Back in 2008, Kiran Sawhney was a woman on a mission. After marriage and the birth of two children, Sawhney, a Delhi-based fitness trainer, weighed in at a plump and unhealthy 85kg. In February that year, she began a dedicated programme to get back to full fitness—four months later, she had dropped an incredible 30kg for a toned and svelte look.
For most people, such radical weight loss usually spells danger, but not for Sawhney. “What I did was a methodical, step-by-step programme that involved serious cardio, a very nutritious and well-balanced diet free of harmful fats and simple carbs, and a lot of weight training,” Sawhney, now 42, says. “There was no crash dieting or starving involved.”
The secret to her success? Combining all the elements of fitness in the right proportion.
“Women have no problems with dieting or cardio exercises like cycling or running, but few want to pick up weights,” Sawhney says. “But weight training is invaluable. It builds lean muscle, which in turn increases your metabolism and burns fat.” Sawhney focused mostly on functional weight training, where you do lifts like barbell squats that engage all the major muscles in your body, as opposed to lifts like the bicep curl that work just one muscle group.
Add resistance: The right amount of weight training can give you a toned and shapely body and the perfect posture
Why do women shy away from weight training? The biggest reason is the belief that lifting weights equals bulky muscles, and undesirable hormonal effects like increased growth of body hair. This is simply not true.
“Bodybuilding is a science in its own right,” says Heath Matthews, the sports rehabilitation specialist at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital and Medical Research Institute in Mumbai. “It’s incredibly difficult for a woman to get bulky muscles.”
Bulking up is a result of a process called “muscle hypertrophy”—an increase in the size of muscle cells. To achieve this, you need a carefully tailored lifting programme that involves very heavy weights, weight training for several hours a day for years, and lots of testosterone, the male hormone that is an important building block for muscles.
“Women have naturally low levels of testosterone, so even with hours of weight training and lots of protein intake, it is significantly harder for women to get bodybuilder-like muscles,” Matthews clarifies. “Women also have high levels of the hormone estrogen in their body, which also prevents bulking up.”
With the right amount of weight training, what you do get is a toned and shapely body, increased strength and endurance, and the perfect posture. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends three sessions of weight training per week for all healthy adults—men and women. “Weight training is all about correct form,” says Deepak Rawat, fitness trainer at Fitness First, New Delhi. “You need to maintain the correct posture throughout the exercise to get the best benefits and to avoid injury. As a result of this, and because the muscles that support the posture get stronger, your body’s natural posture improves automatically”.
Matthews, who has worked with both Olympic athletes and Bollywood stars, points out that weight training is highly adaptable, depending on fitness levels and goals.
Saina Nehwal, the world No. 5 badminton player, uses weights to increase her capacity to generate power. “She can squat with 90kg, which is around 125% of her own body weight,” Matthews says. “She is one of the strongest athletes I’ve worked with.” Nehwal’s workout involves lots of running and court work for endurance, plyometrics for explosive power, and squats, lunges, calf-raises and deadlifts to strengthen her legs and core.
“With actors like Mallika Sherawat and Sonam Kapoor, we follow a medium-weight, medium-repetitions (reps) kind of programme,” Matthews says. “Around 20 reps with not more than 70% of their body weight for a squat, for example.”
There’s a reason Matthews keeps using the squat as an example—it is widely regarded as the most essential strength-training exercise you can do, and this applies to both sexes.
“It just activates so many muscles when done correctly,” Rawat says of the squat. “Quadriceps, glutes, hamstring, the entire core, calf, even the shoulders. If you had to pick just one strength-training exercise, this would be it. It’s also fantastic for improving your posture.”
Weight training becomes even more important as women age. “Both your muscle mass and the density of your bones diminish with age, especially after 40,” Sawhney says. “Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis and arthritis. Weight training counters both these things—it increases and maintains bone density, and preserves muscle mass.”
Women gain weight more easily as they age. A study by the University of Pennsylvania, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September 2007, also shows that women involved in training with weights are less likely to gain weight as they grow older, and that strength training helps women lose weight.
Strength training has long been known to reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, including arthritis, back pain, depression, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis in men. “It work in exactly the same way in women,” says Matthews.
Weigh your options
Train with a qualified person and give your muscles time to recover.
• It’s essential to get a qualified trainer to show you what exercises to do and how to do them. It is crucial to learn the correct form of an exercise while lifting weights—otherwise the gains are slow to come, and the risk of injury is high.
• Take your time while lifting. Most lifts don’t require you to jerk the weight around or to do countless repetitions as quickly as you can. This is usually detrimental. Instead, lift in a controlled manner, feel your muscles working. Inhale while lowering the weight and exhale while lifting, bracing your core.
• Always warm up with at least 10 minutes of cardio activity before beginning a weight-training session.
• Don’t do lots of repetitions with very light weights—there is little to gain from that. When you are just starting out, the best thing to do is pick a weight that will tire out your muscles by the 12th repetition of an exercise. You should be barely able to finish the 12th repetition. This provides the stimulus for muscles and bones to get stronger.
• Give your muscles time to recover. There is no need to do more than three 15- to 20-minute sessions of weight training in a week.
• Pick functional exercises—lunges, squats, deadlifts, cleans and bench-presses are good examples. These engage your entire body, which is what you need. There is no need to do exercises that only work one muscle group at a time unless you are a professional bodybuilder.
• Get better at body-weight exercises. You don’t always need weights for resistance training. In fact, it is ideal if you begin first by mastering body-weight exercises like the push-up, free squat, lunge and tricep dips before you begin training with weights.