When in the gym, one would notice that most women often centre their workout around high-intensity sessions on the treadmill, elliptical or any other cardio machine without realising that running on the treadmill 4 days a week (with a controlled diet) may help you lose weight, but it is unlikely to promote the development of muscle mass that helps tone the body.
The fact that women do not participate actively in weight training programmes has a lot to do with the stereotypes associated with weight training. Often, women impose a glass ceiling on themselves, assume that they are genetically weaker when compared to men while equating weight training with bodybuilding. But this has a lot to do with lack of proper knowledge of weight training and the mechanisms driving muscle growth.
Busting the Bulk Myth
Most existing research does not study male and female muscles separately in order to avoid unwarranted complexities.
Fortunately, a study by the National Center for Biological Information (NCBI) studies male and female muscles as two separate groups and concludes that there are three major factors that contribute to the growth of muscle mass in our body.
The most influential factor in the process of muscle development is the Myosin Heavy Chain (MyHC) isoforms, which regulate the contractile (or “ability to contract”) function of the skeletal muscles. An adult human skeletal muscle expresses three MyHC isoforms (MHC-I, MHC-IIa and MHC-IIx) in order of their increasing contractile rate.
When the muscle contracts, a biological effort to repair or replace the damaged muscle fibers begins with the satellite cells (the precursors to skeletal muscle cells) fusing together and to the muscle fibers, often leading to an increase in muscle fiber cross-sectional area. This process is called hypertrophy.
In case of women, there is a presence of slower MHC-I and MHC-IIa isoforms when compared to men resulting in a lower contractile velocity. Hence, the rate of hypertrophy is also lower.
Another factor central to muscle building is the androgen testosterone, which helps in increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat. Women have genetically lower levels of testosterone than men, leading to a lower rate of muscle growth.
Other than Myosin Heavy Chain Isoforms and testosterone, the thyroid hormone (T3) whose primary function is cardiac contractility also influences skeletal muscle development by increasing the rate of muscle contractility.
Women have lower-levels of T3 hormone when compared to men. Therefore, the rate of muscle contractility is generally lower in them, once again explaining why they cannot get as bulky as men naturally.
Benefits of Weight Training
After having attempted to bust the stereotype about women and weight training, it is very natural for one to ask why women should even participate in a weight training programmes at all?
The answer to this question lies in understanding what happens when one lifts weights.
When one participates in an intense exercise like weight training, their muscle fibers undergo disruption (small tears in the muscle fiber). The disruption in the muscle is followed by a process of repair. As explained earlier, the effort to repair or replace damaged muscle fibers begins with the satellite cells fusing together and to the muscle fibers, leading to increase in muscle fiber cross-sectional area. The energy needed to carry out this entire process is supplemented by the fat cells in our body. Hence, participation in weight training not only helps one get rid of body fat, it also assists the development of muscle mass, giving one an overall toned look.
Apart from this, weight training has several other benefits as well. For instance, according to Wolff's Law, which states that bones can grow in response to forces that are placed upon it, lifting weights can help us in increasing bone mineral density. This is very important, especially in case of women as they are prone to bone density disorders like osteoporosis after a certain age.
Lifting of weights also triggers the release of endorphins a.k.a. the feel-good hormones in the body. Therefore, it also helps us manage stress and boosts our mood.
Keep it Light Till You Get it Right: Entering the weight training section at a gym can sometimes be very intimidating. You can see people shouting and screaming, lifting really heavy weights. But one needs to understand that strength increases overtime as muscle mass increases, and performing a workout with proper form is more important than performing it with heavy weights. So, one should focus on perfecting their form to begin with.
Sets and Reps: To begin with, one can try doing each exercise in sets of three with ten to twelve repetitions in each set and to make it more challenging you can even increase the weight of your dumbbell after every set.
Here are the links to some basic workouts one can enagage in to get themselves started. Happy exercising, folks!
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