Cardio has dominated women’s workout routines for decades. For far too long, we’ve been so focused on aerobics classes and treadmill marathons that many of us have neglected another critical part of exercise: strength training.
Heads up, ladies: Strong is the new sexy. That goes for everyone, from competitive bodybuilders and athletes to fitness newbies. Not only are powerful, toned muscles attractive, but getting them through strength training provides some serious benefits for both mind and body.
If you’re worried about getting too bulky, don’t be. Just because you lift some weights doesn’t mean you’ll leave the gym looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger—unless you want to, in which case, kudos to you!
“If you start strength training, you will build muscle, you will get toned, but you can’t get bulky unless you’re spending hours and hours at the gym specifically training for that,” explains Mara Marek, a certified trainer at New York Health & Racquet Club who specializes in endurance and strength training.
Are you ready to start lifting your way to improved health and self-confidence? We sat down with Marek to put together a handy guide to strength training, chock full of expert advice about getting started, mistakes to avoid, and exercises you can do right at home.
So…what is strength training?
Strength training—that’s the workout where you throw a bunch of heavy weights on a barbell, death grip it with two hands, start to lift, and hope for the best, right? Well, not exactly.
As Marek explains, “Strength training is any sort of exercise that encourages contraction of your muscles with a little resistance. It can include dumbbells, resistance bands, or anything that works your muscular system, including your body weight.”
Strength training complements other types of exercise, such as aerobics, by keeping your body strong and healthy. But instead of focusing on keeping your heart rate up, strength training is about challenging your muscles and sculpting your physique.
Many women resist picking up a dumbbell out of fear their muscles will get too large. While big biceps aren’t a bad thing, you won’t get them with a regular strength training program. Instead, you can expect to feel stronger, have more defined muscles, and enhance your overall body composition. Plus, you’ll reap other less visible (but no less valuable) health benefits.
Why Women Should Strength Train
Only about 18 percent of women say they meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise and two strength training sessions each week. But why exactly should women incorporate strength training exercises into their workout routines?
Obviously, the main physical benefit of strength training is its effect on your muscle mass. The natural aging process depletes our muscle mass over time. Strength training can help preserve it, keeping you fit and active for life. Forcing your bones to bear weight also helps them stay healthy and ward off osteoporosis—a common problem in aging women.
If weight loss is one of your fitness goals, know that strength training can also help you see a healthier number on the scale.
“While aerobics burns calories while you’re doing it, strength training helps you burn calories over time by increasing your metabolic rate,” explains Marek.
When it comes to investing in your mental health, lifting weights might also boost your mood. A study published in June 2018 reported that resistance training was associated “with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms.” And like all exercises, strength training gives you a boost of endorphins that can make you feel great.
“Women put themselves through a lot, from stress and lack of sleep. Strength training can help counteract that,” says Marek. “It will help you tackle each and every day so much better.”
Getting Started With Strength Training
There’s a learning curve for every type of exercise, and strength training is no different. You’ll need to start by getting familiar with the equipment in the weight room at your gym (a personal trainer can help!) or by picking up some at-home gear.
“I recommend picking up some adjustable weight dumbbells, resistance bands (light, medium, and heavy), and a foam roller, which can be a great thing for helping your muscles recover,” says Marek.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to strength training: one that prioritizes focusing on a different body part each day (you’ve probably heard people say “Today’s leg day!” as they head to the gym) and another that opts to condition the whole body every time, which Marek recommends starting out with. So how often should you plan to pick up the weights?
“It depends on how often you’re committing yourself to a workout plan,” explains Marek. “In order to stay motivated, I suggest doing a full-body program two or three times per week to get started, and progress from there so you’re not overly sore or tired.”
Don’t go for the heaviest weight or toughest resistance band when you’re starting out, though—you’ll just end up hurting yourself. You can start by using just your bodyweight, and slowly incorporate light-to-medium weight dumbbells and moderate resistance bands. As you build strength over a couple of months and the equipment you used early on starts to feel easy, kick it up a notch. Remember—strength training is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Always focus on progressing and challenging your body. You can add an extra pound each week until it starts to feel difficult again,” says Marek. “Your body gets used to stuff over time, and then those exercises are less effective.”
Strength training is all about form.
Without proper form, the effort you’re putting into strength training could be going to waste—and you’ll be risking injury every time you lift.
“I like to work on core engagement to start,” says Marek. “That will help you stay stable and protected.”
When you move into the strength training exercises, practice standing up straight (core muscles help with this!) with your shoulders, hips, and feet in one long line. Your eyes should be focused on the horizon—looking down could strain your shoulders—and your knees should be in line with your ankle and second toe. Many people make the mistake of turning their feet in or out and bending their knees too far, which puts strain on the joints.
The right form will change slightly for each strength training exercise. It’s worth brushing up on exactly how to position your body by watching some YouTube videos or even working with a personal trainer.
Form isn’t just about what you do with your body, though—it can lead to making healthy lifestyle choices as well.
“Get enough rest and eat a healthy diet. If you’re approaching strength training correctly, you should start to see results in three to four weeks, especially in your abs,” says Marek.
At-Home Strength Training Exercises for Beginners
Ready to give strength training a try? Here are four trainer-approved moves that will start to challenge your muscles. (And you can do them right at home!)
Stand up straight with your arms at your sides, a dumbbell in each hand, and your palms facing in toward your legs. Step forward with your left leg and bend your knee so that your thigh is as close to parallel with the ground as possible and your back knee is slightly bent. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other leg for a total of 5 to 10 reps on each side. Do this exercise for 3 to 4 sets.
Start in the same position as you did for the leg lunge. Lift your left leg and take a step to your left, pushing your hips back and gently bringing the weights downward in front of your body. Bend your left knee until your thigh is parallel with the ground. Return to the starting position, then repeat on the opposite leg, performing the motion 5 to 10 times each side. You could strap a resistance band around your ankles to make the move harder. Do this exercise for 3 to 4 sets.
Stand on your knees, keeping them roughly hip-width apart with your back straight. Grab a dumbbell in each hand, then create a goalpost with your arms. Your elbows will be bent 90 degrees and your wrists and palms will face forward. Bring your arms straight overhead until they’re extended and your dumbbells are close together. Pause, then bring your arms back to your goalpost position. Repeat 10 to 12 times. Do this exercise for 2 to 3 sets.
Start in a push-up position, but instead of having your hands on the ground, place two dumbbells on the floor in line with your shoulders and grip them with your hands. Lower yourself down to perform a push-up, taking care to keep your back straight. When you come back up, lift the left weight up about halfway toward your body and bend your elbow at 45 degrees so your upper arm is in line with your back. Bring the weight back to the ground. Do the same with your right arm, then repeat the entire exercise 8 to 10 times. Do this exercise for 2 to 3 sets.
As you get more comfortable with strength training, you can increase the challenge by using heavier weights and adding reps to each exercise.
Give your body time to recover.
Recovery is so important if you want to build strong healthy muscles, maintain endurance, and feel your best. It should be as much a priority as lifting when you’re working on strength training. At least two days each week should be reserved for active rest.
But don’t expect to sprawl out on the couch all day when recovering, says Marek.
“You’ll get really stiff if you stop moving. Stay active by doing housework, playing with your dog, and keeping things fun. Don’t forget to stay hydrated,” she says.
You might also experience delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when you start strength training. If your muscles are feeling sore on recovery days, give them a little extra TLC in the form of foam rolling, ice packs, and warm baths.
Strength training can be demanding on your body when you’re starting out, but stick with it. Lifting the weights gets easier over time, and the payoff is huge for your health.