Strong is Beautiful – A Guide to Strength Training for Women

Strength training is an incredibly productive and performance-based approach to getting fitter, stronger and healthier.

Strength training for women has a huge range of benefits from long term health improvements such as lowering the risk of osteoporosis and reducing high blood pressure, right through to burning fat and improving the way you look.

Before you start working strength training into your programming and workouts, it is important to think about why you are doing it, and what your goals are. There are no wrong answers here. Maybe you want to get stronger for your chosen sport, lose fat, get more toned, look better, improve your confidence, build muscle, alleviate stress or any other reason (or a combination of different reasons). Whatever your motivation, you must hold onto it because strength training is hard, which is why it works, and this will help you see each session through to the end and stay on track.

Female athletes

Keep your goals in sight!

© Squats & Pixels / adidas

THE BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING

The benefits of strength training for the human body and psyche are numerous. Here are 15 to start you off.

  1. Burns fat
  2. Increases your metabolism
  3. Get strong
  4. Reduces the risk of osteoporosis by building bone mass
  5. Lowers high blood pressure
  6. Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease by strengthening your heart
  7. Lowers the risk of breast cancer by reducing the high estrogen levels linked to the disease
  8. Reduces the risk of diabetes
  9. Lowers LDL Low Density Cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL High Density Lipoprotein (good cholesterol)
  10. Reduces the likelihood of injury
  11. Improves posture
  12. Reduces stress and anxiety
  13. Improves sleep
  14. Improves emotional resilience, makes you more able to cope with everyday problems
  15. Makes you look younger

With the final point, the aging process causes cells to deteriorate and consequently, they need more time to repair themselves. Building muscle has the useful effect of slowing this process, allowing you to feel and look younger for as long as you keep lifting!

Before we look at how to work more strength training into your exercise routine, or to start it from scratch, it is important to look at the significance of quality rest and nutrition. Without which, you will never reach your full potential.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REST

Your rest times are when your body repairs itself and grows stronger. Your workouts are the events that provide the stimulus that forces your muscles to adapt (and grow stronger), but it is when you are sleeping and resting that you achieve the benefits and your muscles repair themselves. You MUST get adequate sleep and recovery time if you wish to see genuine advances in your strength and physique. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF NUTRITION

Intensive workouts use up energy stored in the muscles and break down the muscle fibres (in the form of many small tears). Naturally, they respond to this stimulus by repairing themselves in order to get stronger and more resistant. Sufficient doses of protein (the main building block), healthy fats and carbohydrates are needed in order to help instigate these changes and allow your body to repair itself properly. Therefore, a protein intake of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is recommended as a rough initial guide.  

Pull up

Keep training hard

© Squats & Pixels

You will probably need to eat MORE than you currently do in order to support your training. This can often seem counter intuitive, but strength training is taxing, and your body needs to fuel itself for both growth, performance and health. The process of being in a muscle building state (Anabolism) will also burn fat, so this is useful to know if you also want this to occur.

If fat loss is a goal of yours, make sure you are measuring fat loss and not simply weight loss.

Strength training will help you to get stronger, leaner muscles. As muscle is heavier than fat, measuring your weight is not a good indication of progress. Strength training is a great way to burn fat, so measure for body fat percentage if you wish to observe how your body is changing. A lower body fat percentage will give you a leaner, more defined body. 

IMPORTANT EXERCISES FOR STRENGTH TRAINING

The basic compound barbell lifts form the core of strength training. These are:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead Press
  • Bench

Important accessory exercises

Barbell row, pull ups, dips, prone rows, Bulgarian split squats, front squats, sumo deadlifts, close grip bench presses. 

If you are a Crossfitter or an Olympic Lifter, or are interested in either of these disciplines, then the following are also important:

  • Cleans
  • Jerks
  • Snatches
  • Push Presses
  • Overhead Squats

Important accessory exercises

Snatch balance, snatch grip deadlift, clean and snatch pulls.

USING THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT

Lifting shoes will give you a solid foundation for squatting and other Olympic lifts. They will provide you with good body positioning for your training.

The adidas Leistung 16 II is an upgraded model of the official weightlifting shoe of the 2016 Rio Olympics. This new edition improves and refines a model that has already broken many world records and operates and delivers excellence at the highest levels in the sport.

The one-inch (24.8 mm) heel is great for athletes with longer femurs and shins. Or with poor ankle and hip mobility. This is a high raise but locks your body into an optimal position for lifting.

It is worth noting that you should never use weightlifting shoes as a crutch for mobility problems. If your dorsiflexion or hip mobility needs a lot of work then develop these aspects of your mobility in parallel to lifting in Olympic lifting shoes. This will allow you to develop your technique and strength by benefiting from the optimised body position that the Leistung 16 II will place you in, yet simultaneously become a more flexible athlete with full and effective movement patterns.

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WIDE LIFTING PLATFORM

adidas Leistung 16 II rear view

Great stability for lifting

© adidas

The wide platform of the adidas Leistung 16 II, combined with the heel, will also help align your posture to maximize your form for squats, cleans and snatches. The shoe creates a powerful feeling of stability that instills confidence when you lift.

Leistung 16 II Strength Training for Women

adidas Leistung 16 II – Built for performance

© adidas

Sports bras are also useful, especially during explosive movements such as Olympic weightlifting or speed work with accessory exercises.

The adidas Stronger For It bra offers support during high-impact training and is made of Climalite fabric that wicks moisture and helps keep you dry. Convertible strap construction makes it easy to get on and off when that post-workout burn in your shoulders makes it impossible otherwise.

adidas bra

Train in style in the Stronger For It sports bra

© adidas

STRENGTH TRAINING FOR WOMEN – REP SCHEMES

When it comes to strength training for women, sets with 1 – 5 reps are the best way to build strength. 

The most commonly used rep ranges with their primary training effect:

  • 1-5 Reps Per Set = Mostly strength
  • 5-8 Reps Per Set = Strength and muscle equally
  • 8-10 Reps Per Set = Muscle with some strength
  • 10-12 Reps Per Set = Muscle with some endurance
  • 12-15 Reps Per Set = Endurance with some muscle

That means:

  • Lower reps (higher weights) is most ideal for increasing strength.
  • Higher reps (lower weights) is most ideal for improving muscle endurance.
  • Moderate reps in the middle of the two (moderate intensity) is most ideal for building muscle and really anything related to improving the way your body looks (rather than performs).

BASIC STRENGTH TRAINING PROGRAM

Based on this, here is a sample program for anyone that is looking to get into strength training, try it out and get stronger. It consists of 3 sessions per week.

Session 1

  • Back Squat (3×5)
  • Rows (3×5)
  • Good Mornings (3×5) 
  • Dumbbell Bench Press (3×8)
  • Pull Ups (3×5)
  • (if pull ups are too difficult, try ring rows instead)

Session 2

  • Front Squat (3 x 5)
  • Prone Row (3×8)
  • Bench Press (3×5)
  • Deadlift technique work (3×8 with light weight)

Sessison 3

  • Deadlift (3×5)
  • Overhead Press (3×5)
  • Dips (3×8)
  • Pull Ups (3×5)
  • (if pull ups are too difficult, try ring rows instead)

With strength training for women in regards to the weights, start light and concentrate on correct form. Build the weight gradually over time, by adding 1.25kg or 2.5kg in the next session after you successfully complete the desired reps. For example, say your back squat starts with 40kg, and you can easily complete 3 sets of 5 reps in the first session, when you go back to them in the following week, add more weight. Over time, you will get progressively stronger as your body and mind adapts to lifting heavier weights. 

This is a great way to begin strength training, adding small amounts of weight each session to the compound lifts. It works as a beginner program because it helps you to determine your limits, the point at which you are simply unable to do any more or complete the reps. Once you have established your limits, then you can start pushing past them!

FEARS AND WORRIES 

Many women are scared that they will instantly become super muscular once they touch a barbell, but this is not the case at all. Strength training will result in increased strength. It will also lead to leaner, more defined muscles but it is hypertrophy training (which is different) that is specifically designed to make muscles bigger. Strength training and hypertrophy training are not the same thing.

Good luck and have fun!

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