Why Strength Training Is So Important for Women

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AS SOMEONE WHO ONCE PLEDGED HER LOYALTY TO CARDIO AND CARDIO ALONE, I wanted to get to the bottom of things; namely, to figure out exactly why I feel (and look) so much healthier since switching to a more balanced workout regime that incorporates regular doses of weight and strength training. To crack this code, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Eva Barrington, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer and nutritionist who boasts over 15 years of experience in fitness and training. She is also the co-owner of Bolder Fitness, a boutique training gym in LA. Given Eva’s experience, breadth of knowledge, and equal love for both high-intensity cardio and strength/weight training, I knew she was the gal to turn to for an explanation on why a balanced workout routine is so important – especially for women.

As you know, I love cardio — the feeling of a really sweaty workout and the rush it gives me. Is cardio enough?

Cardio is great. It’s great for the heart and for burning calories. But physiologically speaking, that’s about it. In terms of building muscle, cardio doesn’t do much. I mean, sure, avid runners have well-developed leg muscles because they use them regularly, but that muscle tissue is isolated to the lower body. It really does very little for the upper. High-intensity cardio, such as running, needs to be balanced out with other forms of exercise for maximum physiological results.

eva barrington

Trainer and nutritionist Eva Barrington

In fact, too much high-intensity training – if not combined with a proper diet and sufficient rest – can actually cause your body to break down muscle tissue and store excess fat. This can occur for a variety of reasons. But mostly it happens due to the stress of pushing your body without providing it with enough rest and the right nutrition. This stress then causes your body to produce cortisol, which leads to an increase in fat storage – especially around the belly and midsection.

Don’t get me wrong, high-intensity cardio is a great way to keep your heart healthy and burn calories efficiently. Plus, the rush you get after a really hard workout is an amazing feeling. Used in moderation and coupled with strength or weight training, it’s an important element to a balanced workout regimen.”

Aesthetics aside, what are the health benefits to strength and weight training?

To put it simply, you’ll get toned and stronger, lose fat, gain muscle and increase your bone density – which is a huge benefit for women, especially as we get older. I often hear people say strength and weight training helps us turn fat into muscle. Perhaps it’s just an expression, but it’s important to note that this is not how the body works. You cannot turn fat into muscle, as they are two different tissues. You can, however, burn fat and gain muscle. This is achieved through lifting weights or strength training – such as Pilates, or using resistance bands during a workout.

Fat cells act as storage areas for the food we eat, and maintaining these cells requires far less energy than it does to maintain muscle. Because our bodies are efficient machines, they are programmed to store excess calories in fat cells. While cardio helps to burn calories, only weight and strength training truly work to burn fat and increase muscle, forcing the body to maintain its muscle tissue and take away from the fat cells.

As we get older, our hormones change and our bodies – if not properly maintained – begin to break down. The first thing to go is muscle tissue. However, by weight and strength training, you can maintain your muscle and offset many of the problems that seemingly come with age. The stronger your muscles, the higher your bone density will remain. This is a concern for many women as they become, more mature, shall we say? But it’s something we should start thinking about in our 30s, as that’s when our bones begin losing their density.

For many mature women, slipping and falling becomes a growing concern. Not only does having a higher bone density decrease the likelihood of breaks and fractures, maintaining muscle can actually help prevent you from falling in the first place. If strength and/or weight training is part of your regular workout routine, that means your muscles – and body, in general – are used to functioning in a certain way. Because you’ve kept them strong and limber, your physical reflexes will be better. You’ll be more likely to catch yourself from a fall because your body is accustomed to reacting in certain ways. If you do not train your body and muscles, how can you expect them to be there for you when you really need them?

Lastly, maintaining muscle requires more energy; therefore, your metabolism will increase and remain higher. Due to this, you will need to eat more. It may not be a physiological benefit, necessarily, but I always tell my clients: “If you like to eat, then you should strength train!”

I’ve noticed my self-confidence has increased since adding in strength and weight training. Is this something you see frequently with clients?

Definitely. I see it with clients all the time – especially in the beginning, just as they’re starting to get stronger. It makes them feel more capable, more empowered. For me personally, I like knowing I don’t need to rely on my boyfriend for tasks that require lifting. Or when something is really heavy, I can help him – my strength allows me to participate rather than just sit back and let him do everything.

I also see it make women feel more self-sufficient and even more able to defend themselves. There’s an element of inner strength that accompanies your body becoming stronger. There’s a real sense of “I can take care of myself.” I think this is important for all women – to know that they can handle things if need be.

My grandmother, who was a dancer all her life and a naturally muscular woman, maintained her physical capabilities up until the end. At the age of 84, she still had the reflexes of a cat and I am certain this is because she stayed so active and maintained that muscle. All those complaints you hear as people age – slower reflexes, slips and falls, broken bones, etc. – never really afflicted her because she kept her body strong.

Any last pieces of advice?

First off, I hear women often resist weight and strength training because they don’t want to get bulky. Honestly ladies, for most of you, this is not a risk. For the vast majority of us, we don’t produce nearly enough testosterone to acquire big, bulky muscles. We simply will not get big by lifting heavy weights. For some, however, this could happen. Mesomorphic body types are naturally very muscular and sturdy. They put on muscle very quickly and easily; therefore, for them, there is the risk of bulking up by lifting heavy weights. However, all they need to do is structure their workouts towards strength training and/or high reps with low weights. Bottom line – everybody has much to gain from weight/strength training. And so long as you tailor your workouts to fit your body type, there is absolutely zero downside.

We all have our preferred workout – be it running or yoga or Pilates. The trick is, mix it up. Constantly push and challenge your body in new ways. Stick to what you love, but don’t do it in excess, and consistently balance it out with other forms of exercise. This will keep your body performing at its maximum level and ensure it’s in tip-top shape for when you need it most.