I’ll admit it— I used to be a cardio junkie. The weight machines at the gym intimidated me, as did the bulky men (and sometimes women) that used them. I’d walk right past those machines and into the aerobics room where I’d take a one-hour Zumba class 4-5 times per week.
I’ll admit I was thin and pretty happy with my appearance, and I chalked that all up to my cardio. But my body wasn’t very strong, and I lacked definition in areas that I wanted it—primarily my arms and abs.
After giving birth to my 5th baby, I started to have pain in my elbow joints. I sought out many different types of doctors and naturopaths to find something that would relieve the pain. I tried everything from anti-inflammatory drugs to physical therapy. I even had an ultrasound done on my elbows which showed that there was, indeed, inflammation. But no one could tell me why or how to fix it.
At the time I was working with a personal trainer who pushed me to strength train three times per week. This was totally foreign to me, and at first I hated it. I figured my elbow pain was caused by the extra stress of the weight on my joints—added to the already difficult task of carrying a baby in one arm and a toddler in the other.
About 4 or 5 months into my program, my joint pain disappeared. I had done nothing differently—my muscles had just finally become strong enough to support my joints in carrying the extra weight. My body had shifted. I was stronger, leaner, and healthier than I had ever been.
Why Should Women Strength Train?
Many people don’t understand that strength training isn’t just for women who want a chiseled body. Every woman would benefit from strength training. The benefits of strength training are such that women really can’t afford not to strengthen themselves. Here are some of the ways this type of exercise is helpful.
So many women are afraid to strength train because they want to look lean, not bulky. They see the bodybuilders in the gym and it scares them out of lifting weights. What they don’t understand is that women, by nature, do not bulk up very easily. Female bodybuilders have to make extreme changes in their diet and consume lots of different supplements and hormones in order to bulk up.
Regular women who lift will gain definition in their muscles but won’t bulk up. This is because they don’t have the same levels of testosterone in their bodies as men do, and testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for “bulking up.”
Another important change women experience in their bodies is a loss of estrogen as they age. Estrogen is a hormone that helps protect and preserve bone density, and as it decreases, a woman’s body becomes more susceptible to developing osteoporosis. In fact, 80% of the 10 million Americans who have osteoporosis are female. There are not very many ways to increase bone density—but regular strength training is one of them, and it’s very effective.
Another reason women need to strength train is because it actually promotes a healthier, more active metabolism. Did you know that your body will continue to burn calories for up to 48 hours after completing a strength-based workout? This isn’t so for cardio—the calorie-burning effects only last as long as your workout session. With strength training, your muscles have to repair and recover after each workout, causing you to burn calories long after you are finished.
In addition, strength training builds lean muscle mass in the body, which in turn increases your metabolism. As your muscle mass increases and your body fat decreases, your body becomes more efficient at burning calories. Combining strength training with a healthy diet of mostly vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein will give you the fastest results.
All physical benefits aside, strength training is one of the best ways for women to work through their stress, depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. During the childbearing years, women are especially vulnerable to mental and emotional difficulties due to the frequent hormonal changes occurring in their bodies. Lifting weights can help them realize how strong they are and enable them to overcome challenges that would otherwise seem insurmountable.
Disease and Injury Prevention Benefits
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the protective benefits that come from regular strength training. According to Time Magazine, a 2016 Harvard Medical School study showed that women who did regular strength training had a 30% lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and a 17% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
If a woman added cardio, the risks were even lower—120 minutes of cardio per week combined with strength training meant a 65% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.
It’s also important to consider that women who strength train as they age will have stronger bones and muscles overall, helping prevent injuries from falls and recreational activities.
How Often Should Women Strength Train?
There are many varying opinions on how often and for how long women should strength train. A lot of it depends on her individual fitness goals. As a fitness instructor, I recommend women do one 40-60 minute strength training session every 48 hours.
For women who are short on time, I recommend splitting those into 20-30 minute sessions each day with one rest day. The most important rule of thumb is to hit some kind of strength training every 48 hours to maximize the after burn and keep burning calories between sessions.
Strength Training Exercises for Women
If you plan to strength train 2-3 times per week, it’s important to hit each major muscle group in the body at least once. Personally, I prefer full-body workouts. I can get through an entire full-body workout in 40-60 minutes. However, it can sometimes be fun to change things up and focus on JUST upper body, lower body, or core for a slightly shorter session.
No matter how you choose to train, here are some of my personal favorite strength exercises for women that can be performed AT HOME without any equipment!
- Push-ups: you can modify by placing your knees on the mat if your are just starting out. Make sure you lower until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, then push all the way back up. Perform as many reps as you can with good form, then repeat 2 or 3 times.
- Tricep dips: find a sturdy chair or bench and stand in front of it. Place the heel of your hands on the edge of the chair as you bend your knees until your arms are straight (but not locked). Bend your elbows as you lower your hips, then push back up. Perform 12 reps for 2-3 sets.
- Inchworms: From a standing position, bend over and place your hands on the floor near your feet. Slowly walk your hands out until you are in a plank position, making sure to suck your belly up to your spine the entire time and keep your head neutral. Then walk your hands back to your feet and slowly stand up. Perform 10 reps for 2-3 sets.
- Plank and variations: Planks are SO beneficial for arm and core strength and can be performed safely even after giving birth (once your bleeding has stopped). You can modify most plank exercises by resting on your forearms and/or putting your knees down. Hold the plank for at least 45 seconds, working up to 1 minute or longer. Add in variations suck as plank shoulder taps, plank walks, knee-ins, knee taps, etc.
- Body weight squats: Stand with feet parallel, shoulder-width apart. Keeping the chest and shoulders back, push the hips back into a deep squat. Use your glutes and legs to bring yourself back to a standing position. Perform 15 reps for 2-3 sets.
- Lunges: Start with hands on hips and feet together, parallel. Step forward with the right leg into a wide lunge, keeping the right knee over the right ankle. Push back up to standing and repeat with the left foot. Perform 12 reps for 2-3 sets. If you have space, perform these as “walking lunges,” bringing the back foot to meet the foot of the lunging leg.
- Knee-ups: Find a sturdy chair or bench. Stand facing the chair and place your right foot on the seat. Stand up onto the chair, bringing your left knee up to a 90-degree angle, then slowly lower yourself down to the floor. Perform 12 reps for 2-3 sets, and repeat on the other leg.
- Ab crunches: Lie on your back on the floor (use a mat on hard floors). Place your hands behind your head and bend your knees, placing your feet flat on the floor. Slowly crunch your upper body up, leading with the chest. Pause at the top, squeezing the abdominals, then slowly lower to the floor. Repeat 30 reps for 2-3 sets.
- Bicycles: Similar to the ab crunches, but lift the feet off of the floor and straighten one leg while the other leg bends. Bring the opposite elbow to meet the bent knee, then switch. Perform 20-30 reps for 2-3 sets.
If you’re already a regular strength trainer, great! Keep it up. If you know you can improve in this area, now is the time to start. There are so many benefits, and the sooner you make it a habit, the sooner you’ll reap the rewards. Here is a basic full-body workout to get you started. You can perform all of these exercises at home with minimum equipment and increase the reps/weight as you get stronger. Enjoy!