Cardio is great—in fact, it’s a must. But there’s another beneficial component to physical fitness that many women are ignoring: weight lifting. And we’re not just talking about picking up those little 2-pound weights and doing a few bicep curls (though there’s nothing wrong with that). Hitting the weight room—and more specifically, using a barbell—challenges your body in a way nothing else can. “A barbell forces your body into a fixed position, which is biomechanically beneficial because it creates stability on the weight load. This, in turn, gives your muscles more stability to push and pull from, and that helps them stay more engaged,” explains Holly Perkins, CSCS, a Los Angeles–based celebrity trainer and author of Lift to Get Lean.
Lifting heavy becomes even more important as you age. “Women lose muscle mass and gain an average of five pounds of fat per decade,” says Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, a senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. “In other words, even if your body weight stays the same, if you don’t lift weights to maintain your muscle, you will lose about five pounds of muscle every 10 years and gain about five pounds of fat, which is not good for the heart or our bones.” Still not sure about entering that weight room? Read on for more benefits—plus a few strategies that will turn you into a lifting pro.
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4 Major benefits of barbell work
It Improves Your Overall Health. You’ve heard the saying that health is wealth, right? Keeping with that, let’s just say weight lifting is equivalent to winning the lottery. Research shows that it slashes your risk of ailments like stroke and heart disease and drastically improves bone and joint health. According to a 2018 University of Michigan study, people with stronger muscles are 50 percent more likely to live longer. And let’s not forget the mental benefits. “Strength training is really powerful for women,” notes Perkins. “It improves self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence, and it builds resilience on a personal and emotional level.”
It Boosts Your Metabolism. When you lift heavy weights, your body releases human growth hormone and testosterone, both of which help you develop lean muscle, says L.A.-based celebrity trainer Ashley Borden, creator of the AB Fit app. And having more lean muscle will naturally keep your metabolic rate fired up. “Muscles are much more metabolically active than fat,” explains Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and chief of orthopedic sports medicine at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. “This means they take more calories to function, whereas fat doesn’t burn much energy.” In other words, when your muscles are built-up, you are torching more calories whether you are exercising or just chilling.
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It Bulletproofs Your Body. A strong body is about more than just scoring a chiseled frame. Being weak leaves us susceptible to falling and injury. “Lifting heavier weights forces you to use more muscles, including your stabilizing and balancing muscles,” explains Olson. Plus, as Dr. Wright notes, maintaining lean muscle gives us a 20-year advantage over those who don’t. Translation: An 80 year-old who lifts and maintains muscle is as strong as a 60-year-old who doesn’t.
It Challenges You. For women, developing strength and maintaining lean muscle isn’t a cinch. We are naturally more suited to endurance activities, whereas men, because of their testosterone, are more suited to strength work. In order to have a holistic fitness routine, we must do those things that test our abilities, advises Olson. For women, that means picking up a barbell. After all, if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
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5 Beginner moves to try
Start off strong with moves from certified personal trainer Ashleigh Kast, who designed this routine exclusively for Health readers.
Stand facing a loaded or unloaded barbell with feet a little wider than hip-width. Bend knees, hinge at hips, and lower chest down slightly; grab barbell with an overhand grip, placing hands shoulder-width apart (A). Keeping arms straight and core tight, stand up tall, lifting barbell as you rise; push hips forward and squeeze glutes at top of movement (B). Lower barbell back to “A” for a 3-second count. This is one rep; do 3 sets of 10–12 reps.
Single arm landmine row
Place one end of the barbell in a landmine anchor, which typically can be found at any gym. (No anchor? Wedge barbell into a corner.) Load the other end with your appropriate weight. Stand next to barbell with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent; hinge at hips and lower torso until it is almost parallel to floor. Grab the weighted end of the barbell in right hand with an overhand grip, allowing arm to hang naturally (A). Squeeze back and pull the barbell up to chest explosively (B), and then slowly lower it back to “A” for a 2-second count. This is one rep; do 10–12 reps per side.
Landmine reverse lunge
Place one end of the barbell in a landmine anchor, which typically can be found at any gym. (No anchor? Wedge barbell into a corner.) Load the other end with your appropriate weight. Grab the weighted end of the barbell with the right hand (both, if you feel more comfortable), holding it to chest with elbow bent. Step left foot back, resting on forefoot (A). Lower left knee down until it almost touches the ground (B). Press into right heel to return to standing. This is one rep; do 10–12 reps per side. If using one hand, switch hands when moving to opposite leg.
Lie faceup on a bench holding a barbell loaded with your appropriate weight with arms fully extended and over midline of chest; hands should be wider than shoulder-width apart (A). Allow elbows to bend as you slowly lower barbell straight down to chest for a 3-second count (B). Push barbell back up to “A.” This is one rep. Do 10–12 reps.
Single side barbell bus driver
Place one end of the barbell in a landmine anchor. Load the other end with your appropriate weight. Kneel in a lunge position with left foot forward; grab and raise the weighted end of the barbell straight up with both hands (A). In a sweeping arc, while keeping arms straight, rotate barbell and torso to the left, bringing barbell across body to left hip (B). Reverse motion to “A.” This is one rep; do 10–12 per side.
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MYTH: It’s easy to injure yourself
TRUTH: Any sort of physical activity can lead to injury when not done correctly, but it’s no easier to injure yourself weight lifting than it is in yoga or on a treadmill. “Injuries are usually due to overdoing one activity,” says Olson. “And weight lifting makes your soft tissues and bones stronger, which actually helps to protect you from getting hurt.” To lessen the chance of injury, form is key. “That means stack our joints, keep knees over ankles, shoulders over elbows, and a flat back,” advises Dr. Wright. When you first start out, it’s a good idea to consult a pro at your gym or take a basics class, says Lauren Powers, a fitness coach and co-owner of Total Fitness Revolution in Mableton, Georgia.
MYTH: It makes you bulky
TRUTH: Many women steer clear of lifting heavy because they assume it’s just for guys who want to look beefy. News flash: It’s actually incredibly difficult for women to develop bulky muscles from lifting. “Our high levels of estrogen make it easier for us to store fat, which is why we have to work very hard with weights to even maintain muscle, let alone build it,” says Olson. To truly get jacked, you’d have to not only spend tons of time in the weight room but engage in a dedicated strength-building plan as well.
MYTH: Cardio helps weight come off faster
TRUTH: If strength training properly, the calorie expenditure during your workout is going to be about equal to a similarly timed cardio session. Added to this is the fact that strength training stimulates your metabolism, says Perkins. That means that the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) after weight lifting will be greater than cardio, resulting in more calories burned in a 24-hour period.
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