Weight Lifting Can Mean Big Gains for Women

When it comes to weight lifting, many people stand to gain a lot more than muscle.

Recent studies have shown that women in particular can derive serious and sustained health benefits from strength training. Here are a few physical, mental and emotional reasons to schedule some time at the squat rack:

1. Clearer cognitive function. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that strength training might help senior women with mild cognitive impairment stave off full-blown dementia.

One group of women trained with dumbbells and weight machines, and a second practiced balance and toning exercises. Among the former, researchers saw executive function (decision-making, conflict resolution, and focus) improve by approximately 10-12 percent; scores among the latter, conversely, declined by about 0.5 percent.

2. Improved bone density. Women should be especially wary when it comes to bone health: due to hormone changes that occur after menopause, women are much more likely than men to develop osteoporosis. Strength training – particularly low-rep, high-weight varieties – has been shown to “significantly increase” bone mass among postmenopausal women.

3. Increased metabolic efficiency. Yup, 30 minutes of cardio will help you burn more calories than a few sets of deadlifts…within the confines of that 30-minute time frame. Unlike a cardio session, your body is still working hard long after you’ve finished a tough strength session.

According to the American Center for Disease Control, “Muscle is active tissue that consumes calories while stored fat uses very little energy” – i.e., muscle burns more calories than fat throughout the day. As a result, strength training can boost your metabolism by up to 15%. The first step? Building that muscle.

4. Better body image: A study conducted by at South Dakota University observed 49 female university students who engaged in strength training for a period of 12 weeks. Participants gained an average of one pound throughout the study; however, their lifting capacity also improved by anywhere from five to 11 pounds and, most importantly, participants reported “improved body image and a better attitude about their physical selves after strength training.”

Other studies, including one conducted by McMaster University, observed similar conclusions – finding that women responded to “objective proof” of their progress (more repetitions, increased weight) over time.

Given all these benefits, why aren’t more gals lifting?

Media efforts to unpack the question suggest that many of us fear the possibility of “bulking up.”

And while women can increase their strength at the same rate as men, building visible muscle is a different animal: most of us simply don’t possess the testosterone levels necessary to build muscle without carefully-crafted training, diets and supplements. From a psychological perspective, though, several recent studies have sought to uncover a more nuanced understanding of the sociocultural factors that dissuade women from hitting the weight room.

One study featured in the Sex Roles Journal of Research found, on the whole, that women were often sensitive to how others might interpret their participation (“evaluation concerns”) in an activity regarded as counter-normative to traditional female gender behavior.

Another study by Boston University found that women increased their strength at faster rates when they lifted alongside other women, rather than within coed settings.

Whether you’re resistant to strength training or unfamiliar with it, consider ways to incorporate it into your existing routine. Here are some great resources for women looking to get started:

8 Strength Training Tips for Women : A great basic introduction for women who may have questions regarding how frequently they should lift or the best ways to measure progress.
5 Strength Training Truths Every Woman Should Know: Courtney Green’s excellent, impassioned five-pronged piece on why lifting heavy – and lifting often – is one piece of the fitness puzzle that many women are still neglecting.

Emily Newhook is the outreach coordinator for the MHA degree program from The George Washington University, MHA@GW.  Outside of work, she enjoys writing, horror movies and powerlifting.