If you haven't heard the new, let's shout it from the rooftops: Strength training is for everyone! Regardless of gender, age or fitness level, you can pick up a pair of dumbbells and start getting stronger.
"As a woman, your resistance-training workout doesn't need to be radically different from a man's workout, especially at the beginning," says Henry Halse, CPT, owner of Halse Strength and Fitness. "In fact, you'll probably gain strength at the same rate."
A February 2016 study published in PeerJ compared men and women who lifted weights for 10 weeks to see which gender gained strength faster. The researchers found that there was no significant difference between men and women.
Try This Beginner Weightlifting Workout
Do 10 reps of the following exercises. Repeat for 3 rounds total.
Move 1: Dumbbell Row
- Standing parallel to a bench, put your right knee and right hand flat on the bench.
- With your left foot on the floor behind you, reach down and grab a dumbbell with your left hand.
- Keeping your back flat, lift the weight up until your left elbow is above your body.
- Don't twist your shoulders to lift the weight — just use your arm.
- At the top, the dumbbell can touch your ribs or chest. Then, lower the weight back down.
- Do 10 reps with each arm.
This upper-body exercise works some of your biggest upper-back muscles, including your lats and trapezius.
One way to make this exercise easier (or more challenging) is to decrease (or increase) the weight of the dumbbells. Alternatively, you could do one arm at a time, supporting your opposite hand and knee on a bench.
Move 2: Goblet Squat
- Use a kettlebell or dumbbell for this exercise. If you use a kettlebell, hold it by the sides of the handles. If you're using a dumbbell, hold it vertically with your palms under the bell.
- Keep the weight in front of your chest, with your elbows tucked down toward your rib cage.
- Squat down, keeping your feet flat on the floor. Try to keep your back flat as you squat down.
- Go down until your elbows touch the tops of your thighs, then stand back up.
This exercise primarily works the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. It uses a weight in the front to let you lean back into the squatting motion.
As long as you're comfortable with the movement patter, beginners might find this easier than without a weight, as the weight acts as a counterbalance, Halse says. You can also modify with a lighter weight or not going as deep into your squat.
Move 3: Dumbbell Bench Press
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and sit on a bench with the weights on your thighs.
- Lean back and lie down on the bench with your dumbbells on your chest.
- Press the dumbbells up toward the ceiling until your elbows are straight but not locked out.
- Lower the weight back down to your chest.
The push-up is a commonly used exercise for the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles. However, push-ups can be difficult for many, particularly beginners.
Instead, use the dumbbell bench press for your upper body muscles. You can use a barbell or set the bench at an incline or decline to change the movement, Halse says.
Move 4: Lunge
- Hold one dumbbell in each hand with your arms relaxed by your sides.
- Step forward a few feet with your left leg and plant your foot flat on the floor.
- Drop your right knee down toward the floor.
- Stand up by bringing your right foot up in line with your left.
- Step forward with the right foot and drop your left knee down.
- Continue to walk forward, alternating legs each time.
The lunge requires more balance than the squat, since your feet are moving and you have a narrower stance, Halse says. And it works your legs independently, which helps even out any strength imbalances between your left and right sides.
Drop the dumbbells if you don't feel comfortable using weights with your lunges.
Move 5: Low Plank
- Lie on your stomach on the floor.
- Plant your forearms under you, with your elbows directly under your shoulders.
- Lift your body up so that only your toes and forearms are on the floor.
- The rest of your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles.
- Hold this position as long as you can (aim for at least 10 seconds), making sure that your hips don't drop down toward the floor.
After doing two upper-body and two lower-body exercises, your limbs should be tired. So it's time to work your abs. Planks strengthen your core and may help prevent back pain. They're also a simple and easy-to-learn exercise — perfect for beginners — Halse says.
To modify, you can drop to your knees or perform the plank with your hands on an exercise bench or against a wall.
How to Start Weight Training for Women
When designing a weight-training program, you have to decide the number of days per week you'll work out, which movements you're going to do and the number of reps (how many times you do an exercise) and sets (how many rounds of that number of reps) you'll perform.
"For a beginner, full-body workouts are your best option," Halse says. "With a total-body workout, you won't spend too much time on any one muscle group, and you can limit your workouts to 2 to 3 sessions per week."
During your workout, you should do upper-body, lower-body and core movements to hit all your major muscles, Halse recommends. One set of 8 to 12 reps per exercise should be enough, but you can do 2 or 3 sets if you need more of a challenge.
Weight Machines vs. Free Weights
There are two categories of equipment in the weight room: machines and free weights. According to a small July 2019 study published in Experimental Gerontology, both can help you build strength.
"Machines are generally easier to use for beginners, since they're designed to guide you through the proper range of motion," Halse says. "However, they're not one-size-fits-all, and if you're taller or shorter than average, the machine's setup may feel a bit awkward."
Free-weight exercises require more coordination, but they have more carryover to daily activities, he says. It's harder to learn free-weight exercises, but they might be better in the long run since they employ functional movements.
To make the most of a beginner weight training program for women, consider hiring a trainer or other fitness professional who can watch your form to make sure you're safe. One of the most common causes of injury in the weight room is bad technique, so that's the first thing you should address.
- Experimental Gerontology: "Effects of Free Weights and Machine Training on Muscular Strength in High-Functioning Older Adults."
- PeerJ: "Comparison of Upper Body Strength Gains Between Men and Women After 10 Weeks of Resistance Training."
- Research Gate: "The Role of Strength and Power During Performance of High Intensity Military Tasks Under Heavy Load Carriage."
- American Heart Association: "Strength and Resistance Training Exercise"
- ACE Fitness: "Goblet Squat"
- ACE Fitness: "Strength Training Workout for Beginners"
- ACE Fitness: "Total-Body Workout for Beginners"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Want a Stronger Core? Skip the Sit-Ups"