Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women & weights redux

The persistent concern of women thinking about weight training is that they’ll get “big.” This concern is played out in how they work at the gym. If you go to a big commercial gym and watch what the women actually do, you'll see that the women doing cardio outnumber the women doing any kind of resistance training by perhaps 10:1. Of those women doing some kind of resistance training, the vast majority will either be working with incredibly tiny weights, or using a couple of the machines in a half-hearted manner before going back to the cardio again.

But how many of those women are satisfied with the results they get? Maybe a few. But once you exclude the younger ones with metabolisms that would let them eat double-decker lard sandwiches without getting fat, the aesthetic spectacle generally isn’t all that inspiring. And you’ll notice that their appearance never really changes very much over time in spite of the effort they’re putting in. Women practically kill themselves on treadmills and elliptical machines, and their results are usually pretty insignificant.

Here I’m going to take a step back and consider what most of these women actually want to look like. To be blunt, they want to look like pop culture sex symbols. This isn’t a realistic goal for a variety of reasons, but I think it is worth considering anyway, because any body change in that direction would make these women very happy. If we accept that as a reasonable premise, then it follows that we should consider what these sex symbols do to look that way, and see how we can apply it to the average woman who wants to get into better shape.

At this point people will protest that this is all nonsense, because celebrities get plastic surgery and have personal trainers and dieticians and gifted genetics and their photo spreads are all airbrushed anyway. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But that’s not the whole story, because these women also do positive things to get that way, things that any person can emulate to some degree at moderate cost. The goal isn’t to literally look like Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movies or Jennifer Garner in Elektra (pictured above) or Jessica Biel in Blade III, but to move toward that kind of look in a healthy way.

What may surprise people is that how they did it is public knowledge: they all lifted weights. You can Google around a while and you’ll find interviews where they say it themselves. The sleek, toned look that women want is typically a product of lifting weights, the very thing that women striving for that look are avoiding like the plague. Pretty crazy when you think about it.

And while it runs against conventional wisdom, it makes perfect sense when you understand what is really going on. Women fear getting big and bulky, but the truth is that lifting weights won’t do that for the vast majority of women no matter what they do. For one thing, size comes from calories, not lifting weights; if you don’t eat to gain weight, you won’t gain any kind of weight, muscle or fat. For another, the vast majority of women are simply incapable of gaining the kind of muscle mass they are afraid of; they simply don’t have the hormonal or genetic prerequisites. Those crazy-looking female bodybuilder types are injecting male hormones and eating like a football player, and it still takes them years to get that look you’re afraid of. If you don’t do that, guess what? You won’t look like that. You couldn’t if you wanted to.

The whole idea of trying to gain any muscle at all is alien to most women. But what these women don’t understand is that the “toned” look they want doesn’t come from “toning” anything, because there is no such thing. The so-called “toned” look comes from losing fat and gaining muscle, which has the net result of producing the athletic-but-feminine aesthetic most women are looking for.

In fact, to simply put on the modest amount of muscle mass needed to achieve that “toned” look they want, most women would have to follow a weight training program designed to maximize muscle growth in order to see any results. Doing a halfhearted weight routine with tiny dumbbells or those silly machines will do absolutely nothing for the typical woman.

This is why the workout programs that are effective for most women are suspiciously similar to the more “hardcore” programs followed by men for maximal strength & size gains. The canny personal trainers will call them things like “body sculpting” to keep from scaring their female clientele away, but the programs that would “tone” a woman would typically make a man huge if you just scaled up the size of the weights to account for the man’s greater absolute strength and made him eat more. An ideal weight program for a woman won't be 100% identical to the ideal weight program for most men, but it will be awfully close.

There are exceptions, but these are less interesting than they seem. Let’s say a woman naturally gains muscle mass faster than she’d like. After all, these women do exist; they’re just very rare. But realize that even for women who are easy muscle gainers this is a very slow process. If you start to get more muscle than you want, just stop working out so hard and do more cardio instead. Or adjust your diet, because as I noted you can’t gain any kind of weight, muscle or fat, if you don’t have excess calories in your diet. Or modify your workout so you don’t target the muscles that are getting big. There are lots of sensible ways to work with this to get the look you want, because you don’t just wake up one day looking like an NFL linebacker.

You might also want to check out an interesting T-Nation article by on the subject of women & weight training available here.