7 Dangerous Myths Women Believe About Fitness

Monday Mar 10 | BY |
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Women's Fitness

Despite the myths, every woman can enjoy the benefits of strength training.

After twenty plus years of working in the fitness industry, as both a trainer and a coach, I’ve seen myth after myth about health and fitness disappear. Yet one particular set of myths about women and training still exists, and it drives me crazy!

There are so many myths regarding females and strength training. Way too many to count.

Yet despite the growing number of women out there slowly incorporating strength training, there are even more women who still believe that strength training is
for men only.

Every woman needs strength training, so let’s take a look at the common myths that may be standing in YOUR way.

Myth #1: You should steer clear of heavy weights because it will make you look like a man.

Ah, this is the king (or queen) of all myths and is one that never seems to go away.

There are a number of biological differences stacked against us as women. First and foremost, we have only about five percent of the of testosterone men possess. This means that the average male has twenty times as much testosterone than the average female. And testosterone is the hormone primarily responsible for muscle gain.

Maybe at some point you did some lifting and you felt you looked overly muscular.

The culprit was very likely your increased caloric consumption that came along with the new change in exercise. What I mean is that typically, the culprit is increased body fat—not necessarily increased muscle mass—that is responsible for what many women call the “big and bulky” look. Often, increased body fat “coated” on top of muscle is mistaken for muscle mass, which turns many women away from lifting weights.

There’s a notion that after a tough workout, we need to fuel our muscles, which is true, but not to the tune of a frappaccino and a muffin. It’s too easy to convince yourself that your body is all of a sudden devoid of nutrients and calories, or that you deserve a treat for all your hard work. But when your body takes in more calories than it needs to maintain your current body weight, you’ll gain weight on top of that muscle.

If you can dial in your nutrition while simultaneously lifting weights in the gym, what you’ll get is a leaner, tighter, stronger version of your former self.

Myth #2: Women can’t do pull-ups.

The word “can’t” implies that all females, regardless of how hard they try, are physically incapable of performing a single pull-up. But while it’s true that women tend to have less upper body strength relative to that of males, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do a pull-up.

So what do you do when you have a weakness? You work on it to turn that weakness into a strength.

Simply put, the solution to weak upper body strength is to improve it. In the gym, upper body pulling movements will help: think row variations (barbell rows, cable rows, inverted rows) as well as pull-up variations (band-assisted, chin-ups).

Even if your goal is not to do a pull-up, working towards one is important because for women, upper body strength, especially as we age, is essential!

Myth #3: Protein powder is bad for women because it will make them huge.

There’s this idea floating around in mainstream media that protein powder is only for meathead bodybuilders who want to get huge. So when a woman puts a five-pound tub of protein powder on the counter at Vitamin Shoppe or GNC, eyebrows go up.

There’s nothing inherently magical about protein powder. It’s simply a portable, tasty way to get some protein. Its biggest perk? Convenience. And perhaps taste.

The average scoop of protein powder will yield 20 to 25 grams of protein.

Just like any other food, if protein powder is consumed in excess, then yes, it can make you gain weight, so don’t forget there are also calories in those protein shakes.

Myth #4: All the fitness models and fitness competitors are on steroids; the average woman could never achieve that look.

And why would we want to if we’re not competing?

But all of that aside, here’s a fact: we all have abs. They’re there. That six-pack? Yes, you’ve had it all along. The only thing stopping those abs from showing themselves off to the world is a layer of fat.

So if you covet a certain physique, all that means is you have to lose body fat in order to unveil those abs. Easier said than done, I know, but think of it as art. Over a period of several weeks and months, you’ll chip away at your body, slowly uncovering your desired look.

Myth #5: When you work out, your fat will transform into muscle.

Oh, don’t we wish this was true.

It’s creative thinking, though.

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t quite work this way. What it can do, however, is shed and gain body fat, as well as strip away or pack on muscle. And while these two processes may be related, they are not one and the same.

Muscle is active soft tissue that is responsible for creating physical movement. Body fat, on the other hand, serves as an energy reserve for the body and helps cushion our joints and organs as well as maintain the integrity of healthy skin and nails.

So while it may seem as though fat magically turns into muscle when you begin training, the truth is that you’re losing body fat, or you’re putting on muscle (or both).

Myth #6: You should switch up your training routine every week to keep your muscles guessing.

You may have heard that you should “confuse your muscles and keep them guessing.” Unfortunately, muscles do not get confused, nor do they participate in guessing games.

And if you’re afraid you might get bored, then you need to focus on the fact that you are
making improvements from one workout to the next. There’s nothing dull or unexciting about progress!

I recommend a minimum of four to six weeks on any given training program before moving onto something different. By this I don’t necessarily mean utilizing the exact same exercises for the same reps and sets week after week.

But sticking to the same program gives you time to become better at the prescribed exercises by providing more opportunities for repetition.

Myth #7: To lose fat, you need to crank up the cardio.

Actually, doing more cardio is the best way to……do more cardio. Doing it for the calorie burn will ultimately leave you disappointed, cranky, and tired.

I know this is a difficult idea for women to believe. But steady-state cardio burns surprisingly fewer calories than you’d think. Steady-state cardio in and of itself is not an effective weight loss choice. So know your goals, and use the most effective methods!

Rather than steady-state cardio, interval training is the way to go. Other names for this include metabolic conditioning, circuit training, or high-intensity training. These short bursts of high intensity activity alternated with periods of rest have been found to produce equal, if not better, results than traditional steady-state cardio with just a fraction of the time commitment.

I won’t go over all the science, but it is likely due to the increased excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or energy expenditure in the time following the workout.

So did I dispel any myths that are standing in your way?

Women can lift heavy weights and perform metabolic conditioning workouts with great success. And, as long as you eat properly, you can absolutely achieve a strong, lean look without bulking up.

Need some guidance in putting together your strength training routines? Ask below!

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein holds a Master’s degree in exercise physiology and has completed over 12 advanced certifications in the field of health and fitness. She coaches and teaches from her home base in San Diego, California. Her specialties include hormone health for women, run coaching, and helping her clients move from pain to performance. She offers free newsletters both weekly and monthly from her websites: www.joyinmovement.com and www.activemenopauselifestyle.com


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  1. Gerry says:

    I had been using Kettle Bells and achieved good, overall results, however some nutrition and fitness buffs advised that Club Bells were even better so I ordered 10 lb Clubs.
    Unaware of the importance of using them in a certain way, I injured both shoulders and that was approximately 3 years ago and they have yet to heal.
    Can you recommend some good shoulder building exercises that I might do to strengthen and build said shoulder muscles?

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Gerry,

      You are right in thinking that both Kettle Bells and Clubs are good tools to use for achieving fitness goals. You also touched upon another important point. It is always a good idea to get instruction when using new equipment in your fitness routines.

      I’m sorry to hear that you injured your shoulders and that they haven’t healed yet. I can’t recommend any shoulder building exercises because the shoulders are a very complex area and I have no idea what areas are injured. All I can suggest, if you haven’t already done this, is that you get a thorough assessment as to where your injuries or movement limitations are and go from there.”

  2. Smita says:

    Love this article! I am a Crossfit coach and I completely agree with everything in this article. Shelli I think I have taken your yoga classes about 7 years ago at Ohlone College!

    • From Shelli:

      “Yes, I remember you from my Ohlone yoga classes! How great that you are now a Crossfit coach. Thanks for agreeing with what I wrote. Coming from a CF coach, that’s good to know!”

  3. Hi, I’ve always found the thought of gym work tedious and boring, because it seems to be only working with the outer body, which is why many years ago I took up yoga (which I gather you also teach) Yoga builds and shapes internally and externally, it engages the mind, emotions and spirit as well as the body and so is infinitely more satisfying than most other fitness regimes.
    Also, you mention protein powder, and I thought that it was dangerous for older people to take too much protein as people over 50 don’t need as much. What do you advise your older students?
    All the best, Gilly.

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Gilly,

      Thanks for your thoughts about Yoga. I agree, Yoga is so good for us on so many different levels.

      As for your question about protein powder, it is not good for anyone, regardless of age, to take in too much protein. I was talking about moderate amounts. I don’t think of age as much as body weight when I consider how much protein is enough in one’s diet. We also need to consider that protein is essential for our health and to maintain and grow muscle. I can’t give general recommendations for older students because it really is an individual concern. If you have concerns about your own diet, seek out the guidance of a nutritionist and let them thoroughly assess your diet.”

  4. Tam says:

    As a 67 year old female I would be interested in learning more about exercises for us older women. I have a chronic lung disease and I’m not able to do much if any, cardio. I do ride my stationary bike and participate is Aqua excerises. Other suggestions please!

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Tam,

      Exercise as we get older is essential, so it’s good that you are seeking ways to stay active. Riding bikes and aqua exercise are great choices. I’d suggest you join my http://www.activemenopauselifestyle.com list and receive the Monday Morning letter I write each week. You’ll find that I make recommendations about creative ways to stay active, as well as other tips for enjoying a healthy lifestyle.”

  5. Linnea says:

    I have taken a strength training class for the last 3 years. In addition to using free weights, our instructor has us doing a variety of push-ups. When I do these I realize this is a weak area of mine. However, I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I can’t do as many repetitions as I’d like, just because the weight on my palms means pain later in the day. I usually stop way before my arms are tired, out of fear of hurting my wrists / palms more. Do you have any suggestions for ways to work this area without straining the wrists? Thanks!

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Linnea,

      Push-ups for women are wonderful!! If push-ups hurt your wrists, I’d suggest asking your trainer to come up with push-up modifications. Push-ups are compound exercises which mean they work your whole body. There are many compound exercises to choose from so you can even get huge benefits from compound movements beside push-ups.”

  6. maria licandro says:

    great article!
    My problem is that for the last 2 years (in my peri-meno days and now my menopause) I have put on 4% body fat and 4 extra pounds.
    I do exercise 4 times a week doing high intensity training for 15 min. and I try to do 15 min of cardio every day.
    I used to do yoga and try to do at least 3 times a month.
    I do feel strong but am very frustrated at the fat% and the up and down of those 4 pounds (it can decrease 4 pound in the month then go back up at another part of the month).
    Do I just put this down to my hormones still fluctuating?
    What can I do to adjust my workout so I can get that fat% back down 4 % points? My diet is pretty clean :
    Pea protein shake in the morning with frozen fruit. Lunch can be veggies with protein or soups or left over dinner. Dinner always has a protein, vegetables and whole grain carbs.
    I do have an after dinner snack like applesauce and walnuts or green tea and nuts or cereal with almond milk.
    Please help!

    • Chris says:

      I can see worrying about 40 pounds, but you’re talking about FOUR pounds. Truly?

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Maria,

      I hear what you’re saying and though it won’t make you feel better, most women go through the same things. It’s frustrating, I know. As you say, you do have to put some of it down to hormone fluctuations. I’d suggest signing up for my newsletter at http://www.activemenopauselifestyle.com. It comes out weekly. I often write about hormones and how to manage menopausal weight gain, among many other health and fitness topics. I think you’ll get some good ideas. You could also sit down with a fitness professional who has lots of experience working with women in menopause and have them assess your diet and fitness routines to make sure what you’re doing will get you the results you want.”

  7. I purchased a chin-up bar that I’ve assembled on the door-way (indoors) and am taking your advice, keep trying day after day, at first to just hang on for a few moments, and then aided with a chair to get higher up (am only a dwarf according to the Oxford dictionary (from London England) ha, ha, for all who are barely five feet or under, by that definition) but that does NOT deter me from trying… Am afraid to use the Om Gym for whih I originally got it for which I got at an outdoor event because the pull up device warned against “swinging” from it, (it is not bolted to the sides, only has a metal clasp that goes between the wall and the center of the narrow wooden door frame) and wonder how to get more strength to proceed better?

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Janine,

      I’m a big enthusiast of chin-up bars for women, so good for you. I’d suggest meeting with a trainer. They’ll be able to give you a progression of ways to use the bar and get stronger and more comfortable with it. Also, please read comment # 8. She talks about pull-ups but her suggestions work for chin-ups as well.”

  8. Phyllis Lomitola says:

    Thanks for the info. Everything you say is correct! I was blessed to have a great trainer when I started weight training, after years and years of just aerobics, which kept my weight steady, but never changed my body. He taught me exactly as you say, an aerobic warm up for 10 minutes, then 45 minutes of weight training at a constant pace so heart rate stayed up. But, he never let me start using the weight machines until I could handle my own body weight; yup, pull ups and push ups! So, still to this day, Many years later and 60 years old, i am pretty much the only woman in my gym that can do pull ups! But to add to your advice, the only way to Learn them is to have a helper that will guide your knees until you get the courage and strength to handle them alone.
    I have a pretty good routine, but always looking for new challenges, do you suggest any routines on any of your web sites?
    I am in San Diego quite often since my daughter is a yoga instructor out there, so maybe our paths will meet one day! I actually live in New York.
    Nice to meet you.

    • From Shelli:

      “HI Phyllis,

      Thanks for being in agreement with me! And YEAH for pull-ups! Sounds like your trainer was indeed a wise one. If you sign up for the newsletter from my site http://www.activemenopauselifestyle.com you’ll find that from time to time I write about exercise routines. I also write about nutrition, keeping a positive attitude, and other ideas I have about living the good life.

      Nice to meet you too, and when you’re in San Diego, let me know. I always enjoy meeting readers. “

  9. DennisParker says:

    I want to make sure that it is very important to see whether or not his is something that is going to improve in many way.

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