The Benefits of Strength Training for Women: Why Every Woman Should Lift
Picture this: you’re a certified personal trainer with a degree from a prestigious university. You’re getting increasingly frustrated by the number of women who come to see you complaining of a host of physical ailments that they may or may not attribute to the lack of lean muscle mass.
“I just want to be toned,” they say. “I don’t want to get bulky.”
Your frustration isn’t due to their complaints or even their misunderstanding of the phrase toned. Instead, your frustration comes because you, a fitness professional, know the truth about the benefits of strength training for women. You feel that the fitness industry is failing women, and they simply need access to the information to understand why they—and everyone from their teenage daughter to their aging mother—should be lifting weights.
In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of strength training for women, specifically. Before long, you’ll see that you (and your mother, too) can pump some iron.
The Why: Benefits of Strength Training for Women
At this point, the average person understands there are benefits to physical exercise. The current recommendation for Canadian adults is at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every week.
There are many options for exercise, and few of these options are subjected to gender norms the way strength training is. When we look at strength training, or more specifically, lifting weights, many people still feel it’s a men’s activity.
Enter any gym, and you’re bound to see mostly men at the free weights and mostly women on the cardio equipment. While doing cardio certainly has its place in any person’s exercise program, the benefits of limiting cardio workouts in the name of increasing time spent strength training can’t be understated.
In general, the same benefits a man can achieve from a strength program are also extended to women. These benefits extend far beyond physical health and aesthetic goals and reach the mental health realm and overall wellbeing. Let’s look at some specific benefits of strength training as they relate to women.
Burn Fat with Strength Training
We’re not in the business of adding to the barrage of information women receive about how much body fat they should carry. With that being said, reducing body fat is a legitimate fitness goal, and it does have certain health benefits in and of itself.
If your goal is to lose weight or reduce body fat, we encourage you to shift your focus away from losing and move towards gaining muscle. The combination of losing fat and gaining muscle is known as body recomposition.
The theory is that increasing the amount of muscle you have increases your body’s need for energy. Your body can find the energy it needs in the food you eat, or it can be found in the fat your body stores.
Additionally, strength training for women is an excellent calorie burner. Depending on the intensity and current body weight, you can expect to burn anywhere from 90 to 250 calories per 30-minute session. By incorporating strength training into your exercise program, you are effectively killing two birds with one stone—burning calories and fat while building metabolism increasing muscle mass.
Many women have “getting toned” at the forefront of their fitness goals, as we mentioned above. When pressed on what they mean, they might list shapely arms and legs, a flatter tummy, and minimal jiggles as they walk and run.
It’s a common misconception that being toned is any different than building muscle—but, in fact, the definition of toned is this:
- “having the muscles firm and the skin taut.”
- “of muscles: firm and strong.”
Luckily, muscle tone is one of the main and most obvious benefits of strength training for women. To create the typical “toned” physique, most women need to increase muscle mass. The muscle beneath the skin is what makes the arms and legs look shapely and toned. It’s also the muscle that’s responsible for holding your belly tight and reducing excessive jiggles in the arms and legs.
Create Desirable Curves
Along with being toned, many women long for curves in the “right” areas. Namely, the hourglass figure. Unfortunately, many women believe that curves are something you’re either born with or born without. You either have a booty, or you don’t.
While the shape of your body is predetermined to an extent, it is possible to create the curvy shape that many people desire. So, how do you do it? Build muscle! Increased muscle mass is a benefit to strength training for women and can help them naturally enhance the areas they typically wish were more prominent.
Now, we’re definitely not saying that with strength training, women can have the same body type as a Kardashian. You could exercise exactly the same way, follow the same dietary habits to a T, and still not look the way she looks. After all, Kim has a lot of extra help! However, you can add significant size and definition to your backside by lifting weights.
To do so, all you need to do is put a focus on your glutes, without overdoing it. Ensuring you eat enough while adding an additional day or two of leg and glute exercises (and always allowing for a day for rest in between) is a sure-fire way to add muscle to those curvy areas.
In addition to your legs and booty, make sure you’re also focusing on growing your back muscles. The large latissimus dorsi muscle that runs along either side of your back helps to create the hourglass illusion of a small waist with a curvy bum and chest.
Increase Your Metabolism and Eat More Food
If you’ve ever felt that you can’t eat a piece of cake or drink a milkshake without it going straight to your belly or thighs, it’s time to look at the benefits of strength training for women. Imagine eating these things guilt-free, and even going on a weeklong vacation without a gym and feeling remarkably similar to the way you did when you left.
We mentioned the ways that strength training for women boosts the metabolism, meaning your body will require more food (and tolerate the occasional indulgence), but it’s more than that. The slow process of building muscle is more resilient to change than the fat you lose by simply doing cardio. By this, we mean fat loss achieved and maintained through cardio alone will reverse (sometimes significantly) very quickly when the exercise program halts.
Alternatively, building muscle and changing the body’s composition is much slower to reverse. In fact, with complete cessation of exercise, it takes approximately three weeks to lose strength and muscle mass. That means your body isn’t changing very much for a weeklong vacay.
On the other hand, if you go from burning 500 calories per day with a run to nothing at all for a week, you’re probably going to notice a difference. Not only will your body start storing fat that it’s not currently using for energy, but your cardiovascular fitness level will drop off after about five days.
So, if you want to be able to eat more, indulge without worry, and have easier maintenance, the answer is clearly strength training for women!
Improve Confidence and Self Image
It’s no secret that many women struggle with body image and confidence. When there’s an entire diet industry thriving on making you hate the way your body looks, it’s hard to love what you see in the mirror.
While it’s no secret, you still might be surprised to learn some of the statistics.
The Damaging Side of Diet Culture
- Dieting can start as young as five years old, and 46% of girls aged 9-11 are “sometimes” or “very often” on a diet.
- Up to 60% of elementary-aged girls are fearful of getting “too fat.”
- By age 13, 53% of girls are unhappy with their bodies. By age seventeen, this statistic increases to 78%.
One lesser-known benefit of strength training for women is improved confidence and relationship with their own bodies. For example, one study found that after a 10-week strength training program, women experienced improved:
Health Benefits of Strength Training for Women
- improved body image
- quality of life (health-related)
- personal satisfaction
- comfort with themselves and their activity level
Take a look at that list again. Better quality of life, more satisfaction with themselves, and improved body image from simply lifting weights for ten weeks. All this is in addition to the other health benefits, too!
When you consider how women from adolescents to older age are at odds with their own bodies, the benefits of strength training for women are enormous.
Manage Mental Health and Reduce Stress
In addition to helping women feel more confident in their skin, all exercise can improve mental health conditions, improve mood, and reduce stress. Strength training for women can be especially beneficial for those who struggle with:
Strength Training for Women Can Help With…
- mental fatigue
It’s true that all exercise increases endorphins (those feel-good chemicals responsible for “runners high” and all the good moods after a good sweat session). Still, there’s something about strength training that seems to help women feel better faster.
How does it do all this, you may wonder? One expert describes exercise as a form of education for your mind. Not only are you building muscle, but you’re also building your mental resilience.
Through strength training for women, you’re learning to carry on when things seem impossible, focus on the moment instead of living in the past or future, and, most importantly, that you are capable of overcoming hard things.
Additionally, if you struggle with energy levels as the day drags on, strength training for women can help with that, too.
Reduce Risk and Reverse Bone Loss
There are a few annoying things that naturally come along with being female; we can think of several involving biology, but almost none as detrimental as osteoporosis. Being born female puts you at risk for developing the disease as you age, and approximately 50% of women will break a bone due to bone loss.
The good news is that a significant benefit of strength training for women is improved bone strength. This increase in bone strength and density significantly reduces the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.
In addition to stronger bones, there is also value in adding and maintaining muscle mass to help support strength and balance as we age, which protects us from falls—a leading cause of osteoporosis-related injuries. More than that, strength training for women might help reverse bone loss in individuals who have already suffered from it.
In one study, women who had already gone through menopause began a program that focused on strength training for women and saw a significant increase in bone density. This increase happened mainly in the spine and the hips, which are the areas most affected in women with osteoporosis.
Permission to Shift Your Focus from Aesthetics to Strength and Health
Lastly, let’s talk about a benefit of strength training for women that you probably won’t read about in any other fitness blog. When you step away from hours of cardio aimed at achieving some super-thin, idealized image of what a woman should look like, you give yourself permission to stop obsessing over your physical appearance.
It’s a chain reaction that starts with strength training in women. This leads to increased energy needs, which means more food. For some women, this will be the first time in their lives that they feel “allowed” to eat more.
Properly fueling the body for a killer strength session will leave you feeling powerful and better than you may have felt in a very long time. This shift can potentially alter your focus from what you look like, to how you feel.
With this, you will (hopefully) finally feel the permission to stop worrying so much about being thin and what your body looks like and focus on the benefits of strength training, like how you’re feeling. Do you feel stronger? More confident? Healthier? When the focus shifts to how you’re feeling, the ultimate goal becomes optimal health and wellness—two things no one should ever stop working towards.
Hopefully, by now, you’re thoroughly convinced of the benefits of strength training for women. You’re probably feeling like you, your momma, and your daughter should all start a lifting program tomorrow. If so, then we’ve done our job! Now, let's talk about how to start.
How to Reap the Strength Training Benefits for Women That We're Sowing:
Where to Begin in Strength Training
It's possible to start getting the benefits of strength training for women at home, especially if you're at the beginning stage, meaning you've never used weights. However, you will definitely need to purchase a few basic pieces of equipment beforehand. We recommend:
Strength Training for Women at Home; The Basic Equipment
- a set of light dumbbells
- an optional set of medium dumbbells
- a set of heavy dumbbells
- a hip circle resistance band
- an exercise or yoga mat
- Note that "light," "medium," and "heavy" are subjective to you. If you're stuck, try a pair of 3 kg, 5 kg, and 7 kg.
As you work your way through your first lifting program at home, you will find that you quickly outgrow the dumbbells you purchase as a beginner. For these reasons, it is more convenient and easier to get the full benefits of strength training for women at a gym. The larger selection of weights and machines makes it easy to ensure you have the appropriate mix to keep things interesting and challenging.
If you're feeling incredibly motivated and at the same time unsure that you will be able to make it to the gym regularly, you might want to purchase the essential equipment mentioned above for the days you can't make it to the gym.
With that being said, let's talk about how often you will need to train to get all these incredible benefits of strength training for women.
How Often to Strength Train
Whether you're new to strength training for women or you're a seasoned lifter, you can expect to lift anywhere from three to six days a week.This is good news because you can expect to see the benefits of strength training for women within a reasonably small time commitment.
The choice between lifting three, four, five, or six days is dependent on various factors like:
- your availability
If you're very busy, plan on lifting just three times (or even two!) per week. If you have more availability, lift as often as you want, but remember to start slow and always prioritize rest. We will talk more about rest below.
- your phase (beginner, intermediate, or advanced)
If you've never lifted weights, it's important to start slow. Even if you're excited and consider yourself fairly athletic, begin with three or four days per week and work your way up to five or six.
Avoid pushing yourself so hard that you get too sore to move the next day. Research shows that hitting it too hard initially is a primary factor in failing to make working out a lasting habit.
You should expect some mild muscle soreness, as with almost all new physical activities. However, when the soreness is excessive, you risk burning out before you've even begun to experience the benefits of strength training for women.
- your program
Even advanced lifters can train just three times a week. It all depends on the workout program. While anyone (including you) can put together a challenging workout, it takes an expert's knowledge and education to put together a workout program that targets all muscle groups in an appropriate order.
It can be tempting to save money and follow along with your favourite Instagram influencer. Still, unless they're a certified personal trainer, you should skip it and look to the professionals.
Tips to Feel More Confident in the Gym
Speaking of plans and professionals, if you're ready to start seeing some of these strength training benefits for women in yourself but you're feeling anxious about heading to the gym, know that you're not alone. Even people who have been lifting for a very long time can face some anxiety when entering a new gym or after taking a break.
Here are some pro tips for easing your nerves and feeling more comfortable and confident when you begin strength training for women.
1. Have a plan.
As we mentioned above, a professional plan is well worth the price, but any plan will do as far as making you feel more comfortable. Knowing which exercises you're going to perform that day and how to do them will go a long way in avoiding feeling like a lost puppy wandering around the gym.
You can gain a general understanding of the fundamental strength training for women exercises by typing the exercise (i.e., "hammer curls") into YouTube and watching a few videos.
2. Hire a professional.
If knowing how to execute the movements and having a written plan isn't doing a lot to calm your nerves, consider hiring a personal trainer. Many gyms offer a few free training sessions when you join, and most trainers are willing to work with their clients to fit their needs. Want to have a professional walk you through the plan they put together for you but then tackle it on your own weekly? Just ask!
3. Use a fitness app.
You can get the best of both worlds for a bargain with a fitness app. Look for one that offers plans put together by professionals and includes video instructions. Some of the best ones, like FitPlan, have all the above and allow you to enter the weights you use so you can track your progress.
4. Own your space.
Lastly, remember that you have the right to be in the gym. Fake your confidence until it becomes real (and it will become real). If anyone (especially the staff) tries to make you feel like you don't belong, take your money elsewhere. The gym should be a welcoming place for all people, despite their fitness level or phase. Don't settle for less.
Looking Forward: Regularly Switch Routine
Now, let's talk about some objections you might face--whether in your own head or from your family and friends. Know how to recognize common pitfalls and look to avoid them.
Avoid these Pitfalls of Strength Training
Hitting it too hard, too fast.
If you're reading this blog about the benefits of strength training for women and thinking, "Well, all this is great, but I've tried before, and I couldn't stick to it!" Again, you're not alone. With exercise, especially strength training for women, it is very common that people begin only to quit a few weeks later. What gives?
Lifting weights is hard. It's hard on your muscles and it's hard on your brain. If you've been sedentary for a while, or even if you've only been doing cardio, chances are that picking up a dumbbell is going to make you sore the next day.
The key is to ease into strength training for women very slowly. Do not, we repeat, do not rack a pair of 25s on an Olympic bar and squat four sets of five. You will be too sore the next day, and you will not want to perform another squat for a very long time.
Essentially, even if you know you can lift a lot heavier, be gentle with your muscles and ease into it.
Another common mistake is getting way too excited when you start experiencing the benefits of strength training for women. It can be tempting to assume that results will come faster if you skip that rest day and continue to hit the weights hard.
It can also be tempting to skip the rest day(s) when you start to realize and experience the mental health and stress relief strength training benefits for women. But we're here to tell you--don't do it!
This is the equation for results:
Strength training + Rest + Nutrition = Results
Neither one of these pieces is more vital than the other--all are necessary. If you don't allow your muscles to rest and recover, you risk injury and slowed results. You also risk burning out and never wanting to lift again!
So, take your rest seriously. You should have one or two rest days per week. We recommend one full rest day and one active rest day in which you prioritize movement but don't touch the weights.
Obsessing over the scale.
This will be a tough one for the many people who have a strained relationship with the scale, but you should avoid stepping on the scale every day. Unfortunately, women have been brainwashed into believing that the smaller the number on the scale, the better.
Besides bodyweight having no real footing as a good health or wellness indicator, it's also not an accurate way to measure your progress from strength training for women. In fact, you might notice the scale start to creep up initially.
Initially, gaining weight can be caused by a temporary increase in inflammation and water weight due to the normal micro-tears in the muscles that result from lifting. Alternatively, increased muscle mass before a decrease in body weight occurs and can also cause the scale to rise.
We often hear the phrase "muscle weighs more than fat," and while this isn't necessarily true (after all, a kilogram is a kilogram), muscle is undoubtedly denser than fat--meaning a pound of muscle takes up much less space than a pound of fat.
So, our advice is to limit weigh-ins to once per week, at the same time of day. Alternatively, for a more accurate visual, use progress pictures instead. You can also use body fat measurements, but limit this to once per month.
Common Objections to Strength Training
Now, on to the objections that might pop up in your brain or from your friends and family.
1. Don't get “bulky.”
It happens all too often. You're talking to your mom or a casual acquaintance, and you mention you've started a strength training for women regimen. Then, whoever it is that you're talking to let out a, "Just don't get too bulky!"
First of all, what your body looks like is no one's business but your own. The fact that people feel entitled to make comments like these to women is mind-blowing, but that's another topic for a different day.
In addition to being completely inappropriate, it's also wildly unlikely that without the use of steroids, a cis woman will become "bulky" by just lifting and using legal sports supplements to support their efforts.
Women biologically don't have the hormonal make-up that leads to "bulking up." Additionally, suppose you talk to any woman who is trying to gain muscles. In that case, you will realize that with your average strength training program, there is absolutely zero chance that you will wake up one day looking like the Hulk's female counterpart. It just doesn't work like that.
2. Mental blocks.
Sometimes our most significant barriers are the subconscious ones in our minds. For example, you might have a deeply held belief that as a woman, you should be thin, frail, and small. Strength training for women might challenge these beliefs and thus make it very difficult to follow a program and reap the benefits of strength training for women.
It can be challenging to change these beliefs. Still, it can begin by again focusing on how your body feels rather than how it looks and furthering your education on the various benefits of strength training for women specifically.
In addition to your personal beliefs, you could also feel intimidated by a heavily male-dominated space in the gym. Whether it's real or perceived, it's valid to feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you feel that someone is going out of their way to make you feel unwelcome.
Again, we encourage you to find a place that goes out of its way to make you feel welcome and don't be afraid to put someone in their place if they start with unsolicited advice or comments.
3. Time Commitment.
It's hard to find the time for any exercise program, especially if you're busy with a family and a job. So, it's crucial to prioritize your health and the things that make you feel happy and healthy.
As we've mentioned, one of the benefits of strength training for women is the relatively small-time commitment it requires. If you can commit to just two or three days of lifting in the gym and do your cardio days at home, you're golden.
If childcare is a problem, consider finding a gym that offers on-site childcare. The membership is usually a little pricier than national chains, but well worth it.
4. Letting go of old habits.
Lastly, if you're like many people, you're a creature of habit. If your habits include excessive cardio, a.k.a. being a cardio bunny, it can be hard to let go of all those cardio sessions and replace some of them with strength training for women. There's not much advice to be said here, except that it will take time to adjust.
Try to stay away from the scale, especially for the first few weeks of a new strength training program and remember that you can still do cardio in a more balanced way. Remind yourself of all the benefits and look forward to new challenges and goals.
By now, we hope that you're ready to step into the gym and potentially change your health and your life through the benefits of strength training for women. Remember that an equal piece of the wellness puzzle is your nutrition, and if you need more support with your new training program, we have tons of information on how to fuel your workouts on our blog.