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Strength Training For Women: An In-Depth Guide

When it comes to strength training, the unfortunate reality is that many women become deterred from the weight room out of fear that they’ll become big and bulk if they lift heavy weights.  While it may be a fairly widespread belief, the fact of the matter is that it couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, not only is lifting weight unlikely to make you look like a female body-builder anytime soon but there’s actually a substantial body of evidence that just about every woman can benefit from a regular strength training program.

From maintaining the health of your bones and joints to improving your self-confidence, researchers have identified several different reasons why just about every woman can benefit from a regular strength training program.

Before we dive too deep into the benefits, however, let’s first discuss what strength training actually is and how it works.  

What is Strength Training?

Unsurprisingly, strength training is an approach to weight lifting specifically designed to increase the strength of your muscles.  Contrary to popular belief, building strength doesn’t inherently mean increasing your body mass, especially when you’re not consuming an excess amount of calories. 

There are several things that help to set strength training apart from other approaches to weight lifting.  Things like exercise selection, training volume, intensity, and frequency all factor into the equation, and ultimately must be properly adjusted in order to see real, measurable improvements in your strength.  

What Exercises Should You Do?(Exercise Selection)

Compound movements, which are exercises that engage multiple muscles across multiple joints, are the centerpiece of most strength training programs, and for good reason. 

On top of recruiting more muscles, and thus allowing you to lift heavier weights, compound movements have also been shown to stimulate the body’s production of strength-building hormones like testosterone to a greater degree than isolation exercises -- i.e. movements that only engage a single muscle group.    

That’s not to say that you can’t include some isolation movements -- like the bicep curl -- in your strength training routine, but rather, that compound movements should be your primary focus.  

Start off your workouts with heavy, compound lifts, and then move on to lighter, isolation movements afterward.  Lifting heavy weights can be taxing on your central nervous system (CNS), so in order to perform at your best, you want to do your compound movements first, when your CNS is freshest.  

Some of the most effective (and popular) compound movements are the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and row, and just about every standardized strength training program out there features at least some of these movements or similar variations. That’s because together, they help to build strength across all of the body’s major muscle groups.

Having a balance of strength across all your different muscle groups is crucial for everything from improving your exercise performance to decreasing the risk of injury, and its why any effective strength training program will ultimately include an even distribution of both upper and lower-body exercises in your routine.    

How Much Weight Should Women Lift? (Exercise Intensity)

As far as strength training goes, no factor is more important than intensity.  On top of choosing the right exercises, you also have to be doing them at the right intensities in order to see real, measurable improvements in your strength.  

Numerous studies have demonstrated that when it comes to building strength, higher intensities are more effective than low-to-medium intensities.  Research findings suggest that in order to maximize your strength-building potential, you’ll need to be lifting at intensities in the range of 60 - 85% of your 1 rep max (1RM) on your main, compound exercises.(1)(2)   

So for instance, if you can squat 150 pounds for exactly 1 rep, that would be 100% intensity for that exercise.  Therefore, 60% - 85% of your 1RM equates to approximately 90 - 130 lbs.  To make things a little easier (and less dangerous), you can easily estimate all of your percentages using a free online 1RM calculator -- they’re surprisingly accurate and way less dangerous than trying to find your true 1RM in the gym.   

It’s important to point out, however, that in order to make progressive increases in your strength, you’ll have to adapt the intensity of the exercises you’re doing over time.  In other words, if you’re building strength, your 1RM is inevitably going to increase, which ultimately means that every now and again, you’re going to have to recalculate your percentages.  Research suggests that you should adjust your training program every 6 to 8 weeks in order to facilitate steady, gradual gains in strength.(3)

Now that doesn’t mean you have to make huge leaps when you adjust your numbers.  For example, it may very well be that you’re only tacking on an extra 5 lbs or so to your lifts each time you make adjustments -- if we go back to our example from above, that’d mean changing your 60% - 85% 1RM range from 90 - 130 lbs to 95 - 135 lbs.  While it may not seem like that much progress, it’s these types of gradual increases that lead to the greatest strength gains over time.  

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How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do to Build Strength? (Training Volume)

Because you’ll be performing at high intensities, you’ll only be doing a relatively small number of sets and repetitions each training session, at least on your main, compound lifts.  In addition to being taxing on your muscles, lifting heavy weights is also incredibly draining on your central nervous system (CNS), so there is only so much you can do in a single training session.  

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.  But no need to fear, research shows that as little as 3 -5 working sets per training session is more than enough to see significant, gradual improvements in your strength, given that you're working at high enough intensities.  

Because you’re lifting heavy weights, you’re only going to be able to perform a relatively limited amount of repetitions per set.  In general, you may only be able to lift the weight you’re doing on any given exercise for as little as 1 - 5 repetitions per set, especially at or near 85% 1RM -- you’ll obviously be able to do a few more reps at 65% 1RM than you will at 85% 1RM. 

Going back to our previous discussion on gradually increasing your 1RM percentages over time, once you’re strong enough to overshoot that 1 - 5 rep range at 85% 1RM, it’s likely time to add more weight to the lift.  

In other words, once you’re capable of lifting your 85% 1RM for 5+ reps, you know that your strength has increased, and therefore, your 1RM percentages need to be adjusted in order to reflect this.(4)  You can easily make these changes using a 1RM calculator -- simply input how many reps you’re able to perform at a given weight, and the calculator will give you a reliable estimate of what your new 1 rep max is.    

How Often Should Women Strength Train? (Training Frequency)

In order to see steady, gradual improvements in your strength, you have to be training regularly.  Research shows that for most people, that means 3 - 4 training sessions per week.(5)  In general, each of the major compounds lifts in your routine should be performed on a separate day, although lifts engaging totally different muscle groups may potentially be grouped together if necessary.  

So for example, if your training program includes the squat, bench press, deadlift, and row, ideally you’d want to dedicate one day per week to training each of those exercises.  So then on bench pressing days, you’re only doing the bench press and maybe a handful of other, less challenging exercises that engage similar muscle groups -- and the same thing goes for each of the other main, compound movements in your training routine.  

Benefits of Strength Training For Women

1. Build Strength 

Unsurprisingly, one of the benefits of strength training guessed it, building strength.  While increasing your strength can be beneficial for women of all ages, it can be especially impactful for middle-aged and older women.  

That’s because the aging process itself is associated with a number of physiological declines, including the loss of strength and muscle mass -- a natural phenomenon known as sarcopenia.(6)  

In fact, by the time most women reach the age of 30, they naturally begin to lose muscle mass.  By the end of your 40’s, things like inactivity and poor nutrition can ultimately result in the loss of as much as 10% of your lean body mass.  By 65, that number could be closer to 20%.(7)

However, research shows, that regular strength training can help to prevent and even reverse this process.(8)  For instance, one study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology examined the effects of a 16-week strength training program on both middle-aged and elderly participants.(9)  The researchers looked at participants’ 1 rep max performances across a number of different exercises, including the bench press and the squat.  

After 16 weeks of training, the researchers found that subjects in the middle-aged group, on average, had added around 20 kg to their 1RM on the bench press and almost 50 kg to their 1RM on the squat.  While the older folks didn’t see quite as much progress, they still gained a significant amount of strength, adding over 10 kg to their bench press and more than 20 kg to their squat on average.  

2. Improve Metabolic Markers

On top of the obvious benefit of building strength, research also suggests that strength training can help to improve your metabolic health as well.  On top of leading to significant improvements in glycemic control, researchers have also found that a regular strength training program can help to improve insulin resistance as well.(10)       

Additionally, numerous studies have also demonstrated that strength training can help to improve your lipid profile as well.  For example, one study published in the Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation ultimately found that after 4 months of strength training, study participants, on average, saw significant improvements in their triglyceride levels as well as their levels of total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol.(11)   

3. Increase Bone Mineral Density

Strength training has also been shown to improve bone mineral density in women of all ages, helping to decrease the occurrence of bone loss, fractures, and other bone-related disorders like osteoporosis, which become an increasing risk as you get older.  

Studies involving young adults show that a regular strength training routine can be beneficial even in early adulthood, help to significantly increase bone mineral density, and optimize peak bone mass.(12)   

Findings involving older adults have also come to similar conclusions.  For instance, one 2014 study involving postmenopausal women ultimately found that after 12 weeks of strength training, the women on an average saw a 2.4% increase in bone mineral density, leading the researchers to conclude that a strength training may be an effective means of counteracting age-related bone loss.(13)  

4. Alleviate Knee, Hip, and Back Pain

There is ample evidence that regular adherence to a strength training program can also help to alleviate chronic pain, especially, knee hip, and back pain.  For example, several studies involving people with osteoarthritis, have ultimately concluded that those who participated in strength training, on average, experienced significant reductions in self-reported knee and hip pain.(14)

Other research has also demonstrated that strength training can help to reduce chronic lower back pain as well.  For example, one systematic review involving over 30 different clinical trials, ultimately found that individuals who regularly participated in a strength training program saw significant improvements in physical function and reported significantly lower levels of back pain, while those who followed more traditional care practices saw no such changes.(15)   

5. Improve Mental Health

On top of helping to improve several aspects of your physical wellbeing, there’s also an ample body of evidence to suggest that a regular strength training program can help to improve your mental health as well.   

Strength Training and Depression

Numerous studies involving individuals with clinical depression have found that regular adherence to a strength training program helps to improve depression symptoms.  

For example, one 2010 review ultimately found over 20 different randomized clinical trials in which researchers observed significant improvements in participants’ depression symptoms when a regular strength training program was followed.(16)  

And it’s not just those who have been formally diagnosed with depression who can expect to see improvements in their mental health from a regular strength program either.  Regular folks from all walks of like can potentially reap the mental benefits that strength training has to offer.  

In fact, research involving everyone from law enforcement officers to college students have all categorically demonstrated that regular adherence to a strength training program can lead to significant improvements in mood and overall psychological well-being.(17)(18)

Strength Training and Self-Esteem

In addition to helping to alleviate symptoms of depression, strength training has also been shown to have positive effects on your self-esteem. 

Clinical trials involving individuals in various types of outpatient rehabilitation, for instance, have almost universally demonstrated that those who participated in a regular strength training program, on average, demonstrated significant improvements in self-esteem over the course of their rehabilitation.(19)

Studies involving healthy folks have also demonstrated similar findings. A significant, positive effect on self-esteem has regularly been observed in randomized trials involving both young and old participants who participated in a strength training program.(20)

Wrap Up

When it comes to strength training for women, things like exercise selection, training intensity, and training frequency are all important factors when it comes to your ability to build building strength.

In order to maximize your strength-building potential, it's important to emphasize compound exercises like the bench press, row, squat, and deadlift in your training routine. On top of that, you also have to be doing those exercises at challenging intensities (60 - 85% 1RM) in order to see the best results.

Research shows that 3-4 training sessions a week is likely sufficient for building strength, although, your compound movements should ideally be split up across different training sessions.

On top of the obvious benefits of building strength, there is also a sizable body of evidence that a regular strength training routine may help with everything from decreasing chronic knee, hip, and back pain, to improving several aspects of your mental health.

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