Women, let's face it. We're fed so much BS regarding our health and fitness, and especially what our health and fitness is supposed to be. According to most women's fitness magazines (and sadly many "coaches" and personal trainers), the epitome of women's fitness is remaining purposely weak and frail (yes, it's a choice, not an inevitability). Look into any issue of Women's Health and it's decked out with full-color photos of women standing one-legged on a Bosu ball lifting a 5-pound dumbbell while holding a yoga pose.
This is not the workout you need. It isn't going to get you in shape, make you toned, lose fat, or lose weight. It's just going to make you a little bit better at standing one-legged on a Bosu ball -- maybe improve your balance a bit. But if your aim is to lose fat, build muscle and look great, there is a far more effective solution to accomplishing this.
Women: To achieve maximal health, you need to get stronger. Get under some weights and lift. ANYTHING you read in any women's fitness magazine is suspect. Actually, it's not just suspect -- you can be guaranteed that they're feeding you inaccurate trash.
What Is the Best Strength Training Program Out There for Women?
Is there one best strength program out there for women today? I don't believe in any one "best," most bullet-proof training program for anyone; it really depends on your own personal goals. No cookie cutters need apply. However, there are certainly standards that separate the GREAT programs from the mediocre, and the mediocre from the downright ugly. Today, we will review the top five standards that your strength training program should include:
1. Lift Heavy Weights Every Week for Maximum Strength, Fitness and Health
If you get nothing else from this post, this is the one thing you need to absorb. You MUST train heavy lifts. Put the 5-pound dumbbells away, just put them back in the corner where you found them. Light them on fire while you're at it. I'm talking about loading several 45-pound plates on a 45-pound barbell and deadlifting and squatting. Of course, heavy is relative and everyone is at a different stage in their strength development. But whether you squat 100 pounds or 400 (and yes ladies, it is highly possible), you need to routinely hit heavy lifts that are heavy for you.
"But what's the advantage to lifting heavy?"
Lifting heavy weight, for both women and men, will cause a flurry of positive systemic changes throughout your body. Your muscles respond by growing (which will also increase metabolism), bones become denser, hormonal regulation improves (that means a much more manageable menstrual period for women, among many other positive benefits), your central nervous system responds by learning how to recruit more muscle fibers to contract on demand and it becomes more resilient to physical stress. Not to mention the real-life benefits of just being stronger. And these are just a few of the reasons why you should lift heavy.
Bonus Benefit of Lifting Heavy: want an awesome looking bodacious butt? Squat and deadlift heavy, end of story.
On the flip side, lifting super light weights cannot provide the same benefits because the ultra-light weight does not cause enough of a systemic stress on your body (albeit a good stress) to affect these same changes. Which means no "toning" like it promises (after all ladies, toning is muscle -- let's just own that fact right now). The grocery bags that you carry in from the grocery store are heavier than what most women lift in the weight room today, or at least as much. The only exception here is for someone who just recently healed from a serious injury and must start with a light weight while they rehab. Which should serve as a hint: If a guy who just got over a severe car accident a few weeks ago can kill your workout, maybe you should change your workout.
2. Variety Is Key
If you want to consistently get stronger and develop muscle, you must mix in variety in your training. For the first 6-7 months of barbell strength training, you can get away with learning and focusing on the basics: the bench press, overhead press, squat, deadlift, and power clean. But after this period of time, the body needs more variety to achieve maximum strength gains. None of the training sessions I do are ever quite the same -- there's a certain formula I follow, but I have yet to follow the exact same training day in a long time. Not only is this a treat for the mind and keeps you mentally engaged, but you will continue to make big strength gains without plateauing. This is the basis of the conjugate system, and it works.
3. You Must Fill in Your Weaknesses With Accessory Work
Everyone, both men and women alike, have their own unique muscular weaknesses and strengths. While it's fun to work on your strengths, you MUST train up your weaknesses. You are only as strong as your weakest link. Women are often weakest in these key muscle groups: hip adductors/abductors (inner and outer thighs), triceps, shoulders, and mid-upper back. Most people in general have weak hamstrings as well so make sure to work those too. Fill in your own muscular weaknesses with extra accessory work (e.g., weight exercises that target a specific muscle group) twice a week. There's aesthetic benefits from accessory work as well -- it's quite fun to watch those shoulders, triceps, and hamstrings fill in while looking in the mirror!
4. Neglecting the Upper Body = No Sexy Arms and Weak Lifts
This goes for everyone, but especially us ladies. Train your upper body at least twice a week for strength and muscle development. Do NOT miss this second day. Since we tend to be weaker in the upper body, we need every workout we can get. Your worst lift (typically the upper body lifts for women) starts to degrade the fastest after a period of inadequate training activity. This goes for anyone, male or female. So if you're having a short training week due to a vacation/moving/a hectic and crazy week, and you can only have two strength training days that week, let BOTH of those days be upper body. It's really that important.
5. For Faster Progress: Train With People Who Push You
This is not really a part of any programming per se, but it's a BIG part of your success. Train with other people -- and with a coach -- who care about your goals enough to push you past what you think you're capable of. This will bring out the best in you and will help consistently push you towards new goals. Unfortunately for a lot of women, they train with other people and with coaches who simply don't believe it's necessary for them to lift past a certain weight. Staying at the same weight forever will not benefit you in any way. You won't get stronger. You won't develop more muscle. You won't get more toned. There's usually no ill-intention meant with this poor coaching, it really just stems from a misconception that women should be strength trained differently and handled with kid-gloves. If your training crew consists of people, whether men or women, who patronize you and don't seem to think you need to lift past a certain weight because you're female -- even if the weight is light for you -- then you need to move on to a more ambitious group of folks. There is a big difference in the progress you will make.
Check out more strength training and nutrition tips at Ice Runner Strength, where this article premiered.
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