Doctor’s Orders: Why Women Need to Look Past the Myths and Start Lifting Heavy Weights!

This week’s guest post is by Spine and Sports Physiatrist Dr. Annie Purcell. Have you tried lifting heavy weights? I was a skeptic too, sticking to my body weight exercises and body pump classes. But switching to heavy lifting a year ago has dramatically changed my running and strength! And no, I didn’t bet bulky. Take a read…I hope you’re a convert too!


I often think of weight training as my secret weapon when it comes to health. Most women don’t consider it when choosing which exercise to participate in but I hope to give you a few compelling reasons today to give it a try!

I first started strength training with heavy lifting after my baby was born. I was doing cardio and watching my diet as I tried to return my body to where it had been. However, there was a stubborn 20lb that just didn’t want to go away. I decided to try lifting heavy weight to see how I would feel. Within 6 weeks, I felt stronger, more agile and more energetic. And that 20lb seemed to disappear. I was amazed and kept at it. Sure enough, these benefits persisted. I dove into the literature a bit more, and sure enough, strength training is well supported for health and injury prevention.First off, I want to speak to what I mean by lifting heavy.

Types of Strength Training

There are two types of strength training – aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic is your typical “body pump” class. This is low weights and high repetitions. You often feel your heart rate rise. While this has health benefits, it is different than heavy lifting. This can be beneficial for quick movements and agility but has less benefit in building significant strength. If this is what you love, please do it! But I would encourage you to also try heavy lifting and mix both into your routine. Heavy lifting is fewer repetitions and heavy weights. This would be focusing on the large muscle groups the help your posture and prevent injury. Think squats, deadlifts, lunges, and bench press. You typically do 6-10 repetitions and 3-5 sets. It is recommended you do a pull (i.e. deadlift), a push (i.e. bench press), and a squat each session. You can add others as well, but consider that the base. 

I know what you’re thinking – you’re unsure, apprehensive and maybe even a bit scared to step up to the squat rack. I was there too! Here I will dispel some of the myths that kept me from stepping up to the squat rack.  Plus I’ll highlight some of the important long-term health benefits of weight training for women.

Top four myths that prevent women from lifting heavy and why you should ignore them

  1. Lifting heavy will cause excessive muscle bulk. You may be afraid that you will look bulky and not feminine if you lift heavy.  The truth is that if you lift heavy and create a calorie deficit by eating healthy foods, your muscles will become stronger and more dense, causing you to burn the fat on top of them and get the toned look you desire much sooner than with diet or cardio alone. [1] 

    People often say they don’t want to get bulky by lifting. That’s like someone saying, “I don’t want to run a 4 minute mile, so I’m just not going to start running.” To get “bulky” like a bodybuilder is the same thing – lifting weights casually a few days a week does not compare to the time, effort, and expertise needed to get bulky. 
  2. Targeting problem areas will decrease problem fat. Fat cannot be spot reduced by a targeted workout.  You can do sit ups all day long to try to get abs, but you will not see results until you decrease your body fat.  This is most efficiently done by a combination of diet and strength training.  You will get the most benefit by using exercises that involve multiple joints and more of your body.  These are compound movements that recruit multiple muscles (think squats, deadlifts, bench press and pull ups).  This will increase fat loss due to the ability to burn fat during and after exercise. [2]

    Every body is different and we cannot “spot treat’ to look a way other than what is your body’s natural form. Try to embrace your uniqueness and focus on the strength you’re gaining. 
  3. Lifting heavy will cause injury. Lifting heavy is an individualized term.  Pick a weight that is heavy enough that you cannot lift it more than 6-10 times and use good form.  This will maximize the health benefits and minimize the risk of injury.  Weight training has been shown to preserve bone density and prevent falls [3]. Heavy lifting will actually prevent injury by improving your posture and stability.
  4. Cardio is the only exercise that prevents disease. Many think that to improve health you must do cardio only. There is an assumption that strength training is not “hard enough” because your heart rate doesn’t rise enough. This will lead some to do lower weight, higher repetition practices instead. The truth is, strength training also decreases your risk of  chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, high cholesterol and some cancers. [4]  

How to get started

Now that the myths have been dispelled, it is time to start lifting heavy.  Start with a whole body routine comprised of compound lifts with a weight heavy enough that you cannot lift it more than 6-10 times using good form.   Whether you are ready to start total body weight workouts on your own or you need the assistance of a personal trainer, the important thing is that you get started now and never stop!

Sources

  1.       [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23006411]
  2.       [https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/11404658]
  3.       [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7990242]
  4.       [https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/192030]

Dr. Annie Purcell is a Spine and Sports Physiatrist in Redding, CA, specializing in Lifestyle Medicine. You can find her online at www.instagram.com/dr.annie.purcell

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