On Female Strength Training…

Weight Loss & Nutrition
By Dan

About Dan

I’m one of our resident Exercise Physiologists, and also an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer and Level 1 Weightlifting Instructor. Outside of the gym, I tend to go in search of good food and great coffee. And yes, Dan’s Shoulder Stretch is mine.
On Female Weight Training, Fat Loss and Escaping the Cardio Cycle
I want to go down a couple of rabbit holes in this discourse, discuss the stigmas around weight training in females, and provide some practical thoughts for you to take away.
What Prompted This? 
It was a breath of fresh air. I had a new client say to me “I don’t really want to do cardio – I don’t like it. Can this [fat loss] be done without cardio?”
I would say 90% of our female clients come to us for fat loss.
I would also say that about half of those clients also expect that the only way that this happens is through chronic cardio.
The Realities of Fat Loss
Most of fat loss is driven by diet. You can’t out train that.
Training can assist in fat loss, but the effect size is nowhere near as potent as most people think. There’s plenty of research out there to indicate that people (who aren’t paying attention to their diet) will inadvertently eat more in response to increasing training (particularly cardio).
[The body doesn’t like change that much. This is the reason why it is so important to eat mindfully. That does NOT mean counting calories, or weighing your food. It means having a general eating plan based on sound habits and routines.]
Training is far more important in shaping how we look.
Does Cardio Have A Place in Fat Loss?
Some cardio is great for health and the ability to move and breathe. If that’s important to you, then include cardio in your overall plan.
It can also assist in fat loss if it shifts your body into a calorie deficit (but that’s true of any exercise). High intensity cardio works well for this because it tends to preserve more muscle. It’s not necessary though.
Chronic cardio, however, can chew through muscle. Yes, the scale weight may drop in response to cardio and diet, but a big chunk of that is muscle loss (even to the point that I’ve seen body fat not change at all).
[Anecdotally, I’ve had many females that, while strength training, have hit heart rates of well over 160bpm during a single set. Ironically, this is well into the “aerobic” training zone for cardio. Two birds, one stone.]
The Science of Strength Training In Females
Strength training preserves or increases muscle in both genders. However, the effect is FAR less pronounced in females. Females have around 5% of the levels of testosterone of their average male counterparts, and it’s likely that females rely on other mechanisms to gain muscle. It, therefore, tends to be harder for females to gain the same volumes of muscle as males under the same conditions.
What women often cite when they say they don’t want to “get bulky” are images of females on stage, world-class athletes, or top CrossFit competitors. But here’s the truth:
They train around the clock (2-4 times per day)
They eat to gain muscle
They often “supplement” (speculation, but it’d be naïve not to mention it)
[An important addendum here: you CANNOT put on weight by doing weight training alone. It’s not possible. Diet controls weight.]
Weight loss is more easily sustained when you have more muscle. Muscle is more metabolically active, meaning even at rest you’re using more calories than you otherwise would.
Strength training also creates a very favourable hormonal environment for fat loss. Lifting heavy boosts testosterone (to a point in females) and growth hormone, which are both potent for fat loss.
Finally, low rep, very heavy strength work will actually put on less muscle than high rep work. If you feel like you’ve got enough muscle, and you’re happy where you’re at, try some low rep work. It provides maximum bang for your buck when it comes to minimising body size and maximising performance (great for any weight class athlete).
My Practical Take Aways
Weight training and muscle gain plays a HUGELY important part in body composition and fat loss in females. It is too effective a tool to avoid if you want to improve how you look and feel.
I promise you, unless you become a professional athlete, you’re not going to turn into a hulking mass of sinew.
With that all said, here’s a few practical take aways for you to explore or discuss with us:
Diet matters more than anything else when it comes to fat loss. Eat to support your goals.
Lift weights with the intent of getting stronger. It will help you preserve or gain muscle, which in turn strongly promotes fat loss.
High reps tends to promote more muscle growth than low reps. If you’re happy with how much muscle you have, try doing sets of 3 reps or less to continue working on strength, without the associated muscle gain.
You can always undo muscle gain. It’s MUCH harder to undo muscle loss.
Muscle creates shape, and puts curves where curves should be. Embrace it and enjoy it!