Strength Training

The Benefits of Strength Training Programs for Women

Strength training is incredibly beneficial for women. It helps build lean mass, improve overall strength, and it makes it easier to achieve and maintain a lean physique, if that’s your goal.

Strength training may also improve bone density and help prevent osteoporosis (bone fragility and loss) and osteopenia (less severe bone loss), and helps prevent sarcopenia (muscle loss).

You may have heard that your metabolism slows as you age, and you may have accepted this as a fact of life. This slowing down is due largely to the muscle mass that you lose, along with a decrease in activity, as you age.  However, if you strength train regularly, you can help prevent loss of muscle mass and keep your metabolism humming along now.

Proper strength training also improves posture and alignment, and can help with pelvic floor and incontinence issues.  Historically, these were thought to be issues only “older women” have to deal with, but recently, these issues have been popping up for younger women, as well.  Whether that’s because more women are engaging in more strenuous activity (like box jumps, double-unders, heavy deadlifts), or women are simply more comfortable talking about it, it’s definitely affecting women of all ages.

Strength training also helps improve your insulin sensitivity, especially in women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and can help you keep your blood pressure within a healthy range. In addition, strength training improves your self-esteem and self-worth and boosts your confidence in a way that nothing else can.

There is nothing like feeling physically strong—especially when, as a woman, you’re often expected to be physically weak (yes, this concept makes us mad, too!)

Watching your body and your strength transform as you become increasingly capable of doing things you never thought you could do is absolutely priceless.  It’s our wish that every woman have the opportunity to know first-hand what it feels like to physically conquer something or complete a feat that once seemed impossible.

Finally, strength training is essential for managing your body fat and maintaining a healthy body composition, and well… loving the way you look naked.  If weight loss is your goal, as you lose body fat, if you’re not strength training, it’s likely that your body will become a smaller, softer version of itself. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, in our experience working with women who want to “tone up” or “get in shape,” it’s a safe bet to say this is not the physical change you were expecting to see. However, if you strength train and add muscle as you reduce your body fat, your body becomes firmer and tighter, which is more along the lines of what many women envision when they embark on a weight loss journey. As we’ve said before, there is no wrong way to have a body. However, we want you to understand the physical effects that typically take place to help you ensure that all your effort leads you toward what you envision.

What Are Strength Training Exercises for Women?

Now that we’ve given you an idea of how good strength training is for women, let’s talk about what strength training is. Strength training is any type of movement or exercise that imposes an increasing demand on your muscles and/or central nervous system, causing an adaptation. Contrary to what many people believe, lifting heavy weights is not even necessary in the beginning.

If you’re new to strength training, simply moving and manipulating the weight of your own body can lead to some desired adaptation within your body in terms of getting stronger and adding muscle mass.  In fact, it’s vitally important to master the basics of movement and being able to comfortably handle your own body weight before you add external load (i.e., anything you can add to increase the resistance of a movement, like a band, a sandbag, a chain, a kettlebell, a dumbbell, or a barbell).

Strength training exercises apply stress to your muscles and your central nervous system.  In response to this stress, your body increases motor unit recruitment and efficiency.  In layman’s terms, this means that your body figures out how to make the task you just performed easier, just in case you have to perform it again in the future.  After a few weeks of increased neural efficiency, depending on the type of strength training you’re doing, your body responds to the strength training stress by tearing down muscle tissue and rebuilding it bigger and stronger than before.

Strength training exercises for women are almost exactly the same as those for men. There may occasionally be slight modifications made, but for the most part, exercise selection isn’t gender-specific.

Workouts For Women

Over the last several decades, workout plans for women have evolved.  For years we’ve been told, “Cardio! Cardio! Cardio!” is the Holy Grail to achieving the body we desire. Aerobics classes, running, spinning—workout routines for women have historically included gobs of cardio.

In the last five years, there’s been a huge shift in fitness as women flock to the weight room.

This is due in large part to phenomena like CrossFit popularizing hardcore strength training workouts for women. While we love that more women are in the weight room, the issue now is that women think they have to absolutely kill themselves in the gym to get results, and that’s just not true.

Injury Prevention

The unfortunate problem with injury prevention is that no one seems to worry about it until they’re already injured or in pain.  On the surface, some women appear to be exceptionally strong, but upon closer inspection, they’re actually ticking time bombs for an injury because they never built a solid foundation of good movement before piling on the heavy weights.

There’s absolutely nothing that sidelines you faster or halts your progress more quickly than getting injured.  Whether it’s tweaking your back, pulling your hamstring, or having cranky shoulders, experiencing pain and injury are simply no fun.

While it’s impossible to guarantee that you can prevent injury, there are definitely steps you can take to help lessen your injury risk tremendously.

According to Girls Gone Strong Advisory Board Member and Physical Therapist Ann Wendel, “The body works together as a team, and each teammate has a specific job or set of jobs.  If one teammate (body part) isn’t doing its ‘job,’ then another teammate has to make up for it.”

You may have heard that “bad posture” is the cause for injury, but research shows us that this claim is just not true.

Ann continues, “There is no such thing as perfect posture. Posture is not a static position, posture is dynamic, and we must constantly adapt to the situation at hand. In order to have true, deep central core stability we need a coordinated effort of our breath with our movement. Our breathing muscles, our pelvic floor, our deep abdominals, and our spinal stabilizing muscles must all work together to allow stability of the lumbar spine for movement of the arms and legs.”

Lacking this deep, central core stability can lead to issues such as: excessive muscle stiffness, pulled muscles, overuse injuries, and more.

That said, we feel that it’s imperative to note:  Every person’s body is different.  

From height to weight to muscle mass and its distribution, to limb length and girth, to past experiences with sports, movement, pain, injury, and exercise—every body is different.  Therefore, what “good exercise form” looks like on one person, might not be “good exercise form” for another person.

Progress Tracking

Progress tracking is crucial in order to improve over the long haul.  You have to know where you’ve been to figure out where you’re going. You need to see what is and isn’t working. Recording and tracking progress that you are consistently improving.

Progress tracking comes in many forms, from what your workouts look like, to your aesthetic changes, changes in health and lifestyle markers, and performance improvements. They all fit together like puzzle pieces to help you troubleshoot your progress when it stalls.

Tracking what you do in the gym is critical because if you don’t, it’s unlikely that you will push yourself and the weights that you’re using.  This will slow down not only gym progress, but aesthetic progress as well. Keep track of what you’re doing in the gym, workout to workout, week to week, month to month. Write down your sets, reps, and the weight you used. Make notes about each workout (for example, “weight felt easy, can go up next week” or “feeling a little sluggish today, didn’t push it.”)  This will allow you to know when to push, and know when to take it easy.

If you have specific physique or aesthetic goals, progress tracking is very helpful and motivating.  Most changes happen gradually, and it’s very easy to lose sight of how much progress you’ve made since you see yourself daily.

You can track your physical changes through:

  • Girth measurements
  • Scale weight
  • Pictures
  • Clothing
  • Body fat testing

Tracking progress using these measures will give you a very solid overall picture of what’s happening with your body composition, i.e. muscle gain, fat loss/gain, etc.

Tracking health markers can be really motivating on your health journey, especially if they are the reason you started exercising in the first place.  The health markers you choose to track will be individual to you, but some common ones include:

  • Blood pressure
  • Resting heart rate (taken upon waking)
  • Cholesterol
  • Triglycerides
  • Fasting glucose
  • Fasting insulin
  • Hormone panel

Tracking lifestyle markers improve can also be really motivating. They also give you valuable information about your progress.  For example, if you’ve been losing fat at a steady pace for six weeks, and suddenly, during the past two weeks, you’ve hit a plateau, take a look at your sleep and stress levels.  If your sleep has been poor for the last two weeks, there’s a good chance you’ve found the culprit.

Other lifestyle markers include:

  • Stress
  • Energy
  • Strength
  • Mood
  • Sleep

Tracking your performance improvements can be similar to tracking your workouts, except you’ll only test these a few times a year.  You can choose whatever performance markers are important to you based on your goals.

Examples of performance markers:

  • Number of pull-ups completed
  • Number of push-ups completed
  • 1 mile run time
  • 5 rep max on Deadlift
  • Vertical jump test

Weight Training For Women

Weight training for women is virtually the same as strength training, however “weight training” implies that you’re lifting weights, or using an external load outside of your body weight as opposed to just your using own body weight.

The difference between strength training for women and weight training for women is mostly semantics. Some people might even refer to it as “weight lifting for women.”. However, “strength training” may sound less intimidating to someone who has never lifted weights before, and it can be a relief to know that you can strength train (especially in the beginning) using just your body weight.

Some examples of the implements you may use to add external load for weight training are:

  • Barbells
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Sandbags
  • Bands
  • Chains
  • Sleds

Endurance/Cardio Training

For decades, women have been sold the “cardio only” pitch as the Holy Grail to getting the bodies we want.  From aerobics classes to spinning—we’ve been told that doing hours of cardio every week is the key to a trim physique.

In just the last decade, however, we’ve seen a major backlash from the strength training community, demonizing endurance cardio and insisting that interval training is all you need for the physique and health you desire. Some even say that strength training is all you need.

So who’s right?  Can you spin your way to your dream body?  Or should you shy away from the bike and treadmill, and stick with the barbell and plates?

Would you believe us if we told you that they’re both (half) right? It’s true.

It’s not exactly sexy, but balance is the key to success when it comes to cardio — depending on your goals and how much time you have to devote to training, that is.

If you have a limited amount of time to train, say for example, 45 to 60 minutes, a couple of times a week, then we recommend prioritizing strength training, with possibly a quick, high-intensity interval training session or moderate-intensity cardio session at the end, and you’re done. However, if you have more time to devote to working out, then adding in a little more cardio can also be beneficial.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) vs. Moderate Intensity Cardio (MIC)

Before we go further, let’s define “high-intensity interval training” and “moderate-intensity cardio.”  (Please keep in mind that this is an incredibly complex subject, so we’re giving you the 30,000-foot-view with only the need-to-know facts).

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is generally defined as an activity performed with very intense periods of work followed by periods of rest, performed for multiple sets or rounds. Hill sprints would be a good example of high-intensity interval training. On a perceived effort scale of 1 to 10, 1 being sleeping or watching TV, and 10 being maximum physical effort, your perceived effort should be an 8 to 10 during work periods (depending on how experienced you are), and a 4 to 6 during rest periods.

Moderate-intensity cardio (MIC), for our purposes, is any activity that keeps your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute, or falls approximately in the range of 6 to 7 on the perceived effort scale mentioned above.

Many people think of running or putting in 30 minutes on the elliptical as an example of moderate intensity cardio.  While this is technically true, you can do any activity that keeps your heart rate in that 120 to 140 range. Of course, if you love running, who are we to make you stop?  Just keep in mind that as “simple” as running seems, it’s an extremely advanced exercise that’s repetitive and high-impact.  If it’s not done with great form, your likelihood of injury increases significantly (just like with lifting weights).

Check Your Heart Rate

So, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor, how do you know if your heart rate is in the 120 to 140 range?  It’s easier than you think!

Place two fingers on the side of your neck and find your pulse.  Start taking your pulse while looking at a clock or stopwatch. Your heart rate should be 20 to 23 beats in a 10-second period, because that would be 120 to 138 beats in a 60-second period.

Take this a couple of times during the rest periods of your workout to monitor your heart rate. If you don’t have a stopwatch handy, think of this as a perceived effort of 6 to 7, on that 1-10 effort scale described above.  You should be breathing heavily, find some difficulty in holding a conversation (speaking just a few words or a sentence at a time), and on the verge of becoming uncomfortable.

Benefits Of HIIT And MIC

HIIT can be an effective method for burning a lot of calories quickly.  In addition, for years, it was widely accepted that due to its intense nature, HIIT creates more of a metabolic disturbance than moderate-intensity cardio, leading to a large “after-burn” effect, also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC.

That is, after you perform an intense HIIT session, your body expends a lot of calories bringing all of your systems back to normal so you’re not just burning calories while you’re performing HIIT, but afterwards as well.  However, more recent research has declared that the afterburn effects of HIIT are much smaller than once believed.  HIIT can be performed immediately after your strength training workout, or on a separate day from strength training.

Moderate-intensity cardio is also important because it helps you build a solid aerobic base, which is critical to performing your best. Moreover, numerous studies has proven that low-to-moderate intensities of cardiovascular exercise 3-5 days per week for 30-50 minutes are sufficient to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Having a solid aerobic base allows you to recover more quickly during your strength training and HIIT sessions, allowing you to lift more weight for more reps and go harder during the “intense work” portion of your HIIT sessions. It also allows you to recover more quickly between workouts, so you feel fresher every time you step foot in the gym.

What’s more, moderate-intensity cardio helps increases parasympathetic drive.

To put it simply, it switches on your “rest and digest” nervous system allowing you to chill out and relax a bit.  Most of us walk around in a sympathetic nervous system-dominant state (“fight or flight”) most of the day. It can be very hard to relax, and even harder for our body to recover since it’s always in this low-level panic mode.

Moderate-intensity cardio can be performed immediately after your strength training workout, or on a separate day from strength training.

Balancing Strength Training And Cardio

Of course, your workout plan should be individualized based on your specific goal, but we’ve found that most women, at their core, have the same goals. They want to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong.

In our experience, the best way to achieve this goal, is a balanced workout plan consisting of:

  • 2-4 days a week of strength training
  • 1-2 days a week of HIIT (high intensity interval training)
  • 1-2 days a week of MIC (moderate intensity cardio)
  • Restorative activity whenever possible

This workout plan should also fit into your schedule, and of course, it should be enjoyable for you.

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