Thoughts on Strength Training For Women

A friend recently asked if I could help her design a strength training program (and I just finished). And while I made one for my wife and made jump/chin-up/and general strength programs for clients in the past, I still just felt the need to look more into the research on women’s health issues and the relationship between those issues and strength training. Of course, the general benefits of the iron pill still apply.

Here’s the basic formula:

Perfect form + reasonable exercise choice + progressive resistance + rest and calories = strength gains. 

But many weight lifters, male or female, don’t want strength per se. Men will want bigger arms, women bigger glutes or “toned arms.” 

While trainers should take these considerations into account in program design, general human improvement is the goal of any training program. I would say that personal trainers ought to follow something like ‘help people be happy‘ as a first principle.

Here are some difficulties faced by women:

  1. 40% of women in the United States are obese. Obesity is associated a host of mental and physical health problems. It is associated with social issues as well, specifically perceived attractiveness to both men and women. Weight gain happens so frequently in college, that it has the nick name, “the freshman 15.” That period of weight gain frequently continues through middle age. Equally dangerous is being thin but having a high bodyfat percentage. This is known as being skinny-fat.
  2. Roughly 25% of American women use prescription medication for depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems. Women disproportionately struggle with depression for a host of reasons, one of which may be physical weakness. In fact, women are twice as likely as men to be depressed.
  3. Women disproportionately develop osteoporosis.
  4. Women can become pregnant, which is physiologically and psychologically stressful. Not only so, but a large percentage of women simultaneously want to become pregnant at some point but delay pregnancy into their thirties or are obese, both of which decrease one’s chances at becoming pregnant.   

Now, here is what some research says about the effect of strength training on these difficulties:

  1. Strength training is a remarkably effective intervention for obesity and body composition. Improvement in body composition is important for those who are obese and those who are ‘skinny-fat.’ In this sense, strength training contributes to cardiovascular health, decreased cancer diagnoses (cancer increases in obese individuals), perceived attractiveness (strength training can decrease waist size and increase hip circumference, thereby moving the Waist Hip Ratio between 0.65-0.75 which is apparently the gold standard in terms of cross-cultural attractiveness and perceived fertility), fertility, and several other markers of general well-being associated with a healthy BMI and body composition. 
  2. Exercise generally both aerobic and resistance training in particular have “a large and significant antidepressant effect in people with depression.” One intriguing theory is that depression evolved as a bargaining tool for resource acquisition during periods of physical weakness. And while I make no recommendations about health or drugs on this blog, in the case of depression
  3. Resistance training improves bone health in young adult and post-menopausal women.
  4. Strength training improves markers of physiological and psychological health in post-partum women. Strength training before and during pregnancy, especially when combined with aerobics  is associated with a host of benefits. These benefits include: decreased time in first stage of labor, decreased back pain, lower incidence of gestational diabetes, healthier weight gain, heavier babies (good or bad?), less time off work for pain, lower incidence of preeclampsia, and increased cardio-respiratory fitness. For obese women, exercise generally, is associated with proper regulation of ovulation, though overtraining can have a negative effect on fertility. Also, progressive resistance training may contribute positively to an total treatment program for PCOS due the association of PCOS with insulin resistance.

Strength training has an almost panaceaic quality for several of the problems faced by women as throughout their lives.

 

 

 

 

Eating Meat is good for the environment?

I mean, of course it is. Farming animals requires ecosystem maintenance, whereas vegetation farming on mega farms is simply a process of ecosystem alteration through a process of chemical fertilizing, mass pesticide promulgation, and government subsidizing of non-ideal plants in regions hostile to their growth. Dr. Eades, over at protein power has a great post about this:

Human herding mimics the ‘herding’ done by large predators in the wild. That replicating natural herding creates the richest soil makes sense given that grasslands, large herbivores, and carnivores all co-evolved. Just as with diet, the closer we come to what the forces of natural selection designed us to eat, the better things work.

Here’s a Ted talk he posted about it by Allan Savory:

The Tao of Bro-Science

When the gym is your lab: Bro-Science

If you go to any gym, you’ll find a great deal of unusually specific information about strength training. Strangely, you’ll find very little in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or scientific literature appended to it.

This information is Bro-Science. The problem with Bro-Science is that it differs from gym to gym based on a combination of the shared experience present and the amount of time people spend on the Internet and what lifting forums they frequent.

I used to make fun of Bro-Science. Truth be told, some Bro-Science could kill you and certainly injure you. But some of it has proved remarkably prescient. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, occlusion training, increased protein for cutting fat, training to failure, and the rep-ranges for muscle growth all seem to have been discovered, not by bespectacled men in lab-coats but by oiled bros in sleeveless shirts!

Tradition is Antifragile

Nicholas Taleb describes how this could be so here:

Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations— what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology. But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

 

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 3841-3847). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In other words, bro-science works because the people who practice these things and hold to the ideas are still in the gym. Sometimes this is because their genetics and luck helped them survive and thrive under dangerous training methodologies. Sometimes it’s precisely because the methods keep training interesting, help them get stronger, and keep them injury free.

Bad News for Weight Gain: There is a point of no return

In report published last July researchers concluded that under the typical conditions of care for obese and overweight individuals that:

“current nonsurgical obesity treatment strategies are failing to achieve sustained weight loss for the majority of obese patients. For patients with a BMI of 30 or greater kilograms per meters squared, maintaining weight loss was rare and the probability of achieving normal weight was extremely low. Research to develop new and more effective approaches to obesity management is urgently required.(58)”

Thankfully the article isn’t purely deterministic. It ends on a more positive note, I recommend reading it. But the point is that once a certain threshold of weight gain is reached, it can be very difficult to reverse the process. Also, the data reviewed was from the UK primary care database. In other words, it doesn’t include people who see dietitians, personal trainers, or who take personal ownership of their own well-being through research and hard work. My doctor friends tell me that it is rare for patients to respond positively to non-surgical and non-prescription intervention recommendations. And there is some evidence that doctors often don’t tell patients that they are over-weight. The same article linked in the previous sentence indicates that many doctors to not feel competent to help patients lose weight and keep it off.

I typically reject deterministic points of view because of their tendency to force people to give up. The more positive note the article ends on is this, “the greatest opportunity for tackling the current obesity epidemic may be found outside primary care (58).”

References

Alison Fildes et al., “Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 9 (July 16, 2015): 54–59.

Self-Deception, Self-Knowledge, and Self-Denial

In Luther’s 95 theses, he observes, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

I think that Luther is correct here. For instance, in Romans 12:2, Paul summarizes the Christian life as being “transformed by the renewing of the mind.” Luther’s thought is that the entire Christian life is looking to God’s revelation in Christ, looking to ourselves as sinful and in need of grace and mercy, and transforming our minds on the basis of that revelation.

With this in mind, I wish to look at true self-knowledge and self-deception.

Self Deception

Coming to know ourselves in a true way is central to the Christian life. It is also central to becoming successful in other endeavors as well. The problem with coming to this knowledge is a frequent failure to consciously admit what we really know to be true. This is a form of self-deception.

For instance, one of my legs is shorter than the other. As I’ve gotten stronger in the gym this leg geometry issue has become uncomfortable.

For years I just thought, “Well, it’s not that bad. In fact, I can totally deal with it.” But in reality the different is significant enough that affects my posture and contributes to some sharp pain in a small area in my lower back.

I finally admitted that I have this problem and went to a cobbler and got some hard crepe added to my squat and dead lifting shoes.

My back is slowly getting used to having even hips in the squat. I’m not as strong as I was despite being functionally “healed” by my change of mind on the matter. But I’m slowly building back up and squats and deadlift no longer make my hip joints feel weird or bad.

With respect to spiritual growth, similar failures to acknowledge the actual state of our souls can cripple us as we grow in other areas. Similarly, admitting the truth about ourselves, “I really am a wrathful/lustful/arrogant/murderous/selfish/failing/fooling person…” can feel like a major regress. But living with frequent failures and near misses with respect to our most embarrassing or incriminating impulses and then covering them with phrases like, “I blew it” or “God is strong in my weakness” is a copout if we think of repentance as the whole of the Christian life. Repentance involves, as I mentioned above, comparing ourselves to the revelation of God in Christ.

Self Knowledge

So, coming to self-knowledge has benefits. But it is difficult just like coming to true knowledge of this or that field of study.

In the case of my leg-length discrepancy, I had to actually become weaker temporarily to train my body safely. A similar problem could come to somebody who finally owns the fact that they are greedy and in significant debt. The art of living justly and graciously with regard to finances might require that they become way less generous until they pay of their debts (because giving money away that you owe to somebody else is certainly not Christlike or good).

Because self-knowledge can be so difficult or even painful, we have tremendous incentive not to gain it. This reticence may even lead us to not even have a system in place to gain self-knowledge.  Thankfully, the Bible and plain reason give us several methods to gain self-knowledge:

  1. Admit that your wisdom is apt to be flawed[1]
    1Co 3:18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
    1Co 8:2  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.
  2. Compare Your Life to Scripture’s Moral Ideals
    Jas 1:23-25 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  (24)  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  (25)  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
  1. Accept Criticism
    Pro 10:17 Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.
    Pro 12:1  Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
  2. Be a part of a group wherein you can frankly discuss your sins, failures, and flaws
    Pro 27:17  Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
    Jas 5:16  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
  3. Spend time in silence
    From personal experience, spending time in silence is a powerful way to have the tape of your life replay in your mind. If you approach this with the mindset that “I am what I think and what I do,”[2] you’ll find that you might be a lot worse than you are. This is probably not a good discipline for people who struggle with depression or melancholy. But if you want to assess yourself, then it is hard to find a better method.
  4. Journal
    This can come from all of the previous methods. You can write your personal resolutions and your assessment of how you met them or did not.

Conclusion

One of my old karate instructors said, “When presented with two standards, always choose the highest.” Self-deception is easy. Self-knowledge is hard. But the way of self-knowledge allows us to deny ourselves in the truest way. And self-denial under Christ’s guidance is the only way to the life of rest that he promises:

“to step with Jesus into the path of self-denial immediately breaks the iron-clad grip of sin over human personality and opens the way to a fuller and ever fuller restoration of radical goodness to the soul. It accesses incredible, supernatural strength for life.”[3]

References

[1] Observe that while Paul criticizes the “wisdom of this age” Paul never equates that with the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The wisdom of “this age” appears to be the wisdom of making non-Christian ideals ultimate such as riches, knowledge, rhetoric, long life, etc.” These are all goods to seek in the Bible, but they are not to be sought as ultimate or final goals. Instead the Christian who sows and spins for food and clothes is to nevertheless “seek first the kingdom of God.” So don’t take Paul’s warnings as a censure on being wise. Paul actually says that you can become wise if you first admit your foolishness. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3:19 you see that God’s wisdom (what is revealed in the Old Testament and the gospel) is still good. This is why we shouldn’t boast in our favorite teachers as though they make us superior to other Christians. Instead, we should boast in the Lord.

[2] In Christ this is not all you are, but you are not less than what you think and do.

[3] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), 75.