by Sarah Hughes
For almost 15 years I was one of those women who had a love/hate relationship with cardio. I sweated it out on the treadmill, the spin bike or the elliptical machine for an hour most days. In fact, the sweatier I was, the harder I felt I’d worked. Surely that salty moisture stinging my eyeballs was a sign of a great workout right? I complimented my cardio with Pilates (still devoted to that), Yoga and the odd tootle round the gym on the weights machines, not entirely sure I was doing any of them right.
Then as I hit my mid 30’s I noticed a stubborn belt of abdominal fat which no amount of running was shifting. I was really frustrated. My eating patterns hadn’t changed, I’ve always been sensible when it comes to food choices and portion sizes. I started to think that maybe as I headed towards the big 4-0 this was just something I’d have to accept. An inevitable part of the good old ageing process. I kept up all my exercise sessions and ordered some full swimsuits for my upcoming holiday. Maybe the bikini days were over hey.
Luckily a chance chat in the gym with a new personal trainer opened my eyes to a new way of looking at my training.
“Ditch the cardio. Just focus on weight lifting” she said.
“What? But I’ll put on weight!” I replied.
“Yeah you probably will. But you’ll definitely lose fat. And your shape will change pretty quickly.”
The conversation really made me examine why I was so bothered about maintaining my ‘happy’ weight, when what I was actually looking to do was change my body composition. I mean; who was going to have a clue what the scales said anyway? If this trainer was to be believed, lifting weights would make me look slimmer.
I set about doing some pretty full on research, poring over magazine articles and scientific papers and the evidence was quite overwhelming. I redesigned my exercise program to include a few weekly sessions of light, steady state cardio work (power walking, jogging, cycling) but really ramped up my weight training sessions. That was five years ago… and I don’t anticipate giving up the bikini any time soon.
I’m not the only one who has come to the realisation that weight training can produce better results than cardio either. More and more women are taking up weight lifting and here are just some of the reasons why…
● The myth of bulking has been debunked. For a long time women worried that lifting heavy weights would bulk them up and create a more masculine physique. We now know that the kind of weights work the vast majority of women do a few times per week in the gym or in their circuits classes is a far cry from the dedicated, hardcore training (and nutrition) that power lifters undertake. Casual weight lifting does not an accidental body builder make!
● We now know for certain that weight training raises our basal metabolic rate (BMR). So while you might burn more calories minute for minute sprinting rather than squatting, the effects of weight training stay with us way beyond the class. So as we crawl into bed the night after a weights session, our bodies are still burning calories because of that raised BMR.
● Oh and speaking of crawling into bed, numerous studies show that weight training workouts can improve sleep quality. They tire your muscles out but don’t raise cortisol levels in the way that cardio exercise does; meaning that restful sleep is more likely. Who doesn’t want a bit of that?
● Weight training carries less risk of injury than cardio. There are no sprained ankles like in the step classes of the 1990’s! Most women who embark on a weight training program will find that they have increased bodily awareness due to performing repetitions more slowly than they would in say, a boxercise or spin class. Not only that, weight training is a great preventative step; it strengthens bones and improves joint mobility and is recommended by doctors as a way of preventing osteoporosis.
● Women are increasingly opting for fat loss over weight loss. They want to be toned and lean, even if that means they weigh in a kilo or two heavier than they used to. Evidence shows that immediately after a weight-lifting workout, our clever muscles create and release little bubbles of genetic material that can flow to fat cells, jump-starting processes there related to fat burning. How cool is that!?
● One of the reasons women tell me they prefer weights to cardio is that it just feels better, you know? It’s hard to quantify, but there’s definitely something empowering about feeling strong, feeling in control… knowing you don’t need to ask a bloke to get the lid off a jar for you. Women report having raised levels of self esteem and less of that pesky negative self-talk when they lift weights regularly.
So, is that it then? Case closed and time to switch off the treadmill forever? There are a few caveats I’m afraid. Realistically if you have a lot of weight to lose in order to come back into a healthy range, you will still need to incorporate steady state cardiovascular exercise into your workout plan. But the good news is, if you include three to four short (20-30 minute) weights sessions, you’ll be supercharging the outcomes for all of your cardio. I would highly recommend booking in a few sessions with an experienced PT if you want to embark on a weight loss program. They’ll be able to help you maximise the results of both your cardio and weights work.
The truth of the matter is that everyone has to incorporate some heart-rate raising cardio into our daily lives. It won’t do to just sit and watch TV all day then lift some weights a few times per week. Sorry to be the bearer of that bad news… In terms of maintaining/lowering blood pressure, heart health, lung capacity and mental health, we need to ensure we’re not too sedentary. But it’s clear to see the tide has turned; making weight training a regular, key part of their training regimen is having profound effects on the minds and bodies of women all over the world.