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Weighing in on Weight Training for Women

Misconceptions about weight training—often based on unfounded fears of becoming too muscular—can keep women from pushing their fitness levels.

That’s unfortunate because weight training provides several important health benefits for women. Most important, it helps them maintain a healthy weight as they approach and pass menopause. It also can help them avoid osteoporosis and prevent back problems.

Muscle size

Misconception: Women who lift weights develop huge muscles.

Reality: Not necessarily. For women who follow a sensible weight-training program, the result will be a trim, healthy look, not bulging muscles.

This is because women naturally develop much less muscle mass than do men, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Women have fewer muscle cells, particularly in their arms and shoulders. When either a woman or man works out, muscle cells grow larger, but don't multiply.

Making time

Misconception: Weight training takes a lot of time.

Reality: You can take as much or as little time as you like. The ACSM recommends doing 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise at least twice per week. With warm-up and stretching, each session should take only 30 to 45 minutes.

Once you've passed the beginner stage, however, you’ll get stronger only if you lift heavier weights and do more repetitions. Once you’ve gotten as strong, fit, and toned as you want, you can maintain your fitness level by continuing to lift the same amount of weight.

Fat vs. muscle

Misconception: The scale doesn’t lie.

Reality: The scale does lie. Muscle is more dense than fat. With a weight-training program, combined with a good diet and aerobic exercise, you may lose inches from your waist, thighs, and other trouble spots without losing any pounds. You may even gain a few pounds.

When you stop

Misconception: If a woman stops working out, the muscle will turn into fat.

Reality: Muscle and fat are two separate tissues. If you stop working out, your muscle may atrophy. Meanwhile, more fat may be stored in already existing fat cells. But one isn’t converted into the other. Even if you stop working out, you can again build muscle whenever you resume weight training.

Gender difference

Misconception: Women aren’t as strong as men.

Reality: Not entirely true. Women are weaker in the upper body than men, even with strength training.

If you’ve never lifted weights, consider working with a trainer for your first few sessions; chances are the results you get will make you stick with it.