Flexing Our MUSCLES: Weightlifting Makes Us Fit, Healthy and Self-Confident

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by Debra Melani

Women who shy away from the traditionally male-centric weight rooms might want to reconsider. Standing their ground amid the deadlift bars and iron plates could lead to a host of unimagined benefits. Research has found that among other things, hoisting dumbbells can amp up the fat burn, ward off some common diseases and make women stronger, both inside and out.

Burn Calories When Resting

Aerobic activity can burn more calories while doing it (e.g., 14 to 16 per minute when running), but strength training prolongs the burn, even when resting afterward, according to Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., of Quincy, Mass., who publishes widely on the topic in scientific journals, magazine articles and books. Women will burn fewer calories while pumping iron than when running (between eight and 10 calories a minute), but because of weightlifting’s action—traumatizing muscle tissue and forcing it to rebuild—muscle recovery requires increased expenditure of energy, and thus calories, when the person is at rest.

The research shows a revvedup burn of between 5 percent and 7 percent for three full days after a workout, says Westcott, who developed the exercise science major at Quincy College and has reviewed and directed strength-training research for more than 25 years. “On average, a woman burns an extra 100 calories a day by having done 30 minutes of strength training twice a week. That’s an extra 3,000 calories a month, or nearly an extra pound of fat she can burn.

Additional “free” calorie burning comes from the after-burn effect. By initiating the anaerobic, rather than aerobic, system, weightlifting requires more energy just to return to the resting state. “So, after you finish a workout, you will burn approximately 30 percent of the amount of calories you burned during the workout in the first hour afterward as your body transitions back. It’s a bonus of resistance training.”

“It’s like there’s a furnace inside you,” says naturopathic doctor and CrossFit instructor Holly Lucille, of West Hollywood, Calif. The more buff a woman becomes, the more fat she burns. “It can help minimize that natural effect of slowed metabolism as you age and control body weight,” she says.

To maximize the burn, eat a healthy combined protein/carb snack within an hour of the workout, advises Jen Hoehl, a personal trainer in New York City, who says, “Adding amino acids helps the muscles rebuild more efficiently.”

Westcott agrees, adding that 90 percent of studies he’s reviewed concur that about 25 extra grams of protein such as a Greek yogurt, more for heavier men, just before or after a workout, enhances fat loss, bone strength and lean muscle gain.

Don’t Fear ‘Hulk’ Bulk

Experts agree that it’s impossible for women to look like the Hulk character of comic book fame. “They don’t have enough anabolic hormones, such as testosterone,” Westcott says. “Our team has written 26 books on strength training, with not one title exclusively for women. The muscles are exactly the same for both genders, so the same training works, but women will just get toned, not bulky.”

“I train a lot of tiny girls that deadlift 225,” Hoehl says. One tip: Don’t overeat, a mistake many women make when starting out.

“Often, people will be hungrier, and they lose track of what they eat or think, ‘Now I can reward myself,’” Lucille says. “You have to figure out what your new normal is. Eat lean, clean protein.”

All three experts agree that braving the free-weight area boosts success at toning and trimming the whole body. “If you use free weights, you use your core and more muscle groups to help stabilize both the weight and your body, which is often standing,” Hoehl says, versus machines that are often worked while sitting, and generally exercise only one targeted muscle group at a time.

Recover Muscle

Weightlifters also slow Mother Nature’s habit of stealing muscle during aging. “Women lose an average of five pounds of muscle per decade after age 30 until menopause, when the rate increases even more,” Westcott says. Studies have found that during a woman’s first six months of twice-weekly weight training, she can rebuild about one-quarter pound of muscle per week, he says.

Because becoming stronger makes everything from chores to other kinds of workouts easier, women become firmer, fitter and more self-confident, Lucille observes. Independence rises, along with self-esteem. “As with all things in life: If you push against resistance, you get stronger,” she says. “That’s true both mentally and physically.”

Note: Experts recommend using a certified trainer or weightlifting class to get started.

Debra Melani writes about health care and fitness from Lyons, Colo. Connect at DebraMelani.com.

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