With so much fitness literature readily available online and now in many newsagents, it can be difficult to find an accurate source of information that you can depend on. Add to this society’s view of regular exercisers as fitness “freaks”, and it can be easy to feel confused and very alone when looking for a reliable source of information. It’s little wonder then that a dangerous combination of hearsay, stereotypes, out-dated views and a lack of science-based opinion has lead to an endless stream of gym myths. I’m going to explain why 5 of the most common ones that you might have heard, or even thought yourself are just NOT true:

“If I use weights I’ll get bulky”

This is likely to be the most common concern to most women when it’s suggested that they should incorporate some resistance work into their regime. It’s likely that all women have either said this at one time or had a friend that has said something similar. The truth is it takes an awful lot of adjustments for a lady to become “bulky” including drastic dietary adjustments and years of regular isolation work. However, a few sessions of full body resistance work each week are more likely to offer you the stronger, more “toned” physique that you’re looking for.

Genetically, women will struggle to gain lean muscle mass at a significant rate due to their lack of testosterone; a crucial ingredient in creating and developing quality muscle. Women have around 5% of the testosterone of an equivalent male (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/articles/testosterone.shtml) and therefore are at a significant disadvantage when trying to gain muscle. When you see how hard and how frequently many men in a gym need to work in order to make small muscular gains, you can see how unlikely it is for a lady to become “bulky” through resistance work.

“I need to stick to small weights and lots of repetitions.”

Your aim is to stimulate muscle growth in the quickest way possible with the little time you have available to exercise. Given the low level of testosterone in women (discussed above), it can be difficult for some women to perform enough resistance work to stimulate any significant changes. Furthermore, lifting relatively “heavy” loads close to your maximum effort will significantly spike your heart rate – a quick and effective form of cardiovascular training. A good guide to follow is: “Anything that you can do 100 times or more isn’t testing you and isn’t doing you any good.” That goes for all of those high repetition abdominal exercises and even more so for larger, compound movements such as squatting or a clean and press. If you can perform this level of repetitions, change one of the variables (most likely, add resistance) for a greater stimulus, faster results and an improved body composition.

Remember, heavy weights won’t necessarily make heavy women. According to the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, women who took part in lower body, heavy weight training (heavy weights at low repetitions) twice a week for 20 weeks reduced their body fat percentage while improving lean body mass and experienced no growth in leg diameter measurements (http://www.springerlink.com/content/x843378082314861/ ).

“That’s a man’s’ exercise”

There are a few exercises that are viewed as “Men’s exercises”; but, this doesn’t need to be the case. Pull ups are a perfect example of an exercise that many women will avoid and, due to their difficulty, describe them as a “men’s exercise”. You might not be able to currently do pull ups, but in reality, there are no exercises that are impractical for women to perform. They may take practice and may be less natural for women to grasp but they’re all doable. Pull ups are a great upper body exercise and a test of grip, back and core strength that shouldn’t be avoided. If you can’t perform a full range pull up with your own bodyweight don’t worry, you’re not alone. But, the good news is, you have 3 options:

Try to start on a fully assisted pull up, then with a resistance band and work your way towards “negatives”. Often the area that lets most people down when trying to perform a pull up is the grip strength. After you’ve performed your assisted pull ups try to hang straight armed from a bar for as long as possible. Time yourself and aim to beat your previous times each attempt. Two long hangs after 3 sets of pull ups will be a real test of your grip and a simple way to improve your grip and in doing so, improve the likelihood of achieving a full, bodyweight pull up.

“I need to focus on cardio work to lose weight”

Cardiovascular work will always play a role in weight loss and general wellbeing, however, it’s often overly depended upon; particularly when you consider that it can be a very slow solution. In short, there are two main methods of reducing body fat through exercise, both of which need to be incorporated in any effective exercise regime.

  • Create a calorie deficit: Effectively, using more calories each day than you consume. If you’ve ever looked at a treadmill’s statistics (though these can be somewhat inaccurate) you’ll see that this is a slow process when aiming to burn calories through aerobic exercise. For the most effective way of using cardiovascular work to lose body fat try not to work at a steady state. Include intense intervals followed by bouts of recovery times. In a study of young females by Trapp et al (Reviewed in the Journal of Obesity 2010 (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobes/2011/868305/abs/ ) subjects performed three, 20 minutes cycling interval sessions per week, subjects lost an average of 2.5kg of body fat in 15 weeks.
  • Improve your metabolic rate: Teaching your body to burn a greater number of calories at rest and improve your metabolism. You can boost your metabolic rate by utilising intervals as mentioned above and also improving your lean muscle mass. By performing resistance work in the gym and building lean muscle, you can then burn further calories every day outside of the gym, not JUST on the treadmill. In a study from South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, women that weight trained 2-3 times each week gained an average of 2 lbs. of muscle and lost 3.5 lbs. of fat.
    http://www.livestrong.com/article/116346-resistance-training-women-lose-weight/ While the University of Alabama found that resistance work had a positive effect on fat loss, retaining fat loss and increasing resting energy expenditure (calorie burning away from the gym) while cardiovascular training did not. (http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v16/n5/abs/oby200838a.html )

A final issue with relying on cardiovascular exercise to reduce body fat is that you are likely to experience a reduction in muscle mass as a result of lengthy aerobic exercise sessions, thus reducing your resting metabolic rate. Therefore you’ll be losing body weight but in order to maintain the weight loss, you will need to also need to gradually eat less as you’re burning fewer calories day-to-day. http://evolv.exersciz.com/en/resistance-training-vs-cardio-for-weight-loss/

For the fastest most effective way to burn body fat combine a mixture of resistance work using a 3-5 sets on each exercise and 8-15 reps per set with short, fast cardio vascular interval training. If you’re pushed for time you can combine these in one session; the general consensus is to perform the interval work last. That way you know that it’s the final part of your session and you can work to maximal effort. One effective interval idea is to use a rowing machine and perform 30 seconds intense work, 30 seconds rest and repeat 6-10 times depending on fitness levels. The “Concept 2” rowing machines found in most gyms will already have this as a pre-loading 30/30r setting.

“Supplements are for men”

The truth is that a supplement is just that – a “supplement” for any area that’s lacking in your diet. It’s not a miracle pill or drink and is unlikely to offer immediate results if other areas of your life such as rest, food and training are not already in order. If a lack of muscle growth, recovery and muscle repair is an issue then a protein drink may be a suitable supplement for you. There are many varieties of protein supplement; not all of which are aimed at making significant gains in size and strength. These “mass gainers” may not be for you unless your diet is currently lacking significantly in calories and general nutrients. However, if you exercise regularly, a simple Whey protein can be a convenient way to increase your daily protein consumption, take on a healthy and nutritious snack, improve your rate of recovery and overall body composition. A diet high in protein has been found to significantly improve body composition; therefore making sure that you’re taking on enough protein every day is essential for reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass. It’s generally agreed that a target of 1.5g of protein for every Kg of bodyweight is necessary each day for optimum results (http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/2/411.short ).

“Everyone will look at me”

Try this: Without turning around, see if you can name or describe the 4 people behind you, what they’re wearing and what they’re doing. Now turn around. Nowhere near right? The truth is, no one cares what you’re doing in the gym. As long as you’re appropriately dressed and not taking over large areas of the gym or multiple pieces of equipment during peak times, or drawing unnecessary attention to yourself by being excessively loud, the chances are you won’t even get a second look. Most people are at the gym to work and have little time or interest in what you’re doing – I promise!


It’s clear to see that not everything you hear with regards to the gym has a science-based reasoning. Often, when it comes to exercise, common sense doesn’t always apply. For instance, “big weights” won’t instantly make you “big”. The good news is, if you’ve heard something about fitness, someone has probably written about it online and separated the truth from the rumours. Always try to verify any advice with multiple sources and don’t instantly take everything you read as the truth. Remember: Just because you read it in an attractive magazine in a newsagent, that doesn’t mean it’s 100% accurate.

Michael Darren – Personal Trainer, Strength Coach and Pre / Post Natal Trainer

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