The weight room at the gym can be an intimidating place — especially for women who fear that lifting heavy weights will turn them into a female version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Fear not. According to Olga Hays, an American Council on Exercise-certified wellness promotion specialist at Sharp HealthCare, weightlifting provides great benefits for women with almost no chance of becoming a She-Hulk.
"Fat loss, better body composition, strength development and increased bone density are among the many reasons why women should lift weights," says Hays.
Hays does the heavy lifting to dispel three common myths about women and weightlifting with these facts about muscle mass, testosterone and diet.
Women's bodies don't gain muscle mass as easily as men's.
"Women simply do not have nearly as much free testosterone — what actually encourages muscle growth — as men do to develop bulky muscles," Hays says. "The reality is, even if women train as hard as men, they will not create big muscles and will instead end up lean, toned and strong."
Bulky women on the covers of bodybuilding magazines are chemically altered.
"The women in bodybuilding competitions train and eat to gain large amount of muscle mass," Hays explains. "Very often they also take performance-enhancing drugs to increase muscle mass. For women who are not doing this, they can lift as heavy as they want and will come nowhere close to 'looking like a man.'"
Bulking up is calorie-dependent — the more you eat, the more mass you build.
Hays describes how some women who lift weights begin to eat more — consciously or unconsciously — which can lead to bulking up. "The more you eat, the more mass you will build. This doesn't always result in more muscle; instead, more often it is unwanted body fat that creates bulkier appearance," she says.
Hays warns of two common eating "traps" people fall into when working out: food entitlement and the lure of "healthy" post-workout snacks.
"After working out it is common to feel like you deserve to splurge or eat more, but it is important to stay smart about what and how much you eat and only increase items like protein and veggies to make up for extra appetite," says Hays. The truth is, she adds: you can't outrun a bad diet.
"Stay away from things like recovery shakes, calorie and sugar-laden protein bars, and other items marked as pre- or post-workout snacks," she warns. "Consuming too many of these products leads to eating too many calories, resulting in unwanted body fat along with muscle hypertrophy."
It is possible to gain some weight in the beginning of a strength-training program.
"When you work out, it causes small tears in your muscle fibers," says Hays. "During your rest days, your body is going through a standard healing process to repair these tears. Part of the healing process includes inflammation. The process of repairing muscle tissue requires a fair amount of fluid, which may add temporary water weight." Some women also build muscle on top of fat, which can lead to weight gain.