woman training with weights

What's an activity that can help women stay strong, burn calories, and build healthy bones? Strength training. Before you say "No, thanks," to weights, take some time to debunk the myths and learn the importance of strength training for women.

Only about 20 percent of women practice strength training weekly, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Pumping iron just twice a week can reduce overall body fat by 3 percent in 10 weeks. In other words, you can trim up to three inches off your hips and waist without changing your diet.

What's more, when you strength train, you get more calorie-torching bang for your buck. Working with weights keeps working long after you've stopped lifting. A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who did an hour of strength training burned about 100 calories more the day following their workout than they did when they didn't lift weights. That amounts to about four and a half pounds of fat burned per year for women who lift weights three times a week! When you replace 10 pounds of fat with 10 pounds of lean muscle, you can effortlessly burn up to 50 calories a day.

Won't I bulk up?
Many women miss out on the benefits of strength training out of fear of developing bulging muscles. This is a misperception. According to the Women's Heart Foundation, high levels of estrogen make it very difficult for women to become overly muscular. When women lift weights, the changes to their muscles are generally related to tone, strength, and endurance rather than size. The resulting look is firm, feminine toning--not bulky masculine muscles.

What are the benefits?
Strength training is a key component of overall health and fitness, and it provides an important balance to aerobic workouts. The Mayo Clinic notes the following among the many benefits of strength training.

Preserves muscle mass.
While muscle mass diminishes with age, you can counteract this effect through strength training. The percentage of fat on your body increases as you get older if you don't do anything to replace the lean muscle you lose. Strength training helps preserve and enhance your muscle mass, regardless of your age.

Controls weight.
A regular strength training program helps you reduce body fat and burn calories more efficiently, which can result in healthy weight loss.

Reduces risk of osteoporosis.
Because of hormonal changes that women experience as they get older, they naturally lose bone density, putting them at increased risk for developing osteoporosis. Routinely lifting weights slows bone deterioration and can help your bones grow stronger, maintain strength, and reduce your chance of developing osteoporosis or slow down its effects.

Decreases injury risk.
When you build muscle, you help protect your joints from injury and increase your balance and coordination, which become increasingly important to help maintain your independence as you age.

How can I get started?
It's easy to begin a strength training program at home or in the gym. The following options will help you build lean muscle.

  • Body weight: Using your own body weight for resistance is an excellent way to increase muscular strength. Push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal crunches are among the simplest exercises that use body weight.
  • Free weights: Dumbbells, weight bars, and barbells are standard types of free weights. You can purchase these inexpensively at sporting goods stores, and find them at most gyms.
  • Weight machines: Many fitness centers offer circuit-style weight machines to different muscle areas of the body. Ask for assistance in using the machines for the first time or follow the diagrams on the equipment. Weight machines are also available for purchase for home gyms.
  • Rubber tubing: Resistance tubing provides an inexpensive way for home strength training. Some doctors' offices or sports medicine clinics provide tubing to patients free of charge, or you can select from a range of options at sporting goods stores. If you're unfamiliar with rubber tubing, it resembles large colorful rubber-bands.

For an effective workout, select a weight or resistance level that fatigues your muscles after eight to 12 repetitions. You can begin with a single set and work up to two or three sets of repetitions as you become stronger. For instruction with specific types of weights and lifts, seek assistance from a trained instructor at a gym, health center or local community center.