Women Who Lift
The Importance of Strength Training
Updated December 2021
As weightlifting becomes more popular, more women are taking to the weight racks. And, spoiler alert: that’s great news. Here, Northwestern Medicine experts debunk some misconceptions that might be deterring some from starting strength training.
Myth: Cardio is more effective for losing weight.
Proper nutrition combined with a good strength training program can burn more fat than just cardio alone. Research shows that adding strength training to an existing cardio routine can actually accelerate fat loss by increasing the metabolic effects. Strength training also offers other unique benefits. For one, building muscle mass can help slow down muscle loss that comes with aging, and it improves bone density. It is also an important part of protecting yourself against conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Although exercise is not one size fits all, try to incorporate strength training at least three to four times a week for health benefits.
This doesn’t mean you should omit cardio. Whether you’re jogging around the block or swimming laps, your heart and lungs must work harder. This helps strengthen muscles, and reduces blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Movement is important. However, it is not only movement in the gym three or four times a week, but moving the other hours of the day too,” says Michele Fumagalli, RD, LDN, sports nutritionist and elite fitness competitor.
Myth: Strength training is going to give you bulky muscles.
"Women do not have the same level of muscle-bulking testosterone as men," says Jim Beitzel, ATC, PES, CI, clinical athletic trainer and clinical coordinator for Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics Athletic Training and Sports Performance Clinic.
“If someone wants to bulk up, they would be put on a diet higher in calories, protein and starches. Women merely adding strength training while eating a nourishing, balanced diet will never achieve the ‘bulky’ body,” says Fumagalli.
Myth: Spot reduction can fix one area.
Exercise "trends" vary as quickly as seasons change. However, that doesn't stop companies from making false promises about workouts that target hard-to-tone areas.
Spot reduction targets a specific part of your body to lose weight. Multiple studies conclude that working on one part, like abs alone, won’t whittle your middle. Fumagalli explains, “Go crazy with core exercises as much as you want; diet is the only way to achieve that kind of goal.”
Beitzel adds, “It’s impossible. You’re mapped to lose fat where you lose fat.” That doesn’t mean you can’t improve muscle tone in specific areas with targeted exercise. Consult your performance certified specialist for suggested workouts.
Truth: Form is important.
As weightlifting becomes more popular, more information is available online. However, that doesn’t replace hands-on assistance. “A performance certified specialist can offer you more than basic knowledge and assess your movement prior to the program. They can determine where your deficits are, because that is where injury occurs,” says Beitzel.
This doesn’t mean regular gym-goers are immune to poor form. “There is a trend to participate in group classes. Some might jump into a class without having important information first. There, you’re doing compound movements, or multiple complex movements at the same time. This can result in breaking down your back, shoulders and knees,” says Beitzel.
Fumagalli adds, “Just because you lifted a certain weight 20 years ago doesn’t mean it will happen or needs to happen again. Short strides lead to long-term success. Focus on form and technique, not only for safety purposes, but to achieve the training response intended from the movement.”
Perform Like an Athlete
Remember, no one ever walked into a gym as an expert. “It’s intimidating if you’ve never done it. But once you start, it’s going to be a lifestyle change,” says Beitzel.
For those just getting started or looking to improve their form, Brian M. Babka, MD, FACSM, a board-certified sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedics, suggests scheduling an appointment with a sports performance specialist or other sports medicine clinician.
With the many health benefits of weightlifting, being strong could mean living longer. So don't skip the weight rack during your next gym session.