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Why women’s weight training is going from strength to strength

We need to talk about weights. Science has long proven weight-bearing exercises are good for the body and the mind. It builds muscle mass, reduced body fat and alleviates risk factors of chronic conditions like diabetes and anxiety. Government guidelines have been recommending it twice a week to increase muscle strength. The evidence is there, but women weren’t on board. Until now. As women discover the gains to be had, weight training is going from strength to strength.

In 2011, only 0.9% of women said they used weight training for fitness. Fast forward nearly a decade and it’s all changed. Sports England’s Active Lives’ Survey place women and older adults as the driving force behind our nation’s health kick. And the greatest change in their exercise habits? The rise in weight sessions.

There’s been a subtle cultural shift around women weight-lifting too. The common myths of women being too weak for weights, or in danger of transforming into Arnold Schwarzenegger are being dismantled. In its place, women who are embracing weights to make their bodies stronger.

So what is weight training and where does it fit in with strength training?


As you know, all good things come in threes. Strength, resistance and weight training. Strength training is the catch all term. It’s designed to improve muscular fitness through weight-bearing exercises. Using equipment such as free-weights, weight machines or your own body weight, an increased load is applied to a specific muscle or muscle group, forcing it to adapt and get stronger. Resistance training puts your muscles to work against weight. Weight training is focused on lifting.

All the hard work happens in the rest period

Ok, we’re not going to lie to you. Strength training is hard work but it pays off. And it keeps paying off long after you’ve stopping working out. In fact your body continues to burn more calories when at complete rest.

It’s all down to your oxygen debt - the additional oxygen needed to restore your body to its normal, resting rate after exercise. Weight-bearing exercises or circuits increase the demand on muscle groups, and forces the body to pull in oxygen from different reserves. The bigger the oxygen debt, the harder your metabolism works and the more calories it burns.

Researchers compared continuous aerobic exercise against intermittent strength based exercise to see which comes out on top. The conclusion? Strength training. Resistance exercise in particular created a greater oxygen debt and a more active metabolism than aerobic exercise.

But there’s so much more to gain than losing body fat.

Strength training improves our musculoskeletal health as we age

Our skeletal muscle quality deteriorates as we age. The American Council on Exercise estimate sedentary over 30s loss between 30 to 40% muscular strength due to overall loss of muscle mass. This can then trigger chronic conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease.

But don’t start panicking. Strength training can counter this trend. Numerous studies link it to building muscle strength and muscle mass. Randomised trials studied over 6,700 participants doing resistance training two to three times a week. The results showed an increase in protein production which helped replenish and repair muscle damage. The benefits were particularly pronounced in the older participants. After training for six to nine weeks, researchers found an increase in muscle volume - the cross sectional diameter of the muscle had increased by 10%.

There’s positive knock-on effects in mobility too. More muscle strength meant participants where able to walk further, rise from seated positions with greater ease and drop their heart rate. The American Society of Bone and Mineral Research also cites resistance and weight-bearing training in helping build bone density to combat weakness and frailty in older adults.

But it’s not only the elderly who need to build bone density. Breastfeeding mothers transfer 200 mg of calcium per day to breast milk when they lactate. That’s between 3% to 9% of their bone mineral density (BMD) lost over a six month period. While many return to pre-pregnancy levels after breastfeeding, that’s not the case with everyone. Studies are inconclusive but researcher link unrecovered bone density when weaning as contributing factor for postmenopausal osteoporosis.

In another randomised trial, breastfeeding women who did a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise three days a week were compared to those who did no exercise across a 16 week period. The results showed a slower decline in bone mass density in the lumber spine (−4.8 ± 0.6% vs −7.0 ± 0.3%, P < 0.01) and less lean body mass was lost compared to those not exercising (−0.7 ± 0.3 vs −1.6 ± 0.3 kg, P = 0.05).

Increasing protein intake is another way breastfeeding mothers supplement their recovery. Protein makes up 50% of the volume of bone and is an important nutrient in promoting bone health and preventing osteoporosis.


Strength training also reduces risk factors around chronic disease


An extensive study spanning over a decade found that older women who participated in strength training reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes by 22% to 35% compared to those who didn’t. Increased muscle mass and a lower body mass index (BMI) from strength training enables more glucose to be transported around the body which helps improve insulin sensitivity. The benefits were found in those who did only strength and only aerobic training. But results show you get more bang for your buck when you combine both exercises into your workout routine.

It helps with anxiety too

Exercise helps many people manage their anxiety but the neurobiological benefits of strength training aren’t as widely know. It can strengthen our mental health from increasing our self-esteem to decreasing anxiety - and it’s particularly effective for women.

A scientific study published in Frontiers Psychology monitored the effects of exercise as an intervention against anxiety. It found resistance training significantly reduced state anxiety, which translates as us feeling less apprehensive, nervous and anxious. Low to moderate intensity resistance circuits (30-70% 1 repetition maximum) with longer rest periods of 90 seconds produced the best anxiolytic effects - and its women who are reaping the rewards. There’s evidence that women are more sensitive to the anxiolytic effects of resistance training and experience a significant reduction in state anxiety compared to men.

In the same study, aerobic exercise on its own didn’t decrease anxiety symptoms. Only when paired with resistance training did participants feel an effect.

A strong body makes a strong mind.

We all know the power of exercise. Strength training is no exception. When you incorporate it into your routine, it complements and enhances the benefits of your other workouts.

We’ve gone through our science drawers to show you the gains, physically and psychologically. But how do you put that into practice? Well, like all exercise, it’s about making a start and discovering what works for you. For some quick motivational tips to kick you into gear, and keep you there, we’ve teamed up with Catarina from @That_Fitser.