Why lifting heavy is good for all women

Posted by for Strong Women

#StrongNotSkinny has become rejected as yet another damaging prescribed standard. Taking the focus off aesthetics, Stylist breaks down why weightlifting is so good for body and mind, with a little help from Laura Hoggins, author of Lift Yourself - ‘a training guide to getting fit and feeling strong for life’.

Women are continuously being held to ever-changing standards of beauty. One minute we’re told to squeeze ourselves into size zero jeans, the next, we’re supposed to be ripped to shreds like semi-pro athletes.

#StrongNotSkinny had us all fooled for a hot second that both the fitness industry and social media genuinely cared about our physical and mental health. ‘Forget being a weak waif — smash out the weights sessions and you’ll be able to get away with being a size 10… so long as you have abs,’ the movement seemed to say.

It wasn’t actually about being healthy, moderate, or empowered at all — it was just another aesthetic standard that we had to aim for.

Weightlifting can transform both our bodies and minds, making us more powerful in every sense. For years, we were told that smashing shoulder presses and deadlifts would turn us into hulk-like creatures — terrifying Miss Trunchbull-esque, hyper-masculine women who couldn’t be attractive in any sense of the word.

The truth is that it’s incredibly hard for women to put on masses of muscle, unless you’re following a specific programme. What lifting heavy weights can definitely do, though, is transform your body composition so that your body fat goes down and your lean muscle mass increases in a way that makes you a lot stronger. 

Laura Hoggins is the undisputed lifting queen. Not only is she one of London’s best loved PTs but she’s also the author of Lift Yourself - ‘a training guide to getting fit and feeling strong for life’. Her whole philosophy is about empowering people beyond aesthetics.

“Lifting weights changed my life,” Laura tells Stylist — insisting that it can do the same for any of us.

“For me, 2019 has been the year of #StrongIsNotASize…I was never a fan of #StrongNotSkinny because it still focused on the aesthetic. Size doesn’t have a direct relationship with your health and fitness, and that’s before you consider the huge positive effect that the gym can have on your mental health.”

She says that for years, the fitness industry has assaulted us with promises of quick fixes which once again sell us thinspiration but under a different guise. “I can tell you that if someone promises your results in seven days, it is unlikely to get you the results you want, and it is certainly not sustainable.”

So, where to begin if you’re new to lifting and want to make 2020 your strongest year yet? In her book, Laura explains how important it is for beginners to master the basic movement patterns first — your squats, lunges, hip hinges, push-ups, etc.

She says that lifting “heavy” for beginners/intermediates means working in the ‘hypertrophy’ range. That’s where you start to breakdown muscle for it to repair itself and get stronger — often using body fat as fuel — and it happens when you’re lifting in the 10-12 rep bracket with a weight that feels challenging but not totally exhausting.

As you grow stronger and more confident (and get your technique nailed!), you’ll want to progress to heavier weights — which means moving down to the 1-6 rep range. This is when you move from hypertrophy into serious strength training, concentrating on heavy, heavy weights for shorter sessions.

In order to make progress, you’ve got to adhere to the principal of ‘progressive overloading’ — i.e. gradually increasing the amount you lift over a period of time so that you’re always working towards the top end of your effort range. As you get stronger, you’ve got to keep increasing the load — but without suddenly jumping up massively (that’s a one-way street to injury). But over time, you’ll notice a massive difference.

“The benefits of lifting heavy are HUGE,” Laura insists. “You will feel and see improved body composition, shape and posture, muscle definition, functional strength you can apply to your daily life, like carrying heavy bags of shopping home! You will also see the mental benefits of working hard and turning up to lift consistently — and, one day,  lifting something you never thought possible!

“It becomes more about chasing the weights on the bar than worrying about the weight on the scales.”

Laura says that her own relationship with her body completely changed after she started lifting heavy — despite being ‘about 30lbs heavier than my old “goal weight”.

“I have never been more body confident,” she says. 

As is always the case, you can’t rely on the gym alone to help you meet your goals; what you eat plays a massive part too. In fact, many fitness professionals believe that diet accounts for up to 80% of body composition change — whether you want to put on muscle mass, lose body fat, or stay the same. So, you’ve got to get the right nutritional plan for your goals, lifestyle and adequate recovery. That means eating enough, and working from a place of nourishment and self-care, rather than deprivation.

Laura’s advice for anyone thinking about starting on their lifting journey?

“The time to start lifting is now! Grab a friend, get a PT, go to a group class, get an online training programme, follow IG PT’s or YouTube videos from qualified fitness professionals.

“That gym bro bicep curling in the corner is unlikely to be thinking about your form, so swerve that “gymtimidation”, get your best gym outfit ready, create a sick playlist, and go lift!”

WHY IS WEIGHT LIFTING SO GOOD FOR US?

It’s not just an effective way of boosting our self-image and changing our body composition (if that’s what we want). Lifting can be massively beneficial for women in particular for a number of reasons:

It’s great for hormonal imbalances

Those of us with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) resistance training can help to lower insulin levels, improve glucose metabolism and increase our metabolic rate — all vitally important for reversing the symptoms of the condition. In fact, some forms of exercise can make PCOS worse; the stress of excessive cardio can send already sensitive hormones haywire. Weight training, however, doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

Strength training
Strength training: Using weights can build physical and mental strength.

It can help us sleep better

Who’s really getting a good night’s sleep these days? A couple of years ago, a report conducted by YouGov found that nearly half of British women were sleep deprived, compared to just 36% of men. Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on our mental and physical wellbeing (heart disease, diabetes, weakened immune system etc), so anything that helps us nod off quicker is a massive boon. 

Lifting heavy weights not only helps you sleep better but may also help you fall asleep faster and into a deeper sleep. When you weight train, you constantly breakdown muscle fibres in order for them to repair and grow stronger - but that process only happens when you’re asleep. In order for muscle growth to happen, the body has to be in deep sleep. So, lift heavy and get two bonuses for the price of one.

It increases bone density

As kids, we were all told to drink our milk in order for our bones to grow strong - but as adults, no one gives much advice on how to maintain good bone health. Our bone density declines as we get older, however, putting us at risk of osteoporosis (women are four times more at risk of the degenerative condition as men). However, weight training puts just enough loaded stress on the bones, helping them to become stronger and fracture-resistant.

It improves heart health

The UK is currently in the midst of a heart health crisis, with the British Heart Foundation finding that deaths from heart disease have risen for the first time in 50 years. Women are more likely to die from heart attacks than men in the UK; that’s not necessarily because they’re less healthy than them, but because we don’t receive the same level of treatment when we get to hospital.

 Awful as that is, we can significantly reduce our risk of heart issues in the first place by doing regular exercise - and weight lifting twice a week is a fantastic place to start. In fact, according to a 2018 study from Iowa State University, lifting weights for less than an hour a week can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 70%.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on an old Dutchie.

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