Pro tip #1: You do not need a gym to effectively strength train and get actual results.
Sure, it’s fun to join a gym and get really specific with strength training protocols if your goal is physique development.
But who has time for that?
You may have crushed on women with dense, lean muscle and thought you could never achieve that level of strength, or maybe you shied away from training for strength beyond the occasional Pilates “toning” class (no hate- I’m a huge Pilates fan!)
Whatever the reason, it’s time to commit to adding in a basic, solid strength routine.
Pro tip #2: Your diet will dictate the majority of your results.
You’re not going to get bulky unless you’re eating to support that goal, so please, don’t be afraid of the weights.
That said, you should really decide on what your goals are before investing resources into some basic equipment and deciding on a routine.
Since every woman’s lifestyle is different from anyone else’s, you should think about what you’d like to improve when it comes to your strength and function.
Your aesthetic goals will also influence these decisions.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll keep things pretty basic and applicable to most beginners.
Ok, with all the caveats taken care of, on to the guide!
- Bottom line, you really just need some weights. And instead of getting numerous sets of different dumbbells, you should aim to get a selector set with a decent range of weights.
- Beyond that, you’ll want the option for variety within your resistance training routine, so I suggest a basic set of resistance bands. They start light and go progressively heavier, and are versatile for a number of routines.
- Resistance loops- these are great for lower body routines, but they’re versatile.
- Handled tubing- these are beneficial for upper body exercises, but again, they can be used creatively.
- Stability Ball- These are a great option for when you’re ready to incorporate more nuanced versions of exercises and include more challenging core work.
Becoming Familiar with Compound Moves
This is important so that you don’t get intimidated and lose your motivation and momentum.
Lots of fitness cultures and bro-science types like to make lifting seem really complicated and only for the hardcore disciplined.
That is bullshit.
Your body is perfectly suited for these load bearing movements, and you do not need super in-depth instruction on how to do these properly.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting one-on-one feedback on your form, especially if that will help you stay committed. But if you’ve been putting off strength training because you don’t have access to a trainer, I am effectively removing that excuse.
Let’s look at some of the basic compound moves that you can easily master:
1) Squat: A true power move. One of the Kings (or Queens) of strength training. You really can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid this move, and contrary to some well-meaning advice, it’s safe for your back and knees as long as you’re not dealing with a serious issue or injury in these areas.
How to properly squat: 1) feet planted so that your weight is firmly in your heels- you should be able to “lift” your toes 2) butt and hips go back first 3) don’t go below parallel for now 4) keep your spine from rounding 4) keep your gaze slightly ahead of you- not down or up too far, either. *You can front load, back load, or hold dumbbells at your sides. I like to goblet squat in a front load like in the image.
2) Squat and press: The first part of this compound killer move is the squat shown above, with an added shoulder press at the top. This move requires that your weights be held at your shoulders so you can drive them up at the top of the movement. You’ll be involving your upper body in this exercise, including your shoulders and upper chest and upper back, while also challenging some core strength. Keep the weight in line with your ears- don’t press too far back behind you.
- You can also do the squat-curl-press variation of this movement which will involves your biceps and uses a bit less “thrust”
3) Deadlift: Keep this one simple, and go light for a while. Eventually you can dial up this move a notch, but because women are notoriously abusive to their lower backs and hip flexors (think years spent in stiletto heels and sitting at desks) you’re first going to want to get a sense of this movement for yourself.
- please keep in mind how important your spinal position is in this move, and how a straight-legged deadlift is something to work up to. Gaze should be similarly neutral to your squat, with no rounding forward of your shoulders. Your butt and hips take the lead on this move, yet again. You’re really hinging at your hips and feeling the pull in your hamstrings and using your glutes to drive you back up.
4) Lunges: These are a real stability challenge and also a great glute builder. Your leading leg’s placement is important (don’t let your knee go over your toes) but your back leg is often neglected. Remember to keep your weight more balanced between your legs and don’t let your knee stay up too high, or go too low when bending it.
5) Chest press: This move is basically a reverse push-up. If you have access to a bench, you can use that. Or, just get on the floor. You can add in a hip/glute bridge to involve your booty and core. Eventually you’ll be able to do these on your stability ball.
- You don’t want to over-complicate this move, either. It’s a good idea to maintain a mind-muscle connection, though. Really focus on what your muscle is feeling while you lift the weights, and think about contracting the muscle at the top of the movement. Weird tip– mind/muscle connection actually increases and speeds up your results.
6) Bent over row: You can start with the unilateral (single arm) version of this move until you build up some core strength. To challenge yourself, you’ll want to do this split-leg version, with one leg behind the other and hinging forward at your hips to get a good angle. This move is best demonstrated IRL, so here’s a great instructional video:
- You can always use a bench or other stable surface to dial this move down, while some people find the bilateral version with both feet together to be more comfortable.
7) Seated shoulder press: While this move can be done standing, the seated version is both more stable and more challenging, but you can experiment. Just remember to keep the weights in-line with your ears, and try not to go below a 90-degree angle with the weights at the bottom of the movement.
Designing the correct strength program can be a real art form- pro trainers with extensive education in kinesiology can blow your mind with the intricacies within their programs involving ranges of motion, gravity, and a deep understanding of types of strength.
Don’t worry about that stuff right now.
To start, you should lift about 3 times per week, in a full body routine. To make it a bit more “metabolic”, you can do an upper body move followed by a lower body move, which makes your heart work harder. For example:
- Squat Press- 1 x 12 (one set of 12 reps)
- Chest press- 1 x 12
- Lunge- 1 x 12 each side
- Bent over row- 1 x 12 each side
- Deadlift- 1 x 12
- Seated shoulder press- 1 x 12
Repeat this circuit 3 times, and feel free to change up the order as well as add in or take out any exercise.
You can also split up your routines into upper body and lower body days for more focus on each part.
A really great way to stick to a routine while also learning proper form is to work out along with a solid YouTube program. The three channels that always seem safe, sane, and simple are:
Christine Salus: She’ll often use stability balls and resistance bands to mix things up, but she never gets too crazy.
Fitness Blender: This hubby and wife team are always authentically caring about their program designs to ensure safety and efficacy, while staying in touch with what their viewers’ needs.
Hasfit: Another young couple passionate about teaching proper exercise technique while also teaching new ways of getting functionally strong.
I’d be lame to not mention a supplementary flexibility and mobility routine for beginner strength trainers, and lucky for you, I’ve covered some great yoga sequences for women wanting to get strong.
Ok supersheroes, are you ready to get strong? I can’t stress enough how important this type of exercise is for you, and I know how intimidating it might seem.
Or, maybe you’ve only focused on workouts that “spot treat or spot reduce” areas of your body that you don’t like.
Whatever the reason you haven’t stuck with strength training, now is the time to make it a priority for your healthy lifestyle.
Once you get the hang of it, checking out other formats, or exercise program styles is totally up to you.
Remember, the best exercise is the one you know you enjoy and can stick with, forever.