Q & A: Bodybuilding For Women

On today’s Q&A: What are the benefits of bodybuilding? 
How do you start? What can bodybuilding do for females and fat loss? What's the difference between bodybuilding and other forms of weight training? These questions (and more) answered below:
I’ve been in the fitness industry for 10 years and my background is mainly functional. I’ve always been somewhat intimidated of bodybuilding because it seemed like this club that I don't know enough about. I’ve been gaining interest in it because it appears to be a fountain of youth! I just turned 38 and noticed that people look absolutely great for their age when lifting is a routine. But I don't know where to start. - Erin
Hi, Erin! Don’t be intimidated by bodybuilding. Think of it as literally building your body with muscle (also called hypertrophy). There’s nothing exclusive or elite about it. It just means that building muscle, and achieving the look it gives the body, is your main goal when planning and doing workouts. So there’s no need to feel apprehensive; hypertrophy is a goal anyone can claim, no club membership required. 
Hypertrophy: What it is and Why it Rocks
It sounds like something that’ll make you huge, right? Women are often quick to turn down the idea of hypertrophy because they don’t want to see the scale go up. But the reality is, when a woman increases the amount of muscle her body is carrying, she’ll actually become a tighter, harder, more compact looking person in the long run. 
It’s counterintuitive for most women, but in a roundabout way, hypertrophy can make the scale go down. How? The more muscle mass you have, the more fat-burning hormones your body produces. So your body becomes more efficient at burning fat, and it develops the shapes and lines that come along with gorgeous muscle at the same time. 
You said building muscle seems like a fountain of youth. In a way, it is! As we age, we lose muscle, a sad phenomenon also called sarcopenia, and non-weight-bearing exercises don’t do a whole lot to prevent that from happening. In fact, long duration cardio and ineffective repetitive movements have the tendency to catabolize (break down) muscle even further.
So building muscle will give your body the tightness and shape it had naturally during your youth. And many women who build it late in life end up with a firmer body than what they had in their teens and twenties. That’s how effective muscle mass is.  
A Few Bodybuilding Basics
One thing that separates bodybuilders from other lifters is the importance they place on mind-muscle connection. It’s a priority for them to actually feel the muscle doing work. Put another way, the mind-muscle connection is an awareness of the tension, aching, or burning of the muscle or muscle groups you’re trying to use and build. 
Bodybuilders understand that muscles don’t grow with light or unchallenging weight, so they constantly try to increase the weight they lift, control it, and master it. Then challenge themselves further with different ranges of motion, set and rep schemes, drop sets, or even slight variances in form. 
For bodybuilders, the one rep max is usually not at the top of their priorities during workouts. Most get stronger within higher rep ranges, although bodybuilders will often use a variety of both (very low reps with heavy weight, and higher reps with moderate weight) in order to build muscle. They’ll also use other techniques like slower negatives, partial reps, and isometrics, to increase the time a muscle group spends under tension. 
Occasionally, bodybuilders will superset (or couple exercises together) in order to increase the impact a workout has on their cardiovascular system and metabolism. Weight training can actually raise your heart rate and get you winded just like high intensity cardio. Especially when you’re decreasing the rest you take in between sets. 
Do all bodybuilders use all of these techniques during every workout? No way. These are just options that help them achieve bigger and better looking muscles. They use them on an as-needed basis. And with experience, many of these techniques become instinctive, like tools they feel compelled to use because they know they have more to give. 
Bodybuilders can feel when they’re not being challenged, so they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re putting in the work necessary to make progress. They’ll even break rules.
When hypertrophy is your main goal, you may eventually find yourself going against what’s conventionally considered “proper form” in order to build muscle. But, like anything else, you need to learn and follow basic rules for a while before you can break them intelligently and reap any benefits. Those who are the most experienced, will do all sorts of things anal retentive (newbie) coaches instruct their clients not to do. 
So if weight training feels totally foreign, it’d be best to start with basic movements then think about adding special techniques later. The nervous system takes time learning new movements so there’s no need to add more challenges to something that’s already challenging. Take your time.
The Best Way to Begin
As for getting started, it’s always better to work with someone in person if you can. Good trainers will make sure you’re doing exercises effectively, so that you’re not just going through the motions, and so that you get faster results. But it’s definitely possible to build muscle by following a program without a trainer standing nearby. 
If you’re wanting to start without one, you’ll need to be willing to put in some footwork at home before heading to the gym. Look up videos, research tips, read books. There are a ton of resources to choose from. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding would be the best place to start. It simplifies weight training and makes it more approachable. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a beginner, it’s still the ultimate book on bodybuilding, no matter what your experience level is.
Videos are another place to find out how to lift. I use T-Nation.com's video library because it’s free and the trainer in the videos doesn't just give advice on form he also tells you why. And if you can't find what you're looking for there, don’t be afraid to use youtube. Then watch the videos a few times, jot down some notes, write out your workout, and take your notebook to the gym. You can even take screen shots of videos and use those pics as a reminder on how to perform the movement. 
Redefining the Female Bodybuilder
Erin, bodybuilding is inclusive so you’ll never have to worry about fitting in or being the beginner in the room. We want you there! And there’s nothing that’ll give you better results in a shorter amount of time. Especially if your barometer for progress is in the mirror and not on the scale. 
Hypertrophy will revamp the way your body looks and moves. And perhaps more importantly, it’ll revamp the way you feel about your body.
Plus, trying to lose weight is a drag. I would rather drink my own urine every morning than get on the scale in order to determine how I’m doing. Place your focus on building muscle and I promise you’ll enjoy workouts a whole lot more. 
Next week T-Nation.com will run my article about redefining female bodybuilding, and I hope you check it out. It's an invitation to all women. The word "bodybuilding" needs a makeover, and we need women like you getting started. Because you’re right, in some aspects, bodybuilding may be like a club, but it’s open for anyone to join, and we hope you do.