How weightlifting is raising the bar for women’s health

Strength training can reverse osteoarthritis and osteoporosis in older women

'Loads of friends, great quads and better fitting jeans'. Step inside the world of female power lifting in Ireland. Video: Daniel O'Connor

 

At an age when most women have long since given up on competitive sport Lucy Moore (59), who has competed in athletics since she was a teenager, decided to add another sport to her already hectic schedule – Olympic weightlifting.

“I started doing weight-training when I was 16 for high-jumping and I continued that throughout my athletics career. But when I was in my early 50s a friend from athletics, Claire Cameron from Scotland, was at me for a long while to take up Olympic weightlifting”, she said.

Although she was initially reluctant, after some persistent badgering from Claire, Lucy agreed to enter the weightlifting competition at the European Masters Games – she was there for the athletics anyway – and found herself a weightlifting coach. Despite a relatively short preparation time, Lucy trained hard and won the event at the European Masters Games. “I thought to myself ‘Claire is right’, I could be good at this,” she recalls.

Lucy is something of an outlier – until recently, weightlifting and strength training were perceived as a male pursuit. However, while resistance training has wonderful benefits for both men and women – including increased strength, a faster metabolism and lower bodyfat levels – for women, the benefits of lifting weights are arguably greater than they are for men.

For instance, weight training has been proven to increase bone density and reduce the risk of fractures in later life, which women are at higher risk of suffering due to osteoporosis.

Recent research has also shown that that while men reach their peak strength in their late 20s and early 30s, women can maintain and develop peak strength into their 40s and even their early 50s.

So what are the benefits of strength training for women at the different stages in their life, and when should they start – and stop – lifting weights? The answers might surprise you.

Adolescents and teenagers

Despite this many young women stop engaging in physical exercise in their early teens, in much greater numbers than males of the same age.

The reasons are manifold but one of the prime reasons is that boys place a greater emphasis on being part of a group environment, while for many young women this is not an enjoyable experience. For young girls who don’t enjoy the team sport environment, an individual sport such as weightlifting is a good balance of engaging in a healthy individual pursuit, which builds self-reliance and independence, while also being part of a larger group.

Strong girls become strong women

Saying that it is okay to be strong, physically as well as emotionally, is a powerful message whose effect should not be underestimated.

We also know through scientific study that resistance training is the most effective way to build muscle and increase bone density, but what has become apparent over recent years is that bone density increases in the teenage years can lead to increased bone density in women in later life – even if they stop training in their 20s.

Won’t it stunt her growth?

It’s not hard to see how the old wives tale developed – in the same way that being tall in basketball is an advantage (closer to the hoop), and taller children tend to self select that as their sport of choice, being on the shorter side is an advantage in weightlifting (a shorter distance to move the bar).

As a result, shorter people who are more successful in weightlifting tend to stick with the sport throughout their life.

A US study which was published by Sports Health in 2009 reviewed research into strength training for children over a 28-year period. According to Dr Katherine Dahab and Dr Teri McCambridge: “Strength training, when performed in a controlled, supervised environment, can help children and adolescents of all athletic abilities safely improve their strength and overall health and well-being.”

The key findings were that, as long as the emphasis is always on good technique and proper movement and children are not allowed attempt to lift maximal weights until they reach skeletal maturity, strength training can help children become stronger and healthier without any negative health implications.

Their research also concluded that a well structured strength training programme provided a lower risk of injury than far more popular sports, such as gymnastics or baseball.

Twenties, thirties and forties

That is where resistance training comes in. As well as burning calories while you train, resistance training has the added benefit of burning calories after you train – at work, at rest, even when you are sleeping. The American College of Sports Medicine has shown that adding just 4lbs of muscle helps you burn more calories at rest – as many as 100 calories a day.

Muscle also takes up significantly less mass than fat, so by training you can reduce your physical size significantly while still weighing the same.

There are other benefits too – research at the University of South Carolina has found that resistance training reduces symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) in women, who have a greater predisposition to suffer from the condition than men, when compared to either aerobic exercise or no exercise at all.

Get lifting, Granny

such as shopping bags – tasks we all need to do to maintain our independence.

Some of the less well-known side effects of muscle loss are a slower metabolism, which will lead to increased fat storage, as well as an impaired ability to regulate body temperature. Thankfully, resistance training can help mitigate these effects and research carried out over the last 20 years has shown that it is never too late to start.

A review of 1,500 studies worldwide which was published in the German medical journal Deutsches Arzteblatt concluded that for the over-60s “strength (resistance) training has been used in the prevention and rehabilitation of different symptoms – for example, in osteoporosis and degenerative joint disorders”.

The researchers also concluded that it was a low risk form of exercise and that older people should lift relatively heavier weights for best results. It is probably a shock to the general population to find out that the effects of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis – two diseases that have tremendously negative effects on the quality of life in older women particularly – can be mitigated and even reversed by engaging in regular strength training.

Just like starting a savings plan for your retirement it is best to start early for the best results, if you are in your 60s, 70s and even 80s you can still benefit from starting gentle, supervised resistance training and building it up slowly over time.

Choosing to be stronger

Azerbaijan

While she still competes in athletics as well, she says she still finds weightlifting tremendously rewarding.

“I really enjoy doing the movements – there is a strength element of course, but the lifts are so technical that you have to spend time mastering them. I am lucky also that I have always been surrounded by supportive people in the sport, which is great about weightlifting – people want to see you succeed,” she says.

Although far more women, of all ages and abilities, are getting involved in the sport and many of the old misconceptions about weight training are being broken down, Lucy says that when she tells people that she is a competitive weightlifter she still gets some odd looks.

“People always tell me ‘you don’t look like a weightlifter’, but what does a weightlifter look like?”

Harry Leech has been Irish team coach at three World Championships and eight European Championships.

He coaches beginners to international-level athletes at Capital Strength Weightlifting Club in Dublin 8. For more information go to defygravity.ie

Strength training terms – what do they mean?

Resistance training: any form of exercise that increases strength by utilising resistance. Can include exercise using weights, machines, bands, or even bodyweight/gymnastic-type exercise.

Weight training: a form of resistance training that utilises weights, usually barbells, dumbbells and some machines to increase strength and muscle.

Weightlifting: the sport of Olympic-style weightlifting involves competition in dynamic two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Women have competed in weightlifting in the Olympic Games since 2000. Women compete in age categories from U15 to over 80 in seven different bodyweight categories.

Powerlifting: the sport of powerlifting involves competition in the squat, bench press and deadlift. There are numerous different federations with varying bodyweight classes per federation.

Benefits of strength training

- Enhances bone remodelling (prevent osteoporosis)

- Increases joint stability and prevent injury

- Increases functional strength for sports

- Increases lean body mass

- Increases metabolic rate

- Increases self-esteem and confidence

(Source: Coaching Ireland)

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