Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Here's an important lesson I learned in 2016.
Don't be too quick to dismiss the idea of lifting heavy weights.
There are some common reasons why women tend to shy away from the heavier dumbbells and plates:
Reason No. 1 - You don't want to build bulky muscles.
Reason No. 2 - You don't need to be strong.
Reason No. 3 - You don't know how.
Reason No. 3 is a fair point. If you aren't confident or prepared, you could end up injured. You should work with a coach to identify and fix structural imbalances, learn proper form and find a level that is right for you. What's 'heavy' for one person will be different for another person.
Strength training creates mental resilience and ambition. It's not just about the weight you lift. It’s about goal setting and dedication to succeed.
Reason No. 1 is a complete myth. Heavy weights training will not suddenly make you bulky, if at all. It takes many hours, months and years of a particular kind of training to put on substantial muscle. If you are a freak of nature who can pack on muscle in a very short amount of time, then congratulations, you are one of the lucky few! For 99 % of people, your body will alter its shape slowly and you will be able to notice any changes that you do or don't like. If you don't like what you see, you can adjust your training to better suit your goals (ie, fat loss, all around fitness, etc.). But it's far more likely that you will notice positive changes in your body shape and size.
Reason No 2. is where I had it all wrong.
I'm a bodybuilder, not a powerlifter. Logically, it made sense that I should spend all of my valuable time in the gym on high volume sets. And if my volume needs to be high to maximise muscle gain, then my weight will have to be moderate at best.
I did crazy amounts of volume. I did lots of pump sets to send blood into the muscle. And it worked. I made real changes to my physique. But I had very little room to move in the weights I could lift, and this meant that I was limited in the variation of exercises I could do to manipulate intensity in my training. Because of this, I wasn't able to stimulate all the muscle fibers to grow.
At first, I was reluctant to include a strength phase in my training. But it was undoubtedly the right decision. It meant that I am now able to lift heavier, and that's a great thing for hypertrophy because I have more room to move in terms of the weights I can lift until I fatigue. I can push harder, and put the muscles under a greater load. I can add more variety to my training to trigger the desired adaptations in my physique.
But here's what I didn't expect.
My favourite part about strength training? It's not the physical benefits. It's the mental benefits.
Strength training creates mental resilience and ambition. It's not just about the weight you lift. It’s about goal setting and dedication to succeed. If you train properly and consistently, you will realise that you can do things that you never imagined you could do.
Attempting to lift a weight that you have never lifted before is daunting. It is easy to question your ability and back out. But after a while, your body will become stronger, and you will be able to lift weights that you used to struggle to lift. This is incredibly satisfying because it shows that you have improved. You have put in the work, and now you can perform at a higher level than you could before.
That's the best thing about strength training - not only do you feel unstoppable in the gym, but you also develop a strong mindset that will equip you to take on a challenge and succeed outside of the weights room.
I have been guilty of training too light, too often. Rather than focus on strength, I would opt to train at around the same weight for months and perform higher rep ranges. This was my comfort zone. I moved into a dedicated strength phase earlier in 2016 to lift my game. At first, strength training was definitely a shock to the system. I reluctantly said goodbye to the weights I was used to, for ones that I wasn't.
I didn't exactly like strength training at first. It was different. I was impatient. I didn't truly believe in my own ability to lift heavier weights.
But strength training is seriously addictive.
I started to feel my deadlift become easier and faster. After a couple of months, I was already lifting a weight that I had never lifted before. And it's only then that I considered that I could actually be considered 'strong', and not just good at high volume. In other words, I reassessed my own ability to do something difficult, and I decided to commit to the challenge. My aim was to hit a 100 kg deadlift. I never would have even contemplated this a year ago. I really did not believe that I was capable of it. But after many months, I actually deadlifted 100 kgs. I proved that I could do it.
The closer you move to your limits, the more it becomes a mind game. You learn how to block out the voice of doubt in your head, and commit 100 % to your attempt. You start to trust in your own ability to succeed, and know when to back yourself and when to ask for help.
And that's the best thing about strength training - not only do you feel unstoppable in the gym, but you also develop a strong mindset that will equip you to take on a challenge and succeed outside of the weights room.
Take home message
If you want to function at your best, strength training is your secret weapon. The weight on the bar or the 1RM itself doesn't really matter. The true benefit is that you learn to push your own limits, shatter your expectations and rise to a challenge.