The Benefits of Lifting Weights for Women
By Brooke Tompkins, BIRTHFIT Regional Director South Tampa
Women Lifting Heavy?
Until recent years women weren’t typically all about the barbells and squat racks. Even today, as weightlifting is becoming more normal for women, we are still surrounded by stereotypical ideas about what fitness should look like for us and we are faced with unrealistic ideas of how to achieve certain results. No matter your preference for exercising (yoga, pilates, zumba, running, HIIT, functional fitness, etc.), adding at least 2-3 strength training days to your routine will benefit your overall health and performance. Aside from heavy lifting benefiting your performance doing the things you love, it is also proving to help women reduce the risks of many health conditions, improve body composition, and prepare for everyday tasks and activities.
Resistance Training and Health Benefits
There are several studies suggesting that resistance training improves overall physical health, including bone mineral density, cardiovascular health, and metabolic health. One meta-analysis concluded that older adults can have an improved health-related quality of life due to resistance training (1). According to this review, resistance training can benefit bone mineral density, lipoprotein profiles, glycemic control, body composition, symptoms of frailty, metabolic syndrome risk factors, and cardiovascular disease markers. It also points out that resistance training can improve psychosocial health, including sense of coherence, perceived stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Obviously this isn’t necessarily only specific to women, but the benefits can directly affect the many struggles women tend to endure – physically and emotionally – throughout the motherhood transition and beyond. One study shows that “chronic resistance exercise improves all aspects of sleep, with the greatest benefit for sleep quality,” and another says that “resistance training effectively attenuates cardiac dysfunction and hormonal imbalance induced by paradoxical sleep deprivation” (2,3). Moms, especially new moms, absolutely experience challenging days with interrupted sleep cycles. This is like killing two birds with one stone: lifting weights can improve sleep quality and help with symptoms induced by poor sleep hygiene, such as hormonal imbalance – a major trigger for many women’s health issues.
Women and Osteoporosis
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 80% of the estimated Americans with osteoporosis are women, and approximately 1 in 2 women over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis (4). This is huge! As women, we can take this knowledge and create a lifestyle that can nurture our predisposed risks. While many factors are attributed to these statistics, such as nutrition quality and hormonal changes as we age, we can be more proactive by hitting the weight room. Weightlifting puts stress on your bones, causing the cells within your bones to respond by making them denser and stronger. There are studies indicating that resistance training, specifically, has improved bone mineral density even in premenopausal women (5). Let’s not wait until we are looking at the beginning stages of osteoporosis. If you work on strengthening your bones now, you can be on the positive side of the 1 in 2 women that break a bone over the age of 50.
Strength Training and Mental Health
Did you know that women with previous experiences with depression have a higher risk of having postpartum depression? If you are entering the talks about having a baby, this is something to consider. It’s no secret that fitness in general makes you feel better. There are endorphins released that improve your mood. Personally, I don’t need to seek out the research on this piece. My most common advice to mamas about having no drive is to push through. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I really wish I hadn’t worked out today.” Fitness always makes me feel better, especially when I didn’t “feel like it” to begin with. Resistance training has also been shown to significantly reduce depressive symptoms among adults, including significantly improving anxiety symptoms (6,7). Some of these studies include both men and women, but are definitely relevant. Again, with more knowledge we can have more tools to better prepare for the motherhood transition. Resistance training also helps improve your sense of coherence, as well as fatigue. Are you feeling exhausted with zero motivation and some brain fog, or “baby brain”? Some strength training can only help.
Do You Even Lift?
I’m going to step away from the science for a minute and venture into the real mom stuff. If you don’t already regularly include heavy lifting in your exercise routine, you need to eliminate whatever it is that stands in the way. Let’s examine these possibilities. Common reasons for women avoiding weight lifting may be:
- Aesthetics: I don’t want to look “too bulky”, or “like a man”, or lose my curves. There is plenty of information out there that proves time and time again that this just doesn’t happen, at least by accident, anyway. The fact is, in order for you to reap the benefits aforementioned, you need to add enough resistance, or load to make change. Aesthetically this change will be surprisingly pleasing if you give it a try with consistency. Also, if you have taken a DNS course, as all BIRTHFIT Regional Directors are required to do, you know that the culturally sought after “hourglass” figure is in fact an indication of a dysfunctional core. Let’s shift the paradigm and instead seek an optimal, functional state of existence that will enhance our quality of life for years to come.
- I don’t know what I’m doing. What if I hurt myself? What an opportunity to reach out to your local BIRTHFIT Coach, Professional, or Regional Director! There’s an entire BIRTHFIT community that is passionate about educating and empowering women just like you. Weight training can be complicated. How heavy? How many reps and sets? What about my form? There is no reason to try and figure these things out on your own. We say that “movement is life,” but it’s quality movement that you want to aim for. Let us help guide you. If you have no one nearby, BIRTHFIT has so many online programs that can guide you through the process. This includes, but is not limited to a “Before the Bump” program, the prenatal program, and the postpartum program.
- Barbells and weightlifting machines are intimidating. Here’s a true story: Back in 2012, my husband and I opened a gym. I distinctly remember stressing that I was not interested in the barbell work, that I would participate in the workouts, but not the strength work. That same year I got pregnant, did barbell back squats throughout the entire pregnancy, and had the most empowering birth experience totaling 2 hours and 2 pushes. Here I am, 7 years later cherry-picking the workouts that include barbells. Once I embraced the barbell, I fell in love. Give it a try.
- I don’t have access to a weight room, can’t afford a trainer, don’t have time, or can’t find a sitter for my child/ren. If you find yourself saying one or a combination of any of these things, consider purchasing the BIRTHFIT Empack, a collaboration between BIRTHFIT and Evolved Motion. It’s a bag that comes with reservoirs that can hold water or sand to turn it into a weighted bag for exercising. What’s great is that it can also be used as a diaper bag! The purchase includes a 6 week training program designed for either the pregnant or postpartum athlete, but is useful for anyone in general. It comes with videos and links to YouTube playlists created by BIRTHFIT. While supervised movement for beginners is ideal, this program is amazing and very detailed. It’s a start to resistance training and you may find yourself wanting more and finding ways to eliminate the reasons why you can’t start lifting weights.
Train for Life
We all know that exercise is important. Fitness is a BIRTHFIT pillar and our definition is to functionally train throughout the motherhood transition in all planes of motion to develop competencies and physical skills as well as enhance the main metabolic pathways. I love this definition! Fitness can definitely look different from person to person. Fitness shouldn’t be a chore, or the dreaded hour of your day. If you need to throw in the things you love, such as running, dancing, outdoor sports, or yoga, by all means please do.
Variety can help when it comes to how we integrate fitness into our routine. We want to train all metabolic pathways and in all planes of motion. Doing the same thing day in and day out (i.e. spinning or running) to “burn calories” will work for an initial period of time, but gains will stall out pretty quickly this way and overuse injuries may appear. Movement in general trumps the sedentary lifestyle. It’s important that we “train for life.” Much like BIRTHFIT suggests “training for birth”, training for life will give you the tools to be the best version of you in every stage of your existence moving forward. This is where lifting weights comes into play. There are so many reasons why lifting weights is essential for women.
If none of the previous reasons resonate with you, let these ones: a strong, functional woman will be prepared and have the energy to participate in sports and activities with her children and even grandchildren, can toss a 40 pound bag of dog food in her own cart without asking for help, and will inherently have the confidence to do anything she sets her mind to. I challenge you to find your inner badass.
- Hart PD, Buck DJ. “The effect of resistance training on health-related quality of life in older adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis.” Health Promot Perspect. 2019;9(1):1-12. Published 2019 Jan 23. doi:10.15171/hpp.2019.01
- Kovacevic, Ana, Yorgi Mavros, Jennifer J. Heisz, and Maria A. Fiatarone Singh. “The Effect of Resistance Exercise on Sleep: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials.” July 19, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2017.07.002.
- Giampa´ SQdC, Moˆnico-Neto M, de Mello MT, Souza HdS, Tufik S, Lee KS, et al. (2016) “Paradoxical Sleep Deprivation Causes Cardiac Dysfunction and the Impairment Is Attenuated by Resistance Training.” PLoS ONE 11(11):e0167029. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0167029
- Lohman, T. , Going, S. , Hall, M. , Ritenbaugh, C. , Bare, L. , Hill, A. , Houtkooper, L. , Aickin, M. , Boyden, T. and Pamenter, R. (1995), “Effects of resistance training on regional and total bone mineral density in premenopausal women: A randomized prospective study.” J Bone Miner Res, 10: 1015-1024. doi:10.1002/jbmr.5650100705
- Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. “Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(6):566–576. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0572
- Gordon, B.R., McDowell, C.P., Lyons, M. “The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” et al. Sports Med (2017) 47: 2521. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0769-0
On the 4:00 x 5 Rounds:
50 Double Unders
10 Lateral Barbell Burpees
5 Power Snatches (135/95)