Strength Training for Women – Important Points

strong womanI said I’d follow up with another strength article and I’m coming good on that. The first article was a bit of a hectic stab at trying to convince women to train for strength instead of skinny. First, I have to clear something up – what does ‘skinny’ look like, and similarly what does ‘strong’ look like. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for women, because they like the sound of ‘skinny’, whereas ‘strong’ sounds awfully close to ‘big and bulky’.

The fear for many ladies is the notion of the female bodybuilding physique, which is the extreme end of the spectrum, and so far past what I’m suggesting that you would laugh if you could see the image difference. Honestly, without illicit muscle-enhancing drugs and steroids, these bodybuilding women could not do what they do with their physique. Even the natural bodybuilders have to dedicate their lives to it, and I’m not offering something nearly as drastic as an option.

Besides, with the levels of testosterone that women have – which is the primary endogenous anabolic hormone (muscle juice) – it is not possible to build mass like a man. Women tend to build strength and show it as denser, more defined tissue, which is exactly what we want for a toned, shapely physique. Also, the mass built is at a much slower rate, so there’s no risk of waking up the next day with huge muscles and regretting it. Strength gradually carves a beautiful form, and provided you are consistent with your muscle groups, the balance is perfect as well.

Now…’skinny’ to me, or at least the skinny I’m referring to is the sack of bones type where joints are visible and complexion is pallid. If you are aiming only for skinny, I urge you to re-consider because I think the end result is a displeasing one. Yes, this is my opinion, but nonetheless, would you rather look spanking hot and have some horsepower to back it up, or would you rather look weak and miserable?

Let’s get to it

Warm-Up Sets

Woman push upYou should always warm up the muscle group before starting your main sets. When doing the bigger multi-joint lifts like squats, you can use bodyweight to warm up. In fact, bodyweight might be where you stay for a while. Going from nothing to doing 3 sets of 12 reps of bodyweight squats is going to have a major impact at the start. Benchpress will be similar, as you can do push-ups, starting with your knees on the deck and then advancing to full ones if necessary.

With weights, the warm up set should not get close to exhausting your muscles, so don’t rep enough to feel soreness/fatigue in the warm-up. Secondly, you should begin with small weight and gradually build up the weight. Individualities will determine how long you need to warm up, but a good indicator that you are warm and ready to go is when you feel like you are more powerful as the weight increases through the warm-up. It’s an odd paradox but it works – activating the muscle by increasing weight allows you to lift much more than you would if you started the main set from cold.

I tend to pick the lightest thing possible and bust out some fast warming reps to really get the blood flowing. Then increase the resistance or weight and, like I say, don’t push the limits, because that’s for the main sets. I said don’t fatigue yourself with too many reps in the WU set, but also don’t fatigue yourself by doing too many warm up sets.

Machines or Free Weights

Both are good, but I won’t lie: once you appreciate the value of free weights, you may never want to go back. Learning proper technique is going to be essential though, and that is something you improve over time also. Free weights allow the target muscle to be worked, just like machines, but there are so many support/secondary muscles worked with free weights that you are almost getting some freebie extras!!

Strength not Size

woman lat pull-downWorkouts designed around building muscle strength rather than size are idea for women who want to tone up and get stronger at the same time. Muscular hypertrophy (growth) comes in two main varieties:

  • Sarcoplasmic
  • Myofibrillar

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the swelling, or growth of muscle volume, with secondary focus on strength. The volume of fluid in between the actual muscle fibres increases more than anything else. This comes from doing 10, 12 or even 15 rep sets to fatigue every time.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the increase in the muscle fibres themselves. Size does not increase dramatically but definition and strength do. Think of it as increased muscle density. This comes from 3 – 5 rep sets of 70% – 85% of your max lift weight.

So, what am I saying? – I’m saying that besides the odd session where you might want focus on the longer sets to introduce some muscle endurance, you will benefit most from 3,4 or even 5 sets of fewer reps to increase your strength and definition. Other cardio and fat-burning sessions will help carve that definition out.

NOTE: This applies to the main lifts, e.g. squats, bench press and dead lifts. The ‘supplemental’ or smaller muscle group lifts later on can go into the higher rep ranges – as long as you lift lighter weight when you do this.

Intensity and Rest

Unlike your high intensity aerobics, spin and circuit classes, building strength requires a lower intensity. That means pushing 3 to 5 reps out and then resting for 90 seconds to 2 minutes before doing it again. Your body needs that recovery time because you are triggering the deep fast-twitch fibres within the muscle. Also, you should NOT be too fatigued at the end of each set. If you feel like you could not do 1 – 2 more reps then your weight is too heavy. On the other hand, of you think you could easily do 5 – 6 more reps then you are too light.

One of my friends said, “but I’d get really bored waiting around.” Admittedly, the patience you have to learn for true strength building is difficult in the gym and outside it. The real enjoyment comes after you have stuck at it for a few weeks and you are starting to see and feel the difference. What’s more, in those early stages, each time you go back to the gym you can lift more and more. It gets addictive.

NOTE: the big rest intervals only need to happen on the main sets. The smaller ‘supplemental’ movements later on in the session can be completed in higher rep sets with less weight. This will add shape to the smaller muscle groups after you have hit the big lifts with strength sets.

As with intra-workout rest, you must take some days off as well; at least 2 days a week. Muscle is strengthened during rest, not during the workout.

Technique and Form

Leg muscles burn fatNever rush ahead to add more weight to last week’s record if you are sacrificing form. Good lifting technique will take you way further than any short term improvements you’ve made just because you are lifting something at all. Eventually the weight outclasses the lifter if they have bad form, and that only leads to stagnation at best, and injury at worst.

Before you do any big multi-joint lifts, make sure you have been given proper instruction. There is no excuse for bad technique these days as every gym is obligated to provide instruction to anyone – especially novices – in the art of lifting. There are also multiple resources online, however, I would urge caution and use only the most trusted sources (such as the BodyBuilding website) and always favour live instruction by a trained instructor.

Room for Cardio and Fat-Burning

cardio women3 strength sessions a week is a good starting point, but to keep the fat away you must incorporate fat-burning sessions as well. How to accomplish all of this?

An hour in the gym each session should suffice. Strength for the first 40 minutes followed by 20 minutes cardio intervals – for 3 sessions a week.

The other 1 or 2 sessions can be dedicated to more intense cardio/interval training or one or two of your classes. That still leaves at least 2 days rest for you to carve your smoking bod.

But I Still Don’t Have an Actual Workout!!!

Yeah…I still haven’t got to that part. Sorry about that. It’s not as good simply to write down exercises without detailed drawings or video, and that takes a while to get sorted. In the meantime, I still encourage you to consult the gym and express that you specifically want 3 strength sessions a week, centred around Squat, Deadlift and Press.

In the meantime, I/we will work on getting the ideal workout together. The above sections should help guide you within the goal of building strength though. For many people, these points are more difficult to accept than anything else.

UPDATED!!! – Check the following link out for explanations and photos of the exercises and movements discussed:

Click here for Part 2 – Strength Training for Women Exercises Explained 


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