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Building Muscle

Weight Training for Women: An Introductory Guide

Table of Contents

  • A Woman's Guide to Building Strength
    • What Kind Of Intensity Levels Should You be Working With?
    • How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?
    • What Kinds Of Exercises Should You Choose?
  • A Woman's Guide to Building Muscle
      • What Kind Of Intensity Levels Should You be Working With?
      • How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?
      • What Kinds Of Exercises Should You Choose?

There are lots of fallacies out there when it comes to weight training for women.  One of the most common myths that keeps women out of the weight room is that you’re destined to get bulky if you lift weights.  Another one is that you shouldn’t lift at all if you want to lose weight.

The reality is that assumptions like these couldn’t be further from the truth.  There are actually a number of benefits weight training has to offer, no matter what your goals are.  In fact, it may be one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health, especially as you age.      

In this article, we’ll be discussing some different approaches to weight training including both strength and hypertrophy-based training.  While each style of training shares some commonalities, there are also a number of things that set them apart.

Below we're going over some of the basics on both strength and hypertrophy-based weight training, with a focus on how they differ from one another and what their potential applications are.

Weight Training For Women: Building Strength

Not surprisingly, the primary goal of strength training is to make your muscles stronger.  While there may be some overlap, making your muscles stronger doesn't necessarily mean making them bigger.  

As such, strength training is extremely applicable to those who aren’t necessarily looking to gain muscle mass. It may be an ideal approach to weight training for aging women and those looking to lose weight.  

strength training for women

What Kind Of Intensity Levels Should You be Working With?

With most strength training workout routines, one of the key factors is intensity.  Many strength building programs are going to have you performing exercises at challenging intensities -- i.e. you’ll be lifting heavy weights.  

Generally, in order to build strength, many training programs will require you to lift at or above 65% of your one-rep max (1RM).

So for example, if you can squat 185 pounds for exactly 1 rep, that would be 100% intensity for that exercise -- 65% of your 1RM on the squat would equate to120 lbs.  You’ll rarely be going all the way to 100% intensity in most workout programs.  

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?

Because you’re performing exercises at high intensities, you’ll only be doing a relatively small number of sets and repetitions.  In addition to being challenging on your muscles, lifting heavy is also incredibly taxing on your central nervous system (CNS) as well.

Ultimately that means you’re only going to be working at your hardest for a pretty limited amount of time when we’re talking about a single training session.  

A lot of strength-oriented training programs prescribe as little as 3 - 5 working sets for a given exercise.  Each set generally ranges from 1 - 5 reps at an intensity equal to or greater than 65% 1RM.         

What Kinds of Exercises Should You Choose?

When we’re talking about strength training, having a balance of strength across all your different muscle groups is crucial.  For example, your chest and back muscles perform different functions but also work together to counterbalance one another.  

So if one muscle group is significantly stronger than the other, it can lead to both immobility and injury. Therefore, one of the keys to any successful strength training program is to focus on building strength across all the major muscle groups.

In general, each strength training session will start out with a major compound movement followed up by some assistance exercises designed to further improve your strength on the main movement.  

Your primary lift is always going to be a compound exercise -- i.e. an exercise that engages multiple muscle groups across multiple joints. Working the compound movements first maximizes the hormonal effect you need for strength development.

Your assistance exercises, on the other hand, can be compound movements, but they can also be isolation exercises, meaning they primarily target only one muscle group.  

The main compound movements in most strength training programs are the squat, bench press, deadlift, and sometimes also the overhead press and row.  Together, these lifts help to target all of the major muscle groups throughout your body.  

Training is usually split up across 3 - 4 session per week.  Each session should be focused on a different major lift and conclude with a few assistance exercises for that lift.  

For instance, you would have one day per week dedicated to deadlifting, where you start out training that movement and then move on to other exercises that help to improve your performance on the deadlift.

For example, if you’re having trouble locking out your deadlift when it starts getting heavy, including some kind of row as an assistance exercise, can help with generating more lockout power.

Weight Training For Women: Building Muscle

Whether you’re underweight, or just looking to pack on some additional muscle mass, hypertrophy-style training programs are specifically designed for building muscle.  

You may likely get stronger as well, but the primary goal of hypertrophy training is to increase the size of your muscles.

hypertrophy training for women

What Kind Of Intensity Levels Should You be Working With?

Compared to strength training,hypertrophy-based exercises generally take place at a lower intensity, although there can be some overlap.  Exercise intensity for most hypertrophy-based training programs is going to be somewhere in the range of 50 - 75% 1RM.   

The primary goal of this style of training is to overload the muscles, causing large breakdowns in tissue and consequently prompting your body to repair the damage.  

Over time, the body responds to exercise-induced muscle damage by increasing the muscle’s ability to handle the demands of your training -- in the context of hypertrophy training, that means increasing the muscles' size.  

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?

Also in contrast to strength training, the set and rep ranges are going to be a bit higher with hypertrophy-based exercises.  The sweet spot for most exercises is going to be somewhere in the range of 6 - 10 repetitions.  

The number of sets you'll be performing during a training session may vary but it's usually going to be in the range of 9 - 16 sets.  In almost all cases, those sets will be split up across multiple exercises.    

What Kind of Exercises Should You Choose?

Hypertrophy-based lifting is also going to entail a full-body training split.  But unlike with strength training, where you’re primarily focused on building up certain movements, you’re more focused on targeting specific muscle groups with hypertrophy training.  

The general goal is to target 1 -2 major muscle groups per workout -- there are a total of 6 major muscle groups.  For most people, that means somewhere between 3-5 training days per week.     

Compound movements are still an important component of hypertrophy training.  Just because the intensity is not quite as high, it doesn’t mean you should skip doing them.  

In fact, most muscle building training programs are still going to include exercises like the bench press and squat.  That’s because there’s plenty of research to show that heavier compound movements are more effective for building muscle mass compared to lighter isolation movements.

Though that doesn’t mean you should ditch the isolation movement either.  Instead, do your compound movements first and then round off your workout with isolation exercises to maximize your muscle-building potential.

For example, let’s say for today’s training session, you’re targeting your pectorals and triceps.  You’d start off with a heavier compound movement like the bench press, which engages muscles in your chests, arms, and shoulders.  

After that, you’d move on to more isolated movements like the dumbbell-fly and tricep extension, which primarily target your pecs and triceps respectively.                     

Wrap Up

The benefits of weight training extended to women from all walks of life.  Regardless of whether you want to gain, lose or maintain weight, lifting weights can certainly help you to look and feel your bests, especially as you age.  

There are multiple approaches to weight lifting.  Strength training may be more applicable to those looking to lose weight and/or attenuate muscle and bone loss as they age.  Hypertrophy training, on the other hand, may be more appealing to women seeking to add lean muscle to their frame.

Whichever training methodology you chose, you’ll need to be consuming a high-protein diet if you want to reap the rewards from the weight room.         

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