Strength Training for Women
As a fitness and health consultant, coach, and trainer, I work with men and women all over the athletic spectrum by helping them most efficiently reach their health and wellness goals. Outside of the occasional bodybuilder or marathon junkie who has more specific performance aspirations, the vast majority of clients I work with tell me something along the lines of this - “I just want to look better and feel how I used to feel when I was younger and healthier”. Awesome! I believe that focusing on YOUR health and fitness allows you to better serve those around you… Unfortunately, the opposite is typically true if you’re always tired, hungry, sick, or feel down and disheartened due to a lack of confidence and happiness with your physical and mental state. Sound familiar to anyone? The GOOD news is that by consistently applying some of the principles of a proper strength training regimen, you’ll soon be much closer to that physical and mental happy place… and in time for summer to boot! Check out a few of my major tips and tricks when it comes to strength training for women below.
Start with “Why” - Think about WHY you’re deciding to dedicate time and energy to your physical health. Really, dig deep. Sure, losing 10-20 lbs and getting that bikini body may be the first thing that comes to mind but aesthetic goals rarely get you out of bed if it’s 6am and dark, cold, and rainy. I’ve found that the bigger and deeper your “Why”, the more likely you are to stick with your plan! Something a bit loftier like running your first spartan race, setting a great example for your spouse or kids, or longevity and aging with dignity may help you stay driven when the motivation wanes. Remember, “there is no such thing as an unrealistic goal or dream, merely an unrealistic timeline”. Want to run a half-marathon but are having trouble getting off the couch? It probably won’t happen tomorrow, but you can most likely check that goal off the list by the end of the year if you start working towards it now… which means you’ll be a half-marathoner this time next year if that’s what you want to do! Sound cool? Let’s get to work!
Make a plan, Specifically! Once you’ve figured out WHY you’re setting out to achieve something, figuring out WHAT exactly you’re shooting for is the first step. It’s so important to nail down SPECIFICALLY what you’re going to be working towards... be it health, a certain look, performance (strength or endurance), or otherwise. You can’t do all things at all times and your body adapts to what you consistently do… it’s why runners look like runners and football players look like football players. You’ll return to your Why and your specific goal often because they’ll both ground and guide you. Now that you know Why and What you’re training for, let’s get a major fitness myth on the table and squared away….
You can’t “tone” what’s not there! In fact, “toning” isn’t even really a thing… it’s simply reducing body fat to a certain level where you can reveal muscle underneath. If there isn’t muscle underneath to show off once you drop the lbs, then you definitely can’t tone anything! Building muscle through proper strength training (aka lifting weights) is so important NOT ONLY for attaining that killer physique, but also for aiding in fat loss, optimizing hormones, as well as building and maintaining bone density and mobility as we age. We live in a “use it or lose it” world… do you remember that Spanish you took for 4 semesters in high school that you studied so much for? Unless you’ve been using it fairly regularly since, probably not… your body allocated resources to what it needs AT THIS TIME. Therefore, if you aren’t exercising, lifting, and moving regularly you’ll eventually you’ll lose the ability to do so. Don’t let that happen! If you want to tone, you’ve got to focus on building muscle in the first place. Here’s how you do it…
Focus on Functional Fitness - No one wants to be all looks and no game. Focusing on the 6 basic foundational functional movement patterns will help you both look and perform your best. In addition to the more familiar moves like squatting, hip hinging (deadlifts), pushing (shoulder press), and pulling (pullups), emphasis should be placed on loaded carries and core rotation for the biggest bank for your buck. Loaded carries / weighted walks are especially crucial for long term fat loss because they A) are easy to recover from, B) aren’t too strenuous as they don’t raise your heart rate too high, and C) help build muscle in the core, legs, upper back, and shoulders. The good news is that they’re super easy to do!
Avoid the Elliptical, Walk on Incline instead - Everyone is busy these days which is why efficiency matters! If you’re going to get dressed and drive to the gym to workout for an hour then why waste it with 45 minutes on the elliptical? Walking on the treadmill on an incline (DON’T LEAN ON THE RAILS!!) will burn considerably more calories than slaving away at the elliptical, all while still being low impact on your body! If you’re brave enough to add some extra weight in the form of a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weighted vest, now you’re burning up to 3 times as many calories as the elliptical and taking advantage of one of the most functional things we do as humans… picking up and carrying stuff around. But don’t stop there - this is about strength training, right?
Use Compound Lifts - You’ve heard it before, but it’s true! The more muscle you build the more fat you burn while at rest. Compound lifts like Squats, Deadlifts, Shoulder Presses, and Pullups all use many of your major muscle groups. Because they are foundational functional movement patterns which recruit your major muscle movers, they’ll build much more muscle than an isolation movement like a bicep curl or calf raise would. Make sure you are focusing on proper form. Always research and ask questions if you aren’t quite sure how to properly perform some of these movements. Goblet Squats are great for building the lower body, as are Split Squats, Lunges, and Hip Thrusts. As far as the upper body goes, use Dumbbell Presses to work your shoulders and different types of Rows to work your back and arms. Avoid things like bench press and bicep curls… not enough bang for your buck and you’re better off focusing energy and effort on bigger and more impactful muscle groups. Now that you know what types of lifts to do...
Use More Weight! - If you typically pick up those 5’s or 10’s when you lift, try this… double it. Yeah, seriously! You’re WAY stronger than you think…. You can carry your own suitcase and load it into the trunk of the car (25-50 lbs)... you’ve carried in bags of groceries on one arm with a kid in the other (hello loaded carries / functional fitness 101)! So don’t be afraid to pick up those 20s or 30s, especially for those major compound movements that utilize your big movers like squats, rows, lunges, and weighted walks. Again, focus on proper form - lift from the legs, keep your core nice and tight, and squeeze the weight hard! Oh yeah, PLEASE don’t worry about “getting too big” or “looking like a guy”. It’s REALLY hard to put on muscle mass and that goes for us guys as well, even though we can utilize much more of a secret weapon called testosterone to aid us in this endeavor. A woman's genetic and hormonal makeup will typically not allow “too much muscle” to happen even if maximal muscle and strength is the goal (which it’s not for 99% of women I’ve worked with)… so don’t be afraid to step up and grab that weight, I promise it’s not so scary after all and you’re going to be pleasantly surprised with the results. Speaking of results...
Use the Mirror, not the Scale! I’m NOT a huge fan of using the scale as a frame of reference as to how successful or not a program has been… want to know why? WELL, you can work your tail off for 12 weeks, lose 10 lbs of fat from all of your “problem areas” and add 5 lbs of muscle to alllllll the right places and look like a COMPLETELY different person. I guarantee that your energy, confidence, and vitality will be through the roof… yet the scale will only say you lost 5 lbs over three months! What the heck!? There are a myriad of factors that go into how much you weigh at any given time including hydration, resent carbohydrate consumption and storage, as well as hormones and stress levels. If you’re looking for quantifiable benchmarks, pull out the tape measure once a month or so and take down some numbers. This will give you a good baseline to back up what you see in the mirror. So don’t pay too much attention (if any!) to the scale and instead look to the mirror to show you how much your hard work is paying off!
Focus on Recovery - You can’t go all out all the time and expect to be able to sustain yourself no matter HOW much of a badass bossbabe you may be… Recovery is so key and such an often overlooked area of fitness! Sleep, oh dear sleep (cue angelic music), is the key to unlock your fitness goals. You don’t actually make gains (or losses if you’re talking lbs) while you are working out… your body adapts after it has a stimulus (workout) that stresses it so much that is has to allocate resources to repair itself and build back even stronger than before to better deal with that stimulus next time. You have to rest and repair in order to get those results, and that happens while you sleep! Assuming you’re giving your body the nutrients it needs to recover (more about that below), then you’ll show up to that next workout even stronger.
Nutrition - A post about strength training wouldn’t be complete without a word about nutrition. Let's start here - eat clean, real foods with lots of protein and veggies! The protein is vital for repairing the muscles you just worked while the vegetables give you a boost of energy along with fiber and essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Nutrient density matters, however, balance is key! Don’t be afraid to “cheat” every now and then, just plan for it and make sure a cheat meal doesn’t turn into a cheat weekend or a cheat month… but it’s PERFECTLY OK to reward yourself for the hard work you’ve put in!
Putting it all Together - OK, so you’ve got a pretty good grip (pun intended) on what you’d like to accomplish as well as why strength training is so important! Hopefully you’re ready to start rocking and rolling while chipping away at those long term goals… My number one tip is to focus on consistency above all and, remember, we are here to help! #GRINDON