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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Women disproportionately develop osteoporosis.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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
- Resistance training improves bone health in young adult and post-menopausal women.
- 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.