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Should women lift heavy or light weights?

By Jill Coleman

Women love to lift light pink weights to prevent bulking up.  As a trainer, I personally savor the moment when a new client comes to me and says that they don’t like to lift heavy weights because they don’t want to get “big” or because their “legs get big really quickly with weights” or some similar precaution.  These comments from clients excite me because it means that I get the chance to change their perspective and show them amazing results with challenging, heavy weight—results they never dreamed of: inches lost, improved energy, better sleep quality, increased sexual drive, stress dissipation, improved self esteem and sense of empowerment.  I usually begin by saying that I guarantee that without challengingly heavy weight, they will not see a single change in their physique, period.  They can literally do hundreds and hundreds of reps with light weight and end up with no curves, no definition, no cuts, and no inches lost to show for it.

The problem with light weights

In general, 90% of female gym-goers unknowingly train for endurance by doing things like jogging on the treadmill, zoning out on the elliptical or taking a 60-minute Power Pump “toning” class.  Essentially, in my opinion, lifting light weights for reps on end is the same thing as jogging, i.e. applying a light stimulus for a longer duration (endurance training).  Interestingly, 90% of female gym-goers are wanting fat loss, and yet they are training for endurance; in other words, they doing long, slow workouts with light-to-moderate resistance in order to be able to maintain a steady exertion for the duration of the workout.  If it is fat loss we want, why are we not training ourselves for it???

Hour-long toning classes require the participant complete hundreds of reps, with the goal of increasing weight lifted, all the while performing the same exercises.  Though incremental increases in weight are a great way to increase intensity, how much weight can you really add when you are expected to complete 100 reps with it?  Moreover, you are always doing the same exercises, class after class, to which we know that our bodies adapt more and respond less (i.e. burn less calories, build less muscle, release fewer amounts of fat-burning hormones) over time.

Furthermore, besides being a ridiculously-inefficient use of time, lifting with a weight light enough to complete sets of 30, 40 or even 50 reps elicits a very different hormonal response than that of heavier, more intense training.  At the physiological level, completing hundreds of reps using pink dumbbells essentially does the same thing as jogging in terms of the hormonal response.  It increases the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, but without the complementary release of fat-burning hormones like growth hormone, testosterone and even lactic acid, which acts as a chemical messenger in the fat-burning process.   The low-intensity resultant hormonal soup promotes muscle break-down and potentially even fat storing in the middle (cortisol is known as the “belly fat” hormone).  Doing these kinds of workouts day after day promotes stripping of muscle, not building.  The stimulus used is never enough to promote growth and development.  The only way to increase fat burning while building muscle is to lift heavy weights, preferably quickly and get more done in less time.

Why lift heavy

Contrary to what many trainers may say, bulking up does happen.  However, it occurs when muscle is built underneath layers of fat, without any attention paid to fat-burning.  Thus, the client appears larger.  By now we know that we must lift heavy weights to elicit any physique change, but we also need to burn fat simultaneously to lose inches and gain more definition.  Most educated personal trainers know that in order to increase fat-burning during and after the workout, a client must breach their anaerobic threshold.  In other words, when lifting, they must get breathless, they must get burning in their muscles (signals lactic acid accumulation) and they must lift heavy enough weight to reach the point of mechanical muscle failure.  There should be no fear of bulking up when fat-burning is being maximized.

Lifting heavy weights to the point of muscle failure, in general, enhances the release of testosterone, which when increased naturally through weight training will increase fat-burning in women (one of the reasons men are leaner than women).  Lifting heavy enough to generate a strong burning in the muscles enhances the release of human growth hormone, which also aids in fat burning and has anti-aging benefits.

Finally, adding lean muscle mass will enhance your fat burning potential while you are not working out.  A pound of muscle burns 15-30 calories per day at rest, while a pound of fat burns 2-5 calories; it’s a no-brainer of which composition is more desirable.  More muscle makes us more metabolically active. Furthermore, a pound of fat takes up more physical space than a pound of muscle.  So, burning fat and increasing lean muscle will NOT create bulk, but instead strip inches creating a lean, tight, defined physique, not to mention your clothes hanging off you.

How to build muscle, burn fat and lose inches

So how do you do this?  First, stop doing “toning” workouts. If you can complete 50 reps without stopping, you are not “toning,” you are wasting both muscle and time.  Train with heavy weights, choosing a weight that elicits failure by the last rep.  For example, if you are going to do 10 reps, choose a weight with which you can barely complete 10 reps, and definitely not 11.  Next, utilize short-duration workouts by training quickly, sticking to less than 60 seconds between sets.  Workout sessions should be no longer than 40 minutes in duration for best results.  Long rest periods between sets is power lifting and does not burn fat.  Try circuit training.  Choose 2-4 exercises and move from exercise to exercise quickly with little-to-no rest.  Doing this will keep the heart rate up and generate a greater lactic acid burn in the muscles because there will be less time for the burn to dissipate between sets.    Finally, choose the right kinds of exercises and switch them up regularly.  Compound movements like pull-ups, squats, lunges, push-presses, rows and bench presses use multiple muscle groups across several joints.  The more muscle tissue recruited by an exercise, the larger the metabolic effect of the workout.  Change up your movements every couple weeks to keep the muscles responsive and prevent muscle adaptation (i.e. plateau).

Go heavy and leave the pink to the babies!

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About Jill Coleman

MS, certified trainer and clinical nutritionist. Specializing in female fat loss, mindset coaching and competition prep for women.

5 Responses to "Should women lift heavy or light weights?"

  • Anna Ettin
    November 2, 2009 - 11:08 PM

    Awesome insights – thank you for the physiological angle, it makes perfect sense! I shared with a girlfriend who’s been trying to lose “the last 10″ for a year by jogging and jogging and jogging…you get the point. She picked up some weights today!

  • Erin
    November 3, 2009 - 12:20 PM

    Does any research on hormonal fat loss and fitness relate to how a pregnant woman can work out safely and effectively? Does any of this apply? Thanks!

  • MelissaAnn4789
    November 16, 2013 - 9:17 PM

    Hi, I just finished the Metabolic Effect and I have a question. I enjoy weight lifting, ie; deads, cleans, push press and I was wondering if I can do that along with my ME program?

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