Why Weightlifting Isn’t Just for Men

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A Kaiser Permanente registered nurse and a Kaiser Permanente physical therapist tell how strength training benefits health and well-being. Pictured, Elizabeth Kelly, RN, at Benchmark Strength and Conditioning in Roseville.

Elizabeth Kelly, RN, didn’t set out to be a competitive power lifter. But after the Labor and Delivery nurse at Kaiser Permanente Roseville stumbled upon some strength and conditioning classes about 6 years ago, she found she loved the strength training.

She started lifting weights more intensively, found coaching through the online service Barbell Medicine, and began competing with an organization called Starting Strength. In January of this year, she won the overall female Best Lifter title at the U.S. Strengthlifting Federation’s national competition.

“I was proud of myself, and it was really special to me because Starting Strength is all about helping people, both young and old, to benefit from barbell training,” Kelly said.

Maintaining Muscle as You Age

Kelly’s accomplishments are impressive, but she knows that women and men of all ages who lift weights at a more modest level can also benefit greatly.

“Strength training increases bone density and overall strength, which decreases falls and injuries in the elderly. There’s also evidence that it’s beneficial in preventing and managing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis,” she said. “It’s helped me to avoid injuries on the job, and it’s been a critical part of me being strong and confident in my mind and body.”

Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa physical therapist Jennie Smallcomb, DPT, said research shows we lose 3 to 8 percent of our muscle mass per decade starting in our 30s. Strength training is one way to counterbalance that, no matter how old you are.

“The key is to overload the muscle and make it tired, so that the last repetition you do is so hard you can barely complete it,” Smallcomb said. “As you slowly increase the amount of weight you lift over time, the body adapts by putting on muscle and increasing your strength.”

Improving Balance, Increasing Metabolism, and More

Smallcomb explained that strength training also improves balance, which can reduce your risk of falls as you age. It increases your metabolic rate, too, so you burn calories at a higher rate, even after you exercise. And it increases muscle definition.

Some women are concerned that lifting weights will make them look bulky, but Smallcomb said that’s unlikely.

“Men can put on muscle relatively quickly because they have higher testosterone levels, but it takes longer for women,” she said. “Also, if you increase muscle you’re also likely to decrease fat, which takes up more volume per pound than muscle.”

How much time does a strength training program take? Smallcomb recommends 3 sessions a week for 30 to 40 minutes a session, including warm-up and cooldown.

“If you can, it’s worth the time and money to work with a personal trainer, so you can learn proper technique and feel more comfortable with a strength-training program,” she said.

For those who can’t make it to the gym, other options include using your own body weight to train (think pushups, pullups, and lunges), or using resistance bands or dumbbells at home.

Most People Could Benefit

Smallcomb started lifting weights herself and participating in bodybuilding competitions a few years ago.

“I would have never have believed how much better I feel because of the strength training,” she said. “I stand taller now, my clothes fit better, and it’s given me a confidence that has transferred to other parts of my life.”

Kelly said her parents, who are in their 70s, are now strength training, and she believes most people could benefit too.

“I want to challenge the misconception that lifting weights is only for young men,” she said. “I want to be a positive role model and encourage everyone, especially women, to make strength training a priority.”

If you’re interested in seeing strength training in action, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a series of videos designed to help you get started at home or at a gym.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Great information, reading the comments of individuals who have actually participated and been affected is meaningful.
    Thank you,
    Marilyn Quinn

  2. I have lifted weights on and off for over 25 years; I just got back into it within the past few months and my “muscle memory” has been kicking in. My body is quickly snapping back to its previous strength levels. I fully concur about all the benefits described above. The combination of serious strength training, clean, healthy diet, and moderate cardio has been the most effective fat loss approach for me, and I feel so much stronger overall. I cannot recommend it highly enough for women! So glad it’s getting more “press” these days. 🙂

  3. I fully agree with Elizabeth Kelly and wish that I had started lifting weights earlier. For those of us sitting eight hours or so per day behind the desk, I argue that weight lifting is one of the best preventive measures against back pain. At least in my case, it helps to counter the side effects of physical inactivity in IT or similar roles. As for the time factor, I would rather spend the time in the gym proactively as it prevents injuries as covered well in this article.

  4. Don’t be discouraged if you do not see changes in the first 3 months or so. Neurological changes lead to initial strength increases followed by muscular hypertrophy. It takes time to shape a sculpture, so thinks of your body in the same manner.

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