It’s common to hear people asking about light weights and high reps versus heavy weights and low reps versus cardio alone also. So what is the answer? As usual, it depends. In this article, I will be addressing the common thoughts that if women lift heavy weights they will become bulky and particularly in regards to weight loss.
Firstly, when I say weight loss I am referring to fat loss. As explained in safe and effective rates of weight loss the following three things are required for the most effective fat loss:
- The most important contributing factor is resistance training and specifically creating enough stimulus in the muscles to convince your body that they are required.
- Adequate dietary protein (approximately 2g/kg of LBM)
- A calorie deficit that is not too large (based on BF%)
In this article, it is assumed that there is adequate protein intake and a calorie deficit that is not too large. Resistance training (otherwise known as strength training) can be done in various ways e.g. free weights, machines, body weight. The key factor for muscle growth is progressive high tension overload (e.g. adding more weight to the bar over time). As explained in which foods make you fat , the law of thermogenics explains that something cannot be created out of nothing so in the case of a dieter in a calorie deficit it is highly unlikely that any muscle growth will occur. (There are a few exceptions like beginners, muscle memory and AAS users). The key factor for maintenance of lean body mass (LBM) is exactly the same as muscle growth, progressive high tension overload. So if females are adding reps to their exercises while still using their 2lb pink dumbbells,(moving into muscle endurance ranges) this will NOT preserve LBM.
The other key factor in muscle growth is the amount of testosterone. Females have a MUCH lower amount of testosterone than males so it makes sense that their ability to gain muscle is much less. There are a few rare cases where women have abnormally high testosterone and cases where males have less than “normal” levels also.
Another issue that females quite often have is the obsession with the scales. A random number is perceived as “happy”. Consider the following image:
Now think if two ladies of the same height weigh the same amount, one is at 18% body fat and the other is 25% body fat. Who do you think will look smaller?
As body fat % is a ratio the first lady will have a greater amount of muscle than the second lady and because of this will be physically smaller. Some ladies perception changes because of visible muscle tone. Visible muscles does not mean that there has been muscle growth, it simply means that the body fat percentage is low enough that they have become visible.
Another common fitness myth is the thought that muscle shape can be changed i.e. “I’m looking for the long lean muscles, not the bulky ones”. Muscle attach at their origin (fixed point) and insert on a moving body part. The exact placement of these differs between people which is why you may see some bodybuilders with totally different looking muscles despite being the same or similar measurements. It is often said that exercises like yoga and pilates develop these long lean muscles. The issue with this thought process is that your muscles don’t know what stimulus is being put on it e.g. a push up and a bench press will use similar muscle groups, a cobra pose and a hyperextension will use similar muscle groups. Now, I am not saying yoga and pilates aren’t useful as I think they are both great types of exercise for flexibility and mobility. (I’d recommend some of these moves in a warmup) But for the preservation of LBM, progressive high tension overload is required and the progressions in these types of exercises is limited in comparison to traditional resistance training.
So ladies if you want to look lean and toned, focus on the heavy weights first, do some cardio (this can include higher rep resistance training also if you wish) to create your calorie deficit and eat enough protein.