No, lifting won’t make you “bulky;” strength training is a necessary component of long-term health, fitness, and confidence.
Gone are the days of tiny pastel dumbbells and misguided workouts that promise to “tighten” without “bulking up.” Instead, women are embracing real, science-based strength training—heavy loads, functional movements, intentional rep schemes like those found on Tonal—and reaping all the major health benefits.
We spoke with a handful of experts ranging from exercise physiologists to sports psychologists to get their take on why strength training is a necessary component of every woman’s long-term plan for lasting health, fitness, and confidence.
Healthy Body Composition
You’ve heard it before: muscle burns more calories than fat. This means that those hard-won muscle gains not only look impressive but also fire up your metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories when you’re at rest.
In reality, the impact is relatively small but can add up over time, explains Pete McCall, CSCS, master trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast. “If you add a pound of muscle, you can increase your metabolism by about five to seven calories a day,” he says. Gain five pounds of muscle, and you’ll burn approximately 30 extra calories a day, or 200 calories a week. “That’s like walking an extra two miles a week without doing any exercise,” he says.
But that’s just part of the story, according to Stacy Sims, Ph.D., female athlete health and performance specialist and Tonal advisory board member. “Muscle stimulates thyroid hormones to work effectively, it’s essential for maintaining glucose homeostasis, and it reduces fatty acid storage,” she says. “All of these play a part in improving body composition,” or your ratio of body fat to water and lean body mass.
And if you’re at all worried about getting too muscular, don’t be. “Bulking up” is, according to Sims, “really, really, really difficult for women.” When it comes to hypertrophy, or muscle growth, research shows that women’s bodies simply don’t have the same response to strength training as men’s bodies.
Muscle Mass Maintenance
Starting around age 40, even healthy, relatively active women lose approximately 0.5 to 2 percent of their skeletal muscle tissue and about 3 percent of their muscle strength every year, Sims says. “With age comes a blunted anabolic response,” she explains, making it harder to maintain and build muscle mass. “Especially in peri- and post-menopausal women who have lost the anabolic benefit of estrogen.” Lifting helps counteract age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia.
Maintaining muscle mass also means maintaining daily life functionality, like being able to climb stairs and carry groceries easily. “And from a metabolic standpoint, having more muscle mass means better glucose control and less insulin resistance; less body fat accumulation, especially visceral fat (abdominal fat); and better bone density and a slower rate of bone loss,” Sims says.
Tonal offers both live and on-demand workouts and multi-week programs that can help you build and maintain muscle mass. The best part: Tonal’s unique technology automatically selects the ideal amount of weight for every move, keeps track of it for you, and continues to challenge you as you grow stronger. All you have to do is show up.
Despite all those standing meetings, programmed movement reminders, and mid-day stretch breaks, you still probably spend most of your day sitting down. Hours spent seated, combined with keyboard hunching and other “tech neck”-inducing activities, wreaks havoc on your posture.
“When you sit in that posture, you tighten and weaken your psoas and other hip flexors and, at the same time, reduce neuromuscular stimuli to the glutes and hamstrings, which effectively downregulates the neuromuscular connection for strong posture,” Sims says. “The glutes and hamstrings don’t fire when you do simple movements like walking, or even standing, thus you ‘hang’ on your tight and weak hip flexors.” This can lead to a host of issues, including poor movement mechanics and mobility, injuries, and chronic pain.
Want to “wake up” your sleepy butt? Strengthen your glutes, along with the rest of your posterior chain (the muscles that run along the backside of your body), says Sims with programs like Great Glutes or Better Posture Everyday on Tonal. But keep up with the stretching and movement breaks—they help, too.
As bone mineral density (BMD) decreases, the risk for fractures increases. This becomes a growing concern for women transitioning into menopause when estrogen and progesterone levels begin to dip. “With a drop in estrogen, the factors that stimulate osteoblasts (cells that form new bone) are muted, thus more osteoclast (cells that dissolve bone) activity occurs,” Sims says. “Progesterone also has a play here in that progesterone binds to receptors on osteoblasts to displace cortisol, which helps reduce bone resorption (the breakdown of bone tissue).”
Strength training, along with jumping exercises, provides a stimulus that puts stress on the bone. This stress triggers a physiological response that releases hormones that promote bone formation. One recent study found that female Olympic lifters had higher BMD levels than recreationally active women and other athletes, including soccer players and powerlifters. Olympic lifting, because it combines both high-impact and odd-impact movements (jumps, rapid changes in direction, accelerations, decelerations), provides more beneficial stress and stimulus to the bone tissue than other forms of exercise.
Strength training—even just an hour a week—has been shown to decrease events related to cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure, by 40 to 70 percent. This is particularly relevant to women, for whom heart disease is the leading cause of death.
Todd Buckingham, Ph.D., lead exercise physiologist at Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains that pairing strength training with endurance exercise, a.k.a. “cardio,” is the best way to ensure optimal heart health.
“Strength training tends to increase the thickness of the left ventricular wall of the heart. This is the part of the heart that pumps blood to the rest of your body,” he says. “Conversely, endurance exercise tends to increase the volume of the left ventricle.” Both of these adaptations are advantageous.
“Increasing the thickness of the left ventricle means it is becoming stronger and can pump out more blood with each beat—basically, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard,” Buckingham says. “And increasing the volume of the left ventricle means your heart can hold more blood, and more blood can be pumped out with each beat.”
Ever notice that you tend to finish a workout with more confidence than when you started? The benefits of strength training don’t begin and end with physical health. Lifting can impact your self-esteem in and out of the gym, says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., sport and performance psychologist.
When women begin to experience the results of resistance training, especially data-driven wins like strength gains and improved body composition, they prove to themselves that they can affect meaningful change in their own lives and the world around them, Perlus says.
“As a result, women walk away from each strength training session believing they can make things happen in their life,” Perlus says. “They can accomplish their goals and set new ones. They can face life’s challenges in business, health, and relationships. They can dream big and make those dreams come true.”