Attention all cardio bunnies.
Yes, you, the cardio queen on hour 2 of elliptical training and a Real Housewives of New Jersey marathon.
I’ve got something to tell you. There’s another world out there that can give you the body you want in a fraction of the time.
It’s time to hit the weights.
The weight room floor is a strange, unknown place to many women. That doesn’t mean you need to fear it! Let me shed some light on 8 strength training secrets that every cardio bunny needs to know.
This article isn’t for women training hard for a marathon – keep doing your thing! This is for women who are logging too many hours on cardio machines because they think it’s the only way to lose weight. If you're not absolutely passionate about steady-state cardio, read on for a better alternative.
1. There is no "right time" to start lifting
Like so many milestones in life, there’s no perfect time to make a change. If you’ve been doing cardio until you’re lean/strong/healthy enough to start weight training, you’re missing out.
The time to hit the weights is NOW. Lifting weights will help you reach your current goals faster, so add it in to your training right away.
If you don't know where to start, you can:
- watch videos on YouTube
- buy a book about strength training (check out these two excellent resources for women: Strong Curves and The New Rules of Lifting for Women)
- follow a workout program online
- if you train at a gym, ask a personal trainer for help
2. You can't out-elliptical a bad diet
Take an honest assessment of your approach to cardio. Are you just staring at the calorie counter on the machine console? Spoiler alert: it’s probably not accurate anyway.
If you’re just trying to outspin a week’s worth of cocktails and cupcakes, then you’re in for some bad news. It doesn’t work like that.
This just creates an unhealthy mental cycle of punishing yourself with exercise for “bad” eating. You don’t want to start down that path – trust me.
At the end of the day, exercise should help you feel good and get healthy.
Part of building a healthy body is eating enough nutrient-rich food to support muscle growth. Starving yourself won’t get you closer to your goals, so you should expect to up your calories a little to see results.
Related: Learn How to Calculate Your Daily Calorie Needs
Of course, strength training does come with a pretty big bonus…
3. You'll burn more calories lifting weights
Yep. Research suggests that resistance training significantly raises EPOC (that’s Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption).1 This means your body burns more calories in the hours following resistance training as your muscles recover.
So while it's not all about burning calories, it certainly helps that strength training gives your body a metabolic boost.
Now remember, it's the compound, multi-joint lifts that are going to maximize this effect. Some lazy, 5lb biceps curls aren't going to get it done.
4. Cardio may make you smaller...but not in the way you want
Cardio burns calories, and calorie deficits lead to fat loss. I won’t argue with the science.
Losing weight through cardio and diet may leave you with a smaller body, but not the body you want.
A study found that, all calories equal, a group of trainees doing just aerobic exercise lost more lean body mass than those doing resistance training.2 Yes, they lost weight, but a lot of that was precious muscle mass.
The term “skinny fat” is often used to describe this look. While you may be dropping sizes, you’ll find that you have the same problem spots that you did at a heavier weight.
There’s more to health (and aesthetics!) than the number on the scale. If you need to lose a certain amount of weight, go for it, but what’s the point if you’re still not confident in a tank top?
5. Weight lifting may make you smaller...and firmer, and leaner
This is where weight training has a huge advantage!
In this body transformation, Naomi has “only” lost 20 pounds, but her after photos look remarkably different. The end result of this transformation was not the number on the scale, but the toned body Naomi achieved through strength training.
Also, if you’re more of a ruler or apple shape, you can use strength training to subtly reshape your body. By building up your shoulders and glutes (yes, please!), you create the illusion of a smaller waist.
6. No one is watching you lift weights
If you’ve been hanging out in a row of 50 treadmills just trying to blend in, go put yourself out there in the weight room.
If guys are watching you lift, it’s not because they’re judging you or criticizing your form. Most people are too focused on doing their own thing to pay much attention to other lifters.
If there’s another woman out there lifting, you can be certain she’s not judging you!
Once you get started, you’ll feel confident in your command of the weight room. Maybe you’ll even inspire another recovering cardio bunny to pick up a barbell.
7. You can still do cardio
I heard those sighs of relief. If you really enjoy cardio, you can keep it in your routine. On days you don't do strength training, you can keep doing any type of cardio you enjoy. This can be running, sports, Vinyasa style yoga, or, sure, a stationary bike if that floats your boat.
However, this is a great time to explore other types of cardio training. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a great and efficient way to improve heart health and get in a tough workout. You can even get cardiovascular benefits from weight lifting if you work in some circuit training or barbell complexes.
In fact, this style of circuit training is a great way to burn a lot of calories while keeping your heart rate elevated.
Related: What Type of Cardio is Best for Fat Loss? (See What the Science Says)
8. Lifting Weights Won't Make you Bulky
Oh you’ve heard this secret before? You thought I wasn’t going to mention it anyway?
Wrong! It’s so important I’ve saved it for last and I’m repeating it: weight lifting won’t make you bulky!!
But here’s a bonus secret that a lot of women don’t like to talk about: you might look and feel a little bigger when you first add strength training to your routine.
Don’t panic for this too shall pass.
When you lift weights, you’re actually creating small tears in the muscle fibers. After that initial trauma, your body works at the cellular level to repair the tear. (To learn WAY more about how to build muscle, check out our expert muscle building guide.) The tears cause inflammation (a healing response from your body) which, in turn, leads to water retention. This can account for an initial 2-4lb weight gain and a slightly bloated feeling.
Additionally, if you’ve been chronically undereating (as many women do) and start eating more to help build muscle, it does take time for your body to process the additional volume in your stomach.
At the end of the day, none of these small, temporary issues will make you “bulky.” Women simply lack the amount of testosterone required to make the kinds of strength and size gains that men make. Training like a man will not magically lead to a sudden development of manly muscles.
The Secret's Out!
So you know all the benefits, you know that no one is watching you, and you know the best time to start strength training is right now. Instead of logging 2 hours of cardio, give a 30-minute full body resistance training session a shot. What to do with that extra 90 minutes of calorie-burning free time? That’s up to you!
If you have questions about getting started, drop them in the comments below!
I have a question. I checked the body measurements calculator but is that for men? Is there a different equation for women?
I will have to find out about this. Thanks for asking.
I’ve been following the 12 week womens program. I am on my 4th week. 1st day. But I had to take three days off because I hurt my knee but realized that the insertion place of my hamstrings were most likely the culprit. I was overdoing it. So I used some pressure point on the insertion of my left knee and it seemed to relieve it some. Today I went back to the gym. I did 3 sets each of super set to keep heart rate up of Ropes, farmer carries, push-ups, leg cruches, then I simply went to the machines and did 3 sets light weights of the sled, leg curls, leg extensions. And free body weight clad raises. I also did 2 different machines for abs. Tomorrow I’m gonna do back and arms.
Hi, Tinamarie. Thanks for sharing. I would suggest seeing a doctor to be safe about the hamstring, but glad you're back at it.
Hola,entonces con esto me quieres decir que por más que trabaje glúteos jamás conseguiré que sea más grande?
How important is a minimum and maximum amount of calories one should be consuming to get the most out of weight training and weight loss? Also what is a good way to curb the carb addicts need when the munchies hit?
It's definitely important to find the right calorie balance. Too much excess and you'll gain unwanted fat. Too little and you'll never add any muscle mass and will eventually plateau on weight loss. It's usually helpful to track cals for a little while and then adjust from there.
It's definitely ok to eat carbs - they will fuel your weight training. But if you tend to go overboard, try to eliminate temptation. For example, if I have chips around, I'm fine eating just 1oz at a time. But if I have pretzels around, I'll eat the whole bag! So...no pretzels in my house! I also try to portion out my "munchie" snacks in advance. There's no way I'm sitting down on the couch with a bag of anything salty. I measure out one serving and then that's it.
I remain stunned how many women say #8...