Women’s weight training for beginners

Weight training for women has a bad rep, but it’s misplaced. Done right, it will make you a stronger, less injury- and illness-prone triathlete. Our women's training expert Lauren Drinkwater explains further…

Young strong muscular woman weightlifting at the gym

Weight training, also known as resistance or strength training, can often be undervalued when it comes to women’s exercise.

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Research out of the University of Northern Iowa backs this up, showing there’s a huge training gap between men and women, with only 20% of women undertaking any form of strength training regularly, compared to 50% of men.

One of the main barriers for women seems to be body image. There’s a misconception that strength training will lead to a bulked-up frame, when the reality is that women have much lower levels of testosterone than men so it’s actually much harder for women to achieve that shape. Rather, women will develop muscle tone and definition without the size.

Another barrier I come across as a PT is that slow-paced steady movement appears counterintuitive for women when they’re thinking about burning fat. HIIT became popular in the 2010s and was widely regarded as the go-to workout for a quick fix, so women have come to prioritise these short, intense bursts.

What many don’t know, though, is that weight training actually burns calories while you’re resting. So the step-on-the-scale immediacy after an intense workout can be somewhat misleading.

In reality, what is initially lost is most likely water than fat at this point.

What is weight and resistance training good for?

Well, in short, loads! For example…

Muscle mass

As you lift heavier weights your muscles will adapt and develop tone and definition (otherwise known as hypertrophy training).

Functional movement

Lifting, squatting, and lunging are all movements which strengthen joints to make everyday activities easier.

Burning calories and boosting metabolism

Strength training leads to higher excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which can last for several hours and increase lean muscle mass helping to burn off the fuel you consume. This then boosts metabolism. For each pound of muscle you gain, you’ll burn 30 to 50 more calories per day.

Heart and overall health

A study from the American College of Cardiology in 2018 determined that strength training was better at reducing a person’s risk of heart disease than cardio exercise, like walking or cycling (although it’s worth noting that a combination of both types of physical activity are recommended for overall health).

Weight training can also help lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, which will help to lower blood pressure and improve the way the body processes sugar, which may reduce the risk of diabetes.

Performance

Having a stronger body will also help with your triathlon training and racing by improving power, speed, agility and endurance.

Stronger bones

Strength training is highly recommended for older and menopausal women as lower oestrogen levels lead to higher risk of osteoporosis (when bones become porous and weak and are prone to breakages). Resistance training increases bone density and builds stronger connective tissues, increasing joint stability and preventing injury.

It can also help correct bad posture, plus building a strong back and core will help prevent any lower back pain.

Mental health

According to a study published in the JAMA Psychiatry in 2018, participants who performed resistance training showed a significant reduction in symptoms of depression. Women who strength train commonly report feeling more confident and capable as a result of their training.

Living a full and long life

Strength training is increasingly linked with life longevity. A 2019 review published in Frontiers in Physiology suggests that strength training may be even more effective at reducing the risk of all sorts of common, age-related chronic diseases than cardio.

Strength training is increasingly linked with life longevity, helping to reduce the risk of age-related chronic diseases

Best combination resistance moves 

Don’t feel like you need to do one move at a time. As long as the weight is manageable, you can throw in moves targeting two areas at the same time. Here are some of my favourite combination resistance moves for clients:

  • Squat into overhead press
  • Push-ups with alternating leg raise
  • Deadlift into clean 
  • Lunges with lateral arm extension
  • Upright row into alternating or double arm front raise
  • Tricep dips inot hand to toe reach (opposite hand to foot)
  • Glute bridge with chest press
  • Plank row or flye
  • Sumo or wide squat heel lifts and alternating bicep curl
  • Side plank leg raise

See video below for a step-by-step to each move.

How and where to start weight training

Seek out a professional

As with starting any type of exercise, I’d recommend getting advice from a certified instructor or PT to check your form, test your level of strength, discuss previous exercise background and give you a structured plan to slowly increase your intensity.

There are many introductory training session offers about so speak to your gym, PT or fitness centre.

Pace yourself

Try starting out with simple body weight exercises (squats, lunges, press ups, tricep dips) before progressing to light weights. Stick with the same weight and moves to begin with and gradually increase the weight and intensity from there.

Choose a weight that corresponds to the exercise and area, i.e. choose heavier weights for larger muscle groups like hamstrings, glutes and quads, and lighter weights for smaller muscle groups like triceps and shoulders.

Plan your workout

Whether it’s reps (the action of one complete strength training exercise, short for repetitions) and sets (a series of repetitions before you rest), duration or intensity. If you find that it’s not challenging enough, increase the number of reps or amount of weights you’re lifting.

If you get to overload – around 7 reps before your form is diminished and posture altered – decrease the weight by a few pounds/kilo.

If you’re doing a full body workout make sure it’s no longer than 45mins and no more than 15-20mins on one specific area.

Rest

Resting is just as important as the work itself. Factor in 1min in between sets. Have a good stretch and try not to work that area again for at least one day. Give your muscles time to recover in between sessions.

During this rest, cells called fibroblasts repair torn muscle tissue which will then help the tissue heal and grow, leading to bigger, stronger muscles.

Mix it up

Consider a plan that incorporates both aerobic and strength training – perhaps 2-3 cardio sessions with 1-2 strength training sessions a week and increase as you feel comfortable.

Try out different equipment like bands, dumbbells and kettlebells. Varying things up can make it more interesting, exciting and challenging in new ways.

Find a workout buddy

This can make training more fun and less daunting, even adding a little bit of cheeky competition. A buddy can also hold you accountable to your fitness goals.

Consider a protein-rich diet

Studies out of the Harvard School of Public Health show that protein has been proven to help us feel full and supports the health of growing muscles. To get the most out of your training, consume 1g of protein for every kg of bodyweight.

Stay consistent

Once you’ve planned your workout regime, stick to it as religiously as you can. You will achieve gains from consistent work rather than periodic bursts.

Top image credit: Getty Images

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For more from Lauren, visit mumfitwonder.com