Why women shouldn’t be afraid to lift weights

Far from ‘bulking up’, women who strength train not only develop great muscle tone, but also enjoy a range of amazing health benefits.

If you avoid the weights section at your gym for fear it will make you “bulky”, think again.

There are many benefits – physical and mental – of strength training for women.

Strength training builds stronger bones

Building bone density to help prevent osteoporosis is one of the chief advantages of strength training for women, says exercise physiologist Esme Soan.

“Resistance training helps with bone remodelling, which helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis after menopause,” Esme says.

Strength training can give you healthier joints

University of Melbourne’s Dr Michelle Hall, whose research focuses on osteoarthritis of the knee and hip, says there’s overwhelming evidence that resistance training is good for joints.

“Strength training in women can reduce pain and improve their ability to move around, which is often why they go to see someone for a knee or hip replacement,” she says.

Strength training boosts your metabolism

Dr Hall says increased muscle mass leads to better metabolism, meaning you can continue to burn kilojoules beyond your workout.

“Strength training improves our body composition. When we strength train, we increase our lean muscle mass and when we do that, we speed up metabolism. Not just during the exercise, but after you’ve finished,” she says.

And there’s no need to fear getting too muscly – Esme says women don’t possess the right hormones to get as bulky as men.

Nor should you worry too much about small gains you might see on the scales.

“That’s only because lean muscle mass weighs more than fat mass,” Esme says.

Strength training helps heart health

Dr Hall says strength training is just as beneficial for the heart as aerobic exercise.

“Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in adult women,” she says. “There are benefits to resistance exercises as they increase blood flow and there are longer lasting drops in blood pressure after exercise,” she says.

Strength training gives you a stronger pelvic floor

Esme says the stronger women are, the less issues they may have with things such as incontinence.

“If you are weak in the pelvic floor, there’s often dysfunction or light incontinence as you don’t have the strength to support your pelvic floor performing day-to-day activities,” Esme says.

Strength training can benefit your mental health

The benefits of strength training extend beyond the physical.

An Australian study found resistance training in combination with aerobic activity was linked to a lower likelihood of depression and anxiety.

Dr Hall says those with anxiety and sleep issues should also feel a positive change.

“A lot of people think they need to go for a walk or get aerobic exercise to help their mental health but there’s really good evidence to suggest that strength training can help with depression, anxiety and sleep issues,” she says.

Strength training 101: How to get started

Esme says beginners should consult an exercise professional to help tailor a program suitable for their needs, especially if they have a chronic disease, illness or injury.

Dr Hall recommends women start small when taking up strength training and build up.

Aim to train two to three times a week, lifting 75-80 per cent of their maximum, 10 repetitions each for two to three sets.

You don’t need to sign up for an expensive gym membership or spend a lot of money on equipment.

She says bodyweight exercises are great and you can get more creative as you progress.

“You can do some wall squats or dips with a chair, or grab a cheap 5kg ankle weight,” Dr Hall says.

She also recommends taking advantage of Australia’s great outdoor space to exercise as well as using online sources.

“We have an abundance of parks with stationary workout equipment,” she says. “And there’s heaps of reputable sources online too.”

Written by Sally Heppleston