In the fitness world, the purpose for weight/resistance training is usually for one of two outcomes – building muscle size or building muscle strength. If we are building muscle size then we are looking to increase the overall size of the muscle (think bodybuilders) but if we want to build strength then this increases the overall functional ability of the muscles. Different training techniques apply to both with more sets and repetitions for the former and less sets and reps with the aim of using heavier weights for the latter.

Of course they are not mutually exclusive.

You can become stronger as your muscles grow however you can also become stronger without increasing muscle size as your nervous system becomes more efficient at recruiting muscle fibres and using other muscles for stabilization as you lift weights. This will happen if you are in a calorie deficit and resistance training. Many women are worried that if they do resistance training they will become “bulky” but is this the case?

Benefits of weight training

Regardless of the type or desired outcome of training there are many benefits for lifting weights including but not limited to:

  • increasing strength
  • increasing bone density and lean muscle mass (these decline as we get older especially post menopause)
  • decrease body fat
  • decrease stress and anxiety
  • increase confidence
  • boost metabolism

Where to start with strength training

If you are new to resistance training then you are going to be building strength and muscle size to start with regardless of whether you want to go for one or the other. Most people are confused about how heavy they should be lifting initially. It’s impossible to say everyone should start with x kg for squats or x kg for shoulder press as everyone is different. The best way is to start off light and if after a few reps it’s no effort at all then you’ll need to increase the load.

It may take a couple of sessions to work out what a challenging weight is for you and by this it means a weight where it takes a lot of effort to do the last couple of reps. Keep a record of how many sets and reps you do with a particular load and try to increase it next time you do those exercises.

If you are unsure of what exercises to do then there are lots of programmes online or the best thing is to hire a personal trainer to get you started with a programme and coach you through the exercises to make sure your form is correct. Poor form can lead to an ineffective workout and worse case, an injury.

Nutrition and recovery is key

As with anything to do with the body, your nutrition and recovery are key to your progress. Not eating enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts or protein to help build new or maintain muscle tissue won’t get you the results you’re after. After the first few months of training you will need to start eating in a calorie surplus if you want to gain muscle.

Making sure you have rest days in between lifting sessions is also key – training three to four times a week will give you enough volume to see progress. Getting enough sleep so your body can spend energy repairing itself is also important.

When to start resistance training

It’s never too late to start lifting weights. As soon as you start the sooner you reduce your chances of developing conditions later on in life such as osteoporosis or Type 2 diabetes. If you’re confused about whether you should be training for strength or muscle size then knowing the differences at this stage isn’t as important as just getting started.

As with any physical activity there are risks of injury but you are more at risk of health complications by being sedentary. If you currently suffer with an injury or medical condition and you’re just starting out then check with a medical professional before commencing a training programme.

So will lifting weights make me look too muscular?

For the average person, in particular ladies, you will find it hard to look “muscly” as we just don’t have the right amount of hormones to do so but you can get that “toned” look and be strong at the same time by training and being in a calorie deficit or at maintenance especially if you are new to strength training. At the end of the day, for most of us the overall health benefits of exercise should be more important than what we look like.