Strength training for beginners is something a lot of women are interested in these days…
Chances are, if you’re curious about adding strength training to your fitness routine, you may be excited to try it but totally intimidated about how to go about getting started.
You’re not alone.
I hear from so many women who are at a complete loss when it comes to the type of strength training to do, how to find the right gym, and how to progress safely and effectively so they’re not wasting their precious time.
The internet and social media are partly to blame for this confusion.
When you take a quick scan of what’s out there, you’ll see every strength training for beginners methodology under the sun being offered and every “expert” telling you their way is the only way to get stronger.
Coaches worth their weight in gold will be the first to admit there is no one “right way” of training that applies to everyone.
That being said, there are a few things you need to know from a scientific and physiological perspective:
Should Women Lift Heavy?
(Imagine me making air quotes around the word heavy because what’s heavy for me may not be heavy for you.)
You have different types of muscle fibers – slow- and fast-twitch to simplify it. Activating fast twitch fibers requires more load, and it produces more force than slow twitch.
Think of it this way:
You can walk all day long (slow twitch) but you can only do a couple reps at a time of a heavy squat. You can’t activate fast-twitch fibers doing slow-twitch activities. If you want to use all your musculature, you need a mix of slow- and fast-twitch exercises.
Why does this matter? You get maximum endocrine benefit and body composition benefit when you involve more of your musculature.
Translation: If you want to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat, lift “heavy” weights.
What Does Muscle Loss Mean?
Also, working your fast-twitch fibers helps prevent a condition called dynapenia.
Dynapenia is a loss of muscle power…
…and it used to be something that only happened to old people. But not anymore.
Dynapenia is on the rise in younger populations. If you’ve ever stumbled and been unable to catch yourself from falling, that could be dynapenia at work.
I’m not even talking about strength training to get a sexy six-pack or set a weightlifting record…
…this is basic health and maintenance stuff.
Use it or lose it.
Click here to read more about how our modern environments are setting us up for dynapenia.
What is Progressive Overload?
If you only ever do the same strength training – reps, sets, load – eventually, you’ll plateau.
This is one reason that bodyweight exercises alone aren’t as effective in continuing to build strength over time. (Though, depending on the individual, they can be a mighty great place to start.)
Instead, you’ll want to find a strength program that involves progressive overload – a systematic way of gradually increasing the stressor (load) placed on the body to elicit a response (getting stronger).
I’m a huge fan of linear progression for newcomers and intermediate level lifters. However, once someone has reached the intermediate+ level, it’s generally time for slightly more complex training cycles.
Will Lifting Weights Make Me Bulky?
Most of the women I know who say they’re afraid of getting bulky have admitted to being intimidated by strength training for beginners…
…or wanting to do it but not knowing how. So they default to the phrase, “I don’t want to get bulky,” to explain it away.
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. And how you want your body to look is your own prerogative.
But I know that the “look” many women want – firm, toned muscle with loss of body fat – is most easily achieved with a modicum of strength training…usually two to three sessions a week.
Four Strength Training Tips for Beginners
1) Find a quality coach / gym.
If you’re interested in strength training for beginners, the expertise of a seasoned coach can be invaluable.
You can start incorporating movement into your day without a coach, of course.
And you can find videos on the internet and check your form in a mirror at home, but there are sometimes subtle differences between good and bad technique.
Home workouts are great, but at some point, you may plateau if you’re training without any guidance. It’s useful to follow a program made by a reputable coach.
If you decide to workout in a gym, selecting the right facility to train at is probably the most important decision you’ll have to make.
An experienced coach can properly assess your current mobility and strength, take your history and goals into account, and design a program that will challenge you enough to cause improvement but not so aggressively that you risk injury.
Furthermore, a coach should do more than just provide motivation during your training session. Cheerleading is great, but a coach needs to do more than yell at you to keep going.
They should be comfortable programming strength training for beginners.
They should correct your form and develop a program that will help you advance your strength training in a structured fashion. (Remember the idea of progressive overload?)
When choosing a gym, do some research about facilities in your area. Visit them and take along a list of prepared questions or know what to ask.
Questions to Ask When Looking for a Coach or Gym
- Does the facility offer group classes, small group, or even one-on-one training?
- Is it a general strength and conditioning facility or is there a specific focus (kettlebells, TRX, CrossFit, etc)?
- Do they offer an on-ramp program for beginners?
- What certifications do the coaches have? Do they continue to go to trainings and improve their knowledge?
Observe the community of the gym itself and see if it’s a place you’ll feel comfortable training. If you get a bad gut feeling, listen.
Of course, you may feel a bit nervous or uncertain when you start something new, but if your gut feeling is that it’s not the right match, find another place.
One of the best ways to find a good spot is to ask your friends. Personal recommendations can go quite far, so see who is training where and whether they like, pros and cons, etc.
Another benefit of working with a coach is avoiding the dreaded, “I walked into the weight area and all the people (guys) were staring at me” factor.
2) Prioritize form over load.
Strength training for beginners is incredibly effective, but it’s not worth moving more weight if you have to sacrifice your technique to do it.
This is especially true if you’re strength training for the health benefit and not as a competitor, but that’s another post altogether.
Yes, form may degrade slightly as you move through the most challenging sets in a workout, but when you cannot maintain basic points of performance, it’s worth thinking about whether you should reduce the weight or stop altogether.
The whole point of strength training for beginners is to get stronger through progressively overloading muscle, using good technique, and planning for proper rest and recovery periods.
Strength training can never be 100% risk free. (Really, nothing is when it comes to fitness. B ut the alternative of being sedentary and losing muscle mass is not without risk either).
By being mindful of and practicing good form, you can minimize the risk while enjoying the benefits.
Be aware of the role ego can unfortunately play in strength training, resulting in you pushing too hard or not following your coach’s advice because you added more weight or reps before you’re ready.
If your coach tells you to stop because you’re too tired, don’t go elsewhere to finish the workout. (Yes, this does happen!)
3) …But, don’t go too light all the time.
While lifting too heavy before you’re ready or using improper form aren’t good, lifting tiny weights that are far below your ability level forever isn’t much better. Sure, your risk of injury might decrease, but you’ll be missing out on the positive benefits from strength training.
In order to understand why it’s beneficial to lift heavier, remember the explanation of muscle fibers from above.
In order to get the most benefit from strength training for beginners, it’s important to lift heavy enough loads to activate more muscle fiber.
So while you may start with bodyweight exercises, plan that at some point, you’ll progress to weighted version of those movements or some other kind of weight training.
Note: Science is beginning to understand muscle has endocrine functions, meaning peptides released because of exercise can affect metabolism in tissues throughout the body. Though perhaps the most well-known study of this sort was conducted in animal models1, it correlates with what we know happens to humans when they lift heavy weights – muscle mass increases, fat decreases, and tissues become more sensitive to insulin.
Busting Bulky Myths
Probably the most common objection from women to the idea of lifting heavy weights is the fear of “getting bulky.”
Females have a fraction of the testosterone that men do – as little as 5-10% (and even less if you’re on hormonal birth control) – making it much harder to put on copious muscle mass.
Also, muscle mass is regulated by a gene called GDF-8 which encodes for a protein called myostatin. Think of myostatin like a brake pedal applied to muscle growth. In most females and even many men, myostatin keeps excessive muscle growth in check.
When I say “heavy load” please don’t envision you need a dozen iron plates hanging off a barbell that looks like it’ll crush you while veins pop out of your forehead.
Typically, that means you’ll need moderate to heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell to select a heavy enough load. Odd objects like medicine balls or sandbags can work well, too.
A load that’s heavy for you will differ for someone else, and it’s all relative to your stage of strength training development.
Also, keep in mind that a proper training program will have weeks of progressive loading and should included regularly scheduled deload or recovery weeks.
Adjusting Your Strength Training Expectations
Strength training at heavy enough load – provided other factors such as proper nutrition, recovery and sleep – are intact, will often lead to small to modest increases in muscle mass.
Women (and men!) you see with incredibly large muscle mass have usually gone to extraordinary measures to achieve those gains.
Note: When you see fitness programs promising to “tone” muscle, know that it’s used as a marketing term. In order to “get toned,” you have to build muscle and / or lose fat on top of the muscle.
Making muscles “long and lean” is another fallacy. Strength training will provide you muscle shape and definition, but the “length” of your muscles is determined by genetics.
4) Don’t cherry pick.
One lesson that applies just as much to strength training for beginners as it does to other areas of life is to be consistent.
If your coach puts you on a four-month training plan but you get restless after a week, be patient.
Cherry-picking and program-jumping – moving from one method to another to another without giving it a chance to actually work – is a common error among both rookie and seasoned lifters.
A strength training program need not be the buzzworthy flavor-of-the-week or named after a Russian weightlifter to be incredibly effective.
Instead, novices can benefit greatly from a solid linear progression program like my Basic Barbell Program focusing on compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, and press while avoiding the overload or riskier tactics that often come with trendy programs.
When you’re starting out, commit to following through with the strength training program you’re on and be patient in your expectation of results.
Keep in mind that you’re learning new skills and that you may not hit PRs immediately. Jumping from one program to another makes it very difficult to have the consistency you need for success over time.
To sum it up…
Strength training for beginners doesn’t have to be scary.
By selecting a knowledgeable coach and facility, using appropriately challenging loads and sticking to a program, you’ll give yourself the best possible foundation to enjoy the strength gains that positively impact health.
At the very beginning, just start moving. Get active again, even without weights. Feel what it’s like to move your bodyweight through space…
…and above all, have fun!
Updated: October 17, 2021
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References & Further Reading
1Izumiya, Y., Hopkins, T., Morris, C., Sato, K,, Zeng, L., Viereck, J., Hamilton, J., Ouchi, N., LeBrasseur, N., & Walsh, K. Fast / Glycolytic Muscle Fiber Growth Reduces Fat Mass and Improves Metabolic Parameters in Obese Mice. Cell Metabolism, 7(2), 159-72.
Srikanthan, P., & Karlamangla, A. (2014). Muscle Mass Index As a Predictor of Longevity in Older Adults. The American Journal of Medicine, 127(6), 547–553.
Pedersen, B., & Febbraio, M. (2008). Muscle As an Endocrine Organ: Focus On Muscle-Derived Interleukin-6. Physiological Review, 88(4), 1379-406.
Photos by: Adam Bartlett & Richwell Correa
This is great information on strength training. My wife has been talking about beginning to lift weights, but she has been intimidated. Thanks for mentioning that you need to increase the stress on your body if you want to keep getting better. I will pass this information on to her!
Thank you for the break down… I was a collegiate athlete “back in the day” – as a benefit of being an athlete I had the opportunity to work with great coaches who “told me what to do and I did it”. Never thought to learn the reasons we did what we did. Fast forward 25 years and I have lost much of my muscle mass and feel quite weak in comparison. I have wanted to get back to the weights, but never felt educated enough to do it right, so I just didn’t do it. I’ve signed up for you Harder to Kill Challenge and am excited to get back to the weights. Hopefully I can revive some of my lost muscle…. Thanks Steph for the inspiration and motivation.