How often have you wondered about weight training, and then considered how it will affect you? Many women speculate it will change their womanly curves and makes them look more ’Man-ish’.
This is a real topic of concern for many women in the fitness industry: do women need to weight train or should they completely avoid it? This article addresses the common myths and truths about the advantages that weight training brings to the average woman.
Before I get started I would just like to note that this article addresses resistance training applied to only women who are beginners in the resistance training world. The weight loads I draw attention to allow women to complete 10-12 repetitions, so they are not going to make you look like the muscular, Amazonian woman to the right.
Weight training: the common misconception
The term ‘bulking’ is used by women in the fitness world to define the physical change that results from excessive prolonged weight training, dieting and supplementation. It means they lose their hourglass figure and feminine physique, taking on a bulkier, more masculine appearance. But the term has caused confusion in the wider female population, leading a lot of women to think that any weight training will result in this sort of appearance.
Women can ‘bulk’ (and many women love this appearance and training regime), or they can weight-train to gain lean muscle which will accentuate their natural figure and leave them looking leaner, fitter and stronger.
The reason why women will never be able to ‘bulk’ naturally, in the true sense of the word is because of testosterone. Men produce 7-8 times more testosterone than women.
How does this relate to women and bulking?
This hormone is key to the development of bone mineral density, lean muscle development and body hair (women would consider this hormone the one big problem that accounts for countless hours of physical maintenance). So even with an intensive weight training program women don’t have enough ‘androgenic hormones’ to trigger the growth a male can achieve, unless they take hormonal supplements.
Knee injuries in women!
The average woman has what is known as a ‘Q’ angle (this is the angle from the quadriceps to the patella tendon), which is considerably wider than a male’s due to the width of a women’s pelvis. This, combined with less bone mineral density than men, and fluctuations in oestrogen levels, can have an impact on how prone women are to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries .
This Q angle affects gait biomechanics in women, which can create strain on the knee cruciate even in everyday walking. For a joint that is not adequately strengthened and stable there is a high risk of injury.. Many women have quit their favourite exercises in order to avoid knee injuries or prevent further injury from occurring; however with proper strengthening exercises these injuries can be prevented
The positives of weight training for women
Weight training for women should always be incorporated into a fitness program. As a personal trainer I always inform my female clients of the benefits of weight training, and develop a suitable training program to suit their needs and goals. Aside from developing great muscle tone, weight loss and basic aerobic conditioning, weight training completes the puzzle of achieving each and every fitness goal. Here are some more positive outcomes from a weight-training program:
- Weight training helps build bone density in women, and important preventative of osteoporosis
- Weight training can help strengthen weak abductor muscles (combined with a flexibility program) and reduce the ‘Q’ angle
- Weight training/resistance training can help strengthen cruciate ligaments and tendons
- A combined aerobic/weight training session will burn more kCal than a single continuous aerobic session.
- Weight training can increase hormonal release helping to feed your day with positive energy
- Weight training increases fat free mass (lean muscle).
- Weight training can help you re-establish strength in your postural muscles and weak muscle groups, helping correct your posture, prevent injury and leave you stronger for longer.
Weight training for pregnancy
Weight training obviously gains considerable favour with many medical practitioners pertaining to rehabilitation, post-menopausal women, degenerative medical conditions and pre-pregnancy to name a few.
An interesting point was made by several clients of mine regarding the importance of strengthening the lower back, transverse abdominals, rectus abdominal and upper thoracic muscles after they delivered their first child. They complained that due to the combination of carrying their unborn child and subsequent weight gain (11-16kg is the average weight gain for healthy pregnant women), along with obvious physical size increases of the breasts etc. they were experiencing minor aches and pains due to the imbalances of weight distribution of the body. The clients who attempted a weight-training program of minimal loads but targeting core strength saw many aided benefits such as:
- Reduced difficulty through labour
- Reducing unwanted excess weight gain over the weeks
- Reduction in pain of the (lumbar) lower back
- A reduction in post pregnancy recovery and better muscle memory.
As a note, I am not qualified to take clients through weight training programs whilst in pregnancy, but for the eventual pregnancy planning I would advise weight training and its positive benefits, and seeking a trainer who can devise a suitable program for you.
As a recommendation, always seek advice from a medical professional about suitable exercises and intensities for weight training programs. This should be done during the early first trimester, during and after pregnancy, to ensure the safety of you and your child.
What should be in a weight-training program for women
As a recommendation, women who are just starting weight training should perform a (load) weight that allows her to perform repetitions of 8-12 reps. The amount of sets should exceed that of a man’s. This is due to the lack of testosterone and ability for a women’s body to build lean muscle mass (known as hypertrophy). Poliquin recommends higher volume of weight training for women in order to achieve the same muscular stimulus relative to a man. The below tables show my recommendations for preferred goals for a single exercise in a weight training program.
If you are the kind of woman that is searching for the goal that involves ‘bending your boyfriend in half’, below is a recommendation to build strength.
|5-8||4-8||Explosive /slow eccentric||180 sec – 240 sec|
If you are happy with your body but would love to tighten and tone those muscles, below is a recommendation to build muscle (hypertrophy).
|4-5||8 – 12||Controlled concentric 1 second / controlled eccentric 3 second count||60 sec – 180 sec|
Summer is coming and time is of the essence, you have just committed to your new goal of the year and that is losing weight. In the past you would have probably strapped yourself onto a treadmill and slogged it out for hours each week, bored stiff. Instead, try incorporating an aerobic/weight-training session, designed to burn fat:
|3-4||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||30 sec – 60 sec|
This is my personal preference to set/reps, speed and rest allotments for a given goal. There are many variations to weight training structures that women may find useful beyond what I have outlined in the tables above. Time is short and we all have our priorities, so experiment with what works best for you.
In order to make the most of your rest periods in between each set, you want to get yourself set up properly from the start. This is what I suggest:
Get several weighted dumbbells and a flat bench. This setup will enable you to perform 4 out of the 6 exercises in this circuit, which targets the upper body.
Weight loss circuit (perform 3 circuits of the below exercises)
|Dumbbell flat bench press||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||10 sec|
|Single arm dumbbell row||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||10 sec|
|Dumbbell shoulder press||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||10 sec|
|Dumbbell Rear delt raise||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||10 sec|
|Planking||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||10 sec|
|Abdominal crunch||1||12 – 15||Explosive with slow eccentric||60 sec|
10 seconds’ rest accounts for correcting technique, posture and retrieving the correct weight.
Weight training and being time restrictive
When you are short on time but what to make the most of your weight-training session, make sure you incorporate the following into your workout:
- Perform exercises that are agonist/antagonist to each other
- Perform supersets or tri-sets to create greater intensity
- Divide muscle groups over a week in order to target priority weakness muscle groups, or to perhaps develop a muscle group that will help correct your posture.
When starting out on a weight-training regime, perform exercises that use the following equipment:
- Body weight as resistance
Limit the quantity of machine exercises in a weight training session
Attach free 3 day 4 week hypertrophy program for women here
In conclusion, weight training is an essential fitness form that should be reinforced for its positive benefits for women of all ages. As we age it is paramount that we focus not only on life goals for career and academic development, but also physical development, so that we can live injury-free and stay fit well into our old age.
|Key summary notes:The term ‘bulking’ for women can only occur if a woman performs weight training programs excessively over a long period of time, aided by a diet and hormonal supplementation. So even with an intensive weight training program women don’t have the right ‘androgenic hormones’ to trigger the growth a male has, unless you obviously take the hormonal replacement to become He-Women. Depending on the range of the ‘Q’ angle and knowing that women have less bone mineral density than their male counterparts, have fluctuations in estrogen and are even more prone than men to sustain tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).Regardless of toning the muscle, basic aerobic conditioning or even weight loss, weight training finishes the complete puzzle of each and every fitness goal.As a recommendation, women who are just starting weight training should perform a (load) weight that allows her to perform repetitions of 8-12 reps.
(Poliquin recommends higher volume of weight training for women in order to achieve the same muscular stimulus relative to a man)
Free PDF 3 day 4 week hypertrophy program for women
|Recommended reading: The new rules in lifting for women. Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsythe, M.S. by Alwyn Cosgrove 2007
You can also view further reading from bodybuilding.com
 Prodromos CC, Han Y, Rogowski J, Joyce B, Shi K. A meta-analysis of the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament tears as a function of gender, sport, and a knee injury-reduction regimen. Arthroscopy. 2007;23(12):1320–1325.e1326.
 Lynch SL, Hoch AZ. The female runner: gender specifics. Clin Sports Med. 2010;29(3):477–498.