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. 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.
Weight Machines vs. Free Weights
There are two categories of equipment in the weight room: machines and free weights. According to a 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. 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. 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.
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 a given exercise) and sets (how many rounds of that number of reps you'll do) you'll perform.
For a beginner, full-body workouts are your best option. With a total-body workout, you won't spend too much time on any one muscle group, and you can limit your workouts to two to three sessions per week.
During your workout, you should do upper-body, lower-body and core movements to hit all your major muscles. One set of eight to 12 repetitions per exercise should be enough, but you can do two or three sets if you need more of a challenge.
Read more: Free Weights Routine for Beginners
Try This Beginner Weight-Lifting Workout
Do: 10 reps of the following exercises. Repeat for three rounds total.
Move 1: Dumbbell Row
This upper-body exercise works some of your biggest upper back muscles, including your lats and trapezius.
- 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.
You can use a kettlebell on this exercise to make it easier to touch the ground between reps.
Move 2: Goblet Squat
This exercise uses weight in the front to let you lean back into the squatting motion. It's beneficial if you're not used to the squatting motion. The goblet squat primarily works the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.
- 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.
Beginners might find it easier to squat while holding weight than without because the weight acts as a counterbalance.
Move 3: Dumbbell Bench Press
The push-up is a commonly used exercise for the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles. However, push-ups are too 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.
- 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.
Move 4: Lunge
The lunge is one of the basic movements included in the American Council on Exercise's Integrated Fitness Training Model. It requires more balance than the squat because your feet are moving and you have a narrow stance. This exercise works your legs independently, which helps even out imbalances in strength between your left and right sides.
- 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.
Drop the dumbbells if you don't feel comfortable using weights with your lunges.
Move 5: Forearm Plank
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.
- 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.
If planks are too easy, try doing a side plank to make things harder.
- 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"