Women and Iron

Valentina Chepiga

Photo credit: Muscletime

Too often and much to my dismay, I hear women protest against using any appreciable weight in their weight training program. Moreover, many young women completely refrain from resistance training; instead spending countless hours on the cardio deck in a fruitless effort to attain an ideal physique. What is the ideal physique and why are women so afraid of lifting a dumbbell that isn’t pink or red? The answer to the first question lies in a complex paradox of social and cultural influences. In answer to the second question, many women believe lifting weights will make them explode with bulging muscles. Another reason is women believe they cannot lift anything heavier than their makeup case. These are unfortunate idiosyncratic fallacies amongst women. Generally speaking, women fear muscles. A sociological and cultural discourse on women and self-perception would entail much more time and space than allowed here. However, several recent books and articles address those issues and will thoroughly engage those interested in pursuing them. Nonetheless, I will address physical issues of why women should embrace developing muscle.

Women who fear resembling the Hulk should immediately put that anxiety to rest. It just won’t happen. For a simple reason: hormones. Women are from the planet Estrogen; men are from Testosterone. Although both genders produce both hormones, the relative ratios are significantly different. Men normally produce higher levels (approximately 10 times that of women) of testosterone and lower levels of estrogen. Women produce the opposite. The professional female bodybuilders that, until recently graced the pages of muscle magazines gained their extreme muscle mass with the aid of supplemental anabolic/androgenic steroids. Federally classified as Schedule II drugs their usage carries legal ramifications as well as potential physiological side effects.

Although both testosterone and estrogen are anabolic (promoting the process where smaller units build bigger units in the body), testosterone is primarily responsible for increases in muscle tissue hypertrophy. Granted, some women have higher levels of androgens than normal and therefore have a propensity to increase muscle mass beyond the average woman. This attribute is genetically determined, and many of these women are competitive athletes. But a woman does not have to be an athlete to increase muscle mass. Any woman can increase strength and gain muscle.

Let’s talk about why women should partake in resistance training.

Life and weight loss: In our society, women are obsessed with weight control. Unfortunately, that obsession normally centers on the bathroom scale and does not consider changes in body composition (ratio of body fat to lean body mass). Most fad diets result in a loss of muscle tissue as well as body fat. A person can lose half of their body fat and remain alive; but if you lose half of your muscle mass, you will most likely die. Because muscle is denser than body fat, a person who is weight training may show slower changes on the scale but faster changes in body composition.

Muscles burn fuel: Muscle burns more calories than body fat. Muscle cells have organelles called mitochondria, often referred to by physiologists as a cell’s ‘power plant’. They provide the energy for nearly all of the metabolic processes that take place within the cell. Muscle cells are very busy and the mitochondria constantly transform chemical energy into mechanical energy. Reactions within the mitochondria break the bonds of fuel molecules and release energy for cells to use. During endurance exercise most of the energy for muscle activity is provided by mitochondria. This is used as the primary argument for the performance of copious amounts of endurance exercise. While it is true that calories are burned during endurance exercise, only resistance training can increase muscle mass. More muscle = more mitochondria = more fuel burned.

Weight training can increase basal metabolic rate: Basal metabolic rate refers to the number of calories used by the body at rest, and makes up 60-75% of the body’s total energy expenditure. While aerobic exercise burns calories during activity (and a small amount afterwards), it has minimal effect on basal metabolic rate. Additionally, extensive periods of aerobic activity can decrease basal metabolic rate by causing muscle loss. In contrast, a proper resistance-training program can increase muscle mass, and hence the metabolic rate. For general overall health and weight control, weight training is a necessary component of a woman’s exercise program.

Muscle inactivity leads to muscle weakness and wasting: Muscle fibers must be physically active if they are to remain in good health. Otherwise, they will degenerate and lose mass. We have all seen (or known) older individuals who lacked the strength to walk without aid, or get out of a chair under their own power. This represents an extreme of muscle and strength loss. Less muscle mass also means the body burns less fuel. Most importantly, less muscle mass means a decline in strength. Consequently, sedentary people have an increased need to incorporate exercise into their weekly activities to maintain muscle mass, strength and aid in weight control.

Connective tissue and joints: Resistance training also stresses and strengthens connective tissue. This is the tissue that binds bones together and attaches muscles to the skeleton. Sensible training with weights will increase the cell activity of connective tissue in the muscle and those which attach the muscles to the bones. Mechanical compression of the joints stimulates healthy metabolism of cartilage within the joints. Inactive joints have decreased macromolecule turnover in the tissue and may be more susceptible to osteoarthritis and injury.

Helps prevent osteoporosis: Muscle wasting in the elderly contributes greatly to osteoporosis, a major debilitating disease in women after they reach menopause. Women have less muscle mass than men and also have less bone density. Both men and women undergo hormonal and metabolic changes as they age. Muscles start to deteriorate, fat accumulates more readily, and bones begin to lose their density. This process can be slowed, especially with forethought. Load bearing activities enhance bone mass. Studies have shown that women who are active throughout their lives have greater bone density and retard bone loss in later years. Recent research has demonstrated that weight training can reduce, and possibly reverse, bone loss in pre- and postmenopausal women. However, women should start and maintain some type of weight training activity as early as their twenty’s for optimum prevention of osteoporosis. Regardless, it is never too late to start, no matter what age.

Muscles and mass give women power over their own lives: When was the last time you refused with a smile the bag boy’s offer to take out your groceries? When was the last time you changed the tire on your car by yourself? How soon did you huff and puff the last time you climbed those three flights of stairs? How young will you be when you are forced to enter a nursing home because your wasted muscle mass can no longer support your frail bones? Muscles are required in order for women to take charge of their own physical life. They are necessary to provide for a woman’s welfare and ability to fend for herself. As well, muscle mass contributes to weight control, especially in later life. Moreover, it makes women feel good about themselves.

By now you may have noticed that I use the two terms ‘weight training’ and ‘resistance training’ interchangeably. In the context of this article, ‘resistance training’ is more applicable: to build muscle mass by increasing the resistance the muscle must move. Exercise physiologists call this ‘progressive overload.’ Muscles are amazing pieces of metabolic machinery. They adapt quickly. If you can curl a 10-pound dumbbell with 12 controlled repetitions (reps), it is time to increase the weight: not ‘tone’.

Toning is not resistance training. Nor will it build muscle mass. Use the word ‘toning’ in a gym and watch the hardcore weightlifters cringe and sneer. The term ‘toning’ is erroneously applied to doing countless reps with small amounts of weight that don’t incrementally challenge the muscle. That muscle adapts quickly to moving a weight for a given number of reps and is no longer stimulated. The weight must be progressively increased in small increments for muscles to grow.

For generations women have been perceived as being the weaker sex. Not true. Strength and speed are not a monopoly of the male gender. Women and men have the same capability to develop strength and speed. Relative to fat free body mass, women have nearly the same strength as men. If one were to take the same muscle unit from a woman and a man and put it in an identical artificial environment with the same growth media and the same stimulation, the muscles would grow at the same rate. However, in the body’s environment, the hormonal and metabolic environment varies between men and women. Women have smaller muscle fibers and ordinarily have less muscle mass. Nevertheless, women are gaining in rate of competitive performance on a par with men in both speed and strength. Women are realizing they can perform daily activities that require strength that they previously thought they could not do. Physical strength will increase a woman’s independence in everyday life.

A sensible program of combining resistance and aerobic exercise will increase strength and stamina. Resistance training will stimulate the muscles to remain strong and robust. A moderate amount of aerobic activity will contribute to greater endurance and overall increases in efficient body metabolism.

Sadly, women generally don’t realize how strong they are or how strong they can be. Many women don’t know their own power and feel safe within their imposed boundaries. They are afraid to exert themselves. It is time to break that mold. Use as much weight as you can and move that weight with intensity. Challenge yourself. Set goals and work hard to achieve them. Be strong and feel strong. When you can curl that 10-pound dumbbell for 12 reps, grab the next heavier dumbbell and do it again. Go for that extra rep. Embrace the feeling of contracting muscle. Push yourself and rejoice in your accomplishments.

“Women need muscle, as much as they can muster. They need muscle to shield their light bones, and they need muscle to weather illness… And being strong in a blunt way, a muscleheaded way, is easier than being skilled at a sport. It is a democratic option, open to the klutzes and the latecomers, and women should seize the chance to become cheaply, fowzily strong, because the chance exists, and let’s be honest, we don’t have many. Being strong won’t make you happy or fulfilled, but it’s better to be sullen and strong than sullen and weak.”

Excerpt from Woman. An Intimate Geography. By Natalie Angier, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999)

About Elzi Volk

Elzi has spent the last several decades trying to determine where 'home' is: from New York, Maine, California, Oregon and now Texas. As well, her career has encompassed tool & die apprentice, forest ranger, assistant extension agent, mother, sheep and horse rancher, and mad research scientist. She has also been a competitive bodybuilder, but has found true joy in powerlifting. With two degrees in biological sciences, Elzi devoted the last 12 years in Oregon developing and managing a nationally recognized plant virus diagnostics program and conducted research advancing chemo- and thermotherapy techniques for virus elimination. Unfortunately, program funding fell victim to USDA and higher education budget axes by the powers-that-be. Discouraged, Elzi decided to make some changes and moved to Texas, where she is spending a long hiatus recovering from an injury, freelance technical writing, and part-time personal training. In the near future, as soon as she wins the lottery, she intends to jump into a PhD program in integrated cell biology, focusing on cell signalling. When Elzi is not playing fetch with her 1200 lb four-footed buddy, she is most happy in the gym and in a research lab.