This article is for women who are just starting out strength training or want to get serious about it. (Be sure to check out The Women’s Beginner Strength Training Guide to Lift Like a Girl & Look Absolutely Awesome for everything you need to start working out properly and achieve amazing results).
Please note that “beginner strength trainees” can also include those who have worked out with machines or even with free weights. A beginner is someone who hasn’t learned proper technique or trained consistently with a few simple, but basic barbell and bodyweight exercises.
Even if you’ve been going to the gym for years and doing triceps kick-backs, Smith machine lunges, and used many exercise machines, you’re still a beginner. As another example, if you can’t properly perform (or aren’t sure if you’re properly performing) lifts such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups, inverted rows, vertical and horizontal presses, lunges, chin-ups, and other basic compound movements, then this beginner information is for you.
If you’re an experienced female trainee (or a man), I hope you’ll benefit from this article. If nothing else, I ask that you please pass it along to women who could benefit from the information.
Now let’s get into the 11 Beginner Strength Training Tips for Women.
1. Learn Proper Exercise Form
This is crucial; you need to devote some time to learning proper exercise form from the very beginning. It’s much easier to learn proper form initially than to develop poor habits and try to break them later.
I highly suggest working with a knowledgeable strength coach or learning from reputable demonstration videos. For this reason I included instructional videos in the Train to be Awesome Guide because it’s important to use proper form if you want to get the best results possible and train safely short- and long-term.
As an example, if you perform a squat improperly by only doing a quarter-squat with the weight primarily on your toes for instance, you will not get the full effects this exercise has to offer, and you risk injury. By learning proper form (squatting to or below parallel, keeping the weight centered on your feet, pushing out your knees, etc) you’ll also work your glutes, hamstrings, and other muscles you wouldn’t have otherwise with the quarter-squat variation, and you’ll also be performing the movement in a much safer manner.
2. Stick to the Basics
If you’re just getting into strength training (or finally getting serious about it) you will be better off sticking with a few exercises for the first few months. Why? Think about it this way – what would be easier for you to memorize in the shortest amount of time: 7 different riddles or 20? Obviously the fewer would be easier and quicker to memorize.
It’s the same with your body when you just start lifting weights. Your body will remember/memorize a few movements much more quickly.
Do yourself a favor and master the technique and improve your strength on a few basic exercises. Some favorites for beginner female strength trainees are as follows:
- Squat (or squat variation)
- Deadlift (or deadlift variation)
- Reverse lunge
- Glute bridge
- Push-up (or a similar horizontal press)
- Inverted row (or a similar horizontal pull)
- Overhead press (if mobility allows)
That is a total of 9 exercises. You could simplify that list even more by removing the lunge, glute bridge, and plank and focusing on just 6 exercises.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you need a ton of different exercises to “keep your body guessing”, to “shock your muscles”, or that you must work every muscle individually with isolation exercises. In the beginning you should focus on a few basic compound exercises (primarily dumbbell, barbell, and bodyweight exercises), master your form, and get stronger (more on this point in a minute).
3. Use Acceptable Alternatives
You may have mobility issues that don’t allow you to safely and properly perform certain exercises, or you may not have the equipment available to perform the recommended exercises. Either way, you should use appropriate exercise substitutions. In fact, you can find many of my favorite exercises and variations in the free tutorial Train to be Awesome.
For example, I’ve heard numerous women say they can’t perform a barbell back squat because they have bad knees, or for some other reason. The majority of the time these women aren’t properly performing a back squat (see the quarter-squat example mentioned in number one) but this can be corrected by learning proper technique. However, some people genuinely have trouble performing a back squat and think squatting on a Smith machine is a good alternative.
I understand the logic, but a Smith machine squat is not an acceptable alternative to a traditional back squat. Instead a more appropriate substitution would be a goblet squat or a front squat.
As another example, if you don’t have the mobility to deadlift a straight bar off the floor, you shouldn’t dismiss deadlifting all together. You could try trap bar deadlifts, rack pulls, or even single leg deadlift variations.
4. Focus on Getting Stronger (and More Awesome!)
Dang near everyone should focus on getting stronger no matter what their primary goal. It’s especially important for beginners because they need to develop a base level of strength.
Focusing on building strength is the best way for a beginner to get results, and it’s highly motivating and a great way to love your workouts. Beginners make fast initial strength improvements due primarily to neural adaptations. It’s not uncommon for someone to be able to add weight to the bar for weeks in a row when they just start lifting weights. These strength gains aren’t a result of increased muscle, but from the nervous system. Getting stronger week after week is very motivating because you experience positive progress.
Another reason to focus on getting stronger is because beginners lack the necessary strength to make some popular boot-camp or circuit type workouts productive. A beginner is better off keeping the reps fairly low so they can use as much weight as possible. Many boot-camp workouts call for high reps and multiple exercises performed one right after the other with minimal rest.
A beginner with little strength won’t be able to use an appreciable weight for sets of 10 plus reps, and so the impact won’t be nearly as effective as using a heavier weight for sets of 5-8 reps.
As an example, if a woman who can deadlift 95 pounds for 5 reps was to perform a circuit-type workout that called for 12 or more reps, the weight she would use for the high reps would be so low that is wouldn’t elicit a strength response or even challenge her to an appreciable degree.
Here’s a visual to make sense of that scenario:
This would be a more appropriate deadlift workout for a beginner, assuming her work weight is 95 pounds for 5 reps.
- 95 x 5 x 5 (95 pounds, 5 sets, 5 reps each set)
Total work load: 2,375 pounds (95 pounds x 5 reps = 475 pounds. 475 pounds x 5 sets = 2,375)
Here is the work load if a beginner performed higher rep sets, assuming a work weight of approximately 60 pounds for 12 reps.
- 60 x 3 x 12 (60 pounds, 3 sets, 12 reps each set)
Total work load: 2,160 pounds (60 pounds x 12 reps = 720 pounds. 720 pounds x 3 sets = 2,160)
That’s a difference of 215 pounds.
The beginner would have a higher work load with the lower rep workout (5×5). In addition, lower rep sets are better for beginners because they are more likely to maintain proper form on each rep. When a beginner performs higher rep sets, their form is more likely to break down as the set goes on because the smaller, weaker muscles fatigue before the larger muscles.
5. Know That You Will Not Get “Big ‘n Bulky”
I’m sick and tired of telling women that lifting weights won’t make them “big ‘n bulky”, but it’s necessary because that myth is still thriving. I’ll keep this point short and simple – excess body fat is what makes women appear “bulky”, not having muscle. (Obvious exceptions are women who use anabolic steroids).
Strength training will allow you to build muscle, increase your metabolism, burn body fat, and ultimately help you achieve the lean and “toned” appearance you desire. (Suggested reading – Stop Weighing on the Scale).
Tell you what, if you start strength training per the recommendations in this article and end up all “big ‘n bulky” despite having a healthy level of body fat, give me a call and we’ll meet up so you can scissor kick me to the head. That’s how confident I am you won’t bulk up into a she-man.
6. Be Consistent and Don’t Give Up
We want results, and we wanted them yesterday. Our culture is all about obtaining instant gratification; believe me, I’m no different. For example, it has been my goal to achieve a triple bodyweight deadlift for years now. That is a goal I have had for years and still haven’t reached it.
Granted, I have set smaller and more quickly achievable goals along the way, but the point is that you must be consistent and keep working toward your goal, and celebrate the smaller ones you achieve along the way.
Don’t expect to start strength training today and witness results overnight. However, most women who just start strength training notice some changes the first week. They feel better, have more energy, build confidence, and get more motivated to keep training.
Don’t start strength training for one or two months and then stop. Make this a lifetime habit.
Embrace the lift like a girl manifesto and strength training will be an enjoyable, lifetime habit.
7. Set Motivating Goals
The goal of spending an hour on the elliptical machine three to four times per week is not motivating, and it’s one of the reasons why long duration cardio is inferior to strength training when it comes to building a stronger, better looking and healthier body.
Maybe you currently can’t perform 10 push-ups or deadlift more than 100 pounds. Set motivating, performance oriented goals like “perform 15 push-ups” or “deadlift 1.5 times my bodyweight”.
Even if you just want to lose body fat and look better in your clothes, I recommend setting performance goals. By setting performance goals – like performing 10 push-ups, 5 chin-ups, deadlifting 1.5x your bodyweight, etc – you will be more motivated to train consistently. It may sound odd, but all of my clients with the primary goal of losing body fat focus solely on getting stronger and improving their performance in the gym.
They have more fun, enjoy training, increase their confidence, and within a short period of time realize their clothes are too big and they love the way they look.
If you want to be motivated to train week after week and month after month, set positive training goals.
8. Don’t be Intimidated
I receive numerous emails from women who ask how I first mustered up the courage to lift weights in a gym filled with men. Personally, I never had this problem, but I’ve helped others who have.
Please, don’t be intimidated to go in the weight room and stop caring about what other people think. You don’t have to be squatting double bodyweight or be able to perform 10 chin-ups to deserve to be in there. All that matters is that you do your very best and you get in there consistently.
My advice on this topic? Just suck it up and get in there. Focus on what you’re there to accomplish and nothing else. Before you know it, you’ll feel at home in the weight room.
Reject the degrading fitness-gone-back messages that tell women to be weak – get in there and become more awesome.
9. Follow a Beginner Strength Training Program
If you’re a beginner, you need to train like a beginner – this will be the simplest and quickest way to get results. Don’t make the mistake of following a training program for an intermediate or advanced lifter. While it may sound like a great idea, I can promise that you’ll get far better results by following an appropriate training program.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll achieve faster/better results with some advanced or technical training program.
10. Be Excited!
You hear it from strength coaches and experienced strength training individuals; everyone would like to go back to the beginner stages because that is the time to make the best and fastest progress. Hell, I wish I could be a beginner again and use the knowledge I now possess because my results would’ve been awesome!
As an example, I worked with a male client recently who consistently “worked out” but had never done basic barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and rows. After only a few short weeks of following a beginner program, he was squatting over 200 pounds and deadlift over 300 for reps.
Maybe you can’t perform a chin-up or squat more than an empty bar, but you will experience tremendous progress in the beginning as long as you follow the information in this article. In just a matter of weeks you’ll be amazed as the progress you achieve.
11. Start Today
Don’t say, “I’ll start tomorrow” or “the New Year”. You need to take action today. What does your first step need to be? Perhaps you should find a local strength coach who can teach you proper exercise technique. Maybe you need to get a great training program. Or perhaps you just need to get in the gym.
Whatever first step you need to take, do it today.
For more beginner strength training information check out this beginner tutorial.
And if you’re still not sure if you should start strength training, check out:
- 8 Reasons Women Should Strength Train
- 5 Strength Training Benefits for Women That are WAY Better Than Just Looking Great
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