It’s 2016 and the message that women should be doing more strength training isn’t a new one, but it is also a message that is often ignored, which has lead me to ask the question – “Why?”.
My hypothesis is two-pronged. Firstly, many commercial fitness centres still create a gym environment and workout space that is more akin to a cardiovascular-heavy programme. Secondly, because the ‘weight training’ vibe is still quite male dominant and at the fledgling stage within the female psyche – as well as being promoted in an aggressively narcissistic way – I believe that many women may not quite know where to start.
So, here is my take on what strength training actually is, why you should do it, and how to get started as a beginner.
What is Strength Training?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) describes strength training as; “…a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance…”.1 This includes using your own body weight as resistance (such as in gymnastic or calisthenic type movements), using dumbbells or barbells, or even the fixed weight machines (although in my opinion, fixed weight machines do not allow you to build a functional strength that is necessary for good health).
Think about some of the female gymnastic athletes or dancers – they have very lean, supple physiques but are extremely strong pound for pound.
The key word here is RESISTANCE – weight training or strength training does not mean increasing muscle size or bulk; it’s about overloading the muscle with external resistance so the muscle fibres adapt in the way you want them to. In some cases the goal will be to increase size, but for many it will be to enhance function, stability, and endurance, and to improve the body composition by having more lean muscle tissue present in the body.
Apart from the aesthetic benefits of having a leaner physique, there are many proven health benefits associated with strength training2, such as increased body strength; slowing the ageing process by improving the quality of skeletal muscle, boosted self-esteem and self-concept, and a healthier body image.
If you’re concerned that you will miss out on the health benefits of cardiovascular training then it’s important to understand that a well-executed strength training workout will raise the heart rate sufficiently. Alternatively, you could combine the two methodologies and go for a more circuit training based workout, which would leave you more out of breath than a jog on the treadmill and make muscles feel like they are ready to burst (in a good way).
How Do I Get Started?
Before you start resistance training, you need to ask the question, “Is my body ready for this?”. Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try if you are intimidated by the weights room, or you don’t think you are strong enough to be lifting weights, but you do need to consider:
- Are you in pain when you move around or exercise?
- Do you sit down most of the time?
- Do you often get neck ache or headaches?
- Do you wear high heels regularly?
- Do you suffer from low back pain or stiffness?
If you answered “Yes.” to any of these, then it’s highly likely that you would benefit from correcting your posture, mobility, and core strength while you enter the world of strength training, to ensure you are moving efficiently and can get the most out of your efforts.
The next thing to ask yourself is what exactly you are trying to achieve by adding resistance training into your regime. When I have asked female clients this question over the years, the most common response is – “I don’t want to get bulky; I want shape in my muscles – but not too much shape.”.
A couple of pointers to address this concern. First of all, it is extremely difficult to put on muscle size – if it was easy then you’d see a lot more guys walking around looking like a Hollywood action star. Women naturally don’t have the levels of testosterone as men3, which is needed for rapid muscle growth, so “getting bulky” is not going to happen overnight without you noticing. Secondly, you can still achieve the physical and health benefits of weight training without lifting heavy – you can create fatigue in the muscles by increasing repetitions, changing the intensity and control of the movements, and as I mentioned before using your own body weight as your resistance. Think about some of the female gymnastic athletes or dancers – they have very lean, supple physiques but are extremely strong pound for pound.
What Type of Strength Training Should I Do?
As previously mentioned, there are many types of exercise that can be considered as strength training. I would normally recommend incorporating a bit of them all so that your body doesn’t get used to just one way of exercising. A great programme would consist of bodyweight movements, dumbbell and barbell exercises, cable machine work to ensure you get plenty of rotating or chopping moves in, and some kettlebell sessions to build strength and conditioning. Some periods of training can be dedicated to lifting heavy, others to high repetition work. But before you rush to research advanced training programmes, here is a list of priorities that I recommend a beginner should focus on:
- Learn how to perform the moves with perfect form without weight before adding any resistance. This will reduce your risk of injury and give the body time to embed a new movement pattern into its repertoire.
- Concentrate on the foundational weight training exercises first. For example: squat, deadlift, lunge, pull (this could be a pull-up, a pulldown or a row), push (this could be a push-up or a dumbbell press), twist (this could be a cable twist or a wood-chop). These are all classified as compound exercises, which means that they use multiple muscles groups, giving you more bang for your buck during your session.
- Before every strength workout, you need to dedicate time to a comprehensive mobility warm up. A good one I have used over the years is by a UK based trainer called Dax Moy – his mobility matrix is worth learning.
- Give yourself adequate rest days between sessions. If you are training 3 times per week, then leave a day between each workout.
I would recommend sticking to these principles and really getting to grips with the basics for a minimum of 12 months, possibly longer if you are not training more than 3 times per week. You can learn these exercises via books, YouTube tutorials, or getting someone more experienced to demonstrate. However, I would highly recommend hiring a well-respected and qualified strength coach to at least teach you the basics over a few sessions – it would be a great investment in your health.
Beyond this introductory stage, you can begin to develop more advanced programming methods and be more creative with your approach – but to be honest, unless you are looking to become a competitive body builder then sticking to squats, deadlifts, lunges, pushes, pulling, and twisting will be more than good enough for your needs.
What do you think of strength training for women? Have you already taken the plunge? We’d love to hear your experiences so far so why not leave a comment below?!
- (Anonymous). (2013). American council of sports medicine. In American College of Sports Medicine. In Retrieved 31 January, 2016, from https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/resistance-training.pdf
- Geggel, L. (2015, 21 May). Testosterone Rules for Women Athletes Are Unfair, Researchers Argue. In Live Science. Retrieved 31 January 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/50938-female-athletes-testosterone-olympics.html
- Harne, A.J., Bixby, W.R. (2005). The Benefits of and Barriers to Strength Training Among College-age Women. In Journal of Sport Behaviour, 28(2), 151-166. Retrieved 31 January, 2016, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Walter_Bixby/publication/266289098_The_Benefits_of_and_Barriers_to_Strength_Training_Among_College-age_Women/links/54ae70130cf24aca1c6fd45a.pdf