What You Should Know About Strength Training for Women
If you're one of the many Americans committed to improving your overall health, increasing your physical fitness, losing weight, or all the above, adopting a consistent strength training workout routine can be one of the most efficient ways to pursue your goals. However, those without previous weight training experience—particularly women—often prioritize aerobic exercise over lifting weights. In this article, we'll dispel one of the most frustrating myths about strength training for women, give a clear definition of what strength training is (and isn't), delve into the top benefits of strength training, and finally, share expert advice on how to safely commence a strength training program.
Disproving a Persistent Myth About Strength Training for Women
Strength training has numerous benefits for women. But for many, the phrase "strength training" calls up images of massively muscular men sweating and grunting as they heave heavy barbells around at the gym. Unsurprisingly, this can make the weight room seem like an intimidating, off-limits place.
This barrier is fortified by the fact that women often worry strength training will cause them to develop bulging muscles. Please don’t let the fear of big muscles deter you. According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, high levels of estrogen make it hard for women to become overly muscular. Typically, when women lift weights, they develop stronger, more toned muscles while increasing their endurance. For a woman to use strength training to produce significant muscle growth, she would likely need to actively pursue that goal.
The truth is, following a strength training workout plan can help you build lean muscle while facilitating fat loss, among other benefits. The consensus among experts is that strength training should be a core component of everyone’s workout program—women and men alike!
What Is Strength Training, Really?
Now that we've uprooted some tenacious misconceptions about strength training for women, let's go over what the phrase "strength training" really means. Strength training refers to any kind of physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscular contraction, thereby building strength and enhancing anaerobic endurance. By placing a demand on your muscles, central nervous system, or both, strength training provokes beneficial adaptations related to muscle function as well as neural efficiency. In other words, it looks for ways to make it easier to perform the task you just carried out.
While many visualize high-intensity training sessions featuring heavy weights, that's not a requirement for strength training. It's completely possible to carry out a highly effective resistance-training workout using only the weight of your own body. In fact, certified personal trainers and other fitness professionals tend to recommend that those new to weight training master proper form for basic movements with their own body weight before increasing the resistance they're working against by adding an external load.
8 Top Benefits of Strength Training for Women
According to Girls Gone Strong, an organization committed to providing "a common voice of body-positive, evidence-based information" about strength training, nutrition, and women's health, these are eight of the top benefits of strength training for women.
1. Build Lean Muscle Mass
Strength training exercises stimulate muscle protein synthesis, otherwise known as anabolism, and as long as your body has an adequate supply of amino acids (more on this later), the result will be the growth of new muscle tissues.
As discussed in a previous section, however, lifting weights is more likely to help you tone up, rather than bulk up. That said, strength training does build lean muscle mass. Since it often results in the loss of body fat, however, you may even look smaller after a few months of regular strength training sessions than you did when you began.
2. Improve Overall Strength
Your body responds to strength training by breaking down muscle tissue and rebuilding it to be stronger than it was before. This process, the inverse of muscle protein synthesis, is called muscle protein breakdown or catabolism. While it may seem counterintuitive at first, it's key to making you stronger.
During exercise, the resistance your muscles work against leaves them with micro tears. Your body breaks down these older, damaged fibers to clear the way for the growth of new, stronger ones. The more rapidly this process progresses, the less muscle soreness you'll experience after a workout. More rapid muscle protein turnover also allows you to make greater strength gains in shorter periods of time.
3. Increase Bone Density
All of us face a higher risk of decreased bone density as we age, but women (Caucasian and Asian women, especially) tend to lose more bone mass. Estimates indicate that 35% of postmenopausal women develop osteoporosis, a bone disease that indicates a progression of bone weakness that can lead to severe bone fractures and other health problems. Rates of osteopenia, a condition characterized by lower-than-normal bone density that's a precursor to osteoporosis, are even higher.
Studies show that engaging in weight-bearing exercises can help to preserve bone mass. Those who have already started to experience the loss of bone mass should consult with a doctor before undertaking a new exercise plan. In most cases, light-to-moderate intensity options, such as training with resistance bands or a stability ball, will be best for those who have already developed osteopenia or osteoporosis.
4. Maximize Metabolic Rate
Common wisdom holds that as we age, our metabolism slows. This doesn't have to be the case, though.
The effect of aging on your metabolism largely results from decreased muscle mass as well as decreased physical activity. Since strength training increases both your muscle mass and your activity level, it's the perfect antidote to age-related changes to your metabolism.
Researchers have found that building muscle mass is one of the most effective ways to increase metabolic rate for individuals of all ages. A significant percentage of the energy our bodies expend goes into protein turnover, so the more muscle you have and the more rapidly your muscle tissues turn over, the faster your metabolism will be.
5. Corrects Posture and Alignment
Having good posture means that your body parts—muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments—are all aligned symmetrically. This brings benefits like decreased joint stress, improved self-esteem and self-confidence, and even lower anxiety levels.
Strength training builds up your muscle, supporting tissues, and even bones, making it easier for you to hold your body in proper alignment. Building core strength can be key. Weak abdominal muscles can result in habitual anterior pelvic tilt, a position in which your hips tilt forward, putting undue stress on your neck and lower back. Strengthening your core brings your pelvis back into alignment.
The improvements to posture and alignment brought about by strength training can be especially beneficial for those suffering from chronic, treatment-resistant neck pain and back pain.
6. Strengthen Pelvic Floor
Did you know that on average, one in three women in the United States experience incontinence. Though it used to be considered an issue that affected older women, it's now clear that pelvic floor weakness and incontinence issues impact women of all ages.
Stress urinary incontinence is the most noticeable, and for many, the most undesirable way that pelvic floor dysfunction presents, but there are other potential indicators, too, such as:
- Lower back pain
- Hip pain
- Soreness in the buttocks
- Pain in the pubic symphysis (the place where the pelvis joins at the front midline of the body)
When done safely and with proper form, strength training can significantly improve pelvic floor function. Here, again, exercises that engage the muscles of the core—abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, deep back muscles, glutes, and other muscle groups—prove especially useful.
7. Heighten Insulin Sensitivity
Research has shown that regular strength training can improve insulin sensitivity. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined how resistance training affected insulin levels and glucose tolerance for individuals whose baseline values indicated they were at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Participants engaged in supervised resistance-training sessions consisting of an eight-exercise full body workout 3 days a week for 4 months. At the study's conclusion, testing revealed lower levels of 2-hour glucose, fasting C-peptide, and insulin resistance.
The study authors determined that these findings indicate resistance exercise can enhance insulin sensitivity, mainly due to the increase it produces in the amount of glucose taken up by the muscles.
8. Balance Blood Pressure
Lifting weights can help you keep your blood pressure at low, healthy levels. According to a study published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, participating in 3 days of weight training weekly can decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. After 12 weeks, the group average of participants' blood pressure numbers dropped from the range for stage 1 hypertension (150/93) to pre-hypertension (134/81). The average reduction for systolic blood pressure was 16 mm Hg. To put that in context, a 20 mm Hg increase in systolic blood pressure doubles your risk of developing heart disease, meaning weight training can decrease your risk by nearly 50%.
That said, weight training can produce short-term increases to blood pressure, so those with high blood pressure (160/100 mm Hg and above, according to an expert from the Mayo Clinic) should check with a doctor before lifting weights.
Building a Safe, Effective Strength Training Routine
If you are planning to exercise at home, the easiest thing you can do is to use your own body weight for resistance. Popular bodyweight exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal crunches.
You can also use resistance bands (essentially, large rubber bands) to make bodyweight exercises more challenging. Some doctors and sports medicine clinics provide resistance bands to patients free of charge. You can also buy resistance bands in sports stores or from online retailers.
Another option is to use free weights such as dumbbells, weight bars, and barbells. Again, you can purchase these inexpensive tools in sports stores or online. Or, get a gym membership. This could give you access to coaches who can help guide you through the correct form for different weightlifting exercises, as well as group classes to offer variation and support.
If you go to the gym, you may also want to use weight machines. Many fitness centers have circuit-style weight machines that target different muscle groups. If you are a beginner, it's best to ask for assistance before using these machines.
A Word About Injury Prevention
Unfortunately, it's all too common for people to fail to consider injury prevention until they're concerned that they may have injured themselves. Nothing will stymie or set back your progress faster than an injury. Though there's no foolproof method for preventing injuries 100% of the time, there are certainly safe training guidelines you can use to lower your risk.
One of the most important elements of injury prevention is to ensure you have a good, solid foundation for a weightlifting movement before you increase the amount of weight you're lifting. “The body works together as a team, and each teammate has a specific job or set of jobs," explained Girls Gone Strong Advisory Board Member and Physical Therapist Ann Wendel. "If one teammate (body part) isn’t doing its ‘job,’ then another teammate has to make up for it.”
Wendel discourages an exclusive focus on perfect form, which she feels distracts from the steps you can and should be taking in the moment to prevent injury. "Posture is not a static position, posture is dynamic, and we must constantly adapt to the situation at hand," Wendel said. No matter what movement you're carrying, she emphasizes the importance of deep core stability and breath coordination. When the lumbar spine is stable, that allows you to safely work against resistance with your arms and legs. Without that stability, you face an increased risk of problems such as:
- Excessive muscle soreness
- Muscle strains
- Overuse injuries
If you're new to strength training, in addition to keeping Wendel's advice at the front of your mind, you should consider working with an experienced professional who can help you master basic movements that will allow you to carry out total body strength training workouts on your own.
4 Essential Weightlifting Movements
While there is no single “best” weightlifting workout—for women, men, or nonbinary individuals—the following four movements will deliver an effective workout that's accessible for novices but, with increased resistance, challenging for experienced lifters too.
- The goblet squat: Squats engage and strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes turned slightly outward. Hold the end of a dumbbell or base of a kettlebell at chest level, keeping your hands in contact with your chest. Stand tall with your spine straight and shoulders rolled back, then bend your knees and lower your hips until the top of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keeping your spine straight and your weight on your heels, stand back up.
- The deadlift: This exercise strengthens practically every muscle you use for your daily movements. Begin with your heels shoulder-width apart and your toes turned slightly outward. Stand tall with your spine straight and shoulders rolled back. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inward. Bend forward, pushing your hips back as you do, until the weights touch the ground. Keeping your spine straight, stand back up, and squeeze those glutes.
- The chest press: This exercise strengthens not only the muscles in your chest, but also those throughout your upper body. Begin lying on your back on an exercise bench or on the floor with your knees bent and your feet planted firmly. Hold the dumbbells directly over your chest with the ends touching. Keep your shoulders pulled down away from your ears. Bend your arms until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor, then return to the starting position.
- The overhead press: This exercise strengthens a number of muscles in the upper body, including the deltoids, which often get neglected. Stand with your feet beneath your hips and your spine straight and elongated. Hold the dumbbells in front of your shoulders, then press them straight up. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position, keeping your elbows centered beneath your hands.
We recommend that you switch your lifting routine every 4 to 6 weeks to force your body to adapt to a new training program. Strength training focused on growth hormone release helps women because it plays a key role in muscle recovery, cell reproduction, and regeneration.
Here is an example of an effective routine, based on the exercises described above, and focused on growth hormone release:
- Alternate upper and lower body workouts over 4 training days each week for this routine.
- Hit the upper body on Monday, for example, doing chest or overhead presses, with 8 to 12 repetitions.
- On Tuesday, train your lower body with squats. Take Wednesday off for recovery.
- On Thursday, focus on the upper body again.
- On Friday, back to the lower body.
As touched on in our discussion of muscle protein synthesis and breakdown, amino acids play a crucial role in maximizing the benefits associated with strength training. Amino acids build the protein that develops muscle strength and tone, so that you get fitter faster. You can read more about amino acids and fitness here.