Resistance training to get lean (no bulk added)

Many of us LOVE a bit of cardio work to get the blood, the heart, and the endorphins pumping. It’s a great boost for the mind too – a real opportunity to reset and find some space. With the right sounds in my headphones too, I find it can absolutely turn a day around.

But to look after our overall health, and especially from our 30s onwards, there is a need to do a few things alongside our straight cardio. By adding a little resistance work to the mix we can protect our joints and reduce risk of injury (not mention boredom!) as well as challenge and change our body shape.

Resistance or weight training is anything that loads your bones and muscles. We can often refer to it as strength training as well. Think free weights (dumbbells or kettlebells), the machines you find at the gym, strength work using only your own bodyweight, or also working with resistance bands.

It is basically all the good stuff to maintain bone density (mega important for women to reduce risk of osteoporosis – we’re already start to lose bone from around the age of 35), ensure strong tendons and ligaments, and also build muscular strength.

But how does it help us get lean?? This is essentially what most people want to know. It’s because the muscle we build becomes our metabolism boosting machinery (or your fat burning machinery, if this is how you prefer to think of it). This is simply because muscle requires energy – or calories - just to stand still.

So when you develop that muscle through resistance / weight / strength training, it will keep your metabolism elevated all day, even while you rest and sleep. The more muscle mass, the greater the calorie burn during the session and during the recovery. On the flip, straight cardio – which might be a repetitive movement at the same speed for prolonged period, such as running or half an hour on the cross-trainer - will not build muscle in the same way. It cannot deliver the same impact and sees us burn calories largely only during the workout itself.

So if resistance training can boost metabolism and keep us healthy as we age, why aren’t more of us cracking into it?

Often women are reluctant when it comes to resistance training for fear of getting it wrong and risking injury. Also, have you ever seen the big guys hanging out in the free weights area of the gym, grunting? Some of them can be a bit intimidating too. Especially if they start mansplaining reverse flyes to you over the work bench (and trust me, a lot them definitely aren’t getting it right all the time anyway).

But according to research from Sport England’s This Girl Can Campaign high up on the list of barriers for women is the fear of becoming ‘too bulky or muscly’. And many are concerned strength training will lead to this outcome, which is a big issue as we generally regard bulk or muscle as negative, or at least certainly not feminine. As trainers, the most common desire for women we often hear is to tone up, get lean, but absolutely NOT to get bigger.

While I do fully understand that people might think this, it does make me a little sad. Firstly, because societal pressure has conditioned us so much to believe that women have more value and appeal the less physical space we take up in the world (a big public conversation at the moment and a topic for another blog perhaps).

Secondly, because the idea that strength/resistance training will only bulk us up is not true!

For all the reasons outlined above, progressive resistance training can result in a leaner appearance, especially when combined with a healthy diet. Also, truth be told, given our genetic and hormone profile, it is actually pretty difficult for women to put on a significant amount of muscle ‘bulk’ without and incredible amount of time, effort and dedication towards a specific goal. Probably on the level of a full overhaul to your life as you know it. If you have avoided resistance training for fears of getting bulky, rest easy knowing that it can’t happen by accident, or overnight, or as the result of just lifting a few dumb bells.

So how to get started? Add some simple kit-free moves such as squats, push ups or burpees to your usual run circuit, and you can increase your reps over time. Find yourself a weights or strength based class (Move Happy Cardio Kettlebells anyone? 😉)?

But however you want to do it, you can be confident that progressive overload to a few classic primary movement patterns (push, pull, squat, hinge, carry, rotation, anti-rotation) will help you build muscle, boost metabolism, and all without gaining bulk. That overload means continuing to challenge the muscles as strength increases by increasing weight / resistance, adding reps, adding volume, or taking shorter rests.

Final takeaway? For any woman wanting to feel strong, healthy, and like she’s doing the best for her body, resistance training is 👌.

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