Thursday 18 December 2014

Road to Workout - 6: Importance of Strength Training

   For many people, this post might seem a bit sudden, but it truly is the next step, and you'll know when you're ready for it because you'll be seeking it out rather than it being forced upon you. But once you've gotten into the rhythm of working out, you've fit it into your schedule, it's nice and snug and no longer feels out of place or like a chore, it's time to step it up.
   I'm going to start by saying that I've not abandoned the exercise I enjoy. I absolutely adore dancing as an exercise, and I have around 9 different dance workout DVDs, and different types of dancing to boot - hip hop, Latin and Irish step dance, to be precise. I use routines from the easier DVDs for my warm-ups, and I use the tougher DVDs for a full cardio workout. But cardio - especially for endomorphs - can only do so much, and sooner or later, you will need to pick up the weights.

   Women are finally beginning to move beyond the idea that strength training = manly bulk, but many still harbour it as an excuse to avoid it, and they're seriously not helping themselves. So first of all, let me just tell you this: it's testosterone that causes men to bulk out when they work out, because nature intended them to be stronger. Women lack the levels of testosterone needed to bulk out, and as a result women become lean instead of bulky. The only way women - and, having said that, men too - become bulky is by serious dedication. And I mean serious, hence the bold and italic text. Bulky, over-muscular bodies do not happen by accident, so, unless you want it and take lots and lots of different supplements, it won't happen to you.
   Let me explain something about muscle. Ordinary muscle - usually under-developed, especially in endomorphs - only takes a certain amount of energy to use. This is because there's not much of it. It's flimsy and not particularly strong because it's not had to lift heavy things or do anything unusual, as our day to day lives are not very taxing on the average body. But when you start lifting weights - even as small as 1kg/0.5lbs - your muscles will start to strengthen because of new stresses. When this happens, they begin by shrinking a little and tightening up, becoming denser. Think of it like a piece of bread. That's the average muscle. When you screw that piece of bread up, you make it smaller by filling in the air pockets within the bread itself with the bread. It's still the same amount of bread at the end of the day, it's just denser. That is, to a degree, what lean muscle is: compacted, strengthened muscle. Once it's finished filling in the 'gaps' and becomes denser, the muscle will start to grow. This is done by creating small tears in the muscle, tears formed by the stress of completing the movements, but instead of pulling itself back together, more muscle is formed to fill it in. It sounds horrible, doesn't it? But it's completely normal and your body is more than equipped to cope with it as long as you don't try to lift a weight which is too heavy for you.
   Denser muscle requires more energy to move it, because there's more of it. It's more efficient, too. So you want to do strength training not only to increase calorie burn in your other workouts like dancing, tennis or whatever it is you do, but also in day to day life.

   The act of strength training alone will burn calories and shed fat as well as building muscle, though admittedly not as much as compound moves which work more muscle groups at the same time - like lowering yourself into a squat while doing a bicep curl and then releasing them together, but you need to know your form (covered in the next post) before trying compound moves to avoid injury - but the increased muscle from even singular moves will cause more energy to get used up in day to day life, and as you continue strength training, that, too, will start to burn more calories.

   Now, what you need to realise here, though, is that you shouldn't force yourself to do more than you can. Always start with small weights. They might seem too light when you start, but with every repetition (or 'rep') you do, they'll seem to get a little bit heavier as the pressure on your body increases. So never use a weight that you can only just lift on your third rep. You need a weight that you can control and complete a set (predetermined number of reps, usually 10-20) with. Something some people don't realise is that lifting a weight too heavy for you is more likely to make you look silly when you have to put it down almost immediately than it will make you look cool by lifting it at all. Never set out to show off or impress anyone because you really can injure yourself, and the same goes with number of reps per set, number of sets per circuit (routine made up of two or more movements), or numbers of circuits. There is no shame in going small and going steady if you're a beginner - 'go big or go home' does not apply to you unless you want to injure yourself.

   Most dumbell sets are 0.5-2kg and increase in 0.5kg increments. Start with the lowest weight of those sets and make sure you can maintain form throughout every rep. Building muscle will help to make you look healthy rather than just skinny, and contributes to long-term calorie burn and, subsequently, maintaining your shape. Once you can complete three sets with a weight and begin to feel that it's not enough anymore (and feel that honestly, because you shouldn't rush yourself), move on to the next weight up. It might only be 0.5kg heavier, but you'll be surprised by the burn at the end of the sets. It'll be like you just started. Except with perfect form.


Strength training doesn't make you bulky or manly. Testosterone is what is needed for muscle-building, and women have far, far less testosterone than men, which is why you almost never see bulky women. Strength training is great for fatloss as the increased dense muscle (which also makes you appear slimmer as well as improving your posture) uses more energy to move, so even normal tasks will use a little more energy and burn more calories than someone without the lean muscle gained from strength training, and strength training can be done either by using dumbbells, barbells and your own body weight. By avoiding strength training you're both slowing your weight loss progress and making it harder to keep the fat off afterwards.
Read also: 9 Reasons Every Woman Should Lift Weights

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