Strength Training for Women + My Story
Published Feb 02, 2018, Updated Jan 13, 2022
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How I got started with a consistent strength training routine + Dave Robinson’s tips on strength training for women.
Let’s start with my current workout routine, because although I share strength training videos on my Instagram story occasionally, I haven’t shared what’s happening on the fitness front for me personally in a minute. A little over a year ago (October 2016) I joined a group personal training gym called Rio Fitness here in Richmond that focuses on strength training. Prior to starting with this gym I’d done some strength stuff on my own, but most of my workouts were either more cardio focused or endurance based. Way back in the day I experimented with Body for Life and Jamie Eason’s LiveFit training program, and more recently I was hooked on Pure Barre and Orange Theory. So while I had done some strength training, it was never super consistent and I kept the weight relatively light.
After dealing with hypothalamic amenorrhea for two years, I could tell my body needed something different and decided it was time for me to give strength training a try. It took some convincing, but the owner and head trainer at Rio Fitness, Ana, kept mentioning that she thought it would be good for me until I finally said I’d give it a shot and joined her gym!
Over the years I’d heard and read so many times that strength training, especially heavy lifting, is the key to building lean muscle and actually changing your body, but gosh was I resistant to this fact for so long. It’s kind of like a couple years ago when the low-fat myth was getting busted… it took me (and others) quite a while to actually retrain our brains because we’d been taught that no-fat/low-fat was healthy for so long.
The same thing happened to me with strength training. I thought cardio was the end-all, be-all for working out because it’s what gets you super sweaty and burns the most calories. It didn’t help that the weight section at my gym was always full of men and no women.
Strength Training for Women
As it turns out, strength training is AMAZING for women (read more about the benefits here), and since I’ve embraced that fact and started consistently working out at a gym that focuses on functional heavy lifting I’ve seen the benefits firsthand. I’ve gotten so much stronger (without getting bulky), my legs and arms look more toned, my core is stronger and my posture has improved — which is huge for someone with scoliosis.
I’m still on a journey to building more muscle, especially in my back-body since one of my big goals for 2018 is to do a pull-up, and I’d love to see a little more definition in my arms and abs, but I’m so happy that I finally started strength training because it’s been a game-changer for me.
So now that I shared my strength training story and the benefits I’ve seen, I want to introduce you to my friend Dave. As an elite athlete and fitness coach to both women and men he knows a thing or two about strength training, so I’m excited for him to share a little insight into why strength training is essential for women and how to get started with it, along with a few extra little nuggets of information that I know you’ll find helpful.
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. Most women who come to me say they want to “tone up.”
Well, 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 so that you can reveal muscle underneath. If there isn’t muscle underneath to show off once you drop the pounds, 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, and 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 four semesters in high school that you studied so much for? Unless you’ve been using it fairly regularly since then, probably not; your body has allocated resources to what it needs AT THIS TIME and it’s gone. Therefore, if you aren’t exercising, lifting and moving regularly, you’ll eventually 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 six 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 (pull-ups), emphasis should be placed on loaded carries and core rotation for the biggest bang for your buck. Loaded carries and weighted walks are especially crucial for long-term fat loss because A) they’re easy to recover from, B) they aren’t too strenuous since they don’t raise your heart rate too high, and C) they 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 an 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 work out 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 three times as many calories as the elliptical and taking advantage of one of the most functional things we do as humans: picking up stuff and carrying it around. But don’t stop there — this is about strength training, right? (Note from Brittany: If you’ve seen me wearing my weighted vest for walks on my treadmill over on Instagram, now you know where the idea came from!)
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 pull-ups all use many of your major muscle groups. Because they are foundational functional movement patterns that 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 presses and bicep curls — not enough bang for your buck. 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 5s or 10s 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 for 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 your “problem areas,” 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, recent carbohydrate consumption and storage, and 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 boss babe you may be. Recovery is so key and such an overlooked area of fitness! Sleep, oh dear sleep (cue angelic music), is the key to unlocking 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, you’ll show up to that next workout even stronger.
Recipes to Refuel After a Workout
- How to Make a Protein Shake
- Coffee Protein Shake
- Easy Protein Balls
- 12 Healthy Meal-Sized Salads
- Tuna Salad with Egg
- Orange Banana Smoothie