The misconception about strong women needs to die. Women who lift weights don’t look like a man, they don’t get bulky and lose their femininity. The reality is that women over 30 need to lift weights. We start losing lean muscle tissue when we turn 30 and that continues for the rest of our lives. The only way to combat that is by lifting weights and challenging ourselves. That helps with the diminishing lean muscle tissue and to help stave off osteoporosis.
I can tell you from my own experience, I don’t look like a man but I sure lift like one. The problem with typical resistance training material out there, is that it’s usually geared towards male bodybuilders. Women don’t train like men do and most of us don’t have the same goals. Over the years of training myself and clients, I’ve found a framework that is pretty effective for most women, especially over 40.
There are a number of different types of resistance training and I cycle through three of them in order to gain lean muscle tissue, gain strength and to ensure I have functional strength long term. I like to do five weeks at each phase. For the first two weeks, I lift enough that I’m feeling like I’m working and challenged. For the next two weeks, I kick it up a big notch, keeping in mind safety but pushing myself that much more. On the final week, I lower the weights slightly lower than the first week to “de-load” which helps me recover from the more demanding previous weeks. This is linear periodization and works well for beginners or novices who consistently hit the weights 2-3x per week. In order to stay interested and get results, it’s best to have a Workout A and a Workout B and alternate between the two every workout. The guidelines and samples I’ve listed below are good for someone new to resistance training.
Hypertrophy Phase – this is when lean muscle tissue is increased. The sets and reps for someone starting out would be around 3-4 sets and 8-12 reps. During this phase, you’ll be hungrier and protein will be very important while you are building muscle. You’d be looking at having protein (about the size of a deck of cards) with every meal and at least one snack. A hard boiled egg would be perfect for this. You might find that you gain a bit of weight during this phase. When we are in “building mode” we will gain both fat and muscle. We don’t gain muscle and lose fat. We’re either gaining or losing. The good news is that during subsequent training phases, this weight will be lost, as long as you are eating moderately.
Here is an idea of what this kind of routine would look like. The exercises I selected are very basic ideas of what you’d want to be working/doing. Before you’d attempt a Deadlift, having someone coaching you can be valuable or even watching a good video like this one. Same goes for Squats – here is a good video on proper form. You’re going to select a weight that is heavy and you have to work to lift, but you can, with effort, lift about 10 times or so.
Circuit #1: do all these exercises 3-4 times in succession, having a 1-2 minutes break between each circuit. Squat [bodyweight, dumbell or barbell], Pushup, One Arm Dumbbell Row
Circuit #2: Lats Pulldown, Step Ups, Hammer Curls
Circuit #3: Plank, Side Plank
Circuit #1: Deadlift, Chest Press, Barbell Row
Circuit #2: Lateral Lunge, Overhead Press, Reverse Lunge
Circuit #3: Back Extensions, Stability Ball Jackknife
Strength Phase – The main adaptation during this phase is on your central nervous system. It teaches the brain to fire the correct muscles and to work together. At the end of a strength phase the muscles that you made bigger now have the oomph to back them up. When putting together a routine at this phase, include 2-3 sets for and about 5 reps. You’ll likely be less hungry and would find yourself snacking less or loading up your plate less. Listen to your hunger cues! For weight selection, heavy is best. You’re only moving this weight five times and you want to be working hard each repetition. You want to be able to maintain correct form but still push yourself.
I’ve put together a basic routine with some very fundamental exercises as an example.
Workout A – do them one at a time with 2-5 minutes break in between exercises:
Deadlift, Chest Press, Assisted Pullups, Front Squat [I don’t recommend heavy Back Squats the same day as Deadlifting], Medicine Ball Crunches
Workout B – Back Squat, Incline Pushups [or regular ones if they are hard enough], One Arm Dumbbell Row, Hip Thrusters, Lats Pulldown
Endurance Phase – most women are very familiar with this phase. Many fitness classes and workout videos include muscular endurance. I like including an endurance phase in programs because it provides a good recovery physically from the challenging prior phases and offers a chance to do different exercises like Kettle Bell Swings, Squat Thrusts, Pushup Rows, Jump Squats and Stability Ball exercises which are less technical and fatiguing. This is when you can use a video, like Fitness Blender [which is a free, online fitness streaming service] or just a combination of the above exercises but much lighter. In addition, during this phase, if body composition goals are something you’re working on, this would be an ideal “cutting” time which is when you’d be losing the weight you gained in the first stage. Your set and rep range would be 2-3 sets and 12+ (try about 15) reps. You’ll pick weights where your muscles feel tired at the end of the workout but something you can do a bit longer. In addition to weights, you could also do cardio moves like Burpies or Mountain Climbers during breaks between sets or you could include a cardio finisher which would be 10 minutes of HIIT training at the end. You won’t be smashing the same meals and snacks that you would have in the past. This is when you’d practice moderation because you’re body isn’t going to be screaming for food.
So now that you are armed and dangerous, it’s time to get fierce in the weight room!