It is safe to say that females are as delusional about what comprises an ‘ideal’ physique, as men are when it comes to thinking more muscle mass is better. Both of these misconceptions have persisted for decades now, but this post will aim to elucidate the erroneous mindset many women have towards training and their desired body composition. Specifically, I will explain why strength & power-based training will make women healthier… Not bulkier, as the pervasive myth would suggest.
What Fuels Women’s Aversion to Strength Training?
1. Perceived Norms Mistake Healthy For Hulk-Like
Quite contrary to the commonly strived for stick-thin model look, the consensus amongst males is that strong women are healthy, and healthy is desirable. And this is not purely coming from my own strength-biased mouth; a study involving 842 college students explored both the same-sex and inter-sex perceptions of attractiveness related to physique.
There was a significant discrepancy from both the females’ and males’ perspective of what the opposite gender considered most attractive, with women shooting for skinny and men aspiring toward the bodybuilder end of the spectrum. So while there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these looks, the conventional motivation for achieving them is often unfounded; that being to attract the opposite sex.
Not only do men find more wholesome-looking women attractive, but a fixation with weight loss (as encouraged by social media) lends itself to all sorts of damaging health consequences for; extreme diets, use of laxatives, chronic endurance exercise, eating disorders, and so on and so forth.
The majority of men don’t care whether your abs are visible, ladies. Nor do most men give a sh*t if you have a ‘box gap’ – one of the most cringeworthy trends of the 21st century. Just like 99.9% of women couldn’t care less what a man can bench press. Sorry bro’s, but 100kg is the same as 140kg in her books. We are such delusional creatures.
As inconceivable as this may be for many of you, female (and many male) runway models epitomise perhaps the most unhealthy body type classification there is: ‘skinny fat’. No muscle mass on their frames, and a relatively great proportion of fat (albeit not evident). Skinny fat people tend to carry the most dangerous fat our bodies can store; visceral fat (VF). The kind of fat that accumulates in and around our vital organs.
The best way to avoid this toxic fat from engulfing you is primarily through focusing on quality foods and exercising regularly. Quality, whole foods and caloric restriction is the best mode of preventing VF storage, but simply minimising processed food intake (as opposed to restricting quantity) if you are already lean is your best bet. Exercise-wise, both cardiovascular and strength training demonstrate a similar reduction in VF, but this outcome is augmented when both are incorporated in a programme.
I am sure we can all attest to having that one friend who can put away substantial quantities of fast food every day, yet never seems to change superficially. And I am also certain that many of us feel envy over this ‘unfair’ ability. This envy is unreasonable though, since most skinny fat people become complacent with the fact that they don’t have much subcutaneous fat (the less lethal adipose tissue, and what we typically consider body fat).
And the above discussion revolving around body composition is exactly why I resent the body mass index (BMI); it is such a redundant parameter of health that really has no place in public health, let alone athletic individuals. Lots of laypeople using this calculator, who don’t know better, can yield normal (‘healthy’) BMIs despite potentially having alarming levels of visceral fat.
Anyhow, women usually avoid strength training in light of their effort to attain an ‘ideal’ level of thinness; because they associate weights with bulky muscles (and thus deem it antithetical to their dream body).
This last point concerning training-induced bulkiness is a whole other fallacy in itself, which I will briefly talk about next.
2. Strength Training is Associated With Masculinity & Bodybuilder Stereotypes
Now this is arguably a more potent deterrent than point #1, since people immediately link moving iron with a classic bodybuilder look. It is ludicrous to believe that modest strain in the gym will cause you to wake up looking at The Hulk in the bedroom mirror.
The fact of the matter is, women have 10% of the testosterone running through their veins as men do, which is a molecule instrumental to muscle protein synthesis (MPS; i.e. hypertrophy gainz) post-training. Even men with normal levels of testosterone are hard-pressed to get ‘too big’ with strength training a few times a week.
Countless studies dispel the bulky myth; ‘…acute responses in testosterone are limited in women and the elderly, mitigating the hypertrophic potential in these populations.’
It takes tremendous time, effort, and food to look like a bodybuilder; and that is just from a bloke’s point of view. It is an unrealistic expectation for females.
So, the unfortunate weight-lifting stereotype brought to mind is the product of steroid abuse. Steroids have devastating consequences for females, both socially and aesthetically. Obviously, anabolic steroids are none of our business, but we just needed to flesh that one out.
3. Cardiovascular/Aerobic Exercise Will ‘Give You Long & Toned Muscles’
Just as we appear to rapidly lose a few kilograms on a low-carb/keto diet, when it is ultimately just water weight (*roughly 3 grams of water is bound to every gram of glycogen), there is an instant weight loss gratification derived from cardio exercise. This is quite misleading since most people assume the reduction in bodyweight directly corresponds to fat loss. Yeah, a small proportion of this will be body fat, but it is predominantly depletion of muscle glycogen.
Let me be clear about what I mean when I mention by cardio: sub-maximal, prolonged periods of exercise whereby the intensity is relatively constant (~60-80% HRmax). Of course, if you actually enjoy this type of exercise or even find it psychologically therapeutic, continue to do it; I just want to inform the people that enslave themselves to cardio for want of a more aesthetic physique. To these folk, I would advise brisk walking often and an occasional sprint session.
Sorry to tell you, but beyond immediate weight loss, cardio won’t do much for body composition. Here are a few points why aerobic exercise is inferior to resistance training (RT) when it comes to our physiques:
- Aerobic activity does facilitate greater energy expenditure than weight training during the exercise bout, but this difference is inconsequential for 2 main reasons; excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and long-term energy expenditure. It is difficult to quantify EPOC because it depends on a few variables, but it is usually significant enough to result in equal to or greater energy cost over a 24-hour period after RT, when compared to cardio. Secondly, our basal metabolic rate (BMR; amount of energy required to survive) rises as a result of improving our muscle:fat ratio with RT. Muscle is much more energy-inefficient (N.B. this is a good thing) than fat, in that it is very demanding to maintain. In short, having a greater proportion of muscle (not necessarily more bodyweight) will increase the threshold of food you can eat before gaining fat. Cardio breaks down muscle and fat which isn’t helpful.
- It is very easy to overestimate the amount of energy we burn doing cardio. This is attributable to: inaccurate calculators on commercial gym equipment like ellipticals and treadmills; sweat and body heat deceiving us; and, of course, the effort required to perform the same thing for 20+mins…Monotony makes things appear harder (well, that’s the conclusion I came to during my steady-state ‘recovery’ runs a few years back!). Although cardio and RT both acutely reduce the appetite hormone ghrelin, I feel that many people overcompensate later in the day with the belief that their cardio session justifies more food. To illustrate my point, a 55kg woman might burn (approximately) 285 calories during a 30 minute run @6min/km pace. This equivalent to ~2 medium bananas. You are better off simply exercising some willpower to reduce your food intake rather than going through the motions jogging, if the goal is weight loss.
*If you truly love cardio or need to perform it as preparation for certain endurance races, do it!
Just understand that it is misdirected effort if you are running, spin-biking, etc. with the purpose of fat loss or improved body composition. This is undoubtedly best achieved by lifting heavy a few times a week, and lots of walking.
In part 2, I will outline:
-How females should go about starting strength training; or, for those who have some experience with it, train more optimally
-The few positives of Crossfit
-How females should eat to support their training & goals