Years ago, it was mostly men who occupied the weight room at the gym, pumping iron and exuding testosterone. Not so today.
Women have become increasingly comfortable hoisting weights to build their strength and confidence. The old fear of bulking up is being replaced by facts about the multiple benefits of weight training, and the proliferation of classes and training programs that offer instruction and camaraderie. It’s not necessarily about getting ripped, or even being skinny. It’s about becoming strong and healthy, being empowered and feeling fit.
Strength training offers different benefits than cardio, and should be included in an exercise routine. Here’s why females definitely should participate, along with some strength training tips for women.
Increasing evidence indicates that exercising with weights delivers many important health benefits for women:
- Weight management – Strength training builds muscle, which is responsible for a large portion of your metabolism. A higher metabolism means you burn more calories throughout the day, which makes you better able to manage, or lose, weight. This is particularly valuable for women as they age and metabolism naturally slows down.
- Lean appearance – Cardio is a good calorie-burner, but strength training helps shape the body by developing muscles, resulting in a more fit look. Even if their weight stays the same, women who strength train report that their bodies feel “tighter” and clothes simply fit better.
- Stronger bones and muscles – Working with weights increases bone density and can reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis, which women are particularly at risk for. Plus, it combats the natural decline in muscle as you age, making it easier to stay active.
- Better posture – Correcting muscular imbalances and increasing awareness of how you move can lead to a healthier posture.
- Reduced risk of injury – By improving strength in muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as building balance, weight training can decrease risk of falls and other common acute injuries.
- Disease prevention – Because weight work improves immune function and raises hormones that fight off illness, participants are less likely to get sick. This type of exercise also can decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Chronic condition control – Strength training can reduce the symptoms of many conditions, such as back pain, arthritis and diabetes.
- Improved sleep – Hitting the weight room enhances quality of sleep and can boost energy, based on higher endorphin levels from strength training.
- Enhanced self-esteem – An improved body image, greater self-efficacy and a more positive outlook are proven results of regularly working with weights.
- Positive mental health – Research also demonstrates that strength sessions can help control and treat anxiety and depression, which typically afflict women in greater numbers than men.
Strength Training Tips for Women
- Get instruction. If you’re new to strength training, don’t just hit the weight room and try to figure everything out on your own. Hire a personal trainer for a few sessions, attend an orientation session at your gym or participate in a group class where you can learn common exercises. If you exercise at home, you’ll need some dumbbells, resistance bands, a bench and potentially a barbell or two. Consult apps, streaming workouts and fitness magazines and books for demonstrations of strength routines.
Pay attention to proper form, how to breathe, what loads to use and how many reps and sets to perform. Be smart or you risk injuring yourself, which defeats the whole purpose of starting a strength training program.
- Understand your options. Today, strength training has more tools to use than ever. Most gyms will provide some or all of these, so ask a trainer or an experienced friend to identify each. Try them all for variety and to see what you prefer. All are good – none is inherently better than another – but a combination of modalities is ideal in a strength routine.
- Selectorized machines – weight stacks, cables and pulleys
- Plate-loaded equipment – uses free weight plates on machines
- Free weights – dumbbells, barbells, weight plates, benches and racks
- Elastic tubing/bands – available in different resistance levels
- Alternative accessories – sand or water-filled bags/disks, medicine balls, kettlebells, barbells with moving ball bearings, sleds, gliding disks and more
- Include bodyweight exercises. Strength training doesn’t always have to incorporate a tool. Be sure to perform popular bodyweight exercises as well, where you work against the resistance of your own body. These include planks, push-ups, assisted pull-ups and crunches. You can also do exercise like squats, lunges and plies without external weight at first to practice and perfect your form.
- Follow a balanced regimen. Include all the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body and core. Don’t think that just because you run or cycle that you can skip your legs. The chest and back are just as important as the biceps, triceps and shoulders. The same is true for the abs, lower back, glutes, hips, quads, hamstrings, inner and outer thighs and calves.
It’s best to train 2-5 times per week, so plan ahead when you will lift weights, and schedule it in your calendar. Try not to work the same muscle groups on consecutive days, but leave a day in between for rest and tissue repair. In other words, if you are doing a total-body routine, aim for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or work upper body on Monday and Wednesday and lower body on Tuesday and Thursday.
With a smart plan and good focus, you can get all your exercises done efficiently so you don’t have to spend hours at the gym – which no woman has anyway.
- Incorporate variety. Just like you shouldn’t do the same manual treadmill routine at 4.2 mph for 30 minutes for every workout for years, cross training when it comes to strength work will yield better motivation and results. So maybe you take a strength class once per week, use free weights on another day and hit a machine circuit on another. Or at home, use resistance bands one day, follow an online dumbbell workout the next session and perform a combined cardio-strength routine for the third regimen.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be according to a scientific formula, but according to your preferences and what works in your schedule. If you take the same exercise class twice a week, no problem. But over time, vary your routines and add more weight or reps to continue making progress.
Or try something totally different, like CrossFit, and embrace new challenges and conquests!
- Keep pressing on. Don’t limit yourself to light dumbbells, but lift heavy where you can and be proud. Tiny dumbbells aren’t going to give you the best results, and if you’re putting in the time, might as well maximize your ROI. Go heavy.
And be consistent with strength training for the best results. Find a workout buddy if you have to, but get it done regularly, and your body will thank you. Set goals if that helps with motivation, and log workouts and watch your progress. Take on bodybuilding if that inspires you.
Most importantly, get started immediately and get back to it if you fall off for a while. It’s never too late to benefit from resistance training!