Women and Heavy Weight Training: No Longer Taboo

By Tom DeLong, NCCPT Director of Education

During my 35+ years working in the strength/fitness training industry, I have heard various fables regarding strength training protocols specific to women. Sadly, I am still amazed a portion of these ludicrous myths still exist. One of these lingering fairytales is the fitness industry’s continued belief women should not lift heavy weights. My head wants to explode when hearing the outdated and ridiculous mantra that, if a woman lifts heavy, she will eventually look like a man (from a muscular point of view).

Recently, I read a very interesting article written by Courtney Green for the Huffington Post. The article, entitled 5 Strength Training Truths Every Woman Should Know , briefly discusses this myth as well as addresses how various women’s health magazines STILL show women standing on some unstable surface using an extremely light weight. Many of the models used for these pictures are also somewhat stick skinny which may give the reader the idea THIS is what all women should look like. Better yet, some of the models used may actually have some decent muscle mass, but the authors of these articles want you to believe you can achieve this type of quality muscle mass using only light resistance with lots of volume.

My response to this:

It’s crap!!!

One of the greatest and most truthful statements she posts in this article is “Women: To achieve maximal health, you need to get strong. Get under some weights and lift.” Everyone (male/female, old/young, tall/short, and over-weight/skinny) needs strength to perform every day whether it is a sporting event or just activities of daily living. The definition of strength is “the ability to exert force in a specified direction and at a specified velocity” (Knuttgens and Kraemer, 1987). This definition also alludes to there is not just one form of strength, but numerous categories of strength we should train for ( Supertraining : 6 th Edition – Expanded Version, 2009, Verkhoshansky and Siff. Verkhoshansky SSTM, publisher). Strength IS the foundation of everything we do and is a universal requirement for all human movement. Regardless of one’s goals for engaging in a fitness training program, everyone needs to become strong in the numerous categories of strength for achieving optimal health and wellness, increased ability to perform all activities, and for achieving optimal fitness. The definition of fitness is “the ability to perform any activity with vigor and energy.” The key term in this definition is “perform.” Therefore, we need to be very strong to perform all our various activities.

Desiree Morgan USPA Nationally Rated Powerlifter, 123 lb. Class Raw Division Performing a 307 lb. Squat for Two Repetitions

I have taught for many years, as has the NCCPT and numerous other certifications, that there is no one all-encompassing training program for anyone. As stated in the textbook Science and Practice of Strength Training (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, 2 nd edition, 2006. Human Kinetics, publisher), there is no one program that works for any one person at all times or for all conditions. Many concepts and models of training are marketed to state one organization’s training program is superior over others for achieving optimal strength and health, but, as this statement denotes, no program is all-encompassing and further indicates variation is essential. While the obvious is understood about training programs, the fitness industry pushes some very outdated concepts particularly the perpetuated myth women should not perform heavy weight training. This is contrary to the much noted positive research uncovered in the past few decades, yet many still believe female strength training programs should not include heavy lifting. Research clearly indicates woman who participate in high volume, heavy strength training programs do not transform into muscle monsters to the point they resemble men. Variation of loading parameters is essential (heavy, light, medium resistance loads) for developing different types of strength; however, it is essential one incorporates heavy lifting into a well-designed, individualized program.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The NSCA’s Essentials textbook (3 rd Edition, 2008. Human Kinetics, publisher), long considered to be a valuable resource of applied science for strength training, states the following from chapter 7 ( Age and Sex related Differences and Their Implications for Resistance Exercise , Avery D. Faigenbaum, EdD, pages 141 – 158):

When strength is expressed relative to muscle cross-sectional area, no significant differences exists between sexes, which indicates that muscle quality (peak force per cross-sectional area) is not sex specific. In other words, women can become very strong.

There is a wide range of strength abilities and that in some cases differences between two women may be in fact greater than differences between a man and a woman. This means using the principles of variation and individualization of training programs for everyone’s program.

Sex-related differences in power output are similar to those for muscular strength (Power is the RATE of doing work. This means women and men can increase their work capacity and rate of force development [RFD] the same way .

Through participation in a resistance training program, women can apparently increase their strength at the same rate as men or faster. This gives us the clue that training programs don’t need to be watered down or different than those of men .

Judging by the muscular development of female weightlifters, bodybuilders, and track and field athletes who have not used anabolic steroids , it is obvious that substantial muscle hypertrophy is possible in women who regularly participate in high-volume or high-intensity training programs. This indicates women can gain significant muscle mass without resembling a man.

More complex movements, such as the squat, bench, and deadlift (as compared with the bicep curls) may require a relatively longer neural adaptation period, thereby delaying muscle hypertrophy in the trunk and legs. This means women can squat, deadlift, clean and jerk, snatch, bench press, etc., with very heavy weights after developing excellent technique.

A genetic predisposition to develop a large muscle mass may also be a contributing factor. This predisposition is the same for both sexes based on somatotype (body type) and percentage of fast verses slow-twitch fiber types.

Desiree Morgan.
USPA Nationally Rated Powerlifter, 123 lb. Class Raw Division

This is a small sample of the evidence recorded to state it is beneficial for women to lift heavy weights. To further support the concept of heavy lifting for women, female athletes engage in the same strength training programs as their male counterparts to enhance performance accordingly. They do all the same movements as their male colleagues (e.g. squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, clean and jerk, snatches, etc.). They need to be strong as they can to perform at the highest level. It is also noted that heavy strength training is a requirement for decreasing the injury rates of female athletes especially for the knees (NSCA’s Essentials text, 3 rd edition, page 153). Two questions to ask here: 1) why is the fitness industry, along with the general public, so opposed to women lifting heavy weights? and 2) is the general public any different pertaining to training with heavy weights compared to athletes? Athletic women lift big weights to create lean, mean, moving machines and still look like women!!! Therefore, the general public should realize they too ought to train this way as well to garner the same benefits.

Please also note lifting heavy is not just for the lower body. Many females have made the mistake of just focusing on the lower body and neglecting the upper body. Heavy lifting is for the whole body and not just the lower. The Essentials text (page 153) denotes that females have substantial lower strength levels for the upper body compared to males but their lower body strength is more proportional to their male counterparts. This is another reason to train the upper body as heavy as the lower.

Desiree Morgan USPA Nationally Rated Powerlifter, 123 lb. Class Raw Division
Desiree Morgan
USPA Nationally Rated Powerlifter, 123 lb. Class Raw Division

To further support the notion of heavy lifting for women, let’s look at the health benefits from heavy resistance training:

  • Increased muscle mass which increases one’s metabolic rate (increased muscle mass burns more calories over a 24 hour period even when not exercising).
  • Increased bone density which decreases the chance of osteoporosis.
  • Increased connective tissue strength (ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones. Yes – all of these are considered connective which improves one’s ability to move better).
  • Improved neuromuscular efficiency to enable one to move more efficiently and effectively.
  • Decreased fat storage by increasing muscle mass which, again, increases one’s metabolic rate.
  • Improved endocrine responses (hormonal levels become optimized).
  • Decreased menstrual irregularities.

Think about this: increased muscle mass improves one’s overall aesthetics (body shape), i.e. a better butt, shapelier legs, smaller waist, great shoulders and arms, nicer abs, etc. What the general public doesn’t understand or comprehend (all generations) is following a well-designed, individualized strength program, which covers training the multiple categories of strength to include heavy lifting (called General Physical Preparation), will not only give you the aesthetics you desire but improve a host of health-related issues (blood pressure, cholesterol levels, resting heart rate, body fat composition, blood lipid levels, bone density, etc.).

Desiree Morgan
USPA Nationally Rated Powerlifter, 123 lb. Class Raw Division

Let’s face it – the days for promoting the concept of frail, non-muscular, overtly skinny woman are gone. If one looks at the amazing physiques of female track and field athletes, female CrossFit participants, female weightlifters and powerlifters, one begins to realize the timeworn myth that women should not lift heavy weights is dead and gone. As cliché as this is, strong and muscular is sexy and extremely functional for everyone. As the old saying goes – lift big or go home!!!