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Weight training and women | Fit & Healthy

I noticed a woman working out while I was busy training my client — I would see her as she picked up some light dumbbells and rather vigorously hoisted them over her head, or out to her side, or stood up and sat down with them as if she were in a bit of a hurry just to get through it all.

After my client said goodbye, complaining good-naturedly about the prospect of lifting her arms, let alone any of her kids the rest of the day after what was a pretty fierce workout, I approached the new woman to offer a few words of encouragement. We introduced ourselves, and I then suggested that if she really wanted to make a difference in her body, she might try picking up bigger weights, slowing the pace to this side of the Indianapolis 500, and working a bigger variety of muscle groups. “I don’t want to get big,” she replied — a response echoed by millions of women, no doubt envisioning the steroid-aided women of professional bodybuilding in conjunction with the term “big.”

I started out again, but was met quickly with, “I really don’t want to get big.” I could understand her fear, but for a moment was left speechless as my new friend was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed at least 200 pounds. Trying a different tact, I went on to say that in order to burn calories, you need to maximize muscle load and movement. If the load is exceedingly light, there is no need for the body to recruit additional muscle fibers or to increase the tensile strength of the fibers already present. “No thanks; I’m really not interested” was her reply, and had there been a door between us, I’m sure it would have been closed in my face.

Why is this subject such a hot button for women? Well, if we consider generation upon generation of what I’ll call societal impressionism, or the way we view ourselves as a reflection in other people’s eyes, defining all that is feminine very rarely involves the term “big.”

When we think of strength, images of heavily muscled action heroes leap to mind, and historically there haven’t been many strong leading ladies to counter that image. Fortunately, that is changing. Anyone who has seen Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson or Swin Cash of the Seattle Storm pushing their bodies to new heights, and then posing for a magazine cover, can attest to the new age. Take a look at Mia Hamm from U.S.A. Soccer or Jennie Finch from our gold medal-winning softball team, or 43-year-old Olympic swimmer Dara Torres in national ad campaigns for Nike and Speedo. They share a common theme: all are world class athletes, all are beautiful, and all use weight training to stay competitive and to keep them on top when it comes to international sports. Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Brooklyn Decker says she runs, spins, does yoga and lifts weights regularly. “I think it’s important to do weights because they don’t make you bigger; they make you more lean and toned.”

Times are changing, and one of the most visible aspects of that change is that the women lifting the biggest weights in the gym are some of the smallest, leanest people around. Muscle is an unbelievably dense, pliable, elastic and hungry molecular structure within the body. It needs to be challenged, nurtured, tested and stretched in order to reach full capacity, and when full capacity is attained it is a calorie consumer like no other, burning thousands of additional calories each year and keeping you miles of slender fiber ahead of your peers. For each additional pound of muscle that you can add to your frame, you will burn approximately 50 more calories per day in unnecessary fat. That’s five pounds per year, a hundred pounds by your 20th high school reunion, and a few hundred pounds over the course of your lifetime.

If “getting big” is still a concern which creeps up on you in your quiet moments, here’s a news flash: barring an irregular hormonal condition (such as Polycystic ovary syndrome), the vast majority of healthy woman cannot, do not and will not ever naturally produce the necessary amounts of testosterone to massively increase the size of your muscles. Genetically, great strength does not have to mean large muscles. In fact, should you care to look around and ask a few questions, you might be surprised to find out that the little girl lifting the big weights over there, the girl you think looks great, is actually you just peeling off generations of social constraint.

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