The world of fitness is filled with all sorts of “advice” about why, where and when women should not train, why they should stick to cardio and why weights are a men-only zone. As a personal trainer based in Abu Dhabi, I have made it my mission to challenge and change the steady stream of confusing misinformation out there. To start, let’s tackle some of the false beliefs many of us have accepted as fact.
‘I’ll get bulky from lifting weights’
This is one of the most common myths that I hear from women. The fear of getting big or “bulky” and losing femininity makes women avoid weights. Let’s lay that one to rest right now: simply picking up heavy stuff WILL NOT transform you into the Incredible Hulk.
Here’s the deal: transforming your body relies on exercise and nutrition. For your shape to increase in size, you would need to eat a lot more calories than you burn as well as performing a sufficient volume of exercise (sets x reps) per week. You will grow in size, but you wonʼt look like a male bodybuilder, because females have around 20 percent less testosterone and growth hormone than men.
If you decide to lift weights and maintain a caloric deficit, you will get the lean shape that all women long for. You will burn fat, gain some muscle definition and become stronger.
That being said, there are far more benefits to lifting than just a better physique. For example, it increases the metabolic rate, improves posture and prevents injuries.
‘Cardio is the only way for me to lose weight’
Here is another myth about weight loss. It is important to understand that to lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit. Let me explain. First, our body requires fuel to function and it burns calories to do that. If we wish to gain weight, we need to eat more than we burn, creating a caloric surplus. If we wish to lose weight, we need to eat fewer calories than we burn, creating a caloric deficit.
The rate of success of a caloric deficit or surplus differs from one person to another and depends on your goal and activity levels.
When you do cardio, you are burning extra calories, which puts you in a caloric deficit, whether intentional or not, and that leads to weight loss. But instead of running for ages on the treadmill, you can explore other options and still lose weight with other activities, including lifting weights and swimming.
You will also lose some weight if you reduce your food intake without doing exercise. Caloric deficit is what drives weight loss, whether you get it through exercise only – that is, by burning extra calories and keeping food intake the same – or by reducing your food intake and therefore the calories you burn. But it’s even better to combine the two and acquire a nice physique after losing fat.
‘Doing squats will reduce my thigh fat’
People need to stop broadcasting this myth and understand that spot reduction – choosing a specific area from which you want to burn off fat – does not work.
When you exercise, you will burn calories and strengthen your muscles. As mentioned earlier, if you are in a caloric deficit, your legs will decrease in size but retain their muscular shape. However, if you’re in a caloric surplus, you will not lose thigh fat. Instead, your thighs will stay the same shape, if not increase in size.
The amount of time that you might spend on the leg press machine with the intention of burning fat in that region would be better spent performing compound lifts, such as deadlifts, because they activate more muscle groups and require greater energy expenditure.
The idea here is that fat loss through exercise is distributed throughout the body and is not localized to specific areas.
‘Older women shouldn’t train’
Another myth that is anything but true is that older women should avoid weight training, as it will damage their joints.
The truth is, as we get older, activity levels and dietary intake of calcium and phosphorus decrease. When women enter perimenopause (the period of time before full menopause sets in) their hormone levels decrease, which disrupts the activity of osteoblasts (cells that are responsible for bone formation). This creates a high risk of osteopenia or even osteoporosis as bones become less dense and therefore weaker.
Studies have shown that exercise can reduce the rate at which osteoporosis occurs by increasing bone density. Exercise also stimulates osteoblasts and in the long term the bone tissue becomes stronger and harder to fracture.
Moreover, exercise helps to prevent sarcopenia (a progressive risk of skeletal muscle mass and strength), reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. For post-menopausal women specifically, it is very important to exercise to help keep up bone density, mass and strength.
‘I don’t want to base my meals on chicken’
Many tend to believe that going to the gym means having chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner with protein shakes in between, all week long. This comes from seeing bodybuilders over-consuming protein for years.
While it is true that a high-protein diet is recommended to enhance muscle growth, there is an optimal level, after which more is not always better.
It has been revealed that to maximize muscle protein synthesis, we need around 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. It wouldn’t be disadvantageous to consume more protein but the average woman does not require more than 1.3-1.8g per kilogram per day.
To conclude, physical activity is a reward for our body and shouldn’t be neglected for any reason. It is also important to fact-check the information we find and make sure it comes from trusted sources. I am thrilled to see women getting into resistance training and realizing what their bodies are capable of doing. As a personal trainer, I’m ready to put in all the effort it needs to make this happen. The only question now is, are you?
Sara Hassan is a REPS certified personal trainer based in Abu Dhabi. To join her outdoor fitness classes, which will be held on Saturdays at 4.30pm, send her an email at [email protected] or DM on Instagram.
Sara Hassan is an Abu Dhabi-based certified personal trainer aiming to raise awareness among women about weight lifting and having a balanced yet fulfilling diet. When she's not working her office job, you can find her keeping up with the rapidly-evolving fitness industry while snacking on her favorite chocolate bar.