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Excerpted from Get Strong for Women, reprinted by permission of DK, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Alex Silver-Fagan.
Getting strong doesn’t happen overnight. It is a gradual process that requires commitment to routine, dedication to form and drive to continually push yourself every day. Each time you pick up a weight, you are training your muscles to become stronger and more adept at functional movement.
Push Your Muscles
Your body adapts to the type of work you demand of it. If you habitually lift heavy weights, your body responds by building the muscular strength and power to support the activity. That’s how strength training works—you overload your muscles, allow them to adapt, then overload again.
An effective training program is one that keeps your body guessing by varying the movements and challenging your body with greater resistance. This way, your body never gets comfortable, and your progress never halts.
Build Muscle Mass
On a microscopic level, resistance training builds your skeletal muscle mass—the muscles attached to bones and tendons that are responsible for the force behind all your movement. These muscles are composed of individual muscle fibers. When your muscles work against external resistance, such as when lifting weights, you cause microscopic tears in your muscle fibers.
After your workout, your body repairs these damaged fibers, making them stronger and thicker than before. As you continue to train, your muscles grow in size and definition. Gradually increasing the amount of weight you lift ensures that your muscles continue to build.
Building strength should not mean that you become muscle-bound or lose flexibility. A strong body is one that is able to move fluidly. For this reason, the movements in these exercises are functional, meaning they challenge your body to move as it is naturally designed to: in multiple planes of motion and in fluid, compound movements.
Effective functional strength training employs the seven foundational movement patterns: squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, twist and walk. Together, these patterns of movement occupy all planes of motion and keep your body healthy and injury-free.
Do women need to train differently than men?
Women and men have different hormonal profiles, which affects how muscle is gained. Because we have less testosterone, our bodies don’t physically build muscle mass in the same way that men’s bodies do. However, the training principles that build strength in men are equally effective for building strength in women.
When will I start to see results?
Everyone responds differently to training. Physically, you may start to feel a little stronger and more fit within the first four weeks of training. Mentally, you will feel more confident as soon as you start a program. Don’t rely on the scale as your only measure of progress. When you lift weights, you’ll be adding lean muscle mass, which means your weight may go up, but your body fat will go down, and you will look leaner and fitter.
What causes muscle soreness? What if I don’t get sore after a workout?
Muscle soreness is caused by the microscopic tears created in the muscle fibers during exercise (not the buildup of lactic acid, as many believe). This damage results in soreness and pain. Swelling occurs along with soreness, so your muscles may look puffy and larger than before.
If you don’t feel sore after a workout, it’s either because you didn’t overload your muscles, or because you’ve been working hard for an extended period of time and your muscles have acclimated to the stress. If you’re just starting out and not getting sore, consider increasing your resistance. If you’ve been working out for a while, consider increasing weight or decreasing rest time.
However, don’t let muscle soreness be the only indicator of a good training session. It’s more important to know your limits, push past them just a little bit, eat well and recover!
Alex’s Tips For Runners
What are the most important muscle groups for female runners to focus on with strength training?
Female runners, just like male runners, need to focus on a training plan that is going to keep them balanced. While of course lifting weights is not a runner’s main priority, if it is neglected, they are at more of a risk for injury. It’s incredibly important to strengthen a runner’s core as it is the foundation for all movement. This doesn’t just include your abs or the six-pack that some crave. Your core is made up of all the muscles of your midsection, both front and back, that help to support your spine, as well as your hips that allow for movement. Additionally, women should work on single-leg exercises to help strengthen the core and also create a balanced foundation that will prevent injury.
What are the most commonly neglected muscles in runners?
These can be found on the posterior chain, or the muscles on your entire back side (aka upper back, middle and lower back, glutes, hamstrings and calves). These muscles help to propel a runner forward, making them faster, and also help with posture, maintaining an upright, efficient running position. They are often neglected because runners can’t “see” them in the mirror and thus work muscles like the quads and chest while strength training.
When should runners incorporate strength training—on run days or off days?
Runners can incorporate strength training on both run and off-run days while keeping in mind the intensity. Scheduling a tough resistance workout on the same day as a long run is not ideal. Additionally, keeping your strength program specific to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will also help preserve stamina and endurance for longer runs.
What are the concerns that you most often hear from runners about strength training?
I often receive the same concerns from runners and non-runners who are getting started with strength training, and it is that heavy weights will make them bulky. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and it has also been scientifically proven that heavy weights don’t pack on size. Nutrition—specifically excess calories—is what causes bulking on a strength program, not the weights. Additionally, runners who perform more cardio than others will always be burning enough extra to keep them from gaining a lot of muscle.