Why It’s Important for Even Women to Build Muscle
Many women say their ideal image of what healthy looks like includes long, lean and toned muscles. But if you ask those same women if they’d be willing to do strength training, many of them would say no, because they don’t want to get “big and bulky.” The problem is, to get long, lean and toned muscles, there has to be strength training of some kind involved because that’s how we get those types of results and ultimately, that’s a key factor in how to be the healthiest version of ourselves. That’s why I went to fitness expert, coach, writer, entrepreneur and mom Karen Smith to talk about strength training for women, why it’s important for us to build muscle and how it can involve a gym membership but doesn’t have to.
What is Strength Training and Why is it Important?
Karen says that when women talk about “toning” and wanting to look “toned,” what they’re really talking about is building muscle and decreasing body fat. “Muscle is more dense than fat, so that’s going to give you that toned appearance that people are looking for.” Strength training uses resistance to cause the muscle contractions that build strength and endurance.
This is important because according to the Mayo Clinic, as we age, lean muscle mass naturally diminishes. “You’ll increase the percentage of fat in your body if you don’t do anything to replace the lean muscle you lose over time.” Karen warns that makes us more susceptible to falls because it puts our joint stability and balance at risk. “The more you can move your body with load, the safer you’re going to be as you age.” So, while strength training may help us achieve that “toned” look we want, it’s also about how we feel, how we move and about longevity.
Do You Gain Weight with More Muscle?
In addition to getting “bulky,” another common fear that women have about strength training is whether it will make them gain weight. The answer to this is “maybe,” but it all really depends on how you eat. Karen reminds us that five pounds of muscle and five pounds of fat is still five pounds. So, it’s actually hard to tell by the scale. What you need to focus on is body fat. This includes both your essential body fat and body fat that you just store. As you can tell by the name, we have to have essential body fat, but body fat that is just stored and doesn’t serve a purpose should be reduced. Karen says that if you have your nutrition in check and you’re decreasing in body fat while increasing muscle, your weight isn’t going to go up because of the increased muscle. If you have unhealthy eating habits and you continue to eat like that while you’re increasing muscle, you may gain weight, but that has to do with the fact that you’re not decreasing body fat because of what you’re eating.
Another reason why the scale may not always be telling the entire story is that the number you see doesn’t say whether you’re healthy or not – it doesn’t indicate whether you’re “toned” or strong. That’s why, in her training, Karen tries to get people off the scale. She says that many people decrease their fat calories to almost nothing, and they lose weight according to the scale, but they also lose muscle as well. “Even though they’re lighter, they might feel flabbier because they lost muscle in the process. They’ve lost all this weight and may feel like ‘My number on the scale is right, and my size is where I want to be, but I’m too soft.’ It’s because they lost muscle and didn’t lose the fat.” That’s why Karen believes that it’s much better to lose fat and build muscle at the same time while also trying to make sure that your nutrition is as healthy as possible.
How Is Strength Training Done?
Since strength training is all about using resistance to build muscle, it can be done pretty much anywhere. It can be done in the gym, at home, with weights, with bands, with kettlebells, with barbells, or simply with your body weight. Karen says that when it comes to building strength with your own body weight, “You’re thinking about progressions and leverages. How are you taking your body, building tension, and using different progressions to change the intensity, the density and the volume? By changing those parameters, you’re making something harder or easier with your own body weight and are able to build strength and muscle that way.”
According to Karen, the type of strength training you do depends on what your goal is. Pure strength training is lower in volume but higher in intensity. You pick a progression and elevation or a weight to make it harder on you and then you only do so many repetitions. Strength endurance will be a little bit easier, but you’re going to go longer or harder. The intensity might be less, but the density would be more.
Getting Started with Strength Training
Before you start any type of strength training program, Karen suggests having a Functional Movement Screen done by an FMS expert. It’s a screening tool that makes sure you’re moving well so that you’re not starting with some type of dysfunction. If you do have something like that, you address it first and then build your strength.
The next step is figuring out what type of movements you enjoy doing. As Karen says, “If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to stick with it.”
Then, Karen recommends finding a trainer. She says that starting with a trainer allows them to assess what your goals are and what you’re starting point is in order to determine the most effective programming for you. It will also make sure that you’re learning the correct ways to do the movements. That doesn’t mean that you have to stay with a trainer forever, but Karen says, “Understanding proper movement is going to fast-track your strength gains and keep you safe as opposed to jumping into something where you’re not really understanding how your body should be moving.”
If you do decide to start with a trainer, Karen advises checking into their areas of certification. If you want to learn kettlebells, then you need to look for a kettlebell instructor or someone who is kettlebell certified. The same thing is true if you know that you want to focus on barbell or body weight strength. If you want variety in your training, any certified personal trainer should be able to help you.
Of course, one of the main things that most people want to know as they begin strength training is how long it’s going to take to see results. Karen says that if you have your nutrition in check, you can see results in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have a good nutrition plan in place, it may take a while. “You may start to feel stronger, but you may not necessarily get that look that you’re looking for without changing your diet as well.” She normally has her students commit to four weeks and says that you can definitely see changes in that amount of time.
As a master instructor for StrongFirst, Karen focuses on kettlebells and body weight training as far as the workshops, courses and certifications that she teaches. She also provides distance coaching and program design as well as private training sessions for anyone living in the Dallas, Texas area. You can also check out her website, for ebooks and programs that are sold online.