How we care for and speak about our bodies is important. Today, more than ever, celebrities tell us about their fitness workouts and how they stay so thin. Some might lift lighter weights, with high reps, or credit Pilates for their “long lean muscles.” Or you might read that cardio is the way to go to be beach ready. When it comes to strength training for women, it’s easy to be confused and unsure of what works.

What is clear is that body dissatisfaction is omnipresent in women of all ages in the United States, with 69-84 percent of women typically wanting to slim down.

Let’s look at three frequently asked female strength-training questions and the research behind strength, or resistance training.

How much weight should I use?

Despite the claims some celebrities do copious amounts of 3-pound arm curls and triceps presses to look fabulous, research shows that heavier weights increase muscular strength and decrease body fat more than lighter weights. Aim for a set of eight to 12 repetitions to the point of volitional fatigue. To see what this feels like, do a set of split lunges with a 3-pound weight in each hand, and then perform another set using 15-pound weights in each hand. Clearly, the lunges with heavier weights are harder because it’s much more work. That results in more calories burned and strength gains. The American College of Sports Medicine’s newest strength training guidelines recommend two to four sets of each exercise to help women (and men) improve strength and power, two to three days each week.

Does Pilates create lean muscle?

Pilates is a terrific form of exercise, but you can’t create lean muscle. Muscle is already lean tissue. In order to get leaner, you have to add more muscle mass. Particularly if you’re strapped for time, as many women are, and wanting to lose a few pounds, strength training is more effective.

For certain, you can noticeably look longer and lean by practicing impeccable posture. And the combination of improved flexibility and core and back strength is something that Pilates does help improve. But any type of exercise where you spend more time lying down than standing isn’t going to cause major weight loss. The drawback is the lack of axial loading, meaning exercises with weight in line of the spine, like step-ups or lunges with the weight load on your shoulders.

Will I bulk up?

The answer is no, unless you train specifically for that. It takes testosterone (the muscle-producing hormone) to gain bulky muscles, which most women don’t naturally have enough of. If bulking up is your goal, it involves long hours and devotion to build that kind of muscle.

Hormonal differences are the biggest reason you won’t bulk up. Hormones are flowing at puberty, and boys get muscular because they produce more testosterone and growth hormone. Girls, at the same time, are starting to produce estrogen, which plays an important and necessary role of storing fat. They too, are also producing testosterone and growth hormone, but to a lesser extent.

Studies comparing strength gains between men and women on the same resistance training programs have shown that men are able to hypertrophy to a greater extent than women, due to their higher levels of fat-free mass.

Keep in mind that workouts don’t have to be too long. In fact, programs longer than one hour are associated with higher dropout rates. Integrate these recommendations into your routine. You’ll have a strong-smart program and well-cared-for body.


Connie Aronson is an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist at the YMCA in Ketchum. Learn more at www.conniearonson.com.

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