As a badminton player in my school days, I had to be quick on my feet. My trainer would make me run laps around a football field, and dynamic stretches and drills on the court. I don't remember doing any form of strength training with or without weights. At the time (more than 20 years ago), it wasn’t common for girls to do any form of strength training.
Strength training (also called resistance training) is basically physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness (ie to get strong). This can be done either with free weights (like a dumbell), weight machines (you may have seen this in the local gym) or just with your own bodyweight. This is different from exercises which mainly aim to get your heart pumping and improve cardiovascular fitness: like running, swimming, zumba, cycling and similar aerobic activities.
I recently came across videos of P.V.Sindhu’s training routine for the World Badminton Championships. It’s no surprise that she does a lot of cardio training such as running and swimming, which is clearly necessary for those long gruelling matches on the court. What you may not know is that a bulk of her daily fitness routine revolves around strength training inside a gym.
Things are changing. More women are realizing the importance of strength training for fitness and health in general.
After doing mostly jogging/ running over the couple of decades after school, I discovered strength training in my mid-thirties. I’ve also noticed that a lot more women around me have started doing some form of strength training, be it with weights or by using bodyweight exercises.
Research has shown that strength training in fact has several benefits, especially for women. Arvind Ashok, co-founder of Daily9, a StrongFirst Girya and also one of the founders of The Quad, can't emphasise the importance of strength training enough for women especially:
As we age, our bones start to weaken or become brittle. This results in a condition called osteoporosis and a higher risk of broken bones/fractures. This is a condition that is very common especially amongst older women.
Studies have shown that women who undertake strength training see significant improvements in their bone density and also see enhanced connective tissue strength, thus lowering the risk of osteoporosis.
Given the higher incidence of this issue in older women, this shows the importance of including strength training in the fitness regimen for women.
Strength training stimulates the release of the growth hormones which, among other benefits, helps in building muscle and burning fat. In addition, it helps regulate estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels in women, especially as they get older. This means better hormone health.
Apart from the above, Coach Arvind also highlights the following important benefits of strength training:
Increased muscle strength, power, recovery, and endurance.
Increased insulin sensitivity, lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Reduced risk of injury.
Reduced lower back pain.
In addition to the physical benefits, it can greatly help relieve mental stress and can be a great confidence builder. Who doesn't need that!
The World Health Organization’s “Global recommendations on Physical Activity for health 18-64 year olds” (and endorsed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India) as well as organizations such as the American Heart Association recommend incorporating strength training exercises for all the major muscle groups at least twice a week.
But there are still many women who resist strength training for many reasons, especially in India.
Here are some of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered and what my personal experience has been.
Women think they are too old for strength training, once they are in their 30s or 40s.
It’s actually the opposite. If you are a woman in your 30s or 40s and haven’t done strength training before, it’s important to start now.
As mentioned earlier, we start losing muscle mass and bone density as we age, mainly due to inactivity. This can eventually lead to conditions such as osteoporosis. Strength training can improve our bone density, delaying these symptoms of ageing and helping us stay healthy for a long time.
Want some inspiration? My 72 year old mother-in-law does 15 minutes of strength training every day! All she had to do was learn a simple set of exercises from her physiotherapist. She continues to be extremely active and is able to join groups of much younger women on guided historical walks around the temples of India.
A lady I met at the gym once said she wants ‘toned’ arms but doesn’t want to become ‘bulky’ or ‘buff’.
Strength training is not about making muscles pop like a bodybuilder. You can be strong without looking bulky. To get bulkier and to add large amounts of muscle, testosterone is required. Women do not produce high levels of this, and so getting bulky is just not going to happen. The only examples you will see of bulky women are professional athletes or bodybuilders who do this for a living and put in a lot of hard work and usually use a lot of supplements too.
Think about women who regularly carry heavy loads. For example, women in villages may have to carry pots of water for long distances. I have also seen women who work at construction sites carrying gravel and stones. They are extremely strong but definitely do not look like bodybuilders.
After 5 years of strength training, I can confirm that apart from getting much leaner, I haven’t ‘bulked up’ and neither have any of the women who I work out with. But, am I stronger? Yes. Are my muscles more toned? Yes. Do I feel great? Absolutely! I have no plans of stopping.
My own mom worried that lifting weights can be dangerous, and especially harmful for women as it could weaken/ damage the uterus.
It is clearly important to follow correct form and technique to avoid injuries in strength training, and be sensible about taking care to warm up before and stretch after training. This is something that is stressed upon by my trainers as well. But isn’t this true of most activities including running/ jogging? Even cutting vegetables in the kitchen can be dangerous if you aren’t careful!
Pregnant women or people with certain injuries should consult their doctor before strength training. Even in such cases, usually only specific exercises are to be avoided.
“Running and other cardio fitness routines like zumba can help you burn more calories and lose weight faster.“
This is not true. Strength training can help improve your metabolism and is a great fat loss tool. In fact, Coach Arvind notes that when we strength train and improve our body composition i.e. increase the amount of muscle and reduce the amount of adipose tissue (fat!), our entire body's metabolism changes. Muscle is expensive to maintain i.e. our body ends up burning a lot more calories to keep that muscle. A good strength session burns about the same amount of calories as a cardio workout, and due to an effect called ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’, we end up burning a lot more calories during the day and in fact, the next day too.
“It’s cheaper to buy a pair of shoes and go for a jog, rather than join a gym.”
You don’t necessarily need a gym or fancy equipment to do strength training. In fact, you may not even need those shoes! Strength training can be just as effective with your own bodyweight or with simple items like resistance bands, towels, socks/sliders etc and can be done in the convenience of your home. Check out the videos below to see some simple exercises you can try out, (source: The Quad, fitness partner to Daily9):
And if you are thinking: “It’s just not for me.“
Are you sure? How about giving it a go?
I can personally confirm that after 5 years of strength training in my 30s, I feel leaner and stronger. I’ve gone back to playing badminton and find that in many ways, my game has improved because of the strength I’ve gained. I don’t do as much cardio as before, but I still move quickly and my training has also boosted my endurance levels.
And not only do I feel physically stronger, I feel more self-confident in general.
Another big positive for me:
I’ve learned to eat well to support my strength training and the combination has helped me maintain a healthy weight.
There are many women who train with me who are around my age and some older than me. All of us find strength training with weights effective for many reasons. Each of us have our own goals and these include:
Losing weight; or
Very simply, staying fit.
A friend of mine, a teacher in her 40s, was advised by her doctor to do light strength training to support her bone health and to reduce risks of injury.
Another friend, also in her 40s, looks to her regular strength training sessions to help relieve mental stresses, apart from the fact it simply makes her feel great!
Many others find that in combination with a healthy diet, it helps them stay fit and lean.
Make a start
Start slow. Aim for at least two 20-minute sessions per week to begin with. And as you grow more confident and more comfortable with your routine, you can start building on it.
If you are completely new to strength training, it’s a good idea to join a gym/ bootcamp or hire a personal trainer to learn the correct form and technique, and to understand how to put together strength workouts. You can also learn how to combine it with cardio activity that you may be doing.
It’s worth it.