mass, depending on how you go about it.

If you can dial in your nutrition while simultaneously lifting hard in the gym, what will result is a leaner, tighter, stronger version of your former self. 

Myth #2: Women can’t do pull-ups.

The word “can’t” implies that all females, regardless of how hard they try, are physically incapable of performing a single pull-up. But while it’s true that women tend to have less upper body strength relative to that of males, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. So what do you do when you have a weakness? You work on it to turn that weakness into a strength.

Simply put, the solution to weak(er) upper body strength is to improve it. In the gym, upper body pulling movements will help: think row variations (barbell rows, cable rows, inverted rows) as well as pullup variations (band-assisted, negatives, chin-ups). Working on your grip via farmer’s walks and the like will also help in this regard. In the remaining 23 hours of each day, work on nailing your nutrition, as decreasing bodyfat will help increase your strength proportionally.   

Pretty soon, you'll be banging out not just one rep, but possibly even double-digit reps, just like the First Lady of Cressey Performance does here (in office attire, no less):

Myth #3: Protein powder is bad for women because it will make them huge.

There’s this idea floating around in mainstream society that protein powder is only for meathead bodybuilders who want to get yoked. So when a lady comes around and plops a five-pound tub of protein powder on the counter at Vitamin Shoppe or GNC, eyebrows are raised. She might as well be shooting steroids into her veins, huh?

As much as I wish this were the case (as it would make my job a whole lot easier), there’s nothing inherently magical about protein powder. It’s simply a portable, tasty way to get in some protein. Its biggest perk? Convenience. And perhaps taste.

But really, the average scoop of protein powder will yield 20 to 25 grams of protein. 

I will say this, however: protein powder is typically ingested in liquid form. Since liquid calories are much easier to take in than solid food, the calories can quickly add up – so you need to alter the rest of the day’s nutrition to account for the calories you’ve already taken in with these shake(s). Just like any other food, if protein powder is consumed in excess, then yes, it can make you gain weight.

Myth #4: All the fitness models and fitness competitors are on steroids; the average woman could never achieve that look.

Before I go any further, I will qualify this point by emphasizing the fact that yes, there are very few people out there who are able to maintain a lean, stage- or photoshoot-ready physique year-round. I’ll also argue, however, that that’s not because it’s impossible. Rather, many choose to switch over into the offseason, during which time they likely intentionally put on some weight in an effort to make improvements to their physiques and dial even sharper than before come next season.

But all of that aside, here’s a cool fact: we all have abs. They’re there. That six-pack? Yes, you’ve been sporting it. The only thing separating them from showing themselves off to the world is a cozy coat of fat.

If you’re looking to achieve the look of a bikini competitor or fitness model, chances are good that you have most, of it not all, of the muscle mass necessary to start off. This is great, because all that means that is you have to lose bodyfat in order to unveil that coveted physique. Easier said than done, I’m aware, but think of it as an art. Over a period of several weeks and months, you’ll chip away at your body, slowly uncovering the sculpted arms and curvy legs you’ve been after.

Myth #5: When you work out, your fat will transform into muscle.

Oh.

Very creative.

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t quite work this way. What it can do, however, is shed and gain bodyfat, as well as strip away or pack on muscle. And while these two processes may be related, they are not one and the same.

Muscle is active soft tissue that is responsible for creating physical movement. Body fat, on the other hand, serves as an energy reserve for the body and helps cushion our joints and organs as well as maintain the integrity of healthy skin and nails.

So while it may seem as though fat magically turns into muscle when you begin training, the truth is likely more along the lines of, you’re losing bodyfat, or you’re putting on muscle (or both).

Myth #6: You should switch up your training routine every week to keep your muscles guessing.

I recommend a minimum of four to six weeks on any given training program before moving onto something different. By this I don’t necessarily mean utilizing the exact same exercises for the same reps and sets week after week. There are multiple ways to go about implementing progressive overload besides increasing the load on the bar: varying speed, shifting body position in relation to the load, changing stability, and so on.

With that said, sticking to the same program gives you time to become better at the prescribed exercises by providing more opportunities for repetition.

I know what you may be thinking. “But I need to confuse my muscles and keep them guessing!” Unfortunately, muscles do not get confused, nor do they participate in guessing games. And if you’re afraid you might get bored, then I ask you, what is so boring about making improvements from one workout to the next? What’s dull about going to the gym and lifting 10lbs more than the week prior or to mastering perfect technique? 

Myth #7: To lose fat, you need to crank up the cardio.

Actually, doing more cardio is the best way to… do more cardio. Doing it for the calorie burn will ultimately leave you disappointed, cranky, and tired.

This may be a hard pill to swallow, but steady-state cardio burns surprisingly fewer calories than you’d think. One study found that it takes an average of 86 hours’ worth of aerobic exercise to lose 1 whopping kilogram (2), and a meta-analysis revealed that steady-state cardio in and of itself is not an effective weight loss therapy (3).

I don’t know about you, but I can think of about a thousand other more useful things I could be doing with those 86 hours than peddling away on a bike.

Rather than steady-state cardio, then, interval training is the way to go. Other names for this include metabolic conditioning, circuit training, or high-intensity training. These short bursts of high intensity activity alternated with periods of active have been found to produce equal, if not better, results as traditional steady-state cardio with just “a fraction of the time commitment” (namely, 0.75 hours versus 13.5 hours [4]). This is likely due to the increased excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or energy expenditure in the time following the workout.

Where do we go from here?

I hope I’ve demonstrated to you that women can lift heavy weights and perform metabolic conditioning workouts with great success.  And, as long as they dial in their nutrition, they can absolutely achieve a strong, lean look without bulking up.

Note: If the ladies in the crowd are looking for some direction on the programming front, I'd recommend Neghar Fonooni’s resource, Lean and Lovely, which is an outstandingly thorough option focusing on kettlebell techniques early on. An advantage of these workouts is their portability; you can do them just about anywhere, including at home – if you’re in a situation where you need to build some confidence and momentum before you head to an actual gym to train.  -EC

About the Author

Sohee Lee graduated from Stanford University in June 2012 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Human Biology. She now trains clients in New York City, and in an online context.  You can learn more on her website and Twitter.

Note: References will be posted as the first comment below.

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  • References

    1. W.J. Kraemer and N.A. Ratamess, “Hormonal Responses and Adaptations to Resistance Exercise and Training,” Sports Medicine, 35 no. 4 (2005): 339-361.

    2. Friedenreich CM, et al. Adiposity changes after a 1-year aerobic exercise intervention among postmenopausal women: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011;35:427-435.

    3. Thorogood A, et al. Isolated aerobic exercise and weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2011 Aug;124(8):747-55.

    4. Macpherson et al. Run sprint interval training improves aerobic performance but not maximal cardiac output. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jan:43(1):115-22.

  • Marcus

    I dont agree with myth 4, pretty much all of them are on steroids.

  • Paul

    In general, I agree very much with you. The only problem is the first one. Most of us trainers have been saying exactly what you said to women worried about getting “too big”, but the crossfit trend seems to have, in a practical sense, proved us all wrong.

    With enough volume, women are getting pretty big too.

  • Mike D.

    Sohee,
    I was reading one of Eric’s articles a few weeks ago describing the phenomenon of men not consuming nearly enough calories following a workout and in turn not experiencing optimal recovery. How different is the portion of nutrients that men and women should consume following a workout relative to body mass. Does in depend on how taxing the workout was? How hard is it for women to find a happy medium between getting enough nutrients for adequate recovery and eating too many calories to the point where they begin to put on the fat free mass. Thanks, Mike.

  • Vince LoCoco

    Great article!! I can’t wait to show it to the girls in my physical conditioning class!

  • Annie Kuhn

    Great article! Thanks for the female perspective. I am 58 years old and have been seriously strength training for 13 years. I am now a personal trainer and keep my female clients training focus on gaining more strength. This is so important for women, especially as they get older and need to maintain their activities of daily living…like carring that 40# bag of water softener salt!

  • Dee

    Thanks!! Head down and keep working so!!:-)

  • Paul,

    I’d argue that you’re talking about a very small percentage of the overall participants: the ones that are good enough to make it on TV.  The majority don’t even come close to 1/10 of their muscularity.

  • Tom

    Paul, your comment is a bit confusing. Agreed, volume is a different beast when it comes to the building of ‘mass.’ The point of #1 is that HEAVY weight, will not result in unwanted bulk. Crossfit is based upon volume and weight that is NOT relatively heavy. So her point still holds 100% true.

  • 86 hours for a kilo loss. Come on. They must have been pedaling really slow. Average caloric burn on a bike is 40 cal/mile if done at a decent pace (ie>12mph) Most people can push at least that fast so that would be 480 cal/hour, so more like 7 hours not 86. It sounds like some very poor research. If you pedal 18 mph which is cranking along , it would still take 5 hours. Yes it’s not very efficient, but better than many other methods. Did I lose your point of more muscle mass/density = more calories burned, no. I also believe in HIT. Great article overall. I’ll be sending it to my daughter who is strength training and doing HIT’s. Thanks

  • HRed

    Well, if you start out as a petite, slim-framed woman you may not bulk up noticeably “when fully clothed” (yikes- what, do you always wear long-sleeve shirts?). But – those of us women from good peasant stock with nice big bones… we bulk up pretty good, don’t offend us by saying it’s all fat either (although we need some fat, by the way, to stay healthy – women shouldn’t be told that in order to lift weights/be sporty & look good they need to be anorexic). I guess women who have a problem with having a bit of muscle are probably NOT going to spend a lot of time doing any athletics.

    Second – you can lose a lot of weight by running. Interval training IS cardio training, cardio is just getting your heart rate up. It’s great for your heart too, that’s why it’s called cardio. And anyway why does it have to be either/or?

  • Josh Landis

    ^Not to mention that you simply not have your female clients not do as much volume. Keep em lifting heavy of course, but most women don’t grow exponentially without a lot of volume, even moreso than men.

  • Chiyong

    I disagree with the assumptions of myth 1. While true for the majority, please don’t drive additional stereotypes and further judgement. I’ve lost weight and body fat while gaining inches.

    Personally, it’s not a look I strive for and do not appreciate comments on what I ought to be doing from people observing me at the gym doing cardio.

    While I appreciate women finding new ways to workout to motivate themselves, please don’t alienate others.

  • Megan Z

    Amen! I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been complimented about how fit I am, yet most of the woman who tell me this, are not willing to ditch the relentless cardio in favor of heavy weight training.


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