It probably does not come as news to exercise-savvy women that weight training is really good for your body and for your overall wellbeing. Hopefully, some women’s fears that training with weights will give a bulky, manly appearance have long been dispelled. There is an excellent scientific literature supporting the benefits of weight training for both men and women. And, no, it does not make women look big and muscular.

Weight lifting, performed correctly, can be of significant benefit to women.

Perhaps you have tried weight training for a short time in the past but it didn’t produce any results or just felt really awkward?

As with all things in the diet and exercise industry, for every sound piece of advice there is a myriad of conflicting (and frankly wrong) advice out there. As a general rule, if you are new to weight training you should always seek professional advice and assistance from a qualified professional, anything less carries significant risks.

Whilst you shouldn’t ever feel ‘bad pain’ when exercising with weights, it is important to really push yourself and ‘feel the burn’, the good pain in the following days through delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) means you’ve done a good job!

That said, in my experience, there are some common areas that can typically be improved in female weight training programmes to maximise positive results (and the problems are usually different from the typical issues found in male weight training).

Mindset – fail as much and as often as you can

One of the most common problems when following a weight training programme is the person’s mindset. Whereas men tend to make the mistake of choosing a weight that is far too heavy, leading to injury on the gym floor; some women tend to select weights that are slightly too light. We’ve all seen those puny pink 2kg dumbbells that weigh less than the groceries and I can confirm they don’t do very much for your physique, they just look nice! Think about it: the average 2 year old girl weighs 12kgs and careful mums don’t hesitate to lift and carry them! Going to the gym to lift anything less than something you’re very comfortable with lifting in everyday life is, well, a waste of time.

If you select a weight that is too light, you may successfully ‘complete’ a set of repetitions but you are not creating a state in the body that delivers real change and therefore could be wasting a lot of time. Follow these tips before and during your session to adapt your mindset for success:

  • If you’re a beginner, understand that there are plenty of people that can help you and that you should feel fully entitled to take your spot in the weights section of your gym.
  • Do not be afraid of using the bigger weights and olympic bar equipment in the gym if you need to. Select a weight that becomes very difficult (and preferably, impossible) to lift after you have been performing the exercise for around one minute to 90 seconds (focus more on ‘time under tension’ rather than how many repetitions you are able to push out).  
  • Remember the aim is to put the muscle under a proper amount of stress to encourage growth and change, not to race through the workout as quickly as you can. Use slow, controlled movements and mentally focus on the muscle group you are working.
  • The aim is not to ‘complete’ the set of repetitions, it is to fail – as odd as that may sound. It is actually very difficult to achieve true failure, so you must keep pushing longer than you think is possible, this will bring about real change. Prepare yourself mentally before the session to ‘go all the way to failure’.
  • Remember, you should be just as puffed out at the end of a set of weight training as you would be after sprinting 100m – it is meant to be hard on your muscles and your cardiovascular system. 

If you want to read more about my thoughts on failure as the only true path to success read this.

Avoid isolation exercises

Squatting is the preferable compound movement for female weight training programmes

If you have received quality formal advice from a good trainer she or he will likely have told you to favour compound movements (including squats/leg press, chest press, shoulder press lateral pull downs and rowing movements) instead of isolation exercises (think arm curls, ab crunches, lateral raises, butt workouts, inner thigh workouts etc.). However, I still see a lot of women following weight training programmes or circuit programmes that favour isolation exercises that work smaller muscle groups.

The best advice is to stay away from isolation exercises unless you are an athlete training for a specific sport or have a very specialised reason for weight training that muscle in isolation (e.g. recovering from an injury). It produces much greater results to work many major muscle groups at once rather than isolating one muscle alone. Search for ‘compound weight training movements’ or ask your trainer to help you with them.

Start with squats for big results! Your heart will be pumping harder and you’ll create a greater adaptive response to lose fat and improve core stability and muscle tone.

Not enough rest

Do you need a break? Don’t stress, your progress won’t disappear!

If you do weight training properly, your body and mind need the proper amount of time to recover. You need a break.

If you are a beginner using lighter weights the particular muscle group trained will typically need less time to recover, perhaps four clear days without working out. If you are more experienced, you will typically need seven clear days to recover for the muscles to have properly healed. As you become stronger and fitter it is possible to achieve a higher level of ‘muscular failure’ than it was before.

Many women attend Crossfit or difficult circuit training group classes that do not tailor the pace or intensity to individual abilities. In general, relatively fewer women spend time the weights room or with resistance machines performing simple and safe compound movements. Crossfit is an incredibly demanding and technically difficult exercise programme and those whose business it is to sell Crossfit classes are focussed on regular attendance at sessions – not on promoting a healthy amount of recovery time.

As a rule of thumb, if you perform less well in one session compared to the session before, it can be a good indication you are working too hard and are overtraining. Next time, give yourself an extra day of rest to recover before training the same muscle group again. Remember that compound movements train lots of muscles at the same time so make sure you know what muscles you are working and give them adequate rest.

All of this is is only true if you have followed the advice in point number one above. That is: you must have reached muscular failure during the session to get great results!

Train with a partner

A work out partner can help you perform exercises safely and give you a boost

I see a lot of women ‘going it alone’ in the weights room. It is much safer and more effective to train under the supervision of a Personal Trainer or a training partner that knows what they are doing. They can ‘spot’ you and help you with your form when performing exercises. In particular, they can help you achieve a proper level of failure. If you are a beginner and choose a friend as your training partner, it is preferable for them to be more experienced. Having a training partner also helps keep you accountable if you don’t much feel like going to the gym.

If you have any questions about female weight training programmes, leave your questions in the comments area below and I will answer them!

Good luck!
David