A couple of decades ago, women were warned not to lift too heavy of weights lest they bulk up to hulk-like proportions. They were told to “do cardio, lots of cardio; cardio is your best friend”. Nowadays, however; more and more women are realizing that just doing lots of cardio doesn’t do nearly as much for them physiologically than when they add some heavy lifting. The advent of Crossfit helped to spark a movement of ladies who are finding new strength, both inwardly and outwardly, due to being able to lift heavy things.
After a women reaches the age of 30, her lean muscle mass will decline by 3 % every decade from her 30s until her 80s. Added to that, total strength will decrease by 30 % between ages 50 and 70. As a woman, you start with less muscle mass than a man and then your particular hormonal makeup is not favorable for making muscle and our dear friend, Progesterone, is catabolic (eats up muscle). The Framingham Study found that 40 % of women between 55 and 64 couldn’t lift 10 lbs (that’s a large newborn baby). It got worse as the women got older; 65% of women between 75 and 84 couldn’t lift 10 lbs.
Women don’t have to lose this much muscle mass as they age, they can train to minimize strength loss by lifting heavy 2-3 times a week. When I say “heavy”, I am talking about when you do 10 repetitions with a weight, and the last one or two are so difficult that it is hard to complete them. If you can lift the weight 10 times and it is easy for you, then your chosen weight is not “heavy”. It is a good idea to work with a coach or trainer who can teach you the correct form when lifting heavy weights. This will lessen your likelihood of injury and help you to learn how to lift the right way from the beginning.
Not only does lifting heavy increase muscle mass and raw strength, but it can also improve a woman’s physiology in a number of other ways. The first being that it activates the most amount of muscle fibers available. In women, the largest muscle fibers are type I (endurance) whereas in men the largest muscle fibers are type II (anaerobic). Keeping the use of those type II fibers is important for women to keep up speed. Heavy lifting can therefore help to stymie the loss of these fibers which are usually the first to go.
In addition to muscle fibers, lifting heavy will also strengthen the connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, preventing injuries. This is particularly important for women because due to our wider hip stance compared to men’s, we are more likely to have knee issues and pain. In a 1989 study from Physical Therapy of 100 women and men the average Q angle (the angle between the patella tendon and the quadriceps muscle) for women was 15.8 degrees compared to just 11.2 degrees for men. This wider Q angle then affects how a woman’s knees and feet track from her hips and can make her more prone to ACL tears (female athletes are up to 7 times more likely than male ones). Women also have ever-changing hormones, which can can change how fluid the connective tissues are at any given phase of the month. Working on strengthening the stabilizers in the core and hips through heavy lifting with correct form can help a lot to prevent these kinds of injuries.
Even though the physiological benefits of lifting heavy for women are impressive, I would say that the psychological benefits are also worth noting. A Literature review of an article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that strength training provided benefits such as: improved memory, improved executive control, lessened depression, lessened chronic fatigue, improved sleep quality, improved cognition, lessened anxiety, and improved self-esteem. The review concluded that, “The evidence is quite impressive how resistance training can improve several major mental health issues. In addition, the research is convincing that resistance training can appreciably improve cognitive function. An exercise professional’s bottom line message to clients is clear. For a mental lift, you should weight lift!”
Anecdotally, I have experienced some of these mental benefits myself since starting to lift heavy 2-3 times per week. Having a decent amount of physical strength also comes in handy as a farmwife when you need to be able to lift lots of hay bales, lumber, or feed bags!