When scouring the web or fitness section at your favorite bookstore for info on weight training, it’s easy to find a plethora of resources on weight training, but it’s mostly geared toward men. There are the odd resources here and there on weight training for women, but it can be few and far between.
There are a ton of opinions on how women should train, and what types of exercise they should or need to be doing. A lot of people or brands will tell you what you should be doing, but I’m not going to do that.
The truth is the word ‘should’ has a negative connotation, and suggests if you’re not doing whatever someone says you should be doing, then you’re inadequate. Or it implies everything else you’re doing outside of what you should be doing is wrong.
I’m not here to say you should be doing anything in a particular way, but to expand on the benefits of weight training for women, and my ideas on training programming for the female physique.
Whatever you choose to do with this information is up to you.
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The Various Forms Of Weight Training
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of all types of weight training (also known as resistance training), let’s establish one thing. Resistance training revolves around one idea: strength improvement. This is also known as strength training, but training for strength explicitly can differ than training for aesthetic improvements or even improvements in endurance.
All forms of training will inherently improve your strength, but it’s relative to the goal, and this is the most important thing to realize when choosing the best type of program for you.
Bodybuilding training has a large focus on individual body parts, and increasing overall volume. It’s not the best for raw strength, but it does wonders for helping you build muscle, and changing your shape. It makes your muscles full, and builds curves in all the right places.
Powerlifting training or Olympic Weightlifting are great methods for improving raw strength, and will elicit gains in lean body mass, but might not be the absolute best for maximally increasing muscle mass.
This type of training also runs a higher risk of injury due to a demand on precise technique while lifting very heavy weights. There’s a risk/reward tradeoff depending on the approach.
Body weight training will improve your strength, but not to the same levels of training with heavy loads like you would with powerlifting or bodybuilding templates.
But many great bodies have been forged with bodyweight training alone.
The most important aspect is to understand the following:
- Training with resistance (regardless of the method) will improve strength levels.
- Improving strength levels is a a good way to force your muscles to grow, and to change your shape (more muscle, more strength, less fat).
- All training methods are valuable, and it’s important to determine what sits well with your temperament, schedule availability, and personal preferences.
How Does Weight Training Differ From Traditional Cardio or Low Resistance Exercise?
Standard cardiovascular training, such as jogging, walking, step aerobics, and spinning are good for helping you burn more calories and improving your cardiovascular health, but they do very little for helping you increase muscle mass, bone density, or improving mobility.
Multiple runs around the block can be detrimental to your joints (ankles, knees, and hips) without much positive payoff other than burning a few hundred calories. Add to this many running sessions over months and years, and your body can break down from overuse injuries.
The impact on your joints is even more detrimental if you’re overweight, or have poor running mechanics (tight hips, ankles, or weak muscles, which force you to compensate for bad movement patterns) or poor technique (simply not understanding how to properly move when running or sprinting).
While jogging or doing a spin class is not the worst thing you can do for your body, I just don’t believe there are enough benefits when I weigh those activities against the resistance training alternatives.
Other forms of movement like yoga or pilates are great, and have many benefits such as:
- improving range of motion (mobility)
- improving flexibility
- calming the mind
- increasing mindfulness
- improving muscle activation
- and many more
But even with all these benefits, they aren’t doing much for improving strength levels, muscle mass, or bone density.
Note: I do think yoga is a great practice to incorporate into your daily or weekly routine in addition to a great weight training program.
Training intensely and intelligently is a HUGE factor in getting the most out of your training. If it’s intense, frequent, and allows enough time for progress to happen, you’ll make the most progress. Here are some thoughts on that aesthetic-based training for women:
Strength Training For Women: Should Women Train Like Men?
The short answer is mostly yes.
The long answer is yes, but with a slightly different focus, especially if your main goal is to improve your aesthetics.
I mentioned earlier that there are various ways to train: pure strength (such as powerlifting, or Olympic Weightlifting), and one that is more focused on aesthetics (we can call it bodybuilding for labeling purposes).
Most men are training in a manner to get strong as an ox, and to build the most muscle for the time invested. Most (but not all) men are concerned with having a barrel chest, a thick back, and broad shoulders.
To accomplish this, men gravitate heavily toward deadlifts, bench presses, rows, and chin-ups. In their attempt to get a swollen as possible, they tend to emphasize the idea of the more mass, the better.
And what this leads to, if done properly, is a physique that grows all over, which means their entire body increases in muscle mass and girth. While this is great and all, women (the ones I’ve spoken with at least) are not always interested in having huge pecs, boulder shoulders, and thick lat muscles.
I’ve worked with a lot of female clients, and in my experience, they tend to want to keep an hourglass shape. If that is also your goal, then…. I think a big emphasis should be placed on training the arms, legs, glutes, hips, and shoulders, with slightly less emphasis training the chest, back, and abs, especially if the primary goal is aesthetics over raw strength.
Here are some more thoughts on setting up a training program for women in this manner:
Now, it’s not to say that training with a standard training split a guy would go for wouldn’t elicit great changes in the body, I just feel the trainee can benefit from the programming being slightly different.
A quick note: many of the programs I design for women closely resemble what I’d give a man in terms of frequency and volume, but the exercise selection is often catered to their goals, and to emphasize the body parts they want to focus on (typically glutes, legs, shoulders, etc).
If you want to prepare for a powerlifting competition, or you want to build the strongest deadlift possible, then training for raw strength, ala powerlifting, or Olympic Weightlifting is a good option.
The Biggest Fear: Losing Perceived Femininity
I have written on becoming big and bulky previously, but I want to touch on it for the sake of stating the case. Women naturally have much lower testosterone levels than men. There are some outliers, but they’re very rare.
The common fear of weight training like a male making you look like one is a very rational fear, but due to what we know about biology, it’s virtually impossible to build the same levels of lean body mass due to women’s naturally lower levels of testosterone, smaller joints, and bone size. Here’s a great article touching on this a bit differently:
More estrogen, less testosterone: Greater naturally-occurring testosterone levels in men contribute to their larger percentage of muscle mass relative to women. It’s the reason we won’t get that “jacked.” On the other hand, higher estrogen levels give us a few advantages. For one, a study in Human Physiology suggests that estrogen provides significant protective effects against muscle soreness. Yeah, we still get sore, but not that sore.
Weight training in and of itself will not rob you of your femininity. If done right, it can help you build a curvier frame, if that’s what you desire. Just understand that looking like a competitive bodybuilder will take not only many, many years of effort, it might even require some performance enhancing drugs to boot (and we’re not talking about creatine here).
Weight Training For Women Guidelines
When following a proper plan to build strength, improve aesthetics, lose fat, and improve performance, one must pay attention to the following idea:
Intensity: this can be measured in many forms, but for sake of explanation, here are the criteria:
Intensity here is the X factor, the single variable that could have the greatest impact on your training results.
When it comes to resistance training, there are multiple ways to raise the intensity. The measures of intensity are:
- Total weight lifted: whether a barbell, dumbbell, machine, or bodyweight (easiest to understand)
- Rate of perceived exertion (not always the easiest based on varied perception)
When you think of intensity in terms of weight being lifted, you can easily increase intensity by increasing the weight — simple, right? This is because a dumbbell that weighs 10 pounds will require more effort, and thus, intensity from you to lift than one that weighs 3 pounds.
The second measurement, perceived exertion, is where it becomes tricky.
Another way of understanding this is how you feel during exercising by using the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale.
The scale spans 1-10, 1 being least amount of intensity, and 10 being the most intensity possible.
0 – Nothing at all
0.5 – Just noticeable
1 – Very light
2 – Light
3 – Moderate
4 – Somewhat heavy
5 – Heavy
7 – Very heavy
10 – Very, very heavy
In general, to make your training the most effective, you ideally want to work toward the RPE of 7-9 during your training. The above scale counts mostly for the heaviness of the loads, but you can also measure it in how fatigued you are. So if you’re doing a superset, alternating 2 movements back to back with very little rest between sets, you’ll notice yourself fatigued.
There are multiple ways to increase your intensity:
- Adding weight to the bar (easiest to understand)
- Using drop sets (starting with a heavy weight, and descending to lighter weights)
- Shortening rest periods
- Chasing the ‘pump’ (forcing blood into the muscles through high-rep training)
- Using supersets (2 exercises done back to back with little rest)
- Using tri-sets (3 exercises done back to back with little rest)
- Giant sets (4 or more movements performed back to back with very little rest)
- Circuit training (another name for giant sets)
- Training with heavy loads (over 90% of your one-rep max)
As you can see, ramping up intensity can come in many different forms.
Without a doubt, gauging how you feel and how hard you push yourself during your training sessions is important.
At the same time, it’s important not to get hung up on whether or not the workout was “enough,” because that sort of mentality tempts you to do more than is necessary. For some, this line of thinking is a free pass to push past their limits and put themselves at a high risk of injury.
I’ve seen this time and time again, and if you take the long view of your training and lifting career, it’s just not worth it.
The main thing when following a program, is to work within the parameters of said program. Push yourself to hit that level of intensity you want without going to complete failure, and putting yourself at risk for injury.
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Proper Exercise Form
There’s a stark difference between proper and perfect. Proper form suggests that you’re moving in a range of motion that is best suited for your own body, and the goal of the training.
Perfect form implies there’s one way to do a movement, and everything else is faulty.
We’re after proper form, first and foremost. Many men struggle with this idea because their ego encourages them to be the strongest, baddest dude in the land, so if he can hoist up a 315-pound bench press, he’s accomplished.
I’ve often experienced the opposite with the women I’ve coached. They’re more likely to pay attention to good form, and be hesitant about adding weight until they’re absolutely sure they’re ready.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s dangerous, and mostly does nothing for actual physique development. Like any movement, you want to aim for a full range of motion, and you want to be in control from the very beginning to the very end of the lift.
Oftentimes, this means reducing the loads you’re working with and working through the entire range of motion. One of the reasons I love pump training so much is because it forces you to lighten the loads, and focus on getting lots of blood into the muscles through many repetitions (rep ranges of 12-20).
As a result of said training, most people tend to learn how to use their muscles to move heavy loads as opposed to using momentum, or improving leverages (shortening the range of motion). And when you’re focusing on full range of motion training, working the muscles entirely through proper activation, you tend to reap the aesthetic benefits.
In the next article, we’re going to cover specific workout plans for women. In this article, I’ll explain the importance of variety in your programming, proper rest periods and recovery, and the importance of including various forms of bodyweight movements into your regular programming for maximal benefit.
One more thing: always follow a program (if you’re just starting out, try my beginner workout routine). It can be tempting to go into the gym and work on your favorite movements, or perform your favorite workouts. The main thing here is a proper program will give you three things:
- structure with your training
- balance in training various muscle groups
- goals to work toward which encourages progressive overload
So tell me this: what questions do you have about training programs, intensity, and making a program work for your specific goals (fat loss or muscle gain)?
Leave your question in eh comments section.