How Lifting Weights Changes the Female Body

Resistance training can make a positive difference in just about any woman's life.

Jennifer Lopez, Kate Upton, Serena Williams, Kacy Catanzaro.

We see them on television or magazine covers or walking the red carpet, and we wonder at their various ages, how they stay looking so beautiful and in shape.

One common theme among those female Hollywood or sports stars (and many more) is that they aren't afraid to get in the gym and throw some iron around.

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Jennifer Lopez, Kate Upton, Serena Williams, Kacy Catanzaro.

We see them on television or magazine covers or walking the red carpet, and we wonder at their various ages, how they stay looking so beautiful and in shape.

One common theme among those female Hollywood or sports stars (and many more) is that they aren't afraid to get in the gym and throw some iron around.

But lifting weights isn't just for female celebrities and professional athletes.

Truth is, I believe it can make a positive difference in just about any woman's life.

True story: As a certified personal trainer, I once had a group class that featured a very strong male individual who loved to lift weights and had a decent level of cardiovascular endurance.

One day, a female acquaintance of mine joined the group and blew away the entire class in all of the exercises, including cardio, bodyweight moves and strength training.

The strong guy came up to me at the end of the class, huffing and puffing, and was amazed at not only how strong this woman was, but how much she challenged him to keep up with her. He was the one used to leading the pack.

For the longest time, society gave women a complex, making them feel that muscles aren't feminine or sexy. Don't just point fingers at the male population for this; Many females were guilty of enforcing this misguided stereotype.

Many fitness classes that are designed for or cater toward the average woman are cardio or aerobic-based, like Yoga, Pilates, Spin or Zumba. These programs are great for movement, strength endurance and developing flexibility, but your body isn't being challenged enough to actually gain muscle in these types of classes.

Within these classes, if there's any type of resistance work, it's with dumbbells weighing between 2 and 10 pounds, or the equivalent weight with resistance bands.

While these are great for absolute beginners or in rehab settings, the range for improvement is limited. It's going to be really tough to see the type of consistent positive changes you want using only these very light weights, but many females were so terrified of becoming "bulky" that they stuck with them anyways.

That's changed.

"Whereas in the past, women may have questioned the value of resistance training or even avoided this type of exercise due to social stigma, evidence clearly indicates that women are capable of tolerating and adapting to the stresses of resistance exercise and that the benefits are substantial," reads the latest edition of the text Essentials of Strength and Conditioning.

Gone are the days of belief that lifting weights will make females look bulky or manly (unless you think these 13 female celebrities who lift look "manly.")

There are many reasons that it's very, very difficult for the female body to become "bodybuilder" big in response to resistance training. One of the most important reasons is that females produce only a fraction of the amount of testosterone men do. Men and women have chemical differences that make them respond to resistance training very differently. It's also not easy to get bodybuilder big as a man, either, or else we'd have a lot more jacked dudes walking around. But it's even more difficult for women.

It takes hard work for women to build muscle, but when they actually do add more muscle to their frame, they almost always seem to be pleased with the aesthetic differences.

"Since I've started (resistance training), I've gained about 17 pounds, and it's all muscle. I feel so much better now. When you feel strong, it changes everything—your posture, the way you walk," Gal Gadot, star of Wonder Woman, told Glamour in 2016"I look at photos from five years ago and think, Whoa, I was too skinny. It's not cool."

In addition to adding strength, preventing illness, assisting with the challenges of mental health, and increasing self esteem, there are a number of reasons why ladies are adding more weight training programs to their workout routines.

More women are now confidently taking part in CrossFit and HIIT classes and looking good and feeling great about it.

Lifting weights creates lean muscle, which in turn helps you burn more calories throughout the day. So even though 45 minutes on the treadmill will produce an immediate calorie loss, that burn effect pretty much ceases as soon as you call it quits. But when you engage in resistance training, you not only burn calories during your workout, but also increase the number of calories you burn at rest.

The idea that resistance training is bad for your joints or posture is also baloney. Unless you're lifting with terrible form and following a really dumb program, resistance training will make your joints stronger while also improving your posture.

Proper resistance training with moderate-to-heavy weights reduces your risk of injury in a way working with lighter weights simply cannot. Your body adapts to heavy loads by creating stronger, thicker connective tissues which are more resilient. If you're only working out with tiny weights, your body isn't incentivized to make such changes.

And if you think you don't need to lift bigger weights because it doesn't apply to your daily life, I bet I can find some examples where you're wrong. The grocery bags you carry are usually more than 3-5 pounds. So, too, is carrying your child. Oh and when you squat down to lift up that child? Yeah, that there is potentially heavier weight than you may have thought (same with wrestling strollers, car seats, bikes, and any other number of large objects in and out of your car). For the green thumbs out there who spend hours planting and lifting heavy pots of soil or bags of mulch, those things can be pretty freaking heavy, too!

So why would you be against following a training program that makes these types of activities easier on your body and allows you to do them for longer? Because that's what lifting bigger weights will do.

Society has also embraced strong, fit women. In a magazine 20 years ago, it was hard to find a woman with curves or muscle definition. Now, strong is the new skinny, and strength comes in many shapes and sizes. Research has found that what many American women view as an "ideal" body type now includes more muscle mass.

Another true story: I joined a Pilates gym not only to change up my workout routine and target some of my smaller core muscles, but also to spend more time with my wife.

Since the goal of Pilates is not building massive muscles, the gym only offers dumbbells ranging between from 2 to 10 pounds. I look around the gym and notice that many of the ladies in the group are using the same 3- or 5-pound dumbbells they've been using for the past year. While this is great for muscle endurance, it does very little for increasing strength. And I know that this is likely the only resistance training they include in their routine, despite the fact they're healthy enough to press, curl, row and squat more than what they're doing.

Sometimes, doubt can keep women from lifting heavier weights. They simply don't know or don't believe just how strong they can be. Social media can be a great place for inspiration. But like anything worth doing, it's the first step that's most difficult.

"I didn't know what strength was. I was truly an introvert with asthma before this film, so I had a lot of work to do, and I just started to fall in love with it. I started to fall in love with the way my body was changing and transforming," Brie Larson told E! News of the intense resistance training she took on for her role in Captain Marvel. "If I was seeing this movie, I think it would mean so much more to me knowing there was that type of dedication put into it and that it's not, 'Girls are strong with CGI…It's, 'Girls are strong [period]!'"

But it's not just celebrities and athletes providing this inspiration. Hop on social media and search hashtags like #girlswholift and you'll find tons of women loving the benefits of true strength training. There are moms, students, teachers, 9-5 workers. Just look at the wide range of women who killed it and moved some serious weight during Squatober!

Women can see results from resistance training just as quickly as men—if not faster. "Through participation in a resistance training program, women can apparently increase their strength at the same rate as men or faster," reads the latest edition of the text Essentials of Strength and Conditioning.

Regardless of what you do during your day, lifting weights and building strength not only helps improve body composition, but it also helps build confidence and improve self-esteem and mental health. Whether you see it as looking good/feeling good or vice versa, lifting weights gives you countless reasons to add strength training to your workout.

But remember: the weights you use matters. There's a massive difference in the physical and mental benefits provided by doing, say, heavy Barbell Back Squats versus a trillion Lateral Raises with 2-pound dumbbells.

Whether you're a man or a women, if you're looking to get the most out of resistance training, the game plan will be the same.

RELATED: It's Not 'Training Like a Man.' It's Training Like an Athlete

Use barbells and dumbbells more frequently than machines.

Focus more on big movements that target large amounts of musculature like Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges, Chin-Ups, Rows, Presses, etc. rather than "isolation" exercises that only hit one muscle group at a time.

Keep your reps per set in the 1-6 range when your focus is increasing max strength, and in the 6-12 range to build muscle mass.

Pick weights that match your reps.

Make sure you're resting the proper amount for your goals.

And most importantly, keep progressing! The reason lifting tiny weights doesn't result in big changes in your body is because of a concept called progressive overload. If you want to make the most out of resistance training, progressive overload should always be front of mind!

Photo Credit: Skynesher/iStock

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Topics: WEIGHTLIFTING | RESISTANCE TRAINING