Lifting weights is so important for optimal health, especially for females. I taught strength training for women classes for years and love converting cardio bunnies to strong weight lifters.
Once women realized that lifting weights would make them stronger — thereby making them look much more trim — and increase their metabolism, they usually became hooked.
I’ve created this epic strength training for women guide to help you feel confident around the weights and remind you of why it’s important to lift weights on a regular basis. Let’s dig in!
What is strength training?
Strength training or resistance training (AKA lifting weights) involves using resistance to build muscle size, strength, and endurance.
Weight training is a form of exercise for developing the strength and size of skeletal muscles. (source)
When you strength train/lift weights, you are increasing your muscle size and stamina. Over time, this can increase your metabolism and burn more fat — even at rest!
Strength training will give you that toned look as your body burns more fat and your muscles start to emerge from behind a layer of fat.
The idea of ‘spot training’ or ‘toning’ is technically a myth since you need to burn that layer of fat that is covering your muscles to achieve that slim, toned look that so many women are after.
Strength training for women allows you to burn more calories, even at rest. Therefore, it makes maintaining a lower weight easier since you can generally eat more calories and take occasional breaks from training. This is something that cardio training does not offer.
Why is strength training for women so important?
As women age, their body will be weaker and become frail if they do not engage in regular resistance training.
Simply put, you will not be able to fully enjoy all of life’s great experiences as you age if you don’t fight back against aging with strength training. Numerous research studies support this, as evidenced in this article.
One April 2018 study out of the University of Buffalo showed these results (quote from ScienceDaily):
“The study underscores the need for older women to build up muscle strength early in the aging process to help ward off the effects of aging.”
This emphasizes the importance of starting now. If you’re afraid that strength training will hurt or injure you, there are numerous studies that prove that this is not the case. Still, if you’re hesitant, start with very light weights or body weight — both of which will provide the benefits of resistance training. Always consult with your doctor first.
Pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women can also benefit from regular strength training.
Unlike long bouts of cardio, strength training can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time which is ideal for tired busy moms and it puts less stress on the body than long sessions of cardio.
In this paper published by Brad Schoenfeld, the author notes that exercise and strength training during pregnancy can have multiple benefits including reduced labor, less
Of course, any exercise plan during pregnancy and postpartum periods should be discussed with your doctor and this article should not constitute health advice for the pregnant woman (disclaimer).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, resistance training will increase your metabolism and muscle mass, which will, in turn, lower your body fat and improve your physique. Lower body fat percentages decrease your likelihood of countless diseases and having a slim, fit body is a goal of the majority of women. Win, win!
22 Benefits of Lifting Weights for Women
The research has shown there are countless benefits of strength training for women.
When you strength train, you can reap these amazing benefits (resources listed at the end of this article):
- increased energy
- increased metabolism (burning more calories at rest)
- stronger bones
- lower risk of injury
- improves sleep
- reduces stress
- clothes fit better
- improves flexibility
- improves longevity
- preserve muscle mass
- reduces the risk of diabetes
- reduces inflammation in the body
- increases insulin sensitivity
- lowers your risk of depression and anxiety
- lowers your body fat percentage over time
- improves posture
- possible cognitive impairment/dementia prevention
- gives you an hourglass figure
- ease of daily activities/chores and lifting heavy objects and children
- improves your heart muscle strength and endurance
- risk of diseases related to high body fat and obesity will decrease
- improves your mood/acts as a meditative practice
- plus, it’s just more FUN than cardio!
Numerous studies back up the above benefits. With strength training, you can live a longer and more fulfilling life due to your strong, healthy body rather than succumb to the effects of aging. Lift weights and fight back against aging!
Below is an infographic we have created that outlines these 22 amazing benefits of strength training for women!
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In my personal experience, the number one benefit I’ve noticed from strength training is increased energy levels. Many people — especially moms — struggle with energy levels. Strength training will increase your muscle mass, thereby making day-to-day activities simply easier and burn body fat so you’re hauling less excess weight around.
Another reason to strength train? As mentioned above, it may be more beneficial at fighting depression than meditation programs!
“…resistance exercise training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms…” – JAMA Network
Ok, so are we in agreement that strength training for women is the best thing ever?
Now, let’s get lifting!
The table below includes a list of the most common items that you may want to add to your home gym when you start lifting. Each of these items can be added at your own pace and skill level.
The Basics: Best Strength Training for Women Exercises
The below exercises are 9 of the most basic strength training exercises. Most exercises will be derived from variations of the below movement patterns, so it’s important to master these moves.
The squat trains your entire thigh (quads and hamstrings) as well as your glutes. Some variations of the squat are the sumo squat and the split squat. You will want to ensure your chest is up, your back is straight, and your knees do not protrude over your toes by a large degree or at all. Bring your hips down rather than back and out.
The most well-known exercise of the hinge pattern is the deadlift, shown here. Other variations are the one-legged deadlift and Good Morning. These exercises will target your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Ensure a straight back (not rounded), tight abs, and focus on pushing your hips back rather than down like you would in a squat.
The lunge exercise will also target your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Variations of the lunge include the reverse lunge, walking lunge, deficit lunge, and curtsy lunge. Keep your chest upright, back straight, shoulders back, abs tight, and ensure your knee does not protrude over your toe.
The bridge pattern has increased in popularity over the years due to it’s ability to target the glute muscles. Some variations are the feet-elevated bridge, one-leg bridge, and the hip thrust. You’ll want to keep your chin tucked and aim for a posterior pelvic tilt/glute squeeze at the top of the movement.
The shoulder press targets your entire shoulder (delts). You will also feel the move in your arms, abs, and traps. This move can be performed sitting or standing. Keep your abs tight, shoulders back, and chest up during the movement.
The chest press targets your entire chest, as well as your triceps. This move can be performed on the floor or from a bench, stability ball or step. This move can also be performed at an incline or decline. Keep your abs tight and focus on maintaining the plane of motion just below your armpits.
The row is an excellent compound move to target your back muscles. Some variations will be the bent-over row, the seated row, the landmine row or the one-arm row. Keep your abs tight and focus on pinching your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
The bicep curl will target your bicep muscles in your upper arm. You can perform this move sitting or standing. The variations of this move will include hammer curls, preacher curls, and concentration curls. Keep your abs tight and ensure the move is performed slow and controlled.
The tricep extension and kickback will target your triceps on the back of your upper arm. Variations of this move will be tricep overhead extension and the cable extension. This move can be performed sitting or standing. Keep your abs tight and back straight.
Basic Types of Weight Lifting Splits
In general, weight lifting routines can be divided into the following workout types — or ‘splits’, as they’re commonly referred to:
- Upper Body
- Lower Body
- Full Body
- Push (chest/shoulder/quads)
- Pull (back/triceps/glutes/hamstrings)
Some people prefer to drill down their training and focus on 1 or 2 body parts during their workouts, which are referred to as body part splits.
These workouts, for example, could focus on the below body parts, or whichever body part you are interested in training exclusively.
- Arms (biceps/triceps)
The great thing about weight training is that you never have to stick to one workout type. You can adjust you workouts every 6-12 weeks as you see fit, and depending on your progress.
In addition, switching up your workouts regularly will keep you excited to train and keep your muscles guessing so you can reap those muscle gains.
Check out out these 59 printable strength training workouts for women that we put together!
How often should women lift weights?
For beginners, aim to strength train 2 or 3 times per week, for 20 minutes at a time.
Aim for full body workouts when you start so you can ensure you hit all body parts.
As you progress, aim for 3-4 lifting sessions per week focusing on full body work or upper/lower splits.
Remember, consistency is much more important than long, grueling, unsustainable workouts. A 20-minute workout a few times per week is exponentially better than an hour-long workout a few times per month.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is a gradual increase in stress placed on the body during exercise training (source).
Progressive overload can mean:
- More weight
- More reps
- More sets
- More range of motion
- Slower movements
- Shorter rest time between moves
This is why it’s important to choose your workouts strategically. If you just lift weights here and there without much thought, you won’t increase your muscle mass and strength in an efficient manner.
Choose a split you can stick with (2-3 full body workouts per week or 4 workouts consisting of upper/lower splits) and complete those workouts for 4-6 weeks and gradually overload your muscles for each exercise.
Either way, you’ll want to make sure you’re working to ‘overload’ your muscles each week and by increasing one of the above factors for each exercise. By practicing progressive overload, you’ll see the best body composition changes.
This is why it’s important to track your workouts! Here are some good options for weightlifting journals that will help you practice progressive overload, see where you’re improving and keep you motivated!
How can I stay motivated and track my strength training progress?
These are some important ways to stay motivated during your training.
- Before beginning any fitness program, it’s vital to take those vulnerable before pictures along with your current weight and waist measurement (hips, chest, arms, and thighs are also good measurements to take). Remember to take these measurements first thing in the morning.
- Assess your progress weekly or every few weeks.
- Take note of how your clothes fit. Even if the scale doesn’t move when you’re changing your body composition (increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat), you’ll likely still be losing fat and gaining muscle mass.
- Remember that what you do most of the time matters what you do some of the time. Did you fall off the wagon and not workout for an entire week and ate too many sweets and high-calorie meals? It happens. Get back on track as soon as possible to minimize lost progress.
The best part about strength training is that you can make so much progress even if you slip up on your diet. So keep at it!
Build Your Home Gym Guides
Best Women’s Weight Lifting Shoes
Best Women’s Weight Lifting Gloves
Strength Training for Women at Home: Best Gear
The best part about lifting weights at home is that the gear is much less expensive than cardio machines.
In addition, you can build your library of equipment at your own pace. Even better, working out at home can be much less intimidating for beginners.
When you’re just starting to test the strength training waters, try beginning with a small set of dumbbells. From there, add sets of inexpensive resistance bands, ankle weights, and a bench. Finally, add a power rack, barbell and plates.
As you progress, you can add heavier dumbbells and weights to your home gym. There are countless ‘toys’ you can add to your gym, but the basics in the table above will suffice for 99% of strength training workouts.
Strength Training for Women Over 40
This section is important. Really important. Ladies, no matter your age, it’s important to start strength training right away. I know I’ve said it over and over again, but the studies mentioned below really hammer home the importance of strength training for women.
If you’re over 40 or 50, it’s so important to incorporate lifting weights in your fitness regime.
After age 30, you will lose 3-5% of your muscle mass each decade if you’re physically inactive.
Another study shared these results:
Weight-bearing exercises (running, etc.) alone were not enough to prevent muscle loss due to aging. New recommendations should be to incorporate a regular strength training routine as a person ages.
Even more surprising are the results from this January 2019 study that indicated that a regular resistance training routine may protect you against mild cognitive dysfunction!
Further research is needed, but so far the studies have been promising that there is a link between muscular and cognitive function. Lift weights to support your brain health!
Strength training for women becomes even more important as we age! Women in their 60s and 70s may consider starting their resistance training work with a personal trainer. At a more advanced age, it would be smart to work with a professional so you can avoid injuries.
As one of my favorite podcasters, Sal from MindPump, recently said, “someone asked me if they were too old to lift weights. I said you’re too old not to lift weights!”
I could continue citing and linking to research studies that show the importance of strength training for any human being, especially aging women, but this is the bottom line: if you want to fight back against again, you should strength train regularly. Or, if you want to succumb to the effects of old age and lose more and more mobility over the years, avoid lifting weights. The answer is simple, but it takes perseverance!
One last study that I’ll cite: this December 2017 study of older women practicing strength training showed that each woman benefitted greatly from the resistance training routine — even at low volumes. Their markers for body weight, waist circumference, muscular strength, and physical function approved across the board with even low volume strength training. This means that even at low weights, they showed improvements as long as the regime was regularly practiced.
Strength Training for Women for Weight Loss
If you’re wanted to lose weight, lifting weights is a must. Why?
Remember: if you simply do cardio and lower your calories, you will lose muscle as you lose weight.
When you try to stop dieting and increase your calories, you’ll immediately gain the weight back because you lost muscle mass and your metabolism increased!
By lifting weights and creating a calorie deficit you will lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass.
Therefore, when you try to eat a normal amount of maintenance calories again, you should not gain weight — as long as you keep your maintenance calories in check and don’t go overboard.
How to Build Lean Muscle Instead of Bulk
I get it. Many women want that long and lean look rather than a bulky bodybuilder look.
I have been lifting weights regularly for over a decade and I have not bulked up.
However, it can happen. It’s rare, but it’s possible. And if you want to avoid that bulky look, there are a few things you can do.
There are a few reasons a woman may look bulky from lifting weights rather than leaning out:
- eating too many calories while weight lifting (must be done in extreme excess of 3,000+ calories per day long-term)
- not shedding the layer of body fat on top of your muscles
- training vigorously with very heavy weights for many hours every single day (rare — usually only professional athletes)
In addition, based on your body type and genetics, you may bulk more naturally than others, but this is still rare and you’re more likely to simply trim down and become smaller overall even if you build muscle easily!
In short, as a woman, you’d have to try really hard to bulk up from lifting weights. You would have to consume a very large amount of calories and supplements for a long period of time to achieve a bulky look.
Over time, if you lift weights regularly, your metabolism will increase and your body will slowly burn that layer of fat off to show off a lean, ‘toned’ look.
Female Weight Training: Before and After Pictures
Below are my personal before and after pictures after one year of regular strength training after having my babies.
Note that I lifted heavy weights 2-4 times per week and hardly did any cardio outside of getting in my daily steps!
By now, I hope you can understand just how critical a strength training for women program is for optimal health, especially as we age.
It can be overwhelming to get started, so I recommend just aiming for three 15-20 minute bodyweight workouts per week at first.
Take before pictures and track you workouts to gauge your progress. By documenting your progress, you will stay motivated.
Within a year’s time, you will have made vast improvements to your health and physique and, hopefully, had a lot of fun along the way!