Women, don't resist strength training

Strength or resistance training is one of the best means to improve muscle tone and definition, and helps in reducing injuries.

Ask any woman if she does resistance training, and chances are, four out of five will answer no. Simple reason. They don't want to bulk up and bulge. Retail outlets may cater for plus-sized women, but skinny is still in, no thanks to anorexic-looking cover girls on most fashion magazines.

While at university, I worked with therabands and Pilates machines because it was compulsory for dance majors. I never knew the importance of resistance training until I started dancing professionally, and discovered how much faster I got fitter and stronger.

During my heyday (I was still puny then), I could lift a fellow dancer weighing 60kg. But, while I developed a toned physique and eliminated the jiggles, I never could sculpt any body part except for my abs (abdominal muscles). That was, and remains, the sad truth.

Having a typical ectomorph body type, I struggle to gain weight and have less curves and shape than other body types. We are long, lean and slender. My type recovers quickly from exercise fatigue, but our longer levers and reduced muscle mass increases our need for postural and strength conditioning.

We have longer legs than men of the same height, which increases leverage and injury risks on the knees. Thankfully, my knees are still intact!

Working with weights, weight machines, toning and resistance/strength training are the same thing. It basically exercises your muscles, increases its size and strength using an opposing force, ie dumb bells, barbells or resistance bands. When stress is applied to a joint, it strengthens the surrounding muscles, which then helps strengthen and stablise the joint.

Unlike men, a woman's skeleton is usually smaller and smoother, so it's unlikely that you will build muscle mass by doing resistance training. Get that myth out of your head! Not unless you're on protein drinks or supplements, and have a desire to compete in bodybuilding events.

According to the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, women who are able to develop significant muscle hypertrophy (increase in size) typically have higher than normal testosterone levels, a lower than normal oestrogen-to-testosterone ratio, a genetic disposition to develop greater muscle mass, or go through a very intense resistance training programme.

Burning calories at rest

Burning calories at rest

During resistance training, exercise muscle fibres are broken down, and in the days following the workout, the fibres repair and grow stronger to meet the demands that have been placed on them. Therefore, rest days are as important as the exercise itself.

Your metabolic rate is also higher when you lift weights, allowing your body to continue burning calories while you're at rest. Gaining, losing and maintaining a healthy weight becomes much easier.

Hence, if you're focused only on doing cardiovascular exercises to lose weight, think again. No amount of running, aerobics or swimming is going to enable you to have a sculpted body. No doubt, any exercise is better than nothing, but exercising right is the key to overall fitness.

How many times have you heard friends saying they exercise everyday, yet can't lose the fat? Or they do 300 crunches daily and can't get a six-pack? The brutal truth: not everyone can sculpt a six-pack, but that's an article for another day. Your ability to get a body type of your choice lies in your genetic make-up.

If you're an ectomorph like me and aspire to look like the late sprinter Flo-Jo, forget it. Similarly, if you've a body type like singer Adele and dream of having actress Calista Flockhart's physique, dream on. Accept what you're born with and work on making it better.

To increase and improve your fitness level, the body must be stimulated beyond its current capacity. Therefore, you must train with a weight stimulus that is higher than your current capacity. This amount of stimulus is called overload. Add on weights progressively, as too much overload can lead to injuries.

Of course, you must also give your body the nutritional quality and quantity it requires.

Regularly participating in resistance-based exercise also helps to maintain peak bone mass and avoid the onset of osteoporosis. For women, bone mass starts to decline after the age of 30. Women have a greater risk of developing osteoporosis, and from the age of 40, can expect to lose approximately 0.5 to 1 per cent of their bone mass per year.

After menopause, it increases to a 2 per cent reduction in bone density per year. Resistance training can help maintain bone density and delay this degenerative process.

As we age, our fast-twitch muscle fibres or explosive muscles (generating short bursts of strength or speed) atrophy at a faster rate than our slow twitch (uses oxygen more efficiently, ie muscles used in marathons and cycling) or endurance fibres. Strength training helps to maintain both the fibre size and ability.

Where do I begin?

Where do I begin?

So, how should you start your resistance training programme? The easiest way is to use your own body weight first. Then progress on to books, bricks, bottles of water, or any other object that causes the muscles to contract. Begin with simple crunches, push ups and squats before adding on weights progressively.

Free weights are relatively easy to use and inexpensive. You don't need to fork out moolah to be a gym member. Just carry some objects and use them as weights. Free weights can be used to train the joint/muscle group from a number of angles. Progress is easy to measure, and it can used for single-joint exercises, such as bicep curls, and multi-joint exercises, such as parallel squats.

Many first-timers tend to use weights that are either too light or too heavy. With very light weights, the effect on muscle fibres can be minimal, and may not inspire results. With heavy weights, inexperienced exercisers often use too much momentum, lose form, and sometimes, fail to work the targeted muscles. Don't rush into it!

Women prefer to work out using resistance bands because it's simple, low-tech and an effective body sculpting tool for all body types and body parts. Because the band stretches, it allows you to feel your muscles. Plus, it's light enough to throw into your luggage when you're travelling. I usually lug mine on all my travels even though I may only take it out once in a while. Just knowing I can whip it out anytime gives me a false sense of satisfaction that I have done my resistance training for the week.

No one training programme works for everyone, so it has to be individualised, and provide a stimulus to all the major muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders, arms, abs, and legs). It is recommended that beginners do one set of eight to 12 repetition for the major muscle groups.

Ideally, you should do one to three resistance training workouts a week on alternate days, combined with regular cardiovascular exercises five times a week for 30 minutes each.

Increased muscle strength will enhance performance of everyday tasks like lifting, carrying, and walking up stairs. The way you sit and stand is influenced by the network of neck, shoulder, back, hip and abdominal muscles. Stronger muscles can help you stand and sit straighter and more comfortably. You will also notice improved balance, stability, and breathing with an improved posture.

Begin your resistance training after a brief warm-up like cycling or brisk walking or jogging for 10 to 15 minutes. Never do it after a cardio session as your muscles will be too tired to work efficiently. You can alternate between lower and upper body on different days, or work out the entire body on the same day. I prefer doing the latter.

Try to find a form of resistance training that keeps you interested and motivated, so that you are able to incorporate the training into your lifestyle. Consistency will pay off and believe me, every bit of muscle helps in the attraction factor!

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