Women tend to have more body fat and lower muscle mass than men. Although a lack of male hormones makes it unlikely that you will ever develop the massive physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, women can gain strength and muscle mass through resistance-training, no matter your age, size or previous conditioning. If you are obese, over 40 years old or have underlying medical problems, consult your health care provider before starting a training program.
Types of Resistance
Develop strength by working your muscles against resistance. You can provide resistance using your own bodyweight in exercises such as pushups and dips or use resistance bands, free weights or cable or selectorized machines. Although bodyweight and resistance bands are convenient and inexpensive, they cannot challenge all muscle groups as effectively as free weights. Free weights, because they activate stabilizer muscles, are favored by advanced lifters, but require a trained spotter and correct technique for avoiding injury. Machines are easier to use and safer for new lifters, but are not always sized correctly for women's bodies.
Sets and Reps
To gain strength, you need to work your muscles to fatigue using weights you can lift no more than 15 times with good form. Don't restrict yourself to the pretty little pink dumbbells that are some out-of-touch guy's notion of femininity. To build strong, lean muscles, you need to break down muscle tissues with challenging workouts, and then allow your body to rebuild your muscles during your recovery period with more powerful muscle fibers. Beginning lifters should complete one full set of each exercise. At the intermediate level, add in a second set, using five percent more weight than you did in the first set and fewer reps. Advanced lifters can do more sets or add super or drop sets to maximize gains.
If you have limited time to spend in the gym, do total-body workouts on at least two non-consecutive days each week for muscular fitness. After a 10-minute cardio warmup, perform one set of each of 10 to 15 exercises, alternating upper and lower body so you can move directly from one station to the next without resting. A typical sequence would be chest press, leg press, lat pull down, crunches, seated row, Roman chair, overhead press, oblique crunches, flyes, thigh abductors and thigh adductors.
Intermediate lifters can do two-day split routines, which should include a mixture of compound and isolation exercises to develop strength and definition. On the first day of a two-day split, work the upper body. Exercise all major muscle groups in both pulling and pushing motions. A typical workout would include chest press, lat pull down, flyes, reverse flyes, overhead press, dips, seated row, dumbbell lateral or front raises and preacher curls. On the second day, work lower body and core, including some mixture of squats, lunges, deadlifts, leg presses, regular and twisting crunches, Captain's and Roman chair, leg curls, and thigh abductors and adductors. After doing a two-day split strength workout, take one day of moderate cardio to recover before your next strength workout.
Advanced lifters can achieve additional gains in strength using a three-day split. In order to be effective, a three-day split program requires that you spend 30 to 60 minutes a day, six days a week, in the gym. If you can't commit to that schedule, a total-body routine or two-day split is more effective. A three-day program typically divides your exercises so that you work chest and back on the first day, legs and abdominals on the second day and shoulders and arms on the third day. Do 30 to 60 minutes of moderate, low-impact cardio on your rest day for aerobic fitness.
- ExRx.net: Fat Loss & Weight Training Myths
- BodyBuilding.com: Women and Weight Training
- BodyBuilding.com: Lean, Sexy, Hard: Weight Training for Women Part 1
- American Council on Exercise FitFacts: Women's Strength Training: How Women Build Muscle
- BodyBuilding.com: Women Strength Training
- Columbia University GoAskAlice: Wants to Build Muscle Mass Through Weight Lifting and a Healthy Diet
- American Council on Exercise: What is the Difference Between Total Body Strength Training Routines and Split Routines?
- BodyBuilding.com: The Basic Rules of Split Training
- Exrx.net: 3 Day Split Workout
Carol Poster began writing professionally in 1974. Her articles have appeared in "Outdoor Woman," "Paddler," "Ski Magazine," "Women's Sports & Fitness," "Dance News," "Show Business," "The Athenian," "PC Resource" and "Utah Holiday," among other publications. Poster holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri.