Wed, Aug-28-19, 03:50
Why women should lift weights (whatever their body type)
Laura 'Biceps' Hoggins: why women should lift weights (whatever their body type)
Once upon a time, gyms were split by gender: yoga classes for the women, weights section for the men. But with the health benefits of weight training – increased muscle mass, weight loss, reduced risk of osteoporosis and improved mental health – increasingly documented, women are now being told to defy the stereotype and start lifting.
According to the national health guidelines, everyone – man or woman – between the ages of 19 and 64 should do two sessions (or more) of muscle strength training each week (plus 150 minutes of moderate activity, such as cycling or swimming). Yet, according to an NHS survey from 2016, only 23pc of women in England actually meet those guidelines (men are at 31pc).
Why the reluctance? Embarrassment, intimidation and lack of knowledge, says personal trainer Laura Hoggins. "There are so many myths out there about weight training," complains the author of the recently published book Lift Yourself, a guide to iron-pumping which, unusually for its genre, is aimed at both men and women. “So many women still shy away from dumbbells out of the fear of getting too ‘bulky’. It’s ridiculous. A couple of bicep curls won’t dramatically change your body shape.”
Hoggins, often called 'Laura Biceps' or simply 'Biceps' by her 21,000 Instagram followers, is fast becoming a role model for female strength training. Diminutive yet muscular, she lives and breathes the health benefits of weight training. And she's making it her personal mission to help other women embrace this life-prolonging form of training.
She says her primary obstacle is the fact that women feel pressured to look a certain way – and that means conforming to a slim and not necessarily muscular ideal. “I’m a 5’3” blonde tank," she tells me. "I don’t look like the women on the front of magazines and I beat myself up for years trying every diet out there – from Keto to Atkins – just to get to a certain weight."
Her attitude changed when she embraced weight training, after falling in love with CrossFit, a strength and conditioning regime that emphasises high intensity interval exercise, weightlifting, and calisthenics – the idea that you can do resistance training using only your bodyweight. In this guise, a simple press-up counts as a form of weightlifting.
“I was that exact person who had no idea what they were doing,” says Hoggins.“I don’t think I wore the right clothes, and I wore my running trainers which – as I know now – is absolutely awful." However, the more she went to classes, the better she felt – and the keener she was to return. “There was so much I couldn't do, but I just wanted to get better at it. For the first time ever I wasn’t just using those plastic things that you press like Mr Motivator in a bright gym listening to the best of Avril Lavigne – you’re in this box, you’ve got this booming music playing and you’re holding these big iron barbells. Chalk is flying everywhere. I felt truly powerful."
Since then, Hoggins has reinvented herself as a qualified personal trainer – although she says she still gets judged and criticised for the way she looks. Once, a customer attending one of her fitness classes told her she “didn’t want to look like [her]”.
“It was awful," Hoggins recalls. "This woman came up to me and bluntly said: ‘I just want to sweat and burn some calories. I’m not looking for your body type, I don’t want to look like you'."
Hoggins informed the woman that there was no way that in the next hour she was going to walk out that studio with the same physique. “I told her that I’d been working very hard at this for many years, that I was considerably stronger than she was, so I’d be lifting much bigger weights.
Plus, my nutrition is very different, we are genetically very different."
"The woman left after the warm-up. She was clearly uncomfortable and just thought ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to get hench’. That is a worry for a lot of women."
Hoggins says it is a simple mistake to assume that, after just a couple of weight sessions, you’re going to wake up looking like a bodybuilder. “It takes a very long time to build up muscle,” she says. “I actually find it really hard. But because Instagram promises beach body ready results and because the Kardashians imply that ‘if you do this glute bridge you’ll get a big bum’, people are mis-sold.”
In fact, there's ample evidence to suggest that resistance work torches fat, ironically leading to the exact physique that refuseniks seek. In a 2017 study on obese adults looking to lose weight, those who did resistance training lost less lean mass than those who did just aerobic training – meaning that while both groups lost weight, those who did cardio burnt both fat and muscle, while those who weight-trained burnt exclusively fat.
Weight training also protects your bones. A 2018 study revealed that doing just two 30 minute high-intensity resistance and impact training each week actually enhances bone strength and functional performance in postmenopausal women with low bone mass. Improved posture is another benefit of weight training as not only does it strengthen your muscles, it also reduces the risk of injury.
Exercise, in any form, is great for your mental health – it’s even recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to treat mild to moderate depression. But did you know that lifting has been proven to improve self body image – better even than yoga?
As Hoggins neatly puts it: “Nothing looks as good as strong feels.”
So, how do we all get started? Here's Hoggins's five favourite weightlifting exercises for beginners – whatever your gender...
Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and stand shoulder width apart. Hinge at the hips, push your glutes back and maintain a flat back. Then, lower the weights down to your shin, and then come back to full extension.
“This one takes time to master,” says Hoggins. “So don’t rush. You want to feel the tension in your hamstrings, not your quads.”
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and either hold a kettlebell tight to your chest, or keep your arms by your sides (if you’re just using your bodyweight). Hinge at the hip, push your glutes to the floor, and aim to get your bum lower than your knees.
“This exercise improves overall strength and stability,” says Hoggins. “It’s hugely functional.”
3. Reverse lunge
Again, start with your feet shoulder width apart, take a big step behind you with your left leg, and lower your left knee so it gently grazes the floor. Keep your spine neutral and use your core to push the floor away and come back up to the start position, before switching legs.
“Make sure your knee doesn’t travel forwards when you lunge, it should stay directly over the foot,” explains Hoggins.
4. Kettlebell swing
Hold the kettlebell by the handle, using both hands. Swing the weight back between your legs, pushing your glutes backwards, and then ‘snap’ the kettlebell up to eye level, straightening your legs.
“Be cautious about swinging the kettlebell too high,” says Hoggins.”Once you’ve got enough momentum, the kettlebell should feel light, as your glutes and hamstrings are doing all the work.”
5. Bent over row
Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and hinge at the hip (just like a deadlift), so your bum is backwards but your back is flat. Then, with the weights dangling directly under your shoulders, pull them up towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked in tightly. Slowly lower the weights back down, and then repeat.
“This is a great exercise for building bicep strength,” says Hoggins. “Keep your back straight, and maintain a tight core.”