Why Women Need More Strength and Less Cardio Training

strength Apr 07, 2022

Endurance sports have their place, but for long-term health and longevity, you need to hit the weights.

As a former Ironman triathlete and bike racer, I’m not about to tell anyone to hang up their racing flats or rack their bike. Endurance training can improve cardiorespiratory fitness, lipid profiles, and insulin sensitivity. It can lower blood pressure and boost mood and brain health. Plus, women are built for endurance, as we’re seeing women outright win ultra-running races like the 2021 Ultra-Trail World Tour and last year’s Race Across America (RAAM). But for our longevity in sport and life, we need to step up our strength training.

Research shows that only 20 percent of women engage in resistance training two or more times a week. Of course, that’s the general population, and I know the percentage of women who lift weights is higher in this audience. But I also know from personal experience that it could and should be higher.

For one, we need to maintain our power. Women generally have a lower proportion of type II (i.e. fast power-producing) muscle fibers than men (though we typically have a greater proportion of type I endurance fibers). So hitting the weights to build and maintain as much strength, power, and force is important, especially with age. We start losing muscle around age 40 (maybe even earlier). That loss, especially of those powerful type II fibers becomes more pronounced during the menopause transition, as hormonal changes accelerate the loss of lean muscle mass independent of aging. Without intervention, you can lose up to 50 percent of your lean skeletal muscle mass by your 80th birthday.

That may seem like a long way away. But those changes don’t happen overnight and the more muscle you build and bank now, the stronger, more resilient, and better you’ll perform down the line. You’ll also be healthier. Research shows that resistance training is just as, if not more effective than aerobic exercise at reducing the risk for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as well as general disability.

A study of more than 12,500 women and men published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that those who did any amount of strength training on a weekly basis had a 40 to 70 percent reduced risk of developing heart attack, stroke, or death related to heart disease compared with individuals who did no strength training no matter how much aerobic exercise they did. 

If that’s not enough incentive, consider that women respond very well to strength training, so you’ll feel results fast. In fact, in some ways females respond even better than males in that women who combine strength and power training can make greater relative improvements—getting stronger relative to their body size—compared to men. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that female recreational athletes following a 12 week periodized resistance training program increased their strength 30 percent by the end of the study compared to a 25 percent increase that the men experienced. 

Even as we get older and hit the menopause transition where our growth hormone production decreases and declining estrogen causes us to lose a signal for myosin, which is a muscle fiber that helps us generate strong contractions, performing heavy strength training can boost our growth hormone and anabolic signaling and help stimulate myosin to keep our contractions strong.

Strength Training for Life

Most importantly, strength training can keep us not only kicking ass in our sport, but also capable and independent throughout our life.

One primary way is it keeps our skeleton strong, which considering that nearly 20 percent of U.S. women 50 years and older have osteoporosis of the femur, neck, or lumbar spine, is important. Weight training helps build and preserve that bone, no matter what your age. Research on premenopausal women shows that even just six months of heavy resistance training improves bone mineral density of the femoral neck and lumbar vertebrae. Strength training also can help maintain bone mineral density in postmenopausal women and increase bone mineral density of the spine and hip in women with low bone mineral density and osteoporosis. A study where postmenopausal women did back strengthing exercises for two years showed that their risk for spinal compression fractures was 2.7 times lower than their peers who did no back strengthening exercise. And a study of high intensity resistance and impact (like plyometric) training improved markers of bone strength in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass with no adverse affects. 

Resistance training is good for your mental health. A meta-analysis that included more than 1,800 participants found that resistance training significantly reduced depression symptoms in women and men. In a Harvard study of older adults ages 60 to 84 with depression, 10 weeks of resistance training worked as an effective antidepressant. The more intensely they trained, the better they felt.

Finally, strength training improves and maintains your grip strength, which is an underappreciated indicator of vitality. Not only does strong grip strength help you open jars and carry 50-pound kettlebells, but it also may help you live longer as well as better. A 2022 study found that when comparing weight loss to grip strength, grip strength was a better indicator of longevity. This echoes findings from a large-scale 2018 study done in the U.K., which followed 502 293 participants (54% women) ages 40 to 69 for about seven years. That study concluded that weaker grip strength was associated with a higher risk of premature death from all causes as well as incidence and death from heart disease, respiratory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer. There is a bit of a chicken/egg issue here of course, because if you’re ill, you’ll get weaker. But the 2022 study analyzed the data to rule out that type of “reverse causality” by controlling for chronic conditions like diabetes, history of heart disease, or stroke and the outcome was the same. 

No matter your age or sport or whether you’re pre- peri- or postmenopausal, strength training should be a non-negotiable part of your training to stay strong for life.

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