Weight Training For Women

By JC Deen



Weight training is one of the best forms of exercise, especially if you’re wanting to improve muscle tone without getting bulky in the process. And while there are a ton of resources for men, I wanted to specifically give you a guide on weight training for women.

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.

Get Lean & Toned W/Out The Bulk With A Step-By-Step Workout And Healthy Eating Program

Learn My No-BS Approach To Toning Your Body Without Losing Your Curves & Getting Bulky with my proven training and diet program made specifically for women.


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.

Bodyweight 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 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).

Looking for a program that will build your glutes? Then check out my booty workout plan or my big butt workout.

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.

weight training for owmen
Image by Greg Westfall

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:

The following is an excerpt from my women’s training program HOT BOD

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 exercise 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.

The scale:

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.

Get Lean & Toned W/Out The Bulk With A Step-By-Step Workout And Healthy Eating Program

Learn My No-BS Approach To Toning Your Body Without Losing Your Curves & Getting Bulky with my proven training and diet program made specifically for women.


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 focused on proper form, first and foremost. Many men struggle with this idea because their ego encourages them to be the strongest guy in the gym, 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 to 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
If you want a proper program made specifically for women with progression, accountability, and support all built into one, I recommend checking out HOT BOD.

12 thoughts on “Weight Training For Women”

  1. I loved this article, I’ve been researching on how to lose fat not just weight. I recently lost 32lbs. and still couldn’t fit into an old pair of jeans. This is also my 3rd go at losing weight with diet and exercise. I’ve always wanted to build muscle and get a little defined. My arms are my biggest problem. I have major batwings. I was told that, “I would never be able to tighten up all the extra sagging skin.” Is that a fact? I was also told that,” because of my age 49, it would be hard to tighten up.” Is that also factual? My goal is to shred the fat and get lean. Your plans seems to make that possible. Need a little help here!

  2. Good work brother! Stuff is really useful for the masses and written to be read by the people who need it most.

  3. I think this is a really good article. My only suggestion might be to include (later on) information about possible obstacles–common ones that can arise. For example, I finally learned that majority of my problems with doing squats is that I have tight hip flexors. I’ve struggled with years, and blamed on my knees being weak from being overweight for so long. I do have some weakness in the knees, but it improved when I learned proper stretching and movements to get my hips to release. Then I could actually squat to depth with weight. Just a thought on what to include.

  4. Nice article, JC!

    I like your point about how being afraid of becoming too big and bulky is a completely rational fear for a woman to have. I’ve found it useful to at least acknowledge the possibility of building too much muscle (however slight), but to explain it this way (pretty sure I first heard this from Bret Contreras so credit goes to him)…

    You can’t go from where you are now to a point where you have too much muscle without first getting to a point where you’ve reached your “ideal” amount of muscle. So if you reach a point where you’re happy with the way you look, we’ll simply switch to maintenance!

    Seems like common sense, but I feel like it’s often overlooked by people who are paranoid about becoming too big.

  5. I really benefitted from your article…I have recently incorporstedctwice weely yoga sessions into my routine and gotten into a teice weekly gym session with a trainer at World Gym. I used to go to a gym but moved to another country and reverted to only interval jogging on a track at the university. I simply stopped doing weights and wow…what a difference it makes now i am beginning again..feel stronger…look better. Question: i am 55 and maybe think there are some limitations to what I should do…i know you said not to deal with “should”….but should older women like me pace differently from young hotbods? I feel ok…bit stitt at times…maybe i need to stretch more? I also have begun using the steam room after weights and it feels great. Thanks

    • The limitations are best addressed by yourself, and someone who is able to help you. If you don’t have mobility, or other issues, and are cleared for training, then I don’t see many limitations. Again — it’s impossible for me to tell you what you’re ready for. A good trainer/coach could assess you and see what you need to work on, and then you could go from there.

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JC Deen is a nationally published fitness coach and writer from Nashville, TN. Currently living in the blistering Northeast. Follow me on X/Twitter