Strength training for women—why it’s so important and how to do it at home
Whether it’s using body weight or dumbbells, strength training could make all the difference for women
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The benefits of strength training for women have been constantly undervalued over the years, in favour of cardio exercises like cycling and running. As a fitness routine to get in shape or a way to make time for yourself during the week, this type of training is one of the best activities you can do for your health.
There are many elements to strength training, also called resistance training or sometimes weight-lifting, but it essentially comes down to using your body weight against you or adding some basic weights to your workout routine.
It will always be advisable to seek out a professional when it comes to strength training, such as a personal trainer who can help you with the basics. However, there are some strength training programs you can do at home with the help of one of the best workout apps or video workouts to get started.
How is strength training for women different?
Strength training for women is exactly the same as strength training for men. It involves using your own body weight, dumbbells and other weights or trying resistance band workouts to build muscle mass, strength and endurance. You can also attend classes like Crossfit or take on a personal trainer at your gym.
"A good training program should be well-balanced and focused on strengthening all musculature," explains Aroosha Nekonam, senior personal trainer at Ultimate Performance (opens in new tab). "You should always be lifting at an effective intensity for growth, progressive overload and effective recovery, regardless of gender."
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. Doing this forces your muscles to adapt and encourages them to grow stronger over time, a process that works for both men and women.
Although, one difference between men and women when it comes to weight training is that women tend to recover faster than men due to higher estrogen levels, Aroosha notes. "Women can move between their sets quicker while maintaining the same level of intensity," she says. "Women may also find that their performance, metabolic rate and recovery varies throughout their cycle, due to differences in circulating hormones such as estrogen," she says.
Despite this, there is a huge training gap between men and women. Research from the University of Northern Iowa (opens in new tab) suggests that only about 20 percent of women do any form of strength training regularly, with body image up there as one of the main barriers, compared to 50 percent of men.
"One worry for women can be not wanting to bulk up too much when weight training," Personal trainer Jemma Thomas (opens in new tab) explains. "Weight training can be slightly misunderstood in that sense. It's actually really quite difficult to bulk up, as women have much less testosterone (opens in new tab) than men. It wouldn't really happen unless you trained for that specific purpose and looked at the nutrition side too."
What are the benefits of strength training for women?
The benefits of strength training for women are endless. Not only does it help with building and retaining muscle tissue, body fat and bone mass, which are all vital for maintaining general physical health as we age, but it can also do wonders for specific parts of the body.
The most common benefits of strength training include:
- Relieving back pain
- Combating natural loss of bone density
- Building strength
- Improving posture and balance
- Reducing risk of injury
- Encouraging fat loss
- Improving mental wellbeing
How strength training builds strong bones
During a strength training workout, the muscles pull against the bones in the body, which kickstarts the bone-forming cells. It's very similar to the way that cells are forced to repair muscles that have been overstimulated during a session.
“Strength training helps develop strong bones,” says personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long (opens in new tab), founder of the Body Beautiful Method. “By stressing your bones, strength training can increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.”
It's one of the best workouts for women embarking on a journey into fitness, as it combats the natural loss of bone density you experience during and after menopause.
"During menopause, there is a decline in estrogen, progesterone and androgens, as these are the hormones produced in the ovaries. With declining hormonal levels over time, women will experience muscle and bone mass loss," explains personal trainer Aroosha.
How strength training relieves back pain
Strength training relieves back pain by strengthening the key muscles in your body, along with increasing the range of motion your spine is capable of. "With correct form and posture, you'll be switching on your core muscles and all around your abdominals, which will strengthen that area," Jemma says. "In turn, this creates much better support for your back. Your posture will start to improve and with that backache can also significantly reduce."
While you may think that bending down to pick up relatively heavy weights is a no-go, a program of heavy-load lifting has been proven to reduce lower back pain by re-training the body's movement patterns.
According to a study by Luleå University of Technology (opens in new tab) that looked at patients with the issue over 24 months, those who take up strength training were up to 80% more likely to report a decrease in pain intensity and disability in both the short and long term. This was partially due to the way focused strength training encourages you to think about how your muscles move and it makes you engage them in an active way when it comes to particular movements. When translated to the real world, you're more likely to follow similar when picking up heavy loads in daily life, reducing your chance of injury.
However, if you do suffer from back pain, it's important to refer to a medical professional to check it's not more serious and you're cleared to lift weights, as you don't want to cause more damage, Aroosha advises.
"It will also be best to enlist the help of a personal trainer who can support and guide you with proper technique, form and help you progressively build strength without injuring yourself," she says.
Does strength training burn fat?
Yes, strength training can help you lose fat mass. "One of the key benefits of resistance exercise is the maintenance and improvement of a healthy body fat, through building muscle and losing fat," Aroosha says. "Resistance exercise can also counter unwanted weight gain and help combat against the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes."
While it may not rack up as many calories burnt on your fitness tracker compared to cardio-based at-home workouts or LISS cardio like running, increasing your muscle mass helps to increase your metabolism and this, in turn, 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).
But when it comes to strength training and losing fat, there's something else to bear in mind. Typically when you start exercising, especially if it's for the first time in a while, your hunger hormones will shoot up —leading to the urge to consume more food.
This is where eating enough protein and the benefits of protein powder come into their own. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health (opens in new tab) show that this nutrient, present in almost all of the food we eat to some degree, helps us to feel full and supports the health of growing muscles. To get the most out of your training, aim to consume one gram of protein for each kilogram of your ideal body weight.
When should you strength train and how often?
Anywhere between once a week and four times a week is ideal if you're just starting out, our experts say. But it depends on how much exercise you do already. If your cardio fitness is good, thanks to running or cycling, then you're more likely to adapt to strength training faster.
If you're a beginner, you may need to go a little slower. "To start, and to get your body used to strength training, I would suggest twice a week for a few weeks then you can introduce a third session if possible," Jemma says.
Aroosha agrees, "How many times a week you train will depend on your goal, but on average training three to four days a week is a good amount to ensure effective recovery time."
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 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 beforehand.
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, 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 several exercises you can do at home using your body weight. Or, you can add more resistance in the form of ankle weights, dumbbells, or heavy household items.
- 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 your 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, bend your elbows as you do so and keep 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 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 a straight line. Aim to hold for 20 seconds then, as you become stronger, increase the time.
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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