Not too long ago, strength training was viewed as a modality only for men. Thankfully, though, things have changed in recent years and women are taking over the weight room.
Health and fitness professionals agree that strength training is a must for a number of reasons (think reduced chronic disease risk, longer lifespan, better mood, and healthy metabolism), notes Carol Ferkovic Mack, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., the owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. Yet while many strength-training benefits are universal, there are some specific to women worth mentioning. For example, strength training helps improve bone density and can have a protective effect against osteoporosis (a disease marked by brittle, easily broken bones), which is especially common among older women. It can also help improve midline strength, meaning it can help heal postpartum injuries when done appropriately.
Unfortunately, many of the common strength-training strategies out there are still geared toward men, which can leave female lifters a little lost in the shuffle. Here, fitness pros who specialize in working with female athletes share six strength-training tips specific to women. After all, as the saying goes: “Women are not small men!“
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Carol Ferkovic Mack, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach, and the owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., is an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach. Alisa Vitti is a women’s hormone expert, the founder of FLO Living, the creator of The Cycle Syncing Method®, and the author of Woman Code and In the FLO.
1. Don’t Hesitate To Lift Heavy
PSA: Utensil-sized weights aren’t going to get you to your goals—and that stands regardless of whether your goals involve getting stronger, losing weight, or attaining a more defined look.
Too many women stick to five-pound dumbbells because they mistakenly think that lifting light weights will help tone their muscles and trim off body fat, explains exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. This. Is. A. Myth. “Honestly, lifting that light is a waste of your time,” she says.
If you want to increase muscle definition and/or decrease body fat so that you can see your muscles, you need to stimulate muscle growth. “To stimulate muscle growth, you need to challenge your muscles by lifting relatively heavy weights,” explains Gam.
Here’s why: When you lift relatively heavy weights, the fibers that make up your muscles sustain slight injury. In the hours after you leave the weight room, your body registers these microtears and calls on something called satellite cells to repair them. Afterward, the fibers become even stronger and more resilient than they were pre-lift. If the weight you lift is too light, your muscle fibers will not sustain any injury whatsoever, which means the rest of the muscle-strengthening process never gets set into action.
Exactly how heavy you lift will depend on a wide variety of factors, such as your current fitness and strength, experience level, and the specific strength movement you are repping out. However, as a general rule, you should pick a weight that you can hit for three to four sets of six to 12 reps. The last two reps of each set should be challenging, but not impossible.
2. Then, Lift Even Heavier
Your muscles are a lot like middle children in that they adapt to whatever you throw at them. In practice, this means that weight that was once hard for you to lift will eventually stop feeling so hard as your fibers continue to thicken through the aforementioned repair process.
Once your muscle fibers adapt to your initial weight, you need to increase that weight to keep seeing progress, explains Gam. (This is known as the progressive overload principle). Fail to do that, and you’ll fail to keep making gains.
“It’s best for women who are lifting to follow a structured, progressive strength-training program that encourages them to start where they are and slowly and consistently increase the weights over time,” says Gam. If this kind of program is not accessible for you financially (as it involves working with a fitness professional), make a point to increase your working weight by five to 10 pounds at a time, whenever the last two reps of each set start feeling easy.
3. Play Around With Your Squat Stance
Doing weighted squats is a great way to beef up your midline and lower-body muscles, strengthen your knee joints, pre-hab your lower back, boost hip and ankle mobility, and support your overall strength and fat loss goals. But before you squat, Mack suggests spending some time playing around with your starting stance.
Typically, experts suggest positioning your feet hips-width distance apart and turning your toes out about 15 degrees away from your body before sitting your seat towards the ground. This particular set-up, however, does not take into account the fact that many women have a wider pelvis than men, in order to support child-rearing.
“Some women may need to turn their feet out farther than is usually recommended in order to accommodate differences in their pelvis and hips width,” says Mack. Other women may need to plant their feet slightly wider than hips-width in order to keep their pelvis from tilting anteriority while they squat, she adds.
Your move: Experiment with a wide variety of squat stances until you find one that allows you to squat and stand without putting your lower back, pelvis, or hips in a sub-optimal position. If you have access to a trainer, ask them to watch your form from the side. Otherwise, take some videos of yourself from the side and check out your form. Opt for the stance that allows your butt to sink back without your pelvis tilting under your body.
4. Don’t Skip Upper-Body Day
“All too often, women focus on certain muscle groups while ignoring others,” says Mack. Most commonly, women will prioritize glute and other lower-body exercises with hopes of achieving a juicy rear, while skipping upper-body exercises.
The issue? “Women need upper body strength to thrive in daily life,” says Gam. “Neglecting upper body work contributes to poor posture which can lead to pain and injury.” These injuries are especially common among women with larger breasts, which can pull the shoulders forward into a permanent hunch. “Women with large breasts need the muscles in their shoulders and back to be strong, so that they can pull their shoulders back into proper position,” she explains.
No matter your breast size, though, Mack suggests incorporating at least one upper-body day into your routine. “Pressing exercises like shoulder press and bench press help strengthen the larger muscles around the shoulder joint,” she says. Meanwhile, pulling exercises like rows and pullup variations help strengthen the muscles throughout the back. (Here are five exercises that specifically support healthy posture.)
5. Consider Cycle Syncing
Cycling syncing, at its most distilled, is the practice of tailoring your fitness routine and nutrient intake to whichever of the four phases menstrual cycle phases you are currently in, explains women’s hormone expert Alisa Vitti, Founder of FLO Living, creator of The Cycle Syncing Method® and author of bestselling Woman Code and In the FLO. She believes it’s something every menstruating woman who is not on birth control should be doing.
“Your hormone levels change based on where you are in your cycle, which means your nutritional needs and type of physical fitness you can tolerate change,” explains Vitti. During your luteal phase (that’s the end of your cycle right before your period), for example, your body creates a new endometrium (uterine lining), which requires a lot of energy. As a result, the body needs more food-based energy (think carbohydrates) and can handle less higher-intensity exercise, she notes.
Learning more about your body’s nutritional needs and exercise tolerances throughout your cycle and adjusting your food and exercise in response has a number of health benefits, according to Vitti. “Cycle syncing can help increase strength gains, reduce fat gain, improve overall hormone health, reduce symptoms associated with your period, and more,” she says.
So, what does this mean for strength training specifically? Well, strength training is actually healthy at all points in your menstrual cycle, says Vitti. However, the specific type of strength training workout you do might vary from phase to phase. During the first half of your menstrual cycle (menstruation and the follicular phase), your estrogen levels are higher, which results in higher energy, she explains. As such, this is the time of your cycle when you might want to try out strength training workouts like bootcamp, CrossFit, and other HIIT classes.
“In the second half of your cycle, your estrogen and progesterone levels dip, which leaves you with less energy for high-intensity exercise,” she says. At this point, you’re better off doing strength training with a lot of built-in rest. For instance, this might be a time to do a five-by-five back squat workout, build a heavy bench, or take a powerlifting class.
6. Learn More About Birth Control and Performance
Choosing whether or not to go on birth control, as well as which form to use, is an incredibly personal decision. Something to consider if you are a woman with particular strength or performance goals, though, is how certain forms of contraceptives may influence those goals.
“Hormonal birth control may impact your ability to put on muscle, due to the effect it can have on your hormones,” explains Vitti. Indeed, for one 2021 study published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers looked at resistance training outcomes in women on oral contraceptives compared to those not on birth control. They found that those on the pill had much lower levels of hormones that support muscle growth (like DHEA, DHEAS, and IGF-1). In fact, those on the pill put on an average of one-seventh the amount of lean muscle mass over 10 weeks that those not on the pill packed on.
So what does that mean for you? Perhaps not much if you do not want to get pregnant, do not want to track ovulation (as the family-planning method would require), and are not a strength athlete. However, if you are competing in a strength sport or otherwise interested in maximizing muscle mass gains, Vitti recommends talking to your healthcare provider about non-hormonal contraceptive options, such as the family planning method, Phexxi, and/or condoms.