What’s the best kind of exercise for women?
Women frequently ask “If I have minimal time, what’s the best kind of exercise I can do?” Perhaps cliché, but the “best” form of exercise is whatever gets you moving on a consistent basis! Walking is probably the most natural starting point for a fitness program and can yield excellent health benefits. But perhaps the best kind of exercise for women, and the one type that has more benefits than almost any other, is weight training.
Why is weight training the best kind of exercise for women?
- Captain obvious…weight training strengthens muscles! Women often leave the “heavy lifting” to the men in their lives. I personally love being able to sling a 50 lb. bag of chicken feed over my shoulder or help my husband cut down trees and stack wood for our fire places. Plus, studies show that strength = quality of life as we get older. When you are 70, 80, or 90, you want to be able to get out of a chair or lift a gallon of milk out of your fridge! This is a huge quality of life issue!
- Stronger bones. We all thought calcium was the key to strong bones. It turns out that “weight bearing exercise” is best for preventing bone loss in adults.
- Stronger heart. The high intensity nature of weight training increases heart and lung capacity. Weight training is also shown to lower blood pressure better than aerobic exercise, and in less time.
- Better balance and coordination. Weight training builds muscular strength, but the nature of the exercises also often require focus and balance. People who strength train quickly notice that they feel more balanced even on unstable or slippery surfaces.
- Weight training increases joint strength and range of motion. As we age our muscles and joints tend to stiffen. Weight training encourages proper movement patterns. Additionally, training with weights strengthens tendons which stabilizes joints. Check out this AOM post for more info on joint health!
- Increased energy. You’ll suddenly notice that you can get out of bed easier in the morning, you don’t experience a 3 PM slump, can keep up with your kids at the park, and go up flights of stairs without feeling winded or exhausted.
- Fat loss. Fitness models and body builders have known this for ages: weight training is key for fat loss and maintenance of a lean physique.
- Weight training decreases body size and creates a more aesthetically pleasing shape. Let’s face it, most of us want to look better. There’s nothing wrong with that! Women who train with weights lose fat while maintaining muscle, which helps them lose dress sizes while changing their body shape so clothes fit better.
- Weight training elevates metabolism. Who doesn’t want to burn more calories while simply sitting on their butt?!? Building lean muscle tissue will keep age-related metabolic slowdown at bay!
- Increases confidence, both in and out of the weight room. Weight training has helped me learn that I’m capable of more than I ever thought possible…and I’ve helped countless women realize the same.
The best kind of exercise for women – weight training Q & A
Will I get hurt?
Weight training is actually among the safest forms of exercise. In my 5+ years as a trainer, I’ve had only one person incur an injury while lifting. You’re more likely to pull a hamstring bending down to tie your shoe.
Focus and form are exceptionally important to keeping yourself safe. If you have no experience with weight training, your best bet is to find a knowledgeable friend or hire a trainer for a few sessions. Need help with a workout program or form check? Contact me!
Will I get “bulky”?
I am still astonished by the number of women who profess that they won’t lift weights because it will make them “big”. Ice cream and pizza will make you big…not weight training.
Unless you have a genetic disorder that causes exceptionally high testosterone levels or you take performance-enhancing drugs, it’s impossible for a woman to gain muscle like a guy. In fact, a woman has to work five times as hard for every pound of muscle she gains (this is not a scientific fact…just me making a point).
Weight training will actually make your body smaller and create a more aesthetically pleasing shape. Additionally, it helps maintain fat loss due to its metabolism-boosting effect.
Will I get sore?
Yes. This is especially true for beginners. Weight training causes micro-trauma to muscles. This “trauma” is actually considered a “good” type of stress as your body is forced to repair the muscles, rebuilding them stronger.
I tell all of my new clients that if they can just stick it out through one tough month (about 8 to 12 workouts), the soreness abates. Consistency is key. If you skip workouts, your body won’t adjust and you will continue to get sore after workouts!
How long does it take to experience benefits?
The first month is often the toughest as your body adjusts to doing more than you’ve previously asked of it. Soreness and fatigue are common during this time. During the second month, soreness usually lessens dramatically and my clients often notice they have more energy, catch their breath faster, and balance is much improved. It usually takes about 12 weeks of consistent weight training to begin to see physique changes – smaller waist/hip measurements, smaller dress size.
Will I lose weight?
We need to make an important distinction right here, right now: weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing. Women who are obsessed with seeing the number on the scale go down will lose fat…but also muscle tissue. Muscle is “metabolically active” tissue, meaning it burns calories even while you rest. If you just “lose weight” you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you’re losing metabolically active tissue. This is why so many women who “lose weight” end up regaining it, plus an extra 10 lbs.
Ideally, you will lose fat while maintaining or gaining lean muscle. Unfortunately, your scale weight will never tell you the difference. I’ve seen countless women start weight training, lose multiple dress sizes and inches around their waist and hips, but quit because they didn’t “lose weight”. Muscle and fat weigh the same, but muscle takes up far less space. Weight training will help you lose dress sizes and make you look better in your clothes, but these changes may not register on the scale.
I’m going to make a radical suggestion: throw out your scale. It’s useless. Take photos, have a professional help you determine your body fat percentage, or use waist and hip measurements to track your progress.
How often should I lift weights?
Two to three times per week seems to be most beneficial for most people. Each workout should cover all the major muscle groups (discussed below in how do I get started with weight training?). These workouts should never be done on consecutive days. Your body needs at least one full day of rest between weight training workouts. It is okay to do light cardio like walking on your “off” days.
You may hear advanced lifters talk about split routines and other fancy stuff. Unless you are a more advanced lifter or are training for something very specific, you don’t need to bother with this.
How do I get started with weight training?
Slowly. Start mostly with bodyweight exercises, make sure your form is impeccable, and be sure to hit all of the major muscle groups during each workout: back, chest, and shoulders in the upper body, and glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves in the lower body.
I commonly start a client with the following circuit-style workout:
If you have no experience with weights, or if you have injuries or physical limitations, I can’t stress enough the importance of hiring a trainer for at least a few sessions. A knowledgeable trainer can keep you safe, cue good form, check for postural imbalances, and increase your confidence in the weight room.
How heavy should I lift?
That really depends on you! A veteran weight lifter may be able to squat with more than her body weight on the bar, while a newbie may only be able to handle squatting with her own body weight.
Utilizing your own body weight is often enough for women who are new to weight training. Once you are certain you are using good form, your body is adjusting well to the workouts, and you begin to feel more confident, you can slowly begin to add weight to the movements.
Rule of thumb: Start light. You can always increase the weight next time. Ideally you will choose a weight that makes you feel challenged by the end of the rep range. For example, if your workout plan says 10 squats, by the time you get to the 10th one, you should feel as though you could only 2 or 3 more. If you feel like you could easily do five more, it’s time to increase the challenge!
Do I need to change the workouts?
Yes and no…mostly no. It’s okay to periodically switch things up to stave off boredom, but if you never do the same exercise or workout twice, how will you ever know you’re improving? You won’t! Depending on a client’s goals and limitations, I typically write two workouts and instruct her to alternate between them for six to eight weeks. Then we check her progress, reassess the routine, and decide if changes need to be made.
The best way to know you’re making progress and getting stronger is to do the same workouts and exercises every week and record everything! This will also help you achieve the biggest key to success that I talk about below.
What’s the biggest key to success with weight training?
It should be obvious that actually doing the workouts consistently, week after week, and month after month is necessary. But the real key to results with weight training is “progressive overload”. That may sound like a fancy term, but it basically means each workout should be just a little more challenging than the one before. You’ll either be trying to add weight or repetitions to each exercise, each time you do that workout.
This means you’ll need to be a stickler for recording what you do from week to week. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll remember! Recording your stats is important for multiple reasons. It’s motivational because you’ll be able to “see” your strength improvements from week to week. You’ll also be able to make sure you’re challenging yourself during each workout by looking back on what you did in the previous workout.
There are many apps available for recording workouts, but I like to write my stats in a notebook (I’m old-fashioned). I record the date, the exercises I performed, how much weight I used, the number of repetitions I did for each exercise (reps), and how many times I did each exercise (sets).
Keep in mind that once you get beyond the newbie stages and become a more seasoned weight lifter, the progression in strength from week to week slows down, sometimes dramatically. You may get stuck for a few weeks before you can add more weight. Some weeks you may even backslide. Stress, sleep status, and hormones will also affect your workouts. Some days you’ll feel more tired than others, and many women experience reduced strength and energy around their menstrual cycles.
Plateaus happen to everyone…and if you’ve come far enough to actually reach a plateau in strength, you should be proud of yourself! You’ve put in a lot of hard work! Stay consistent, keep working at it, and don’t feel bad if you don’t see improvement every week!
What’s the biggest mistake I see women make in the weight room?
There are actually three major mistakes I commonly see:
- Inconsistency in training. Skipping workouts, always changing the exercises out of boredom, poor form, and failure to challenge the body, are all inconsistencies that lead to poor results. Weight training has enormous potential to improve your health and give you the body you’ve always wanted…but only if you are committed and consistent.
- Lack of confidence. Fear of looking stupid is real! This often leads women to only use the machines or the tiny pink dumbbells in the “girl section” of the weight room. When you start lifting, you become an athlete. Believe in yourself! You have as much right to the “big boy” area as anyone else! Yes, it’s intimidating at first, but you can do it. And you won’t believe how much it boosts your confidence when you prove it to yourself!
- Not resting enough. I see this more often with experienced lifters or those training for multiple sports. They take too few rest days between workouts and/or are doing other forms of high intensity or long distance cardio training. If your workouts make you feel worse rather than better, if you are getting sick frequently or experiencing nagging or chronic injuries, feel completely exhausted and aren’t recovering as quickly from workouts, have intense food cravings, or are experiencing unexplained weight gain/loss, you may be over-training, which I talk about in a blog post I wrote last year.
The best kind of exercise for women is the kind that makes you healthy, strong, confident, and happy
I’m not a natural-born athlete. I didn’t play sports in high school or college, and I pretty much avoided anything that made me sweat or was “too hard”. I began weight training as an adult and I couldn’t believe how much it changed my body. But it was the non-aesthetic benefits that kept me going back. Weight training has made me strong, confident, and happy. And now that I’m a mom, that means more than ever!
Please be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new fitness program! The exercises and advice provided in this post are for information purposes and entertainment only. If you engage in this, or any exercise program, you do so at your own risk.