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Worried that heavy weight lifting will make you bulky or cause you to get injured? Think again!
Lifting heavy doesn’t have to be reserved just for men or serious CrossFit athletes. And don’t worry, lifting heavy won’t make you “bulky” or cause you to “lose your curves” as your great aunt Nancy might have you believe.
Strength training, especially using relatively heavy weights, has many health benefits for women. It’s a shame that there’s such a stigma around women lifting heavy.
For me, hiring a strength coach and committing to a consistent routine of lifting heavy has made a huge difference in my health.
I’ve made major strength gains and noticed changes in my physique. And those aren’t even the most valuable changes as a result of making this investment.
This practice has helped me fully embrace a mindset shift where I value my body’s physical ability over its physical appearance.
There’s something so empowering about hitting a personal best on a difficult lift or seeing yourself accomplish something you never thought your body could do, like chin ups and pistol squats in my case.
As women, we’re conditioned to value our looks above all else. But lifting heavy is a great way to see your body perform physically like you never thought it could. And this can be a stepping stone away from valuing your body just for its physical beauty.
Heavy lifting can provide some amazing mental and physical health shifts. It helps you learn what you’re capable of, and create a body that can handle what life throws at it. And to be honest, most women appreciate the appearance benefits that come along with a regular lifting routine!
In this article I’ll outline:
- How to determine what lifting “heavy” looks like for you
- The myth of getting “bulky”
- Health benefits of lifting heavy
- Tips to start lifting heavy in a safe way
If you’re ready to learn about the incredible physical and mental benefits lifting heavy weight can have, keep reading!
What Does Lifting “Heavy” Look Like for You?
The word “heavy” in weightlifting is going to mean different things for everyone. What may be considered heavy for your body could be an easy lift for someone else and vice versa.
A “heavy” lift is also going to change over time as your muscles gain strength and endurance from your continued training.
What you consider heavy today may not be what you consider heavy in one year from now. That’s what we hope for when we’re creating a regular lifting routine.
Your one repetition maximum (or one-rep max) is the maximum amount of weight that you can possibly lift for one repetition. The assumption is you would be physically incapable of lifting even one pound more than that amount. In practice, it’s not so clear cut, but in theory, this is your absolute maximum lifting weight possible.
The first step is to establish your one-rep max (1RM) for a certain lift. Here’s an article that teaches 3 different ways to establish your 1RM depending on how long you’ve been lifting for.
Once you have determined your one-rep max, you can calculate what an intense, “heavy” lift would look like for you.
Lifting heavy is considered a lift at 70% or more of your one-rep max.
Say your one-rep max for a bench press is 100 pounds. You should start training the bench press at around 70 pounds to see all the benefits of lifting heavy.
Anything from three to 15 repetitions per set at this weight is a great place to start. I’m often doing 3-5 reps on a heavier weight, or 8-15 on a lighter weight, all within the 70-90% 1RM weight range.
As you gain strength, you’ll have to regularly increase the challenge. What started out as a heavy lift for you, over time, won’t be so heavy anymore.
With consistent strength training (2-3 times per week), you should aim to either increase the weight of your lift or perform more reps with the same weight on a weekly-ish basis.
Working with a personal trainer who can oversee your training session and suggest ways to build strength and prevent injury is going to be the best way to see the most benefits.
If a trainer isn’t accessible to you for any reason, start slow and pace yourself. Lifting for strength and health is a lifelong journey, not a sprint, so slow and steady is best!
The “Bulky” MYTH
The number one objection to lifting heavy that I hear from women is they think it will make them look “bulky.”
It’s not clear to me what the word “bulky” means. I imagine these nervous women are mainly thinking of male weight lifters with huge muscles and thick necks. Or bodybuilding women that take steroids in order to get unnaturally large.
Or perhaps they think women with any significant muscle mass at all look “too big”.
It’s all coming from fear, based on the perception that they will somehow become less feminine or less attractive if they lift weights. Which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax we’ll discuss later in this blog.
But for now, let’s address the fear that somehow your muscles will get gigantic from heavier weight lifting.
Very large muscle size primarily comes from a combination of higher testosterone levels, excessive calorie consumption, and daily intense weight training. In both women and men.
It takes dedication to develop large muscles like The Rock, no matter what gender you are!
And the truth is, women don’t have the same hormonal profile as men that would enable them to build that much muscle mass when lifting heavy. Our testosterone levels aren’t naturally high enough to promote that level of muscle gain.
Any women you see who have unnaturally large muscles are likely taking supplemental testosterone to achieve that look.
Even in the absence of hormone therapy, it takes a very long time to build muscle. You’re not going to wake up after a tough workout and suddenly have giant muscles.
Most women will never get to a place where they feel they need to cut back on lifting due to excessive muscle development.
And for those women who do put muscle on more easily, it’s very simple to adjust your training routine if you feel your muscles are getting larger than you prefer. (Because after all, it really is just personal preference when we talk about getting “bulky”!)
Rather than fear gaining too much muscle, and therefore skipping the heavy lifting, I suggest you give this style of training a try first. Once you see how your body responds to training, you can adjust your routine (if necessary) to match your personal physique goals.
Why Women Should Lift Heavy
Women who want to build physical, mental, and spiritual strength will benefit from lifting heavy weights.
More often than not, women are drawn to cardio and lifting lighter weights for more reps. And while there are health benefits to lighter lifting and long duration cardio, you miss out on the benefits of heavy lifting if you always keep things light.
And society’s norms around women and weight lifting, or the fear of hurting yourself or looking dumb, shouldn’t be what stops you from trying this style of training.
Here are just a few of the physical and mental health benefits you can gain from lifting heavy.
Lifting Heavy Builds Bone Density
Strength training, especially when it’s done with heavier weights, can both slow bone loss and rebuild bone.
The physical force that comes with training the muscle attached to the bone can actually stimulate bone-forming cells called osteoblasts to increase bone-building activity.
When we’re able to turn more of these cells on, we get stronger, denser bones. In other words? Stronger muscles lead to stronger bones.
This is especially important for us as women since factors like our declining hormones as we age make us more susceptible to weakening bones and osteoporosis.
And young women need to pay close attention, since we hit our peak bone mass at the end of our 20s. That means the bone we build when we’re young is what will carry us through our 30s, 40s, and beyond, even past menopause when our bones start to rapidly lose mass.
If you’re under the age of 30, now is your absolute best time to invest in building bone density. (Which is why making sure you’re menstruating is so incredibly important!)
But the fact is that it’s never too late, and you’re never too old, to work on building bone mass. One study showed that postmenopausal women with osteoporosis were able to improve their bone density by about 3% over eight months of high-intensity weight training.
Lifting heavy, along with other high-impact exercises, can give your bones well-rounded support in both preventing and healing osteoporosis.
Upper body weight training like bench pressing and rowing movements help to increase the bone density of the wrists, hands, and arms. These are the parts of the body that are the primary movers of most lifts, and they’re also highly subject to breaks when our bones are weak.
Lower body weight training like squats and deadlifts improve bone density in areas like your hips and legs. These movements in addition to high-impact exercises like running and jumping will maximize your lower body bone density for a lifetime of healthier bones.
Lifting Heavy Promotes Fat Loss
While my main focus in this article is health, there are of course appearance benefits to weight lifting as well. And these appearance benefits specifically relate to fat loss and “toning”.
When most women think of exercising to promote fat loss, their minds automatically go to cardio like jogging or spinning.
And yes, cardio can be an effective tool to help you lose weight. Cardio exercises like running, walking, swimming, biking, and aerobics enable you to burn a large number of calories while you are performing the exercise. At the end of the day, fat loss does require a calorie deficit, so burning calories can help to a point.
And the truth is, heavy lifting likely doesn’t burn as many calories during the actual training session as compared to cardio workouts. But lifting heavy weights is still a very effective fat loss tool.
While you don’t burn as many calories while lifting as you do performing cardio, you will actually see a greater post-exercise calorie burn from a higher intensity training style like heavy lifting.
And building muscle actually increases your resting metabolic rate, possibly due to the increased energy use from muscle tissue. One study found a 4% increase in resting metabolism for women after 24 weeks of strength training. Not a huge increase, but I believe any opportunity to safely raise your metabolic rate is worth giving attention to!
Fat loss is all about creating a calorie deficit. And if you’re not a fan of cardio all day every day (which isn’t great for you anyway), adding in some heavy lifting sessions can enable your body to keep burning calories even when you’re not training.
And if you’re looking for that “toned” look, you can’t just build fat. You need to build muscle so that any fat you do lose is simply revealing your strong and sizable muscles underneath.
Lifting Heavy Improves Libido
One surprising benefit that lifting heavy can have for many women is that it can increase their libido. And not just because you think you look sexier, either! 😉
Weight training, especially heavy lifting, is one of the most effective ways to naturally elevate testosterone in women.
This testosterone and the small increases that occur from weight training, or even during certain parts of our cycle, is what’s responsible for an increase in our libido.
Testosterone usually peaks around the middle of our menstrual cycle, close to when we ovulate. This is the primary reason why you might feel a little friskier around ovulation. Which makes sense biologically, because that’s when you’re most fertile.
Weight training on a regular basis can help keep your testosterone at peak levels to maximize your sex drive throughout the month.
And don’t worry, weight training won’t raise your testosterone levels above what is normal for a woman and for your body. It’s not like taking steroids!
Lifting heavy won’t cause you to develop any male-like characteristics. It will just give your body the boost that it needs to produce healthy levels of this sex hormone.
Healthy levels of testosterone don’t only benefit our libido. Testosterone is also responsible for maintaining bone density, regulating mood, and regulating other important hormones.
You’ll be feeling sexier in no time after implementing a healthy weight training routine!
Lifting Heavy Shifts Your Mindset
Beyond the physical benefits that women gain from lifting heavy, there are many mental benefits to including this type of training in your routine.
As women, we’re told by society that physical feats of strength (especially ones that occur in a gym) are reserved for men.
How many times have you heard an easier version of a movement being called the “girl” version?
Things like doing strict push-ups, chin-ups, and even bench pressing are seen as primarily man-centric training. While women are more commonly boxed in to lifting free weights and using cardio machines.
And if you enjoy free weights and cardio, keep at it! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those forms of movement and training. They can even complement the work you’re doing when you lift heavier weight.
But maybe, if you’re like me, you thrive off of accomplishing physical challenges and pushing your body past what you thought possible. And heavy weight lifting is a wonderful opportunity to see what you’re capable of.
By consistently committing to a training routine of heavy lifting, these physical feats that were out of your reach can become a reality.
Strength training can also help to shift your own personal narrative about your body.
This style of training helps you realize that your body is far more capable than the box society puts women in says it is.
If you’ve been stuck in the mindset that your looks are the most valuable thing about you, lifting heavy can help you see that your body is strong, capable, and far more valuable than just what it looks like.
Lifting heavy highlights your body’s ability to do tough and challenging things.
And before you compare yourself to others and their physical abilities, just remember that God created you to be YOU.
Working on maximizing your physical abilities, not competing with others, is the best way to keep a positive, empowered outlook on your body and your training routine.
How to Start Lifting Heavy
Now that you know some of the benefits lifting heavy can offer, you’re probably wondering how you should start.
Lifting heavy can be intimidating at first. That section of the gym is usually dominated by men and women who look like they train for a living. So taking your first step over there can be a daunting task.
Trust me, I understand the feeling. When I first started toying with the idea of lifting heavy as my main form of training, I was a little intimidated by all the information out there and my fear of looking foolish.
But, if you’re able to break through that fear of the unknown and step out into this new way of caring for your body, I promise you won’t regret it!
Here are some of my best tips for someone just starting out with heavy lifting:
Tip #1: Hire a Coach or trainer
The best way to start with a new personalized and effective training routine is to team up with someone who’s done it before.
This could be by hiring a personal trainer, joining an online training program, or even lifting with a friend who has experience and is comfortable guiding you. Working with someone who knows what they’re doing is the best way to boost your confidence and get you going on the right foot.
My personal strength coach Matt McLaughlin from Capital Strength and Conditioning in Raleigh is a great resource for all things heavy lifting. He helped me gain the confidence I needed and guided me to perform the lifts correctly without injury.
And if you’re not in the Raleigh area, he can still help you get started! He offers private virtual coaching sessions so you can learn from him, wherever you are in the world.
Tip #2: Join The Right Gym
One of my biggest frustrations as someone who wants to lift heavy and safely, is when a gym doesn’t have the right equipment to do so. Whether that’s a lack of barbells and dumbbells or row after row of elliptical machines, it can be a little annoying when I am looking for an effective workout and none of the equipment I want to use is available.
True, you can get a great workout using even just your body weight. And I’m not knocking those who want to use the elliptical machine. But if you’re planning on experimenting with heavy lifting, it’s important to find a gym that can support your goals.
Look for a gym with at least a couple of barbells and a rack that can be set up for squatting, benching, and deadlifting. The best gyms will also have a large variety of plates to use on that barbell, since progressive training requires the opportunity to increase your weights slowly and methodically. And for accessory lifts, a variety of dumbbells and kettlebells is very handy.
You can actually create a great set up for lifting in your garage or basement at home. You may want to test out this style of lifting before you invest in a home gym set up, but if you know this is how you want to train for the long haul, consider stocking your home gym with key elements like a squat rack and a variety of free weights.
Tip #3: stick to the basics to be safe, not sorry
Even though it can be exciting to try new, complicated, and challenging lifting routines, the fact is that the basics are where your best results are going to come from, and your least amount of injury too.
The squat, bench press, and deadlift are all movements you can do safely with any level of weight that suits you best. Not ready to try a barbell? Start with a PVC pipe or light dumbbells and practice your form. Need some variety? Try different stances or bar positioning, like the front squat or a Jefferson deadlift.
There’s no need to get all crazy with Bosu ball squats and single leg pistols on top of a kettlebell. Sure that stuff looks impressive on Instagram, but from a safety and efficacy perspective, simple is best.
Tip #4: Sign up FOR Fed and Fearless™
Part of developing a healthy strength training routine is creating a mindset that allows you to approach weight lifting fearlessly, without becoming obsessive about your routine.
Fed and Fearless™ is my signature program where I help high-achieving, spiritually-driven women fearlessly discover their best diet, lifestyle, and training routine to reach their health goals.
In this program, I offer tons of resources and insight into lifting heavy for women specifically.
From customizable training plans to mindset shifts that can help take your training to the next level, you’ll learn it all as a member of my Fed and Fearless™ program.
If you’re interested in learning how to lift heavy while caring for your body, mind, and spirit, click here to get on the waitlist! We open to the public just a few times a year, and we’d love to have you join us for our next round.
REMEMBER: YOU ARE MORE THAN A BODY
I hope it’s clear now that strength training can help you to focus more on your body’s abilities rather than its looks.
But this doesn’t mean you should look to find your self worth in what your body can do.
Yes, getting PR’s and seeing strength increases is fun and empowering. Even so, it’s not where you should be rooting your self-worth and getting personal validation.
No matter how strong and capable our bodies are now, they can’t stay that way forever. Strength, just like beauty, is fleeting.
And rooting your worth in your strength rather than your looks is the same harmful narrative, just under a different mask.
Our worth is rooted in God and God alone. Only what He says about us – that we are chosen and worthy of His higher calling – really matters and can sustain the test of time.
Lifting heavy can help to shift your mindset away from valuing your looks above all else. But don’t let your body’s abilities become a new idol in your heart.
Use your newfound strength to serve others and honor God with your body. After all, that’s what truly strong women do.
Do you lift heavy? What physical and mental benefits have you seen from starting this type of training? Share your experience in the comments below!