Fitness

Strength Training For Women

Strength Training For Women
Written by Michael

If there’s one exercise that all women should be doing, strength training is it.

No matter how you look at it, you simply will not find a more effective and beneficial form of exercise than strength training is.

With a good strength training routine, you will:

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    Experience a boost to your resting metabolic rate, making fat loss or weight maintenance that much easier
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    Increase your functional strength, ensuring you can complete all of life’s daily tasks with ease
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    Boost your energy levels – no more crashing at 3pm!
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    Improve your mood and confidence levels
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    Strengthen your bones and prevent osteoporosis down the road
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    Increase your heart health
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    Improve your balance and agility, which transfers over into any sports you may participate in
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    Completely transform your body, adding shape and curve exactly where you want it to be

This is really on the tip of the iceberg. Strength training, also sometimes referred to as resistance training or weight lifting, is so beneficial that you’d be silly not to be doing it. But yet, many women still shy away, thinking it’ll cause them to be big and bulky.

This is not the case however. As a woman, you simply do not possess enough of the hormone testosterone in your body to develop lots of muscle bulk.

Not only that, but hormones aside, building a lot of muscle also means spending hours and hours in the weight room and taking in a lot of food.

If you’ve ever witnessed a teenage boy in his prime growth years (or similarly a 23 year old male athlete), you know just how much they eat.

Unless your eating habits mirror that, you won’t be getting big or bulky any time soon.

Instead, on the female body, strength training will help tighten you up, give you that firm look you’re after, and help you transform your body into something you are proud.

Let’s talk for a moment how strength training differs for men versus women.

Strength Training For Women VS Strength Training For Men

As a woman, you do have some special requirements. Your body is not the same as a man’s and as such, you expect to do things differently.

When it comes to strength training however, it’s not as different as you might think.

You’ll still need to perform the same exercises as men will, use the same workout parameters, and even use a similar workout program overall as your boyfriend, husband, or male friend would.

The Biggest Difference?

First, women typically are not naturally as strong, so you clearly won’t be lifting as much weight (obviously, some women can lift more than some men, there are many men that aren't strong, many women who are incredibly strong...).

That said, this doesn’t mean you should go pick up those 5-pounders.

You still need to challange yourself to the limit. While your male gym partner may hoist the 50 pound dumbbells and feel challenged by it, you might use the 15 pound dumbbells and feel the same degree of challenge.

You both are working hard and are using a heavy weight relative to your strength level.

Woman lifting weights

Pay attention to how you feel during your workout sessions and your body will guide you with how much you should be lifting.

Second, as a woman, you may not recover quite as well. Men tend to bounce back between sessions faster and can handle more workout volume. This is again thanks to that higher level of testosterone they have.

So while he may do 4-5 sets per exercise, you may only do 3. It’s a minor change, but an important one to note.

Pay attention to how you feel during your workout sessions and your body will guide you with how much you should be lifting.

Finally, the last primary difference between men and women when it comes to weight lifting is that for fat loss purposes, women may need to use techniques that employ shorter rest periods.

This includes things like supersets (pairing two exercises back to back), drop sets (performing one set, dropping the weight and then immediately moving to the second set), as well as circuit training (performing 5 or more exercises all in a row).

All of these will help give your metabolic rate a bit more of a boost and help you tap into the stubborn body fat stores that you tend to have.

Men generally do lose weight more easily than females do, so these techniques will help give you a bit of an edge.

That’s about is as far as differences go. As you can see, there isn’t a huge change between female based plans and male based plans.

Now let’s look at how to figure out your optimal gym environment.

Where To Workout? Home Versus The Gym

It’s the age-old debate: where do you workout? 

You can either get a membership at a commercial gym or transform your basement, a bedroom, or a living room into a home gym instead.

There are pros and cons to each, so understanding these can help you make the most informed choice for you.

Home Gym

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the home gym is the fact it’s ready when you are. There are no opening hours to worry about, nor are there any other gym-goers who may hog the equipment that you want.

Well equipped modern home gym

For anyone who likes a little more privacy to workout, this can be a very good thing.

You have free reign when you’re in your home gym.

For anyone who likes a little more privacy to workout, this can be a very good thing. It’s also great for those who may have young kids at home who need to be watched while you are exercising.

If taking your kids to and from childcare (or hiring a baby sitter) is the one thing that keeps you from hitting the gym, a home gym can help you overcome this.

The drawback to the home gym however is that you will be more limited. You simply won’t have the full range of equipment that you’d have in a commercial gym, so this could stagnate progress a little.

With more equipment options, you can simply maximize what you do in the gym and see faster results.

Commercial Gym

Which now brings us to the commercial gym. There are many great things about using a commercial gym.

First, you get access to so many machines and equipment. The choices are endless so boredom should never be a factor in your workout routine.

Second, you’ll also have access to personal trainers. For those of you who are just starting out, this can also be a very good thing and give you the confidence you need to keep at those workout sessions.

The commercial gym also tends to have a good motivational environment. If you are exercising around others who are fitness minded and working hard, you are likely to do the same.

You might even find you meet a few gym-minded friends in the process, which can keep you on track with leading the healthy lifestyle.

Well equipped commercial gym

Commercial gyms will have more equipment, and better equipment, than you have at home. It's also harder to quit early than when you're at home.

Commercial gyms also typically offer a variety of different fitness classes, so if you are looking for a change of pace, you might decide to take in one or two of these.

Finally, the commercial gym also is free from distractions. Many women who use home gyms find that they often get distracted by the TV, computer, or the phone and before they know it, they’ve skipped yet another session.

When you go to the gym, these won’t be there to side-track you. You are there to work.

While this isn’t to say a commercial gym is better for everyone than a home gym is, for the most part, if you are looking to achieve maximum results, it’s a great place to be.

Let’s get into the specifics now and talk exercise selection.

Your Master Guide To Exercise Selection

Now that you know where you are going to be working out, how will you workout? What exercises should you be using in your strength training routine?

There are two primary types of exercises you have to choose from when going about your strength training routine. These are compound exercises and isolation exercises.

Compound exercises are the key ones to focus on as they give you the best return for your time investment. They work multiple muscle fibers at once and typically span across two or more joints.

These are called battle ropes, they offer a great workout for your arms and core, along with a great way to get your heart rate soaring quickly.

These are called battle ropes, they offer a great workout for your arms and core, along with a great way to get your heart rate soaring quickly.

The more muscle fibers you work at any given instant, the stronger you will get and the higher your metabolic response will be.

Isolation exercises, on the other hand, work primarily the smaller muscle groups and isolate just one muscle at a time, as their name suggests.

These exercises can be good to fine-tune your muscles once you have gained the strength and shape that you are after.

Let’s go over the primary compound exercises that you should be focusing on in your workout routine. Add these and you will be on track to seeing optimal results.

How To Do Squats

It simply doesn’t get better than the squat. Unless an injury prohibits you, you should be squatting.

This single exercise works so many muscle groups at once, it can completely transform your physique.

Note that there are many variations to the squat you can perform including back squats, low bar squats, front squats, sumo squats, bodyweight squats, jump squats, as well as prisoner squats. You should never be bored with this move.

Muscles utilized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves, Lower Back, Upper Back, Core

How-To

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    Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and extend your hands straight out in front of you for balance
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    Start to sit down as you would into a chair, but keep your head facing forward as your upper body slightly bends forward
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    Your lower back will arch slightly, don't allow your back to become rounded.
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    Try to make your thighs parallel with the floor as your legs remain fairly straight.
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    Keep your core tightened as you stand back up by pushing through your heels, and repeat.

How To Do Deadlifts

After squats you have deadlifts, another exercise that you should be doing is the deadlift.

Deadlifts are excellent for helping you build superior lower back strength and will also work the posterior chain muscles as well (glutes and hamstrings).

You can either do stiff legged deadlifts where the knees don’t bend at all or traditional deadlifts, where you maintain a slight bend in the knee.

Bending the knee will put a bit more emphasis on the quads as well as the back muscles, while keeping the knee straight will take the quads out of the picture.

Muscles utilized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core, Lower Back

How-To

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    Stand with a barbell in front of the feet in an upright position, feet about hip width apart.
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    Bend over, bending the knees as you do while keeping the back flat.
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    Once at 90 degrees, reach forward and place both hands on the barbell.
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    Press up, keeping the back flat as you resume a standing position and lift the weight off the ground.
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    Pause at the top before lowering the weight to the ground to complete the rep.

How To Do Lunges

Lunges are another good leg exercise to be adding to your routine and will really hit those lower body muscles as well as your core.

Do these stationary, walking, or even in reverse if you want. You can use a barbell across your back, a set of dumbbells at your sides, or just your own bodyweight if you prefer.

Muscles utilized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves, Core

How-To

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    In a standing position, arms down by your side, take one step forward about 2 feet (or a comfortable distance).
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    Begin bending both knees as you lunge down, moving the back knee towards the ground. Keep the body upright.
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    Lower down until the knee is almost touching the floor, pause and then press up, bringing the back leg in front of the other leg to assume the next rep.

How To Leg Press

If you cannot squat for whatever reason (injury or lack of equipment), the leg press can be a good stand-in exercise.

The leg press is going to mimic the movement of the squat quite well, however is a considerably easier exercise to perform.

Do it on its own or after your squats are performed. Also consider doing a single leg press (using just one leg at a time) to help ensure you aren’t ever suffering from muscle imbalances.

Muscles utilized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Quads, Calves, Core (to a small degree)

How-To

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    Position yourself in a leg press machine, placing the feet in the middle of the foot pad about hip width apart.
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    Press the platform up until the knees are extended and then lower down towards you until knees are at a 90 degree angle.
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    Pause and then press up again to complete the next rep.

How To Bench Press

For the upper body, the bench press is one of the best exercises to be doing. It’ll hit all the muscles on the front side of the body and is an excellent strength building exercise.

You can also do many variations of this one including incline bench press, decline bench press, as well as use both dumbbells and barbells for variety.

Some women mistakenly believe doing a bench press is going to decrease the size of their breasts, however note that the only thing that does that is getting down to a very low body fat percentage.

By doing bench press, you’ll actually help tighten the muscles underneath the fatty tissue that forms your breasts, which can create the look of better cleavage. It’s one exercise not to avoid!

Muscles utilized: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps, Core (to a small degree)

How-To

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    Position yourself in a flat bench, back down, and place both hands up on the barbell above you. Use a shoulder width grip.
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    Press the barbell up until the elbows are extended but not locked.
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    Keeping the back pressed into the back pad, lower the barbell down until it’s almost touching your sternum. Pause and then press back up to complete the rep.

How To Shoulder Press

To really develop strong, well developed shoulders, try the shoulder press.

This move is a primary strength builder for this muscle group and can be done with both a barbell as well as a set of dumbbells.

You can also do it seated for maximum strength or if you want to incorporate more of your core, standing as well.

Muscles utilized: Front Delts, Lateral Delts, Triceps, Biceps, Core (if standing)

How-To

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    In a seated position, hold two dumbbells resting on your thights.
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    Next, ‘kick’ those dumbbells up (or bring them up yourself) until they are resting just above shoulder height. Elbows should be tucked in, back straight.
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    Begin to press the dumbbells up over your head, extending the elbows but not locking.
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    Pause for a second at the top and then lower the weight back down to complete the rep.

How To Do Rows

After hitting your chest and shoulders, you now have to work on your back. Some women tend to neglect their back because it isn’t a muscle group they see every day, but having a strong back is vital.

It’ll not only help prevent back pain down the road, but also help to prevent your shoulders from rounding as your chest muscles grow stronger.

Bent over rows can be done with just one hand using a set of dumbbells, both hands using a barbell, or you can use one of the weight machines and do horizontal rows or cable rows if you prefer.

Muscles Utilized: Latissimus dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Biceps, Posterior Deltoid, Core

How-To

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    Assume a standing position with a barbell down in front of the feet.
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    Bend the back until it’s at a 90 degree angle, keeping the knees relatively straight (a slight bend is permitted).
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    Reach down and grab ahold of the barbell using a shoulder width grip pattern.
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    Pull the barbell up towards the chest, keeping the back flat and avoiding using momentum to hoist the weight up.
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    Pause when it’s as high as it can go and then lower back down to complete the rep.

How To Do Pull-Ups/Lat Pull-Down

When working your back, you want to aim to do an equal amount of horizontal pulling exercises with vertical pulling exercises. If you do too much of one and not enough of the other, a strength imbalance may exist.

To counteract your rowing exercises, turn to pull-ups or lateral pull-downs.

These exercises are great for giving you a bit of a broader appearance towards the shoulders, which in turn will help create the illusion of a slimmer waistline - something almost every woman desires.

Muscles utilized: Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapeszius, Posterior Deltoid

How-To

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    Grab a hold of an overhead bar, hands placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
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    Bend the knees slightly and keep the body in a straight, vertical line. Begin to contract the back and arms as you pull the body up to the bar. 
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    Pause when you reach the top and then slowly begin lowering again to complete the rep.
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    Continue on until all reps are completed.
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    Note you may do this in an assisted pull-up machine if necessary.

How To Do A Plank Hold

Finally, to finish off your body, you need a core exercise. The plank is an excellent go-to.

This exercise is unlike others in that it is an isometric hold, meaning you aren’t actually moving while doing the exercise but rather, holding one position in place.

The longer you can hold this, the stronger your muscles are.

Muscles utilized: Rectus Abdominis, Obliques, Transverse Abdominis, Delts (to some degree for balance), Glutes (for stability)

How-To

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    Get down on the ground and balance your body weight on your forearms placed directly below the shoulders and your toes, balancing on the floor.
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    Keep the body straight and flat at all times while contracting the abdominal core.
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    Balance here for 30 seconds or longer – as long as you can go while maintaining good form.

So there you have a closer look at the main compound exercises you should be including in your workout routine.

Do keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, but rather a brief overview of the most effective moves to get into place.

Once all these compound exercises are in place, you can then begin to add some of the isolation exercises noted earlier including moves like leg extensions, hamstring curls, bicep curls, overhead tricep extensions, lateral raises, and so on.

Now let’s talk about how to determine your perfect workout intensity level.

Figuring Out Your Perfect Intensity

Once you have your exercise selection all figured out, the next step is planning your workout intensity. How hard should you be working each workout?

In order for weight training to be effective, you do need to apply what’s referred to as an overloading stimulus on the muscle tissues. This means subjecting them to more stress than they’ve ever experienced before.

Woman in great shape on black background

In order for weight training to be effective, you do need to apply what’s referred to as an overloading stimulus on the muscle tissues.

You do that by raising the intensity of the workout session. There are three ways you can do this: through altering your rep range, altering your set performed, or changing your rest periods.

Let’s look at each one individually.

Reps

Reps stands for how many times you move from start to finish of the movement before taking a break to rest.

Generally speaking, the guidelines for building muscle is to perform 8-12 reps, for building maximum strength is 5-8 reps, and for muscular endurance, you’d aim for 12-15 reps.

Keep in mind not all exercise need to be in this rep range, but most of them should be. To increase the intensity, you can aim to increase the rep range in the range you are shooting for.

So for instance, if you are looking to build some lean muscle mass, you’d be looking at 8-12 reps.

If you can currently do 8 at your given weight level, next workout, you’d try and get to 9. Then 10, then 11, then 12. Once you can do 12 reps, you are then ready to move into the next higher weight level.

Do that rather than moving beyond 12 reps (unless your goal has been changed).

Sets

The second way to boost intensity is to simply add more sets. Sets refers to how much volume you are doing per workout.

Do keep in mind that there are limits here though. You simply can’t go in and add another set every workout or soon you’d be doing workouts that last for hours.

Start with two sets per exercise and then work your way to doing 3, or possibly even 4-5 if it’s one of the main compound moves.

Ideally you should be aiming for between 20-30 sets per workout session.

Start at the lower end of this and work your way to the higher end. Once you are at the higher end, you then know it’s time to increase intensity through another parameter - adding more weight or changing your rep range.

Rest

Rest is the final way you can alter intensity of a given workout.

Ideally you’ll want your rest period to last for around 30-60 seconds if your goal is muscle building/shaping and 60-120 seconds if you goal is strength improvement.

If you are aiming for muscular endurance, 20-45 seconds is usually sufficient.

Just remember, never sacrifice rest for proper form. Keeping your form right is a must. To add more intensity through rest times, you’ll simply decrease how much total time you spend resting between each set.

After you’ve adjusted all of these parameters in your workout routine, keep in mind there are other techniques you can use to boost the intensity such as supersets and drop sets as noted above.

By continually changing things around and looking for new ways to force the muscles to keep working hard, you will ensure you don’t hit a progress plateau.

Now let’s go over how you’ll go about planning your overall training program.

Planning Your Training Program

The next step in formulating a smart workout program is looking at your overall workout week. How will you be structuring your program in terms of each session you do?

There are a few ways you can go about this:

  • Full body workouts
  • Upper/lower workouts
  • Push/pull/legs workouts
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    Bodypart split workout

Let’s address each of these.

Full Body Workouts

The first workout set-up you can use is a full body workout. Here, as the name suggests, you’ll be working all your main muscle groups each and every workout.

Because muscles need at least 48 hours to rest between sessions, this means that you’ll do your workouts every other day.

Full body programs are great for beginners as well as more advanced trainees as they really focus on strength development.

As you will be using so many compound exercises as well, they’re also great for fat loss purposes.

With the full body workout, as you are hitting every muscle group in each session, you’ll find you have little room for isolation exercises, so compound moves will be the primary focus.

Note that you’ll want to do at least two full body workouts per week, ideally doing three total.

Here is a sample full body workout routine:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Saturday
  • Sunday

Cardio/Rest

Upper/Lower Workouts

The upper/lower workout program is where you will break the body up into halves, working the upper body twice per week and the lower body twice per week.

You’ll usually do two workout days in a row, take one day off and then take two days off for recovery before finishing up the week.

This type of protocol is great for those who want to specialize a little more on each muscle group as you can do more total exercises per muscle group compared to a full body workout session.

It’s also good for those who want to spend a little more time in the gym, doing four days per week instead of two or three.

Here is what a sample upper/lower split workout would look like:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Saturday
  • Sunday

Cardio/Rest

Push/Pull/Legs Workouts

If you want to break things down even further you can then look into a push/pull/legs routine.

This divides the upper body into pushing movements and pulling movements, allowing for an even greater focus on each individual muscle group.

With this routine, you have the choice of either performing three workouts per week (one session of each), or doing four to five workouts and simply picking up the following week where you left off.

Consider your own recovery ability and time availability when determining how you will structure this one.

Let’s look at what a sample push/pull/legs workout would look like:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Saturday
  • Sunday

Rest

Bodypart Split Workouts

Finally, the last type of workout is the body part split workout. With this one, you’ll only be working one or two different muscle groups at a time, therefore you’ll likely designate a different muscle group to each day of the week.

Generally speaking, this type of workout doesn’t have you working enough total muscle fibers per session to really be effective for fat loss or muscle strength, or does it have you training your muscles with a high enough frequency.

For this reason, you’ll want to refrain from utilizing this type of protocol.

The only people who may benefit from split body workouts are those who are getting ready to compete in bodybuilding/fitness events.

Incorporating Cardio Into The Picture

Now that we’ve talked a lot about how you will structure your weight lifting routine, we also need to address cardio training. As cardiovascular exercise is part of a well-rounded workout plan, it’s important that you are taking the time to get it in as well.

Which type of cardio should you be doing and how much?

Generally speaking, if your goal is to build muscle and shape your body, 2-3 sessions per week of cardio done for 20-30 minutes is plenty. At this point your primary focus with cardio is keeping your heart health in shape.

You can do this with moderate intensity cardio, which won’t put too much stress on the body and make it harder to recover from those intense weight lifting workouts you are doing.

People doing cardio workout on the rooftop

Cardio sessions last around 20-30 minutes including a warm-up and a cool-down and allow you to boost your metabolic rate the best, ensuring fat loss progresses at a good pace.

These should be done either after your weight lifting is completed or on a day you aren’t weight lifting.

If your goal is fat loss on the other hand, sprint training is often the ideal variation to be performing. Sprint training is where you alternate between very intense bouts of exercise with active rest periods, repeating this protocol six to ten (or more) times.

These sessions last around 20-30 minutes including a warm-up and a cool-down and allow you to boost your metabolic rate the best, ensuring fat loss progresses at a good pace.

If you are going to do these sessions, try and do them on a separate day that you are lifting so that you aren’t too exhausted to maintain the intensity hat you need to.

2-3 sessions of these is usually sufficient for optimal progress. Remember that you do still need to have 1-2 days off per week for complete rest and recovery, so be sure you aren’t adding too much cardio to your strength training sessions.

A Word On Nutrition

Now, all of this said, one thing that must be stressed here is the importance of nutrition. If you want to reshape your body, building more lean muscle mass and burning fat, you need to be fueling your body right.

Think of it this way: if you were trying to build a new addition to your house and you brought in a team of builders but gave them no supplies, how far would they get?

Spinach salad on a table

If you want to optimize your results, you simply must pay attention to nutrition. The two go hand-in-hand so do not overlook this critical factor.

They could swing their hammers all day long but if they had no wood or bricks, they wouldn’t make any progress. The same goes for your body.

Without the raw materials from food, you simply cannot build muscle. It’s like trying to build something out of thin air - it isn’t going to happen.

Likewise, for fat loss, if you are providing too much energy for your body over and above your needs, some of that energy is going to spill over.

Think of it like pouring water into a cup. If you pour more water than you can drink, some of that water will end up on the floor. In your body, your cells are like floor.

If you want to optimize your results, you simply must pay attention to nutrition. The two go hand-in-hand so do not overlook this critical factor.

Final Tips To Accelerate Your Success

Finally, before we leave off, here are a few important steps that will help you see maximum success. No matter what program you are using, these will all apply to you.

  • Always warm-up! Take 5-10 minutes and do a brief warm-up before you weight lift. In addition to this, do one warm-up set for the first exercise or two you do. You’ll perform better because of it.
  • Remember to breathe. Holding your breath during your exercises will decrease your strength output and may increase blood pressure to dangerously high levels.
  • Always move through the full range of motion. You’ll only short yourself of results if you cut the range of motion short.
  • Concentrate on the mind-muscle connection. This means picturing your muscles contracting as you go through the movement and really squeezing that target muscle fiber as hard as you can.
  • Listen to your body. If you feel sharp pain that is not normal fatigue.

FAQ

Have questions? Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about strength training.

What if I miss a workout? Should I do it the next day?

I don't know how to do exercise 'X'. What should I do?

My knees always seem to hurt. How can I work my lower body?

I can't seem to lift more weight. No matter what I try, I'm stuck. Do you have any suggestions?

Isn't it better to do cardio first to burn fat and then focus on strength training?

I'm short on time. What can I do?

How do I really know I'm working hard enough?

Should I train to failure?

Do I need to eat before I do a weight lifting workout?

Conclusion

So there you have your complete guide to structuring your resistance training workouts.

When done properly, this workout variety really does have the power to completely change your body, so give it the attention it deserves.

Many women are slightly scared of this type of training, but once you start it and see the kinds of results you get, you’ll never look back.

Plus, it’s a lot more fun than all the cardio sessions you may have been doing in the past.

About the author

Michael

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.