By Lucy Gornall
Lifting weights is not just for bodybuilders. In fact, strength training is becoming more and more popular with women. What's more, you don’t have to go to a gym to feel the benefits. Adding resistance to your workouts – such as by increasing the weight of your dumbbells at home or using household items to add weight to your workout – can help you tone up, burn calories, lose body fat, boost your mental health and protect your bones and joints.
“If you stick to the principles of strength training it can be done with limited or no equipment," says personal trainer Stuart Jack. And, with weight training, it’s easy to see improvements over time. “Improvements in strength will generally be measured in the weight of the load lifted, the reps performed, or the time the muscle is held under tension,” adds Stuart.
All you really need to get started is one of the best yoga mats to help protect joints and stop you from slipping as you work out and perhaps some of the best workout leggings to keep you comfortable and supported during your routine, and you’re ready to go.
How is strength training different for women?
Strength training for women is the same as strength training for men. It involves using your own bodyweight, dumbbells or trying resistance bands workouts to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance. However, despite the benefits of strength training for women’s health, only about 20% of women actually do it often.
“The main objective when performing strength training is to create a continual overload within the muscle,” says Stuart, who is also co-founder of Musclemary. “The body reacts to this overload and is stimulated to sufficiently repair and adapt. You become stronger as the stimulus (the weight or exercise) becomes easier to manage as training progresses.”
Adding resistance to your workouts and slowly increasing this resistance over time – such as by increasing the weight of your dumbbells – is called ‘progressive overload’. Other forms of resistance include barbells, kettlebells and weighted plates.
Progressively overloading your muscles forces them to adapt and encourages them to grow stronger. After all, nothing will change if you use the same resistance day in day out.
What are the benefits of strength training for women?
The benefits of strength training for women are endless, but often women are concerned that strength training will make them look bulky and turn to other types of exercise such as yoga or pilates.
But, this isn't the case. Women don’t have the same levels of testosterone as men do, so building muscle just isn’t as simple, and there are studies to back this up.
The most common benefits of strength training include:
- Relieves back pain
- Combats natural loss of bone density
- Builds strength
- Improves posture and balance
- Reduces risk of injury
- Encourages fat loss
- Improves mental wellbeing
How strength training builds strong bones
“Strength training helps develop strong bones,” says personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long, founder of the Body Beautiful Method. “By stressing your bones, strength training can increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.”
Plus, stronger muscles can contribute to better balance and may reduce your risk of falls. This can help you maintain independence as you age.
How strength training relieves back pain
You may previously have thought that exercise could trigger lower back pain, but research shows strength training may actually relieve back pain. Of course, strength training needs to be done safely, so it’s best to start with lower weights and work your way up so you don’t cause more damage to your back.
Overall, strength training can enhance your quality of life by improving your ability to do everyday activities. Strong muscles and bones make movement easier. Plus, it can help with other sports, taking your walking workouts to the next level or helping you feel strong as your start running.
Strength training doesn’t just help improve movement capability, but it can also help manage chronic conditions.
“Strength training can reduce the signs and symptoms of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, depression and diabetes,” adds Aimee.
How strength training can help you lose belly fat
Yes, strength training can help you lose weight! “It helps you manage your menopause weight gain,” says Aimee. While it may not rack up as many calories burnt on your fitness tracker compared to cardio-based at-home workouts or running, it does increase your metabolism and helps you burn more calories in the hours after your strength training workout.
This is known as the after-burn effect, or more specifically, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
There have been studies that show how increased muscle mass, from strength training, helps to burn more calories.
There are so many benefits of protein powder that can also help you build strength and muscle, and lose weight. Protein is so important for providing you with enough energy, helping you feel full and supporting strength building. However, some experts also believe it can aid weight loss as it stops you from snacking throughout the day.
How strength training improves mental wellbeing
As well as the physical health benefits of strength training, there are also mental health benefits and it can improve your biological age.
Walking for your mental health is great, but Aimee explains that strength training can help “clear up brain fog and boost your mood”.
There really is nothing quite like lifting something heavy, and studies have shown the connection between strength training and mental wellbeing.
One study found that resistance training two or more days a week actually led to ‘significant' reductions in the symptoms of people suffering from mild to moderate depression.
When should you strength train and how often?
If you’re a beginner and completely new to strength training, it’s best to aim for two to three full-body workouts each week using moves such as those listed below. Ensure you take a rest day between your lifting days, only doing activities such as gentle walking, swimming or yoga for beginners.
As you advance throughout your strength training sessions, continue doing the same compound lifts, but add additional weight. You can also mix up your exercises and repetitions. Do what feels comfortable at this point but still continue to challenge yourself a little, and make those muscles work!
As for when it is best to strength train, it depends on how you feel. Some people find it best to work out first thing on an empty stomach, while others need some fuel behind them.
Either way, carbohydrates are your best bet before a workout. Either a portion of slow-release carbs for dinner, such as wholegrain rice or wholemeal pasta, and/or a portion of carbs an hour or two before you train. This could be something like a bowl of oats in the morning before a mid-morning workout, or in the afternoon before an evening workout.
How to strength train at home without equipment
There are a number of exercises you can do at home using your own bodyweight. Or, you can add more resistance in the form of dumbbells or heavy household items.
Getting creative can help. “This may include simply using water bottles as weights or filling a backpack with heavy books,” says Stuart.
The best strength training exercises to do at home include:
- Split squats
- Single leg deadlifts
- Single leg glute bridges
Stand tall, feet hip-width apart. Place hands on hips and step forward with your right leg, into a staggered stance.
Slowly lower your body down, keeping your torso upright and gaze forward.
When your back knee is hovering just above the ground, push up through your front foot back to your staggered stance.
Repeat 10 times.
Swap legs and repeat another 10 times.
Add a weight in each hand for extra resistance.
Single leg deadlifts
Use a dumbbell or heavy bottle of water to add resistance to this move.
Stand with feet hip-width apart.
Lean forward, shifting all your weight onto one leg. Your other leg needs to engage and slowly come off the ground and extend straight behind you.
Keep going until your body is essentially in a T position with your back extended leg straight out behind you and your torso almost parallel to the ground.
Push through the foot on the ground to slowly bring in your extended leg and return to the start position. Repeat 10 times before swapping and repeating 10 times with the other leg.
Single leg glute bridges
Lie flat on your back on a mat or the ground.
Bend your right knee and place your right foot on the mat. Your left leg should extend out in front of you.
Keeping a stable spine, push through your right foot, bring hips up and keep your left leg straight out.
Hold this position, squeezing the glutes (your butt muscles), then slowly lower back down. Repeat 10 times on each side.
You might want to start on your knees for this one.
Keep your back straight and place your hands below your shoulders, just slightly wider than your shoulders.
Lower your body down towards the ground, bending the elbows as you do so, then slowly push yourself back up to the start. Repeat 10 times.
Typically for pull-ups, you need a bar. However, a door frame can be just as effective at home. Or, you can invest in some long resistance bands to loop over your door.
However you decide to do it, keeping your body straight, pull yourself up as far as you can off the floor, bending your elbows as you do so and keeping your elbows close to your side.
This is a simple move that can be anywhere. Although you might want to invest in one of the best thick yoga mats to keep your joints protected when planking.
Lie on the floor, then lift yourself up onto your forearms keeping your elbows under your shoulders. Place hands flat on the floor. Your body should be resting on your forearms and your toes.
Keep your body engaged, head down and hold this position. You may want to do it near a mirror so you can check that your body is in one straight line. Aim to hold for 20 seconds, then as you become stronger, increase the time.
Lucy Gornall is the former Health & Fitness editor at Future and a personal trainer specializing in pre and post-natal exercise.
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