Female Fitness Myths – Part 1
We put the question out there to trainers all over Australia and New Zealand – what are the most common female fitness myths you hear from your clients over and over again? We were overwhelmed with responses so have created a 2-part series which will abolish those myths once and for all!!!
Myth #1 – Weights Will Make You Bulky
This is a myth that I encounter at least once a month, often from the same clients, regardless of what form the “weight” takes.
There is a difference between “heavy” reps and “light” reps in terms of what happens in your muscles, regardless of how HARD something is. You can do 20 reps and be sore for days, but that weight is still light, and essentially you did cardio1.
To bulk up, you need to lift a weight in the 6-10 range (of max effort – don’t take weights you can do 20 times and put them down after 10 reps). You also need to do a high volume of weights in that range, with high rest ratios; so unless you’re spending a minimum of 2hrs a day in the gym, you’re not going to bulk up even if you’re lifting for hypertrophy.
Furthermore, those women you see in bodybuilding comps eat a very specific diet to make those gains, because women just don’t have the hormonal profile for big muscles2. Ultimately, the women you see with a “bulky” appearance either:
- Take hormones
- Do the work (touched on above)
- have extremely low bodyfat (not healthy for women – we need our fat to maintain healthy oestrogen levels, bone density, and muscle mass)
Ultimately, women should be concerned with getting as bulky as possible – because it’s precisely because it is so hard for us, working towards solid muscle and bone mass protects us from osteoporosis and fragility later in life3. So:
- Eat the protein. Lots of protein from varied sources (red meat only once a week, then choose from fish, seafood, poultry, legumes, tofu products, etc)
- Do the weights. Lifting weights can halve your risk of heart disease, has a protective effect on your brain and body, and can improve confidence. If you’re concerned about size, stay in the 15-ish rep range (make sure it’s hard though), make sure you’ve used you’re whole body (push/pull/squat/deadlift/twist) and perform these sessions at least 3x a week.
For personal trainers, coming up against a client like this is exasperating, to say the least, especially if she’s peri-menopausal and the clock is ticking to lay down new bones and muscle mass! However, it’s important not to
- Make her feel stupid; she’s told in a hundred different ways that the weights room is not for her. From the hordes of men dominating the space, to the music that plays in that room, to the indoctrination of her youth that expressly communicates how “weak” and “small” women are4.
- Directly contradict her; battling a belief, that’s not grounded in fact, rarely works. However, women respond really well when they understand WHY. Gentle education, whether it’s a tidbit here and here from you, or printing out research papers, will go a lot further. Play the long game.
- Continue prescribing weights against her wishes; what are other ways to load bones? Incorporating some plyometric and “gravity absorbing” exercise will have a similar effect. Some bodyweight exercises can only be done once or twice to get a “heavy” rep range – start there!
You can also get clever with how you load – using a powerplate, performing eccentric reps, using TRX, or freeform board (for example) are all much harder to control, and will ask for higher contractions from the muscles, without necessarily adding weight.
Myth #2 – The Gym is for Fat Loss; Cardio
Many women are hitting the gym to lose weight. The fact is, that for many women, there’s simply no other conceivable reason to exercise. I have lost count of the number of women who have cancelled training because:
- it’s a luxury
- they’ve got pelvic floor dysfunctions
- they’re not losing weight
- they’ve achieved their weight loss goal
There are so many reasons to exercise beyond fat loss, as we all know, but the message isn’t getting to our general female population.
Cardio training in itself is great for your heart health, your bone health (particularly if it’s weight bearing), your blood pressure, managing blood sugar, lung function, and mood5. Some studies have shown cardio training does help with weight management and fat loss6, more-so than combined with resistance training7. But then a meta- analysis on strength and resistance training has shown that strength training alone will burn off 1.4% of the entire body’s store of fat8, roughly equating to about ½ kilo of body fat alone, and on parr with resistance training9.
We should probably also mention that these studies on aerobic training and fat loss are primarily performed on overweight and obese MEN, and women respond differently! Exactly how differently is yet to be explored. What we do know is that her capability will change with her cycle, change again if she’s on the pill, and change again if she’s peri or post menopausal.
If we are health workers, like I hope that we see ourselves to be, then allowing our female clients to believe their worth is tied up in being smaller, being thin, and losing weight is a disservice. Many women will get far greater overall health benefits from doing weights and/or power training, and it’s up to us to show her the way.
Myth #3 – Abdominal Exercises will help with loss of Abdominal Fat
Sorry not sorry.
Performing abdominal exercises will increase abdominal muscle density, size (if you’re a man), coordination, strength in that movement – but it will have absolutely no effect on where you store your fat10.
Your fat mass is a reflection on a hundred different things, including:
- hormone balance
- consuming adequate nutrients & calories
- sleep habits
- gut microbiome
- food quality
- energy output
- muscle mass
and more that I don’t know about or understand!
If you want flat abs, you have to behave like someone who has flat abs, in all ways, including your food intake, activity expenditure, exercise and health history, etc.
You Shouldn’t Start Exercising When You Get Pregnancy
… and… You Can Continue Doing What You’ve Always Done
Also NOT True.
If you don’t currently exercise when you find out you’re pregnant, now is the perfect time to start11. Being sedentary is actually quite harmful for both you and your baby, but going walking everyday and incorporating some pregnancy-appropriate strength training has so many benefits12!
Women who are active throughout their pregnancies13:
- have less back pain
- experience less constipation
- may have decreased risk of gestational diabetes, pre eclampsia, and cesarean birth
- maintain a healthy weight gain during pregnancy
- enjoy improved overall fitness, stronger heart and blood vessels
- return to a healthy weight after the baby is born
Conversely, it’s also not quite true that you can continue doing what you’ve always done. In university age, nulliparous women, rates of stress incontinence in certain sports is more than twice that of general populations14, and pregnancy is another risk factor for developing pelvic dysfunctions.
Pregnant women need modify (which isn’t the same thing as “make easy”) and monitor a range of factors when they continue exercise during their pregnancy, including:
- Their pelvic floor – they need to have it checked if they’re participating in high impact exercise and activities, and monitor throughout their pregnancy (preferably by a physio, but you can also monitor for symptoms such as back pain, stress incontinence, or feelings of heaviness in or around the vagina). Impact will have to be reduced as her intra-abdominal pressure increases.
- The abdominal wall – her linea alba will stretch, and her abs will separate, that’s a given. What is not for certain is the impact this has on her body or her capability. Furthermore, just because they will stretch and separate, doesn’t mean we should encourage further stretch and separation through inappropriate movements.
- She has a higher base metabolic rate and core temperature – so she’ll get hotter and sweatier sooner than she did before. There also may be blood sugar factors that come in to play when changing levels (like burpees).
- Her blood pressure will fluctuate – her blood volume increases, but not necessarily at the same rate as her capillary number. Sometimes her blood pressure will be low, sometimes high, and her position will influence the affect that has on her. Monitoring her blood pressure is advisable.
- Her centre of gravity and joint laxity will change – making balance more challenging and increasing her risk of falls.
- The baby will displace her organs and fascia – this means her posture, balance, and even things like her digestion will also be affected. This will have an impact on your exercise selection.
To touch on just a few…
The moral is that perhaps you can do a modified version of you sport, but do it under the supervision of an appropriately qualified health professional. If you are a personal trainer – then get appropriate qualified or refer your pregnant clients out.
Fitness for females is rife with myths, pressures, “should do’s/be’s” and emotional triggers. Ladies, there are literally billions of reasons to train, lift weights, go running, and move generally – and very few of them are for weight loss or looking a certain way.
1https://journals.lww.com/nscajscr/Fulltext/2015/02000/Muscle_Size,_Quality,_and_Body_Composition_.2.aspx 2https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jappl.2000.89.3.1061 3https://blog.nasm.org/weight-lifting-for-women 4https://www.bu.edu/articles/2013/women-and-weight-lifting-its-good-for-you/ 5https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7050-aerobic-exercise 6Willis LH, Slentz CA, Bateman LA, Shields AT, Piner LW, Bales CW, Houmard JA, Kraus WE. Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Dec 15;113(12):1831-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01370.2011. Epub 2012 Sep 27. PMID: 23019316; PMCID: PMC3544497. 7https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121215151506.htm 8https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/health/strength-training-can-burn-fat-too-myth-busting-study-finds 9Wewege, M.A., Desai, I., Honey, C. et al. The Effect of Resistance Training in Healthy Adults on Body Fat Percentage, Fat Mass and Visceral Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 52, 287–300 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01562-2 10Vispute SS, Smith JD, LeCheminant JD, Hurley KS. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fb4a46. PMID: 21804427. 11Weir Z, Bush J, Robson SC, McParlin C, Rankin J, Bell R. Physical activity in pregnancy: a qualitative study of the beliefs of overweight and obese pregnant women. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2010 Apr 28;10:18. doi: 10.1186/1471-2393-10-18. PMID: 20426815; PMCID: PMC2879230. 12Oliveira C, Imakawa TDS, Moisés ECD. Physical Activity during Pregnancy: Recommendations and Assessment Tools. Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet. 2017 Aug;39(8):424-432. English. doi: 10.1055/s-0037-1604180. Epub 2017 Aug 7. Erratum in: Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet. 2017 Oct;39(10 ):584. Oliveira, Cibele Santini de [corrected to Santini, Cibele]. PMID: 28783859. 13https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/exercise-during-pregnancy 14de Mattos Lourenco TR, Matsuoka PK, Baracat EC, Haddad JM. Urinary incontinence in female athletes: a systematic review. Int Urogynecol J. 2018 Dec;29(12):1757-1763. doi: 10.1007/s00192-018-3629-z. Epub 2018 Mar 19. PMID: 29552736.