IMPORTANT: Do not read all of this and go out and get injured. I won’t take responsibility. If you are unsure of any of the movements and exercises discussed below – or even of you are sure – you should get direct training by someone in the flesh and blood!
Hopefully in the previous two posts: Be Strong – Lose Weight and Strength Training For Women, I’ve convinced at least one woman to forego the endless hours of cardio and concentrate on obtaining a strong tight body with some strength and resistance training…with some cardio thrown in for good measure of course.
What I haven’t covered in detail yet is some example workouts, movements and exercises that you can do at the gym or at home, depending on your schedule and access.
Many women like the idea of strength training and so find and personal trainer to help with a program at the gym. Unfortunately, many of these trainers go down the path of light, easy and ultimately ineffective. This either ends in the girl losing faith in strength training and giving it up, or they simply continue to repeat it endlessly and reaping very little reward. Crossfit is very good for this reason alone: it makes people work hard and get the lifting technique correct. There is a huge proportion of women who don’t want to go down that road though, and this is for them.
Myths and Misgivings
In my experience as an observer, most strength training programs for women are predicated on misconceptions, both related to the woman’s capabilities and objectives. The biggest and most common glaring combination of problems is the use of very low weight coupled with muscle isolation movements. I will explain what I mean in a second but suffice it to say that with these two elements of a training program being adhered to, there won’t be much progress.
Very slow progress is usually cut off by stopping altogether, because as reasonable human beings, when we take time and spend resources to do something – we want to see results. So when I see a girl doing bicep curls with a 2 pound dumbbell, I let out an inaudible, internal scream before deciding it’s none of my business and walking away.
I’ll outline some of my frustrations and hopefully you will see some common problems explained, which don’t have to be problems at all.
1. Very low weight: This is one I mentioned a second ago. There is this belief amongst many women, and their so-called “trainers” that they should only lift dumbbells the size and weight of a pencil. So where does this notion come from? I think it’s something along the lines of – they don’t want to build big muscles and look bulky. Well, that is certainly not going to happen with weight only marginally heavier than their own hands. And if building muscle is not the objective, then what is, exactly?
Building strength and muscle does not equate to growing huge and muscular. Also, in every day life you lift any number of heavy things, so why scale down and go pathetic when actually trying to work out?
2. Small muscle isolation: The second one I mentioned. To explain this fully takes a bit of an explanation of the theory behind how I will advise you to train. Put it this way: the more muscles you can include in an exercise movement the better. This is why modern strength building is based around less than a handful of multi-joint core lifts. If there was one movement that hit every major muscle group, strength junkies would be laughing all the way to the gym and back. I’m not saying they would only do that one lift but it would mean they will develop some whole body strength no matter what.
However, what some fantastical trainers advise women to do is stand there doing bicep curls with their feather-light weights. What a waste of time and money!! This will isolate one area of the arm, whereas the same area could be worked during a different exercise where it is only of secondary importance.
3. Don’t push yourself: Tough workouts are for men who want to build big giant muscles, right? – wrong!! I’ve seen ladies at the gym with make-up on and they don’t even break into a sweat so that nothing, well, runs. Do me and yourselves a favour, and leave the foundation brush until after the workout and exercise as if you mean it during the workout. You are the one who has decided to take the time out of your day to do this…so do it.
It’s not always going to be at maximum intensity, but the level of effort should always cause perspiration, at least.
4. I can’t do that: Some people are just afraid of something they have to learn, and are possibly self conscious. It’s okay to feel that way but everyone starts out somewhere and if you are keen to get that physique you want, it’ll come quicker if you are open to new ideas.
Lifting weights just seems wrong to a lot of women; they think it contradicts what they are trying to achieve. Please just trust me when I say that it doesn’t.
I said strength-junkies would love a movement that hit every muscle group on the body. One of the biggest concerns they have at a public gym is “will the equipment I want be free?”. There’s nothing worse than having a big day on the squat rack planned only to walk around the entire place without finding one that someone isn’t using. During peak hours in a busy gym, forget about it. So, one big movement would solve a lot of that, and our strength-junkie would feel secure in the knowledge that at least they got that exercise in.
It isn’t like that of course. What there is, however, is 3 or 4 big “core’ lifts which can get you as near as possible to whole-body-strength. If you did nothing but these movements for the rest of your gym life, it would carve out a very good looking and balanced physique (provided your diet is in check and you do some cardio).
Taking it up a notch, there are some movements which combine a couple of those “core” lifts and therefore hit even more muscle groups. Crossfitters are well aware of these, but if you are a novice then it’s best to start with the basics. It’s not rocket science and most people know them, so don’t expect any huge surprises. My main point – as you have probably gathered from the previous paragraphs – is that, as a female, you should not be afraid to do them.
Strength is not sexist, it will come to anyone who earns it, and by the same methods.
In this sense, the word “core” just implies that they are the main lifts; platforms, if you like, on which to base everything else. Generally people start their workout with one of the core lifts because it is a big multi-joint movement which targets many primary and even more secondary muscles. They would then move through smaller and smaller movements until they are in isolation exercises. Some people never bother with the smaller movements as long as they are getting stronger overall.
The squat is one of the biggest and best movements you can do. It’s also one that you can start from bodyweight and add weight as you get stronger. For a strong and pert bottom, there is nothing better. With proper technique you will strengthen and tone the glutes, quads and hamstrings as the primary muscles and the lower back, calf muscles, minor glutes and core/transverse abs as secondaries.
A good squat means the following:
- You go low enough that the tops of your thighs (quads) are at least parallel with the floor
- Your knees do not extend past your toes – that is to say your calves are as upright as possible throughout the movement
- Your back is straight throughout – you tilt forward where spine meets pelvis to counterbalance the move, NOT some way up the spine
- Your feet are about shoulder-width apart (for regular squat) and angled so your toes point slightly outward
- Your knees point on same angle as feet or outside of it – NOT inside
By sticking your butt out first and sitting back into the squat while ensuring your shoulders come down in line with your ankles, you will develop a good squat technique. Follow the above checks for the first few times and if you are new to it then only do body squats. Nail that first and then think about weights.
The low benches at the gym are ideal to put behind you so you can practice the low squat without fear of falling back. Try not to sit back entirely on it but rather touch the bench and come back up. When you are half way up, drive forward with your hips and close the squat out by clenching your butt and straightening your legs. That last butt-clench is key to firming up that peach!
Deadlifts sound menacing, but really aren’t. You can just use the bar on its own without plates to get used to the movement. You can also use dumbbells and kettle bells if you want or need to. This exercise will strengthen the whole back and the upper legs including the glutes again. The core is engaged throughout the move and there are many other secondary muscles in the arms, shoulders and legs that are brought into play.
It’s body coverage is possibly the most out of any singular exercise going.
Technique-wise it’s a three-part movement: Set, Drive and Lock.
- Stand behind the bar with shins nearly touching it, bit less than shoulder width
- Bend at knees and hips, keeping back in straight line
- Grip bar with overhand (wrists facing shins) on both sides – conventional is outside legs so arms are vertical
- Brace against weight, with resistance felt in back, legs, arms and through core
- Maintain flat feet with force about to go through heels
Keep muscles in back contracted and straight to be safe
- Take deep breath and keep it in (helping outward pressure) as you drive up
- Drive up from heels, with legs and drive forward with hips as bar is straight up
- At top of lift drive hips forward into bar
- Stand tall, contract glutes and core abdominals
- Legs are straight at top
- Let out breath and take another for the return movement to floor
Lowering the weight
- Lower the weight by reversing the order
- Keep contraction of muscles throughout
- Hinge at hips and knees and lower chest while keeping back straight
- The bar should go straight down to floor
The third of the modern ‘power lifts’, the bench press adds strength to the chest (pectorals), shoulders, and arms (spec. triceps). It’s another like squats that you can start out by pushing-up bodyweight. Push-ups are just that! – Someone who is really new to strength work might start on their knees and push up and then graduate to full body pushups. however, it’s just as useful to start with a manageable barbell and ‘press’ it.
During a bench press, the core remains isometrically engaged, just like the previous two lifts. This means the abs, transverse abs and all related minor muscles are being used to exert force without actually moving/hinging themselves. You will notice, as you develop your resistance training repertoire that there are many muscles used in many exercises which don’t necessarily move, but are still contributing to the output of force.
Bench Press might be the easiest to get a hold of:
- Lie on your back under the bar
- Grip it a couple of palm-widths outside the line of your shoulders (wrists facing down body)
- Take a breath and hold through the push
- Push up the bar until arms are straight but don’t let elbows lock out
- Let out the breath and take another as you lower the bar
- Lower the bar to your chest (the bar should move straight up and down)
- Keep the breath in and push again
The Shoulder Press
This is more like the original third power lift. It’s like the bench press but instead you will sit in an upright chair (or stand) and push the bar or dumbbells straight up above your head.
NOTE: The shoulders are a really useful muscle group, and are more important than a strong chest in my opinion. Keeping your workouts to strength-oriented sets will keep their size down and their power up.
Having someone to spot you on these free-weight movements is a very good idea. If that is not possible however, all is not lost. The ideals strength-building set should not require you to fatigue enough on each set to get near the point of failure. I like to leave enough strength at the end of a set so that I would be able to complete another couple of reps if I wanted to. This ensures you have enough energy to lift the same amount of weight.
Training based around maximizing muscle growth has more sets to or near to muscle failure.
Variations of Movements
The above descriptions are all the conventional versions of each, and I encourage that they are fairly well nailed down before branching out to variations and more dynamic lifts. For example, there are a few different types of deadlifts, like straight/stiff-leg deadlifts. These hit the hamstrings more than the conventional deadlift.
Using These Movements
Okay, I know that a few women want to look really buff, some want to look carved and defined, even more want to look toned and strong and most just want to look good. With that said, catering to the masses is going to be similar advice to catering to the few. The exception is that people – especially women – who want to get big and muscly must put in some serious work and design their diet, sleep, and life around it.
If you are doing the average 4 – 5 hours in the gym a week, or less, then DO NOT worry about getting too big and buff. It ain’t gonna happen!
For strength and definition, it’s best to do 3 to 5 main sets of about 5 or 6 reps. On each set, you should lift enough weight that you could complete another 2 or 3 reps if you wanted. Leaving that energy in reserve will help you finish all the sets and it won’t stimulate too much hypertrophic growth.
After the main sets, which will be the 4 movements described above, you can do supplemental lifts that use the same or close muscle groups to the main ones just used. Here you can use lighter weights and increase the reps and decrease the sets. So, 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps will be good here.
Day 1 – Deadlifts
- 5 minutes Warm-Up on eliptical or cross-trainer. Get a quick sweat on.
- Warm up sets: start with just the bar and increase weight over 5 to 8 sets. Do NOT fatigue muscles to much. Get them warm and supple.
- 5 Main Deadlift sets
- 5 reps each set
- 2 minutes rest between sets
- Supplemental Lift sets: Seated Row, Pull-Downs/bodyweight pull-ups, Dumbbell rows
- 15 to 20 minutes Cardio
Day 2 – Bench Press (supp: inclined dumbbell press, dips, tricep extensions…)
Day 3 – Squats (supp: leg press, lunges, side lunges…)
Day 4 – Shoulder Press (supp: side and front shoulder raises…)
Use the same structure as the first example and do the supplemental lifts that are in brackets, or find your own.
You can have 3 days off a week with this set-up, and take them whenever it fits with your schedule. I’ve done every combination possible from day-on-day-off to 4-on-3-off.
Add the Core
Adding some isometric plank work and other abdominal exercises will really bring those abs up. Read this article about building abdominals.
Most of All – Enjoy Safely
Have fun with your strength exercising. Ask for help at the gym and from trainers when you need it. Learn proper technique from someone who knows it, not someone who thinks they know it!
Lift safe – and if you don’t know how, ask someone!