This post will be part of a Strength Training sequence that aims at introducing and encouraging women to lose the fear to the heavy weights in the gym and build a strong foundation for their body to function in diverse situations. I have personally been asked on tips and guidance for beginners by women that want to give strength training a try and see results, hence I will take this post to draw an introduction or guide into strength training, its basics and how to start making a change by yourself without the need of expensive coaching. Please remember to check with your doctor your own conditions before lifting, pregnancy, etc. This post is merely informative and not claiming to be of official guidance.
Debunking myths on women fitness and lifting
The benefits for a woman into lifting regardless her age are uncountable, while the reasons for the degree of activity can differ from woman to woman especially at different age periods. Weight training will not only aid at sculpting a beautiful body for aesthetic purposes but will also aid women cope with the every day situations and responsibilities. It’s also been confirmed that women who previously worked out before labor will be able to reshape and recover faster and better after giving birth due to the tissue elasticity acquired pre-labor. Training also helps for those reaching their menopause stage by providing support to both muscles and bone structures and blocking adipose (fat) enlargement in trouble areas such as arms, glutes, breasts and stomach.
Truth is that starting a change in lifestyle such as incorporating fitness training can not only result in outside benefits such as displaying a beautifully shaped body but also requires and stimulates more skills such as food preparing, mental strength and determination among others. While it might sound very difficult to get started, the learning process that comes within adopting such change in lifestyle, diet and vision, will ignite an endless passion and extremely positive addiction. Without going further, institutions such as the National Cancer Institute among many others have concluded that physical training extends life expectancy as much as 4,5 years, regardless the weight.
While many have been the attacks on how strength training can be damaging to tendons, joints and muscles, it is important to remember that the movements on these exercises aim at targeting muscles for further growth which happens through hypertrophy (increase in the size of muscle fibers) and hyperplasia (increase in the number of muscle fibers). The idea behind strength training, or lifting and the importance of resting, is to break the muscle down so the body can replace damaged fibers through creating a fusion between these and myofibrils, newly formed muscle protein strands. When these get repaired, they will result in thicker and higher in number fibers that create what we know as hypertrophy. For a woman to practice strength training correctly, she needs to understand that muscle growth comes through progressively lifting, while the body is continuously exposed to adaptation and new muscle tensions. Soreness is a part that comes with it (soreness after a workout) and it is translated as a local damage and inflammation where the immune system sends satellite cells to aid.
Another point to stress and something that women need to take into account is the fact that strength training does put extra pressure on the muscles, which as read above can be only beneficial, however, ONLY if the exercises and movements are done correctly. Reason why learning the proper form and be aided by machines instead of free weights at the beginning might actually be a great idea if you’ve never stepped in a gym.
Pregnancy and fitness
Various studies have concluded that progressive strength training during pregnancy can aid the woman to overcome pregnancy easier than no lifters (Rice, 1991, Shangold, 1989, Work, 1989, Kuffel, 2011), change of weight, balance and upcoming lower back pains. At the same time, a woman that trains weightlifting during pregnancy also recovers faster from labor and delivery with reduced muscle soreness (Brown, 2002, Pujol, 2007, Shangold, 1989). Strength training provides the pregnant woman with a stationary and more comfortable especially when later in gestation when the weight increases and there is more pressure on the spine.
What do I personally recommend after experiencing my first pregnancy?
I do NOT recommend women to start lifting DURING pregnancy. I recommend women that have been lifting before pregnancy to continue with a much softer schedule during pregnancy and avoid at all costs heavy work (the joints during pregnancy are softer – hence there is the possibility for more injuries). If you have never worked out though, do not start doing it during pregnant. Take walks. A lot of walks and it will aid you nonetheless. After pregnancy, a fit mother is able to manage postnatal postpartum period easier, household activities and child care thanks to her acquired endurance (built by low weight/high repetitions), while it is important to take into account that usually the body might take up to 27 weeks to recover fully postpartum, however this time can be reduced drastically if the mother has been training previously. (In my case, it took 3 weeks for my body to recover completely after pregnancy – I lifted/squatted quite heavily before pregnancy and I attribute the ease of my first pregnancy to that – 3h of labor with only 1h of active labor after which Astrid was born smoothly and with no pain as a healthy chubby baby. I had no epidural nor any pain relief.)
What muscles will be targeted during training before pregnancy?
The specific muscles that should be targeted: such as transverse abdominals (involved during delivery pressure), quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, abductors and adductors, hence a lower body emphasis is more normal for a woman together with the development of the upper back, deltoids and trapezius that will aid to sustain the growth in weight during pregnancy. The stimulation and training of both upper and lower back should be encouraged to correct the posture that might suffer a further curvature due to increase in weight during gestation (Pujol, 2007).
Moreover and on a general note, a low physical activity in pregnant women is rather a health risk factor for both mother and child – practitioners being encouraged to divulgate the benefits of moderate to vigorous activity during pregnancy. Until now, pregnancy has been seen as a sedentary period where the mother was told to rest and rather be sedentary, however more than sufficient studies have concluded that this might only rise the risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension, weight gain and possibility of long-term obesity, type 2 diabetes together with other cardiovascular diseases (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, & Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008. Washington, DC: 2008. Retrieved from here).
Other studies, such as a trial study published in Sweden by the AOGS (ACTA Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica) indicates that supervised regular and moderate to vigorous strength training exercises twice a week have no adverse impacts labor, pain or blood pressure of the active mother. An interesting result of this trial study was also the fact that the newborns of training mothers were overall lower in bodyweight and healthy when compared to the average non-lifter. It won’t make you bulky, it won’t make the baby bulky, do not worry.
Fertility, trying to conceive and smart strength training
Many women believe in what the media has been telling them and scaring them off with – you will become infertile if you lift. No. While it is true that at competition level, athletes of high performance might encounter certain bumps into the road to conceiving due to the hormonal changes and use of substances (that are usually illegal), women that lift for the sake of sculpting through progression and at a healthy steady pace, will only benefit if training smartly.
One of the first things a woman should do when tying to get pregnant is to regulate her menstrual cycle for enhanced fertility and chances of scoring. There are specific workouts that can be incorporated for those that workout more intensively and yet want to become mothers and that is through having a program especially as according to the menstrual cycle, starting with menstruation, end of the follicular phase and start of ovulation, end of ovulation, beginning of luteal phase, end of luteal phase and again to menstruation). Usually low body fat is associated with low fertility and that is due to the absence of menstruation, however, there are few misconceptions that I would like you to remember:
- Amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) happens when body weight (not body fat) is reduced under 85-90% your ideal weight.
- Bad eating routines and intense workout to push the body to lose more fat will also result in destabilising the cycle.
- Low levels of leptin will play a downfall in your energy storage and specifically GnRH (Gonadotropin-releasing hormone) and LH (Luteinizing hormone), which will act as barriers for a regular ovulation and menstruation.
A healthy woman should be able to continue her usual routine with moderate exercising even during pregnancy.
Understanding strength training
Before digging in further material, I will remind you what strength training (lifting) does, again:
The idea behind strength training, or lifting and the importance of resting, is to break the muscle down so the body can replace damaged fibers through creating a fusion between these and myofibrils, newly formed muscle protein strands. When these get repaired, they will result in thicker and higher in number fibers that create what we know as hypertrophy. For a woman to practice strength training correctly, she needs to understand that muscle growth comes through progressively lifting, while the body is continuously exposed to adaptation and new muscle tensions. Soreness is a part that comes with it (soreness after a workout) and it is translated as a local damage and inflammation where the immune system sends satellite cells to aid.
Many women will already see strength and muscle gain as a clear benefit of lifting but it does not end there. Lifting helps with overall fat loss when accompanied by a healthy balanced diet, as food will get to be your fuel for the new energy required by your muscles to perform and progress. As previously stated, a well performed lifting exercise will as well aid in strengthening your bone structure with lower chances of osteoporosis (Scandinavian women or living in Scandinavia are greatly encouraged into lifting due to higher chances of osteoporosis as of the lack of sunlight and Vitamin D).
There is an entire misconception on the physiques of females lifting and truth is that there is a great variety of looks as the sport is quite diverse in goals (from hypertrophy for aesthetically reasons, to powerlifting for strength and mass, strongman to take it even further).
Other things to take into account when stepping into lifting is the fact that you should have not only attainable goals but highly realistic – weightlifting won’t change the shape of a muscle (it will make it grow, yes) because such is genetically inherited. The change you will see will be mostly from losing fat and increasing muscle development. In the same note, weightlifting won’t automatically make you bulkier – 1kg of muscle takes 9000 extra calories in surplus to actually be growing, for instance. Strength training or lifting, has eventually 2 types of effects on the body:
- Neural component (when the mind and muscle connect in harmony to allow a passionate contraction of muscle, yet it does not always need to work)
- Metabolic effect (will depend on repetition changes, while seeing muscle increase)
Low repetition training will change the neural components while, high repetition training will affect more the metabolic changes, meaning that lifting on low repetition has less impact in growth than lifting with higher repetition – while muscle growth this will also depend on many other factors such as diet or total sets.
How much you lift will not determine you being bulky, but rather: not overeating, lifting heavy for few reps and focusing on whole-body workouts as complete as possible for the rest of the workout.
Nutrition needs to be seen as fuel when one aims at growing muscle as the body is requiring constant energy to recover. Recovery nutrition focus on the effects of the consumption of carbohydrates and protein right after the workout and many have been the studies that have tried to figure out the perfect timing towards the ingestion of these for optimal results. Truth is that what gets you stronger is not the workout by itself but the fuel and especially the rest between the workouts.
What to consume to see results? It depends, Kersick et al. 2007 mentions in his study:
”Regular ingestion of various protein sources in conjunction with carbohydrate sources stimulates greater increases in strength and favorably impacts body composition when compared to carbohydrate alone.”
As an example of foods of a varied diet (won’t talk about alternative non-animal products here in this post) that enhance muscle mass would be:
- Lean beef (iron, zinc, vitamin B, high quality protein, amino acid that aids insulin for muscle mass growth)
- Skinless chicken (high in protein aiding with muscle and weight maintenance, repairing and overall bone strengthening)
- Cottage cheese (almost entirely pure casein, slow-digesting, protein that is perfect for muscle maintenance, vitamin B12, calcium and other components)
- Eggs (high quality protein, good fat, vitamin D, choline and nine essential amino acids)
- Whey protein (fast way to boost your macronutrients to optimal levels and usually cheap, OK to use all day/all hours – yet should never replace good natural sources of protein)
- Tuna (low in fats while high in omega-3, great amount of protein, aiding fat loss and metabolism)
- Oatmeal (an easy and good way of carbs, not highly processed and low GI value)
- Whole grains (brown rice is a good growth hormone booster, good for fat loss and strength gain, overall perfect for a healthy and balanced diet)
- Fruits and vegetables (it is essential to learn what fruits are necessary and which ones are really more of a luxury than a necessity, as for now, spot the fruits richest in vitamins and fiber to help you out with digestion)
- Good old fats (yes, you are allowed and you should consume fats for muscle development, especially key in hormone production, growth hormone and testosterone. Always look for the good fats in the products you buy which are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated – avocados, nuts, seeds and fish are great examples of good fats but bacon and butter also does the trick if you like animal products).
Now let’s get into even more practicalities, which will be enabling you to create your own program as according to your goals and wishes.
Creating a program
I will guide you through the basics of creating a program for your own self that will best match your goals and wishes. The idea is to combine strength training with cardio training to optimize fat loss and/or maintain your body weight. A good basic instruction in stretching is great to have in the background to warm the body, maintain a good posture and correct it as well as improve flexibility.
- Measure yourself, take pictures and identify your goals. This is the beginning, where everything starts and your ambition will set the success of this new lifestyle you are about to change to. Sculpting, losing fat, improve endurance, stay healthy, resist against loss of mobility, getting prepared for pregnancy, etc. Be as precise with your goals as possible, only then you will realize what you actually aim at. Be realistic and don’t look at someone’s pictures saying ”I want to be like her!” – your body shape and structure might be different and you will only disappoint yourself. Know your body and envision yourself changed. Do not envision someone else’s body with your face glued on.
- Time. Here you will need to decide how many days/week you want or can train (personally I train 6, from Monday to Saturday, but that depends on the emphasis you want to put and your dedication, but for a beginner is good to start with 2-4 sessions). Do not push your limits because that is when overtraining happens followed by burning out, injuries, stress and exhaustion. Remember that muscle growth happens ONLY if you rest in between your workouts. It is proven that women need more recovery time than men when lifting heavy due to the rate of collagen synthesis which is lower in women than in men. If you wish to gain more muscle mass and strength above all, do not engage in too much cardio. One or two sessions a week would be good, however, if you are in for fat loss above everything, make the bikes, steps and treadmill your best friends. Choose your training days taking into account that you need rest so most likely the next day you will either need to focus on cardio either take a rest (depending on your overall endurance, of course). When you end up having 2 workouts without rest, make sure you are working different targets (upper body vs lower body). If you have plenty of time on your hands you can even split the workout in 2 and train more than once a day. Never 2 sessions of lifting a day though – split it between lifting and cardio. One last important point to make regarding time is: try to work out at the same times every day depending on your schedule and your eating patterns. Try to go to the gym when you feel your body is warmed up enough and you feel fairly satiated (women are more comfortable to train in the afternoon than in the morning, due to body temperature after eating – as muscles get fueled, for instance). However, don’t get discouraged if you are not able to train at the most convenient time – do train regularly at the same times every day and your body will adjust.
- Divide your workout into body regions:
– Legs (quads, hams, glutes and calves)
– Core (abdomen)
– Arms (biceps, triceps)
Focus on your weak area while taking advantage of full-body workouts in order to not leave anything out untrained. Shake your workouts and learn new exercises all the time.
- Create a schedule for each region: based on your goals and the aesthetics you are striving for you will give priority to some regions out of those 6. If you want overall good improvement in strength and sculpting, it is recommendable to try to hit 2-3 times a week the certain body part you want to focus on.
- Look into exercises for each body region: find exercises for the lower or upper body region you want to enhance. As a beginner, start with one exercises per major muscle (abdominal, pectoral, deltoid, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, biceps, and triceps, quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus, and gluteus).
- Determine the number of sets per muscle group. This will determine the time you will spend at the gym, so take your time and figure out what is more convenient for you and do not beat yourself up when you are at the beginning. If you are looking for aesthetically pleasant results, I personally can recommend the following split:
– Main: quads, hams, glutes (for beginners, 3 sets per muscle in this category)
– Second: back, shoulders, core (for beginners, 2 sets per muscle in this category)
– Third: chest, biceps, triceps, forearms & calves (for beginners, 1 set per muscle in this category).
All these AFTER a proper warm-up with empty bars or minimum weight.
- Determine the number of repetitions per set. It will again depend on your goals, but for firming use higher repetitions (10-20) with heavy weights. To lose fat and rather use it as a cardio base use higher repetitions with lower weight. Remember the sets and repetitions together with how many exercises you’ve planned will determine the amount of time you will spend in the gym. Be wise, prioritize and be realistic.
- Feel the contact. Take it easy and don’t swing the weights around nor aid yourself with momentum, but rather take it in slow motions to see and feel the muscle contracted (muscle fibers will gather better, less prone to injuries). Use around 3 seconds per move (to lift and lower the weight).
- The rest between sets. Again based on your wishes, that being getting stronger or losing fat, will determine whether you want to rest enough so that you can perform the exercise again without fatigue but rather focused, or you want to be more agile and lose fat hence the rest will be minimal. Rest is not crucial in between two different exercises as you will work up different muscles.
- Start with the proper weight. When you get yourself in the gym with your exercises for the first time, pick up weights and sort of play with them – see how you feel comfortable and what can you start with. Remember this is a work of progression so even if your weights might be pretty light at first (hopefully more than 5kg for dumbbells), you will increase it as you’re gaining strength. Whenever you won’t be able to complete the planned amount of repetitions/sets, just pick a lighter weight and give it a try, work with that until you feel comfortable and stronger.
- Keep track of everything. Have a notebook and write down everything you do, the sets, reps and weights. In this way you will be able to record and see your progress along the time.
Should you use machines or free weights? Exercises and rotation
When it comes to someone that is new in the gym, it is important to notice that certain muscles will be difficult to train only through free weights, hence introducing machines will be a wise idea that will compliment that training. The best advice I can give here, based on personal experience is that you could firstly start with machines mostly so that you get used to the general movements – which will also allow you to make gains easier as you won’t put that much effort into controlling or balancing, but rather focus on the strength input and avoid injuries due to lack of knowledge on correct motions. Whenever you start to feel more competent and actually built up some endurance, don’t be afraid to pick up the bars and start training with free weights.
There are two types of exercises:
- Basic movements or multiple-joint exercises: where more than one joint is flexed (lunges, f.e.) these being more complex and quicker.
- Isolated, single-joint exercises: where only one joint is flexed (leg extension, f.e.) they are easier to perform but they are less demanding on the body as they only work one part at a time.
After you’ve been in the gym for some time you might want to shake things up a little bit so that the muscles do not memorize the movements. Either change the schedule, include other exercises or substitute the older ones, or give yourself new challenges and put other body parts as priorities. Change is good so you can build yourself a fairly symmetrical body in terms of proportions (we all hate those chicken-legged people that are all about their biceps but forgot they got two legs as well, right?).
Exercises for a stronger lower body (my personal favorites)
Many women have asked me what do I perform at the gym for a good lower body development. I will name here the exercises that I most like and please feel free to look up the correct form of these before doing anything at the gym or at home. Safety first.
- Heavy abductions (with machine or lateral cable)
- Heavy thigh adductions (with machine or lateral cable)
- Free weight back and front squat with low bar (recommended with the Smith Machine for beginners or with dumbbell variations)
- Heavy leg press (dangerous, look for instructions at your gym or guidance – works the quads, glutes, hams and calves additionally. There are variations according to the positioning of your feet on the platform that will target either the quads, hams or adductors.)
- Leg extension (perfect for heavy work on the quads but heavy for the knees)
- Heavy cable hip extension (burns the gluteus maximus together with hams and back, you can feel the contraction quite nicely and see progress)
- Stiff-leg deadlift (this movement will engage the glutes, lower back and quads allowing more muscle stretching)
- Seated Leg curls with machine (probably the best isolation for the hamstrings)
- Standing calf raise with barbell over the trapezius (you can use the Smith Machine if you don’t been comfortable with the balance)
- Deadlift (beautiful multiple-joint movement that involves the lats, glutes, hams, quads in addition to the lumbar muscles – a correct form is key before starting to lift anything so please do look into it before performing anything. I myself have had a small back injury because of wrong lifting and breathing form. Take precautions as it puts a lot of pressure on the spine.)
These would be my favorite lower body exercises I perform on a daily basis almost (as I have prioritized the lower body recently). Remember to look into the correct form – watch YouTube videos, try the free weight exercises with empty bar and read carefully the instructions at your gym before using any machine. If possible get a coach for a day to show you the correct usage of these.
To sum up…
Sculpting your body or simply getting fitter or ready for a big family, strength training will aid you on your goals. Will not only support you physically throughout all these processes in life but will also be there for you when you will be seeking self-confidence, love and overall mental stability.
We have talked about how healthy and good it actually is to workout during pregnancy and doing it smartly can make all the difference, I would also like to remind you that the injury vulnerability females have is mainly due to their cycle and hormonal release such as estrogens during the preovulatory period making tendons and joints more loose and unstable due to more flexibility. Get to know your body and listen to it carefully, joint and flexibility talks and you will know when is safe to have certain resistance and when is better to rather set up a cardio session to shake things up.
Perform stretching as much as you feel comfortable with it. Don’t over do it when your body is not set for it. Try to do it before and after a workout.
Other references mentioned along the article:
Rice, P.L. and I.L. Fort, The Relationship of Maternal Exercise on Labor, Delivery and Health of the Newborn. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 1991. 31(1): p. 95-99.
Shangold, M.M., Exercise During Pregnancy: Current State of the Art. Canadian Fam Physician, 1989. 35: p. 1675-1680.
Shangold, M.M. and G. Mirkin, Women and Exercise: Physiology and Sports Medicine. Second ed. 1994, Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
Work, J.A., Is Weight Training Safe During Pregnancy? Phys Sportsmed, 1989. 17(3): p. 257-259.
Pujol, T.J., J.T. Barnes, and C.L. Elder, Resistance Training During Pregnancy. Strength Cond J, 2007. 29(2): p. 44-46.
Brown, L.E., Resistance Training During Pregnancy. Strength Cond J, 2002. 24(2): p. 53-54.
Brown, W.J., et al., Leisure Time Physical Activity in Australian Women: Relationship with Well Being and Symptoms. Res Q Exerc Sport, 2000. 71(3): p. 206-16.