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Go Heavy or Go Home

Posted 1/12/2018 by UHBlog

Have you bought into the myth that weightlifting bulks women up? Don't let misinformation keep you out of the weight room. Talk to us about what's effective and safe.

Woman weight training

If you're worried that lifting weights will bulk you up, get over it. It's challenging for a woman to get an enormous muscle-bound bodybuilder physique from weightlifting.

According to physical therapist Heather Henry, the reason has to do with the amount of testosterone that women have.

“Testosterone is the primary hormone that contributes to muscle hypertrophy, or increasing the size of the muscle,” Henry says. “Men have higher baseline levels of testosterone to begin with, and in order for women to build the kind of muscle men have, they would have to work very hard at it.”

Rather, she recommends that women weight train regularly so they enjoy its health benefits, including:

  • Stronger bones and joints
  • More lean muscle mass, or increased basal metabolic rate, enabling you to burn more calories throughout the day
  • Lower percentage of body fat
  • Less anxiety and depression
  • Better overall mental health and self-esteem

If you want to make a habit of strength training, Henry offers these tips:

  • Determine your level so you know how much to lift. She breaks the levels down into
    • Novice: New to weightlifting and/or has lifted for approximately three to nine months
    • Intermediate: Lifts fairly consistently three times per week, doing so for a minimum of 12 months
    • Advanced: Has multi-year training experience
  • Dedicate the time. “You have to schedule the time so you are lifting consistently on a weekly basis,” she says. “It has to be part of your routine or you will not see consistent gains.”

    Henry, who strength trains before work three mornings a week, says that, on average, your strength training routine will take 45 minutes, which doesn't include the warm-up and cool down time.

    “After 45 minutes of strength training, it's not beneficial,” she says. “Your testosterone level starts to plummet, and you need that to build muscle and strength. Your cortisol level rises, and when it does, it halts tissue growth.”

    To maximize your time, Henry recommends a routine that hits the bigger muscle groups through complex and multi-joint movements. Some examples include: squats, lunges, bench presses, Romanian deadlifts and row variations.

    Also, your weightlifting frequency matters. According to Henry, two days a week is considered maintenance, while three-four days a week is ideal because of the significant increase in strength you'll gain.

  • Lift enough weight. “If you want strength and muscle growth, perform between six to 12 repetitions of each exercise,” Henry says. “For a novice, you want to stick to eight to 12 reps for one to three sets of each exercise.”

    According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), you should perform each exercise at a 67 to 85 percent intensity level. So if you're doing 10 reps of an exercise, the first eight times you perform the movement should be flawless, and the last two reps cause you to struggle to complete them.

    “You want to lift to muscular failure,” she says. “That is what causes muscle tearing and therefore, healing and progressive strength gains.”

    If your first set is easy without any struggle at the end, she recommends increasing the weight by as much as 20 percent, or in many cases, two-and-one-half pounds. After four to six weeks, be sure to change your weightlifting routine.

    “Around four to six weeks, you may not be getting any gains in strength,” Henry says. “Your body grows accustom to the weight and plateaus.”

For people new to weightlifting, it's helpful to go through a functional movement screening, which screens for impairments or imbalances in the body. For instance, some people lack mobility or flexibility and aren't able to execute an exercise correctly. In those cases, they need to modify what they do so they can execute exercises with good form without the risk of injury.

“At UH Rehabilitation Services and Sports Medicine located at T3 Performance, we use functional movement screenings to help a patients reach their fullest athletic potential,” Henry says.

T3 Performance, an athletic training center in Avon, Ohio that is part of University Hospitals Rehabilitation Services, is also a good resource to work with a professional who can help you develop a strength training routine tailored to your skill level. To request an appointment with a UH rehab specialist or physical therapist at T3 Performance, call 440-328-3499.

Heather Henry, PT, DPT, SCS, OCS, FAAOMPT, is a physical therapist at UH Rehab and Sports Medicine at T3 Performance in Avon.

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