Written by Lisa Allen | Edited by Dr Mark Kapnoudhis
In any gym, you have the cardio machines, a section populated by both men and women. Then you have the nautilus or other pulley and weight machines – populated by mostly women and alder men. Then you have the free weights – almost always a men-only section. And it’s not the men that set up that dynamic – it’s the women.
Free weights carry a stigma, a fear or at least a vast uncertainty for most women. At the heart of this avoidance of free weights are some very simple misconceptions about the nature of free weights and how they affect the female body.
The Fear of “Bulk”
If a gym trainer had a dollar for every time she heard a woman say, “I want to tone my muscles, but I don’t want to bulk up,” well, she wouldn’t be a trainer at the gym anymore. So many women miss out on the benefits of using free weights because of this very fear – that somehow by picking up a dumbbell, they will suddenly have man arms complete with blocky muscles and bulging veins. But what they ignore is the fact that women aren’t built that way.
Certainly there are notable examples of women with arms and legs that dwarf those of most men, but there is more going on in creating a body like that than simply the type of resistance training they do.
Free weights themselves do not make you bulk up any more than the other machines you may normally use. They just give you a different type of workout – in fact, they may give you a far better toning workout than a machine because of how much or your body is involved in each exercise.
Muscle mass or “bulk” is the result of lifting very heavy weights and consuming huge amounts of calories to fuel those workouts. Without thousands of additional calories, it is impossible for your muscles to grow beyond a healthy proportionate size. Those women you see posing in the body building competitions on TV did not get that way by eating 1800 calories a day and accidentally picking up a dumbbell.
The Fear of Fat
Some women fear that using free weights will not burn as much fat as using the machines. That’s actually completely backwards. In reality, free weights can give a better workout on many levels than the pulley and plate machines. When you use free weights, more than just the main movement muscles are involved, so you get the added benefit of a mini full-body workout with each exercise.
For instance, if you are using free weights to do biceps curls from a standing position, you are working a lot more than your biceps. Your lower back is involved as are your abdominal muscles to help keep your body stationary. Your buttocks are involved in helping to stabilize both your legs and the trunk of your body. And of course your legs are involved to keep you standing straight and in one place.
Having so much of your body involved in even the simplest exercise can help you maximize your fat-burning potential – especially if you do your cardio first and your heart rate is already elevated.
Free Weights for (Female) Fitness
Free weights themselves will not cause you to bulk up. Honest. But they can give you an excellent toning and fat-burning workout – probably in less time than a circuit through the machines.
So unless you’re drinking protein shakes with every meal and taking a medicine cabinet full of supplements, using free weights is not going to rob you of your femininity. In fact, it might just help you maximize it.