Strength training: Why the time has come to do some heavy lifting

Weight training is everywhere as Jessica Ennis-Hill takes over from Kate Moss as a role model

In my local gym the other day, I watched one gym-goer do 10 chin-ups, just like that. In the corner, someone raised a weighted bag above their head, before slamming it hard against the ground. A third squatted low under a huge barbell. It was a run-of-the-mill day at the gym. And they were all women.

A lot has changed on the gym floor in the last few years. Where once women would have stuck steadfastly to the cross-trainers, and the free-weights room was a men-only zone, now the tables have turned. And more often than not those puny little pink weights are gathering dust in the corner – women are lifting just as heavy as men. 

In a survey by the Gym Group of more than 2,000 female members across the UK last month, 93 per cent said they now incorporate resistance training, including free weights and strength equipment, as part of their regular workout routine, while 65 per cent of them lift up to three times a week. Free weights was listed in the top five trends for 2016 in the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual fitness report. 

Women have discovered that weight training will not bulk you up, but lean you out, and the more muscle you build the higher you push your resting metabolism. For every pound of muscle you gain, you will burn 30 to 50 more calories a day. Research has also shown that strength training improves bone density, making it a great choice of exercise for women in their 40s and over to combat osteoporosis.  

It can also reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, fight depression, improve your posture and, of course, make you physically stronger. 

So what finally shattered the myths? It was helped in no small part by the #strongnotskinny movement on social media, with ultra-lean celebs and mere mortals alike showcasing their lifting prowess. 

Case study

Stephanie Best from Sunderland had struggled with her weight for years before she decided to start strength training with The Gym in Newcastle a year ago. 

“I used to avoid going out with friends or work colleagues as I always felt self-conscious about my size. It got to the stage where I wasn’t leaving the house unless it was a necessity. I decided enough was enough. Following nutritional advice and a training plan, I soon started to see the benefits of weight training and the correct diet. My calorie intake had doubled but I was losing weight and toning up.”

The 35-year-old lost nine stone over the course of a year, training four times a week using kettlebells and machine weights alongside cardio sessions.

“There is often the misconception that weight training for women leads to ‘bulking up’ and there is a fear that muscles look masculine. I couldn’t disagree with this more as since training with weights I have not only lost weight but I’m incredibly proud of my toned physique. 

“My confidence has rocketed since I started and I would encourage more women to consider incorporating  weight training into their life  in some way.”

Former Made in Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh transformed from coltish champagne-quaffer to sculpted Women’s Health cover star with weight training, while Cameron Diaz and Miranda Kerr make no secret of the fact that they lift heavy – hell, even the Kardashians are at it. The Gym Group’s research also showed that more women (32 per cent) now aspire to an athletic physique like Jessica Ennis-Hill’s than the waifish look of Kate Moss (10  per cent).

Gyms have reacted accordingly, with chains such as Fitness First making sure the weights room is more open and accessible (they can still be intimidating places for newbies), and freeing up more of the gym floor for free weights, TRX and dynamic exercises. 

Personal training gym Six3Nine has introduced Ladies that Lift, small group classes helping women to train heavy while getting the technique spot on. Third Space’s Bars and Bells class is dominated by women. 

Trainer Ed Loveday at Six3Nine says the benefits of weightlifting for women last a lifetime – and may even extend it. “Lifting weights doesn’t just give you a lean, toned physique – it can have a positive impact on mood and can help with symptoms of depression and stress, as well as resistance to health conditions like osteoporosis and sarcopenia.”

Nadia Cole, 33, was crowned London’s Strongest Woman in 2015, despite only taking up strength training a few years previously. “I was managing a gym but still only did exercise like spin, kettle bells, bootcamps and boxing rather than weight training,” she says. “The trainers at the club were big into bodybuilding and weight training and so I started doing some sessions with them and got hooked.”

Cole (pictured) says strength training made her feel healthier and happier. “It makes me more confident and whilst my weight hasn’t changed, I am now a size 12 rather than 16. I also find I care less what others think about my appearance and train for myself to feel good. There is a great sense of achievement in breaking personal  records – far more satisfying than  worrying about a number on  the scales.”

Strength training: What you need

Iron Gym Speed Abs: Use to sculpt shoulders, biceps and triceps as well as your core, while increasing endurance and supercharging your metabolism. £24.95, amazon.com

Adidas gloves: These gloves come with Climacool technology to prevent sweaty palms, with lycra for comfort and ease of movement. 12.99, adidashardware.com

The Louise Parker Method: Strength training will get you lean and lithe but you need the right combination of protein, good fats and a ton of veggies to really see a difference. Louise Parker’s body transformation method cuts through the diet-fad nonsense, and is simply the most intelligent weight-loss programme out there. The Louise Parker Method: Lean for Life, £20, is published by Mitchell Beazley and available to pre-order on Amazon.

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