Alpha women lift weights – here is why

At some point in time, several decades ago, it all went horribly wrong. Fueled by clever marketing to support a wide variety of fitness machines, accessories, clothing, books and gadgets, it was conventionally decided (or, rather, force-fed to consumers) that women should be limiting their physical activity to aerobics.  It was the “womanly” thing to do – this was apparent when you looked at crowds of bikini-clad, tanned girls on covers of magazines, TV personalities promising Buns of Steel from a few relatively simple movements and complete absence of any reference of realistic free weights in women’s fitness routines.

The idea of a woman touching a barbell, or even a dumbbell seemed outrageous.  Thanks, to a large degree, to horrid images of female bodybuilders from the 80s and early 90s that scarred the imagination of many feminine-shape-seeking ladies with overdeveloped deltoids and lats, huge pectorals instead of breasts, enormous quads and, pretty much everything Arnold Schwarzenegger was sporting around that same time, minus the accent .  “But I don’t want to look like a man!” rightfully objected the women – and flocked into countless gyms conveniently offering “lighter” exercises more suitable for women.

Nothing has changed.  Well, no, a few things did – there are now new fancy names attributed to enthusiastic and rhythmic movements with loud music in the background.  Women with a look of complete dedication (or utmost misery, depending on who you look at) continue to waste their time half-dancing to heavily marketed, repackaged and remarketed cornucopia of various trade names for group cardio-based exercises. Zumba, Cardio Kickboxing, “Step It Up!“, blah, blah – you couldn’t understand where the partying ends and the exercise beings. Added to the mix are several dozens of more esoteric programs, such as Aqua yoga, hot yoga – I’ve even been told of nude yoga!  Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for fun.  And if having fun and socializing is your intention – great, keep doing what you are doing.  Just don’t expect to get great results (which is what you most of the time pay for). Don’t expect becoming an Alpha by doing group musical workouts (unless these are your “light” days that are mixed with heavier lifting days during the week – and even then, only if you are having fun with it).

To this day, almost every time I exercise at my gym, I hear a female employee, taking a prospective female member for a walk-through around the facilities, say about the area that contains mostly free weights: “OK, so this is a bit of an advanced area with heavy weights – you probably won’t be using this for a while…” and a horrified prospective female customer, looking at (mostly) dudes that grunt loudly doing bench presses or a deadlifts agrees: “No, of course not”  This is, by the way, regardless of how much extra body weight that prospective customer may be carrying and how much in need of intense heavy weight exercises she might, in fact, be.  They would still rather push her towards a treadmill and destroy her knees (and hopes).

And so it continues – crowds of dedicated female fitness enthusiasts with all the best intentions would diligently show up for classes, pay underqualified personal trainers, buy nicely packaged DVDs, invest in ab-rollers and thigh-masters and – nothing!  Or – the other extreme – other crowds would engage in “pretend fitness”, where they spend countless hours briskly walking (at best, if not leisurely strolling) on treadmills, while watching a TV screen in front of them or frantically texting on a phone.  This is even a bigger waste of time and even more counterproductive, as this not only brings absolutely ZERO results, most of the time, fired up and proud of a great “workout” they’ve just had, these people would then go and indulge in a muffin, or something. No wonder so few achieve meaningful and long-term goals…

And what happens if a woman, while following the (mostly) irrelevant fitness exercise routines as per above, is trying to be conscious about her diet and cuts calories (you know, the good old way – choosing fat free stuff and responsibly starting her day with that “wonderful” whole-grain, extra-fiber-added (and none of the excessive-sugar-removed) cereal, or whole-wheat fruit muffin (“But it’s healthy, because it’s whole-grain and you have to get several servings of fruits and vegetables a day!” – heck, the most common word used in conjunction with breakfast cereal ads these days that I hear on TV is “nutritional”.  Seriously?!) – the result of ignoring heavy weights, eating mostly carbs and spending hours on a Stepmaster may eventually (if she is dedicated enough) lead to a complexion that is known as “skinny fat” – she may look slim and lightweight, but the ratio of an almost non-existent muscle mass to body fat is heavily skewed towards the latter (muscle mass will be eaten away by the body trying to get rid of metabolically expensive tissue to support prolonged low-intensity activities that do not load muscles and, thus, do not signal to the body that it will be used in any meaningful way in the nearest future).  This is why tracking body weight, as an indicator of your fitness progress is useless – you might actually GAIN weight, but still be more fit, with better body proportions, strength and agility.  So, throw away those bathroom scales – they are lying about your progress.  Once you fall out of that intense cardio routine – all the lost weight will come back quicker than you can say “breakfast cereal”, because now you would not be enlisting extra help from muscles to burn off extra calories throughout the day.

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Why muscles matter

It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman – the reality is, after the age of about 30, if you don’t do anything about it, just as a part of normal “ageing”, you would start losing muscle mass (a process called sarcopenia) – which happens at the rate that, depending on which medical source you read, can range between 1% and 4% per year.  If scientists are right (and I suspect they are, witnessing a lot of elderly people who have trouble climbing stairs and executing basic body movements) – if you live a sedentary life, you could, in theory, lose 60-70%% of your muscle mass in 30 years between 35 and 65 (this is a simplification, of course, this process is never linear and can be influenced by disease or other medical conditions – but you get the point).  Given that this loss concerns the most metabolically active tissue in your body (you have probably heard that even if you do nothing special, the mere maintenance of your muscle mass requires a lot of energy – in other words, the more muscle mass you have, the higher your basal metabolism), your energy requirements are going to plummet.  Which really means two things:

First, unless you drastically decrease the energy you consume with food (conventionally referred to as “calories in”), the excess of your usual energy consumption over the now reduced energy requirements are going to end up in – you guessed it – your fat cells (by the way, if, as a countermeasure, you do reduce your calories in, it may slow down accumulation of fat, but it definitely won’t help your muscle dystrophy. Plus it would bring with it a whole other range of problems – such as making sure that you get enough important nutrients with reduced food consumption (and in proper ratios), trying to counter slowing metabolism, which would undermine your efforts to eat less because even lesser amounts of food now would be excessive when your body adapts (also, it doesn’t just adapt – adaptation in this case means you would get slower heart rate, sluggish brain function, lack of energy – your body would be trying to conserve as much as it could, thinking you are going into starvation).  In the end, you might lose (or not gain) weight, but you will definitely not be healthier by any means.  Quite the contrary – you will be tired, weak, irritated (and often hungry), and completely discouraged.

Second– and this might be even scarier – your muscles are your primary storage for glucose – the immediately available form of energy that your body taps into when you suddenly need to show some strength (grab a rail and stop your fall down the stairs when you slip) or participate in some slightly prolonged activity that you are not accustomed to, such as shoveling snow (sorry I have to mention this, I’m Canadian).  Every year, after some massive snowfall, I hear reports of several elderly people dying of heart attacks after a few minutes of shoveling the snow. The tragedy happens because their muscles are not big enough to hold enough glucose to immediately fuel that activity – their hearts are trying to speed up to pump more blood and bring fresh supplies of oxygen to muscle tissues to support aerobic metabolism (fat oxidation), but fail to keep up with energy requirements (not to a small degree because the heart itself is a muscle and it doesn’t adapt (become stronger) if it is not exercised and is not made to pump more blood on a regular basis.

Why women will never be “bulky” like men

To build muscles like men, women would need help from a very crucial component in this equation – testosterone. Don’t get me wrong – women do have (and need) testosterone (just as and men have and need estrogen). In fact, naturally improving testosterone levels is an important step in making sure that a woman can successfully lose weight and become lean.  But in our day and age, low – not high – testosterone levels are usually the problem.  Not just in women, but also in men.  Most people, without even realizing it are regularly consuming phytoestrogens (soy, anyone?) lurking in most processed and pre-packaged items, as well as the packaging for the said food (most plastics, such as the ones used in containers, water bottles and a wide variety of packaging leach chemicals that have estrogenic activity – even the ones that are marked as BPA-free)  and pesticides, the chemicals in which bind to estrogen receptors.  Not only is estrogen is a fat storage promoter, but the problem is also aggravated by the fact that once you start spinning out of control in the lean muscle mass department and start putting on more fat, it gets progressively more and more difficult to get back on track, because fat cells produce an enzyme (called aromatase) that actually converts whatever little available testosterone you have in your body into an estrogen called estradiol. This is NOT a problem you want to have – excess estrogen has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women and prostate cancer in men.  Also, those man-boobs start undergoing tissue transformation and from deposits of fat actually transform into mammary glands, which is an irreversible process.

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But what about those crazy images from the 80s, you would ask? Easy – that was the era of almost uncontrolled steroids use. Anabolic steroids are, essentially, a chemically synthesized version of testosterone – and they act similarly in the body.  Especially when consumed in mega-doses (which, at the time, they were).  Disrupting the delicate hormonal balance with steroids would not only make women look like men, but would also make them act like ones (and, along the way, also disrupt endocrine processes in their bodies to a point of stopping ovulation, leading to a growth of chest and facial hair and changing voice pitch).  This is the problem that is opposite to the one described in the previous paragraph. And, although it reminds you how delicate hormonal balance can, sometimes, be, the take home point here is that unless you have access to – and enough of a recklessness to use – what are now “controlled substances”, you have nothing to worry about.  Properly done, weight training would not only NOT make the women bulky, I believe it would make them more feminine and curvy in all the right places, while SIGNIFICANTLY helping in keeping extra weight off – much better than those shiny machines with rows of buttons and useless statistics.

And, even though they don’t always admit that, most men consider strong, fit women with proper muscle definition – women who know their way around a barbell or a kettlebell – incredibly, almost animalistically sexy.  That is just in case that you, ladies, needed an extra confidence boost on top of what you would get from just feeling stronger and better overall.

Where to start

There is no exercise that is specific to just men – any free weight exercise that is suitable for men is, generally, suitable for women, albeit, probably with slightly lighter poundages – at least at the beginning.  Physiologically, there is almost nothing preventing women from being as strong (or stronger) than men with the same amount of muscle mass. The other day, I watched a video on YouTube of a girl squatting with a 300 pound barbell– she was as feminine-looking as a woman can be, but also incredibly strong! I am not suggesting you start with that weight – obviously, you have to build up to it.  But I am not suggesting that you just wave around Barbie weights for countless reps either – your selected weight is just about right, if you can only do 6-8 properly reps in perfect form without rushing.  If, at the end of your last (4th or 5th) set  you feel like you could have easily done a few more reps in each set without muscle failure– increase the weight next time (however scary it may seem at first) and keep trying.  If you select the weight that is too low you have two possible routes – either crank up the volume and do a significantly higher number of repetitions (this is traditionally viewed as bodybuilder’s routine, as it is considered that higher reps create size in muscles – so this might just be what women are trying to avoid), or keep the volume the same as suggested above (and then, with that lower selected weight, not get any meaningful stimulation in your muscle).  Both are not very desirable for a woman.

I will not recommend any special exercises in this article – you will be able to find them on other pages of this blog in upcoming posts or elsewhere on the internet.  At this point we will not even worry too much about which specific exercises to perform – as long as you make that mental shift and pick up free weights – no matter how light and ridiculous they may look, compared to the ones other people working out around you are using.  All it takes is a start and proper planning.  Don’t get intimidated by grunting big men in a free-weight area.  First – they all started small, at some point.  Second – most of them are not really scary and would be happy to help.

Until next time – Stay the Alpha Course!