Wonder what *really* happens when you add strength training to your routine? All these perks.
Why Should You Lift Heavy Weights?
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No disrespect to cardio, but if you want to blast fat, get in shape, and rock everything that comes your way—both in and out of the gym—strength training is where it's at. And experts agree: Heavy lifting is in! You can't swing a kettlebell these days without hitting some workout guru, exercise program, or book advising women to not only lift weights but lift heavier weights.
But why? And should you try it if you're already happy with your current workout routine? Here, eight benefits of lifting weights that'll convince you to pick up the heavy dumbbells.
You'll Torch More Body Fat
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Build more muscle and you'll keep your body burning fat all day long. (Here's all the science behind why muscle helps you burn fat and calories.)
"Lifting weights can increase your lean body mass, which increases the number of overall calories you burn during the day," says Jacque Crockford, CSCS and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Burning extra calories post-workout plus building muscle? That's the surefire way to get the body you want.
In recent research on overweight or obese adults (age 60 and over), the combination of a low-calorie diet and weight training resulted in greater fat loss than a combination of a low-calorie diet and walking workouts, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Obesity. The adults who walked instead of weight trained did lose a comparable amount of weight—but a significant portion of the weight loss included lean body mass. Meanwhile, the adults who did strength training maintained muscle mass while losing fat. This suggests that strength training is better at helping people lose belly fat compared with cardio because while aerobic exercise burns both fat and muscle, weight lifting burns almost exclusively fat.
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...and You'll Especially Lose Belly Fat
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While it is true that you can't spot reduce—your body is born with pre-conceived places it wants to store fat—a University of Alabama study found that the women who lifted weights lost more intra-abdominal fat (deep belly fat) than those who just did cardio. This not only helps you lose weight and build a more toned body, but it also lessens your risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers. (Not to mention, lifting heavy weights recruits your core, giving you an abs workout without even trying.)
Strength training may have a reputation of making women "bulk up," but it's not true. The more your weight comes from muscle (rather than fat) the smaller you'll be. "In fact, body weight often goes up with strength training, but dress size goes down one or two sizes," says Perkins. Plus, it's really, really difficult to get body-builder huge. "Women produce about 5 to 10 percent the amount of testosterone men do, limiting our muscle-building potential when compared to men," says Sinkler. To seriously gain size, you'd pretty much need to live in the weight room. (More proof: What Really Happens When Women Lift Heavy Weights)
Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Your Muscles Will Look More Defined
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Love the lean, defined muscles on super-fit ladies? "If women want more definition, they should lift heavier since they cannot get bigger muscles because of low testosterone levels," says Jason Karp, an exercise physiologist and author. "So, lifting heavier has the potential to make women more defined." (Seriously. Here's why you can lift heavy and won't bulk up.)
If you want more proof, watch this video with two-time Reebok CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir, who has a great body and certainly isn't afraid to throw around heavy weights.
Photo: Pavel Soforonov/Shutterstock
You'll Burn More Calories Than Cardio
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Just sitting on your butt reading this, you're burning calories—if you lift weights, that is.
You may burn more calories during your 1-hour cardio class than you would lifting weights for an hour, but a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who lifted burned an average of 100 more calories during the 24 hours after their training session ended. Another study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Metabolism found that, following a 100-minute strength training session, young women's basal metabolic rate spiked by 4.2 percent for 16 hours after the workout—burning about 60 more calories.
And the effect is magnified when you increase the weight, as explained in a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Women who lifted more weight for fewer reps (85 percent of their max load for 8 reps) burned nearly twice as many calories during the two hours after their workout than when they did more reps with a lighter weight (45 percent of their max load for 15 reps). (Up next: 7 Common Muscle Myths, Busted.)
Why? Your muscle mass largely determines your resting metabolic rate—how many calories you burn by just living and breathing. "The more muscle you have, the more energy your body expends," says Perkins. "Everything you do, from brushing your teeth, to sleeping, to checking Instagram, you'll be burning more calories," Perkins says.
Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
You'll Strengthen Your Bones
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Weight lifting doesn't only train your muscles; it trains your bones. When you perform a curl, for example, your muscles tug on your arm's bones. The cells within those bones react by creating new bone cells, says Perkins. Over time, your bones become stronger and denser.
The key to this one is consistency, as research has shown that lifting heavy weights over time not only maintains bone mass but can even build new bone, especially in the high-risk group of post-menopausal women. (Psst. Yoga has some bone strengthening benefits too.)
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You'll Get Stronger, Obv
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Lifting lighter weights for more reps is great for building muscle endurance, but if you want to increase your strength, increasing your weight load is key. Add compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and rows to your heavy weights and you'll be amazed at how fast you'll build strength. (Here's what really counts as lifting heavy and how often you should do it.)
The payoff? Everday activities (carrying groceries, pushing open a heavy door, hoisting a kid) will be easier—and you'll feel like an unstoppable powerhouse, too.
You'll Prevent Injury
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Achy hips and sore knees don't have to be a staple of your morning run. Strengthening the muscles surrounding and supporting your joints can help prevent injuries by helping you maintain good form, as well as strengthening joint integrity. (Related: An Open Letter to Women Who Are Afraid of the Weight Room.)
So go ahead, squat low. Your knees will thank you. "Proper strength training is actually the solution to joint issues," says Perkins. "Stronger muscles better hold your joints in position, so you won't need to worry about your knee flaring up during your next run."
Photo: Studio Romantic/Shutterstock
You'll Be a Better Runner
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Stronger muscles mean better performance—period. Your core will be better able to support your body's weight and maintain ideal form during other exercises (like running), plus your arms and legs will be more powerful. What's more, since strength training increases the number and size of calorie-torching muscle fibers fueling your performance, strength training could actually help you burn more calories during your cardio workouts, says Perkins.
(More: Run into shape with this 30-Day running challenge—good for beginners, too!)
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You'll Increase Your Flexibility
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Ignore that super ripped guy fumbling in yoga class for just a minute. Researchers from the University of North Dakota pitted static stretches against strength-training exercises and found that full-range resistance training workouts can improve flexibility just as well as your typical static stretching regimen.
The key word here is "full-range," notes Sinkler. If you can't complete the full motion—going all the way up and all the way down—with a given weight, you may need to use a lighter dumbbell and work up to it.
Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
You'll Boost Heart Health
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Cardiovascular exercise isn't the only exercise that's, well, cardiovascular. In fact, strength training can up your heart health, too. In one Appalachian State University study, people who performed 45 minutes of moderate-intensity resistance exercise lowered their blood pressure by 20 percent. That's as good as—if not better than—the benefits associated with most blood pressure pills. (Related: How to Use Heart Rate Zones to Train for Max Exercise Benefits)
You'll Feel Empowered
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Throwing around some serious iron doesn't just empower women in the movies. Lifting heavier weights—and building strength as a result—comes with a big self-esteem boost. Your strength will not only show in your lean, toned body, but also in your attitude. (See: 18 Ways Weight Lifting Will Change Your Life.)
"Strength has a funny way of bleeding into all areas of your life, in the gym and out," says Jen Sinkler, an Olympic lifting coach, kettlebell instructor, and author of Lift Weights Faster. By constantly challenging yourself to do things you never thought possible, your confidence grows. " Weight lifting empowers you," she says.
Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock