Do women HAVE to lift heavy?
Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 114 “Do women HAVE to lift heavy?”.
Do women HAVE to lift heavy weights to stay strong, improve health, and see body composition changes?
I’m going to speak mainly to peri- and postmenopausal women in this post.
But if you aren’t there yet, I still want you to read this so you can better understand what to do when you approach that age.
How should you lift in your 20s, 30s, 40s?
We all need to be focused on building or, at the very least, maintaining muscle mass.
I had a friend who I was trying to convince to focus on gaining muscle. She said that she wasn’t going to worry about building muscle until she was older. That she wouldn’t worry until she started to lose it more rapidly.
I tried to convince her that this would be a huge mistake. Build the muscle now while it’s easier. You can be happier with your body composition and feel amazing. In doing this, you’ll also set yourself up for a much easier time when you approach peri- and post-menopause.
To answer this question: You do not need to lift heavy to see results in your 20s, 30s, 40s.
Lifting 30% above your 1 rep max
When lifting, se a load that is greater than 30% of your 1 rep max (1RM). Make sure to take that exercise close to failure. You should also prioritize eating enough protein, not overusing muscles, and working them 4 or more sets/week. You will see results with this focus.
That 30% of your 1RM piece is important.
Because of this, I don’t recommend super high rep training. This type of training involves 40, 50, 60 reps just searching for the burn. Studies show that it may not be sufficient for muscle growth or physically changing the muscle.
Super high rep training may help with endurance. But most women already have great endurance. Therefore, that type of training won’t do much for the physical appearance and strength of the muscle.
How we lift at Evlo
I instead like to choose 60-80% of your 1RM weight. This typically includes doing an exercise for about 60-90 seconds. Focus on getting within 3 or 4 reps of failure by the end of that 60-90 second mark.
So you don’t have to lift super heavy to see muscle growth. At the same time, super light load training may not be providing enough stimulus to physically change the muscle.
What about for peri- or postmenopausal women?
My quest for this post was to discover if the same could be applied for peri- and postmenopausal women.
Some experts recommend, especially women who are approaching menopause, lift heavy weights for less reps. Think heavy lifts using compound exercises, like a deadlift, for 6 or fewer reps.
I’ve heard experts discourage hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy training generally involves higher rep and lower weight. These same experts encourage strength-focused training, which is generally heavy weight and low reps (again, think 6 or fewer reps).
Why is lifting heavy recommended by some experts?
Your hormones change as you age. Therefore, your skeletal muscle mass and strength change as well. This recommendations stems from this information.
You need a strong stimulus in order to keep or gain more muscle and strength as you age. This also effects body composition and function.
But women are losing muscle as we age, which accelerates in peri-menopause due to hormonal changes. Wouldn’t we want to focus on hypertrophy to preserve/gain muscle mass. This could help offset those body composition changes that tend to happen during this time. Wouldn’t gaining muscle mass improve body composition?
Hypertrophy training and strength gains
I didn’t fully understand why heavy lifts were being recommended, and moderate lifting, or hypertrophy training, was being discouraged. Does this mean that hypertrophy training isn’t effective for women of this age?
From everything I’ve learned and studied, hypertrophy training will still increase strength. Study after study have shown this, even in studies with perimenopausal women as the subjects.
In fact, recent literature shows lighter weights done for more reps can still produce similar gains in both hypertrophy and strength. As long as you are lifting more than about 30% of your 1 RM and you take that set close to failure, you will see comparable gains in strength and size of the muscle.
As I mentioned above, loads that are too light are likely not significant enough to induce much physical change in the muscle.
Lighter load lifting
When you are lifting lighter loads for more reps, and you’re seeing muscle growth, you’re also increasing strength. We now know you can’t fully separate strength and hypertrophy. We used to think low reps built strength while high reps built muscle, but not a lot of strength. Current research supports a wide variety of loads and rep schemes to improve both muscle mass and strength. It’s not as black and white as we once believed.
Does timing of muscle challenge play a role?
Then I thought “Maybe heavy lifting with fewer reps is being suggested because the challenge to the muscle is greater in the first couple of reps when you’re lifting heavy”.
But in a hypertrophy routine, the last few reps of a set are very challenging. This will provide a significant stimulus, recruiting large muscle fibers, for the muscle to grow bigger and stronger. Just because the rep scheme is different, doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant challenge and stimulus to the muscle. So that didn’t really make sense to me either.
Lifting and mechanical load
I also know from a mechanical perspective that muscle growth happens with mechanical overload. But mechanical overload doesn’t have to come from heavy barbells. It can even happen with bodyweight exercises.
For example: a bodyweight sissy squat will provide more mechanical load than a front squat. This happens even if you’re holding a lot of weight in your front squat. This is because there is a longer moment arm to the knee. In other words, your knee travels further from your center of gravity, which requires more work from the quad to lift you back to your center.
Just because you are lifting heavier weights, doesn’t necessarily mean the muscle is getting more challenge. This can be applied with many different exercises.
So is it the number on the dumbbell that matters, or is it the challenge to the muscle that matters? To me, muscle growth and improving body composition has always been about the challenge to the muscle, not about how much weight you’re throwing around.
Joint health considerations
If heavy lifting is recommended for women, what about their joint health? I wouldn’t recommend women who are in their 50s start doing heavy deadlifts for the first time in their life without the supervision of an experienced trainer to help progress them appropriately. I’m sure most experts would recommend the same.
What about the women that don’t want to lift heavy for one reason or another? Maybe they are intimidated by a gym environment, don’t have access to heavy weights, or don’t enjoy lifting heavy. Or maybe they’ve tried following this advice to lift heavy and it hasn’t felt good on their joints.
What about all the Evlo members in perimenopause and beyond who are seeing great body composition changes and gaining strength? We aren’t lifting super heavy weights using all compound movements, and yet they are still seeing changes while avoiding overstressing their joints.
What was I missing?
I’ve had all these questions and I truly wanted to understand if there was something I was missing. Because I either wanted to adapt our programming, or recommend women look outside of Evlo for their training if they were near menopause and perhaps needing something different.
I genuinely want people to be successful. If that means we aren’t the best fit for them, I want them to have that information so they can make choices that work best for them.
I also want you all to know that if I’m wrong on this, or if there’s something I’m missing, I will absolutely correct myself. To me, it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about seeking to understand the options, present them to you, and help you make decisions that are going to be the most effective and sustainable for you. If I’m misunderstanding this and I have new learnings that clarify things in a different way, please know I will publish a new post to explain those things.
How I interpret current literature on this topic
I dug into the science to understand why or if it’s so important for women to transition from a hypertrophy routine to a strength-focused routine.
Let’s back up and talk very briefly about peri- and post-menopause.
What happens from peri- to post-menopause?
Perimenopause is about the 5 year runway leading up to menopause. Menopause is a singular date in time that marks 12 months of no period.
During perimenopause, there is a decrease in estrogen and progesterone, as well as some other hormonal shifts. This has different effects on your body including an acceleration in muscle loss, particularly type II muscle fibers.
These are the powerful, larger fibers that are responsible for producing stronger muscle contractions. They also make up more of the mass of the muscle so they are crucial to stimulate and build during this transition.
In contrast, type I muscle fibers are your endurance fibers that are stimulated with activities like bike rides, walking/jogging, or even some (not all!) Pilates and Yoga and Barre type workouts.
Areas of focus
So to preserve and hopefully increase the size and strength of your muscles, it’s crucial to:
1. Gain as much muscle as possible in your 20s and 30s and 40s so you’re set up with a good foundation.
2. Strength train and sufficiently challenge your muscles during and after this menopause time to preserve and potentially gain more mass and improve body composition. You have the power to slow and maybe even reverse these side effects that come with aging. Itt truly is never too late. You can absolutely still gain muscle during this time.
Muscle contractions during this period
One of the symptoms of perimenopause with a loss of estrogen is not just a loss of lean muscle mass, but also a decrease in the contractile strength of the muscle that you do have.
In the muscle cells themselves, there are estrogen receptors that stimulate actin and myosin to contract the muscles and move your body.
Since estrogen is lower, strength of the muscles and ability for them to contract is also lower.
The idea is to stimulate the muscle enough to offset those changes in muscle strength. In order to do this, you want a strong muscular stimulus and to stimulate as many muscle fibers as possible within your resistance training. This is why, from my understanding, the recommendation is to lift a heavy weight that requires a strong contraction from your muscles.
Muscle fiber recruitment
Your nervous system will recruit more muscle fibers based on perception of need. If it senses a heavy load, it will recruit more muscle fibers. This gives the body a powerful stimulus to lay down new muscle, which can increase both the strength and size of the muscle.
I can totally get on board with this and see why this would be recommended. I’m not saying that this is ineffective. It absolutely will be effective for both strength and hypertrophy.
However, from all the research I’ve read, you don’t have to do heavy lifts with low reps to create a stimulus that will recruit many muscle fibers, including your type II muscle fibers.
The most recent literature suggests that what is important is the challenge to the muscle, not the number on your dumbbell or the number of reps you complete. The last few reps of a set are the most important part.
They should be a challenge: your velocity decreases (you slow down), your effort increases, you may feel your heart rate rise, and you have to work harder to complete the movement.
Studies show that these last few reps engage your type II muscle fibers.
How has our understanding of lifting changed?
The old theory is that lighter loads done for longer periods just stimulate your smaller, endurance, type I fibers. This was something I was taught and was confused about until recently. It may be part of where the advice is coming from to do low reps with high weight.
We initially thought this was true because the studies were using EMG as a way to measure muscle activation. However, EMG isn’t shown to be the best way to determine which fiber types are being recruited. EMG studies the electrical activity of a muscle, but doesn’t measure what’s happening at more of a cellular level.
A different technique was recently used to study the metabolic properties of the muscle. This is more precise because it uses a muscle biopsy to measure what happened cellularly in the muscle.
Fiber type-specific glycogen depletion
This technique is called fiber type-specific glycogen depletion.
Glycogen is the primary source of energy for a muscle. When the stores are depleted within a specific muscle fiber, you can reliably assume that muscle was recruited and challenged by your nervous system.
This can help differentiate if type I or type II fibers were recruited in a given exercise more reliably than EMG.
This study showed that glycogen depletion happens in type I and type II fibers at both high loads and low reps, and low loads with high reps, given that exercise is taken close to failure.
How does this information apply?
What’s the translation of this?
You don’t have to lift heavy to recruit the large, powerful muscle fibers that you lose as you age.
We once believed that lower loads weren’t effective for strength and hypertrophy, but we now know that this isn’t true. As the muscle fatigues during a set, activation of larger fibers occurs. The smaller fibers take a back seat, and the larger, type II fibers swoop in to take over.
If you’re doing 3 sets of 20 with moderate weight and your 20th rep isn’t challenging at all, it is true that you aren’t going to see much change in the muscle.
But if reps 16-20 are very challenging (you’re slowing down, struggling to complete the movement, really challenging the muscle, etc.), you are likely recruiting a large portion of the muscle. This includes those powerful type II muscle fibers that we once thought were only recruited when we lift heavier weights for fewer reps.
If you’re an Evlo member, you know that we are constantly encouraging you to get close to failure and to continue with the set until you are. The current literature supports that getting close to failure, regardless of the load (as long as it’s not TOO light), is what will drive muscle growth in both type I and type II muscle fibers.
From this research and my current understanding of this topic, challenging your muscles is crucial for all women. It is especially crucial in the peri- and post-menopausal transition. If you aren’t there yet, take this time to build up your muscle tissue so you’ll have a smoother transition when you do get there.
The recommendation of lifting heavy may be coming from the previous understanding about muscle growth and strength: that lighter loads don’t stimulate a large amount of fibers, which recent studies are showing isn’t quite the full picture.
From my interpretation, as long as your last few reps are significantly challenging and you are approaching failure, you can lift lighter loads and still see changes in muscle size and strength, even in peri- and post-menopause.
What about compound lifts?
Do you have to do compound lifts to get stronger?
The answer is no. Compound lifts can increase strength, and will increase strength particularly in the lifts that you are practicing. But more specific lifts that are targeting muscles rather than movements, like what we focus on in Evlo, will also produce strength gains and will transfer to strength in your everyday life.
Remember that the key is to maintain and gain muscle mass. You can’t fully separate strength and hypertrophy. When you’re gaining muscle, you’re also gaining strength. Gaining muscle can be achieved with both compound movements as well as more targeted movements.
Please remember that this is my perspective based on my studies and how I’ve interpreted all the data. To know what’s going to work best for you, I highly recommend you experiment for yourself, as long as you’re doing so in a safe environment.
Let’s say that you’ve been training for a while and you’re eating enough protein and following a well-structured program. If you aren’t seeing results, maybe try increasing your weight and dropping the reps, as long as you aren’t rushing into it and progressing appropriately. Tinkering to find what works for you is the goal.
I will also say that the current literature is not very clear on this topic. I had to do a ton of digging, and still didn’t find very clear-cut answers. My hope is that there will be research that directly measures the differences in light loads and heavy loads. I’d love to see a large cohort study that uses fiber type-specific glycogen depletion to measure the recruitment of type I and type II fibers in perimenopausal women.
From all the research I’ve done, there is no reason to believe that you have to lift heavy to stay healthy, improve hormone health, body composition, and bone density.
We ultimately have to consider the cost and reward. If you feel like you can lift heavy in a safe way, you enjoy it, and are able to stay consistent, by no means do I want to discourage you from doing that.
What is most important is your adherence. If you hate heavy lifting, if it routinely bothers your joints, if you find you can’t stay consistent, what is the point? If lighter loads can produce similar outcomes, and you are more likely to stay consistent, you can still see great results in muscle strength and size with a hypertrophy-based routine like Evlo.