So If you’ve read part 1 (33 reasons you should be lifting weights) that you can find here.
And part 2 (why the things you’ve heard about lifting weights are probably nonsense) that you can find here
Then you’re ready to start incorporating some weight training into your life and reaping the serious rewards it brings.
But where to start?
This might be the single biggest reason more women don’t lift weights and women most definitely should be lifting weights!
(and perhaps just more people in general don’t lift weights and just end up on the treadmills- I’ve written another article about this, that you can see here)
So to get you started here’s a primer on how to plan out your training and a few tip to get the most out of it as a new female lifter. The best thing you can do though is to simply never stop learning-
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Now, with the self promotion over… on with the article!
1. Focus on getting better at compound movements.
Your body never moves in the real world one joint at a time, so why would you focus your time on training it to do that?
The things you should be focused on fall into five basic movement patterns.
· Hip Hinges
With these five movements you can train your entire body not only to be functional athlete, but to look like one too.
Let’s break it down a little bit.
Squats are movements where both your hips and knees are flexed to acute angles and then extended again.
Think of things like the goblet, barbell and prison squats you’ve probably seen people doing on Instagram to ‘build their booty…. (they aren’t the most efficient way to get a strong, shapely behind though, but more on that later…)
They predominantly train the muscles in your legs.
Hip hinges are movements where your hips achieve a high degree of flexion and your knees a smaller degree of flexion.
Think of the deadlift as the most popular example of this. Much like the squats, they’re a lower body exercises mostly, but they place a greater emphasis on the posterior chain muscles likes your glutes and hamstrings. Many, many studies have found that hinges have a greater impact on those glute muscles you're really after!
Pulls are movements where the weight in your hands is pulled closer to the midline of your body, or your body is pulled closer to your hands. This covers things like your pull-ups and your dumbbell rows. Most of the things you can do to train your upper back muscles are pull exercises.
Pushes are movements where the weight in your hands I pushed away from you, or you are pushed away from a surface. If you’ve seen a press-up, you’ve seen a push movement.
Pushes usually involve the upper body muscles, predominantly the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Carries are movements where you move weight or implements from one are to another. They’re arguably the most useful thing you could train for!
Just think how often you pick things up in real life and have to move them.
They’re also the most under-used of the movements- a lot of people don’t even carry their weights back after they’ve finished using them! Carries will condition your whole body, but they have a great effect on your legs, upper back, core and grip in particular.
So how do you go about putting these into a plan?
First things first, if you’re new to lifting weights, get acquainted with proper technique first. Safety and avoiding injury should be numero uno in your mind. You might see fancy looking exercises on the internet, like people doing lifts stood on balance balls or squatting stood on a kettlebell and think to try it.
But ask yourself, is the risk of injury worth the reward?
The answer is NO.
These stunts get a lot of likes and shares on social media because they look exciting.
Real training (I.e the stuff that gets you stronger and more resilient) isn’t as exciting to look at.
It’s the same way that an overhead kick isn’t what wins football matches.
The basics, done well and done safely, over time, are what will get there.
That means that priority number one is learning to lift weights properly.
Nothing beats having a coach to review your lifts and give you room for improvement.
If you can, find someone who is really competent to help you take your first steps into lifting weights (NB- just because your boy-friend lifts weights, doesn’t automatically make him competent!)
Sticking to simpler variations of movements is always a smart move in the early days too. Don’t worry, there’s time for the snatch grip, overhead barbell lunges once you’ve mastered the basics! As a basic rule, every exercise will exist on a spectrum of difficulty for that type of movement.
In the same way you wouldn't have a Vindaloo on your first trip to the Curry House, you shouldn't be doing high level barbell lifts the first time you go to the gym. Much like with Curry, there's less spicy (i.e easier!) exercises you should get aquainted with first and build up to the level of mastery needed to take on the Palls and Vindaloos of the gym! I hate to put it to you, but you're a Korma right now.
For a squat the spectrum of movement from least skill to most skill might look like this-
Bodyweight squat - goblet squat - split squat - Rear foot elevated split squat - High bar squat - low bar squat - overhead squat.
It's always a good idea to start towards the easier end of the spectrum, get the movement right then progress. You'll get to the cool looking stuff, but you'll get there with much better movement than by jumping in too soon and being punished for it by injury or compensatory movement patterns.
(Even if you're already doing back squats and things higher in skill, it's not a bad idea to revisit the easy end of the list form time to time and reinforce some good movement)
When you’re new, you don’t need too much stimulus to get a good training response.
For this reason, training with weights twice per week is enough.
On both days though we will include each of the five movements in order to give you lots of opportunity to practice the patterns. There will also be some extra exercises to provide balance to your physique and work on areas that are key for proper posture like the upper back, glutes and hamstrings (which also help you get that ‘hourglass’ figure!)
For the first 6 weeks, your main goal is to make sure your technique and movement are as smooth as possible.
Exercise 1- Squat.
If you’re entirely new to training, start with just body-weight, or even use support or a box or chair to squat to.
As you progress you can start to add external weight. The best way to do this is using kettlebells or dumbbells in the goblet position, which is where the weight is held touching your collar bone.
Aim to do either more reps, or slightly more weight each week so long as your technique remains sound.
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions with 1 minute breaks between sets.
(Goblet Squat shown in Picture)
Exercise 2- Hinge.
For your hinge exercise we will start with a kettlebell deadlift.
This is simpler than a barbell deadlift because you can set yourself up with the kettlebell directly under your hips and there’s no barbell to have to move your knees around.
You can make this exercise simpler again by placing the kettlebell on a step or box to reduce the range of motion and progressing by steadily lowering the height of the box, week by week.
The real key here is to make sure you are doing a deadlift and not a squat! Push your hips back as you lower the weight and squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to lift it.
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions with 1 minute breaks between sets.
(Kettlebell Deadlift shown in Picture)
Exercise 3- Pull.
Your pull exercises are, by and large, less complicated to perform than the squats and hinges.
For the sake of your shoulder health you will need to do a lot of them.
If you work towards having a ratio of two pulls to every push you perform then you’re taking good steps to having strong, stable shoulders and better posture.
If your gym has a TRX or other suspension strap, then start by doing these as your main pulling exercise. The difficulty of these is determined by your body angle. The more upright you are, the easier it is. You can progress the difficulty of the exercise by lengthening the straps and as a result, bringing your body more parallel to the ground.
(if your gym doesn’t have a TRX or suspension system, you can buy one and take it with you, or use a smith machine or even a barbell in a squat rack and achieve nearly the same effect)
Make sure you’re keeping your glutes squeezed and your core engaged on these! We don’t want any saggy bodies! If you stay tight, then you'll be relying on your core to keep you stable.
Do 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions with 1 minute breaks between sets.
(Suspension Row Pictured)
Exercise 4- Push.
Keeping it old school on this one.
The humble push-up.
You can use the TRX or suspension trainer for this one again and the same rules apply as the pull exercise-
the more upright you are, the easier it is.
So to progress the difficulty, get the handles closer to the ground so that your body is more parallel to the floor.
(Suspension Press-up in Picture)
However, the instability of the TRX might be too difficult to begin with. The straps will wobble around as you place your weight on top of them. If you can handle this, then keep doing them! It’ll train the stabilisers of your shoulders fantastically. (But make sure you can ACTUALLY do them, don't kid yourself if they're too hard...)
If the instability is a bit much to begin with, then use a smith machine or squat rack instead. The bar won’t wobble around like the TRX will! If you look at the picture you can see how setting the bar higher on the machine will reduce the body lean and as a result place less stress on the movement.
Do 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions with 1 minute breaks between sets.
(Smith Machine Press-up in Picture)
Exercise 5- Carry.
This one is super simple. Grab a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand and carry them for 20 seconds hanging at your sides.
Rest for 1 minute and repeat 5 times.
The potentially difficult part of this is getting the weights up to waist height, which is essentially a deadlift.
Having boxes set up to pick the weights off up from reduces the range of motion of you’re struggling to get the weight up from the floor safely.
Pick a weight that’s challenging to you. If the last set or two are getting to be difficult then you’re at about the right weight.
You’ll probably feel your back and forearms the most.
The big point to these is to keep your core braced as you walk and your shoulders back, chest up!
You can progress these either by using more weight or carrying for more time or distance.
In order to balance out the exercises and to give extra volume to key areas, we can do extra exercises after our main workout.
Because our glutes are so integral to a healthy posture (plus, everyone wants to build the booty) we will do some extra work to focus on them.
We will also do some extra pulls in order to keep the program balanced. A good balance is two pulls to every push. So in this case we need to do 3 more sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Now is also the time where we can get some core work into our workout to finish things off!
1. Glute Bridge.
This is kind of like doing the top portion of a squat or deadlift just to focus on the hip extension which trains the glutes.
Keep your core braced and really squeeze your butt cheeks to push your hips up!
You want your feet to be close enough to your body that in the top position of the squeeze, there’s a 90 degree angle at your knee. If your feet are further from you, then your hamstrings can start to take over and any closer and you might start to feel it more in your quads. Remember, this is a glute bridge- you want to be feeling it in your backside.
Do 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions with a minute break in between sets.
As these start to get easy, you can place a dumbbell or kettlebell on your hips to weight the movement, or you can progress to single leg variations.
(Glute Bridge with Kettlebell in Picture)
You don’t have to do the TRX pull again. Instead you can do something simpler, as the main purpose of the exercise is to just get some extra volume in for your upper back.
Something like a facepull, with cables or bands could work well here or you could even use a low row machine.
These will build up the muscles in the back of your shoulders that oppose the ones that pull your shoulders forward (your chest and front delts) which get shortened in classic sitting postures. These will really keep your shoulders feeling healthier and happier and give you that 'shoulders back' posture that makes you look stronger and more confident.
Complete 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions with a minute break in between sets.
(Cable Face-pull in Picture)
Time to get the six pack cooking!
To begin with for this I’d recommend sticking to planks and side planks.
There’s no need to be doing 1000 sit ups a day. Your core is more designed to resist movement that to cause it, so training it to do so is a smart move, as well as saving your spine from many many reps of flexion through thousands of crunches.
A plank trains your core to resist extension (i.e your stomach touching the floor!), which has a lot of carry over to our other movements, which also demand that the spine is kept neutral.
The secret to making these effect is firstly getting in the right position- you should be able to draw a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles that’d run right through your hips and knees (that means no bend in the back and no bums in the air!)
Squeeze your glutes and your abs throughout.
The second secret to making these really work for you is how you breath. Imagine you’re holding a rubber balloon in pursed lips. Breath in through your nose (so you don’t drop the balloon…) and exhale out through your mouth, hard, for a count of three like you were blowing the balloon up. I promise you, you will feel your core working!
Do 3 sets of these for 5 to 10 breaths each, or if you’re feeling tough, do as many breaths as you can before your form breaks down!
There you have it! A starter routine to unlock your true potential.
Follow this plan for 4 to 6 weeks, making sure to progress each movement either by weight, reps or time each workout. It only has to be a small increase, but the gradual progression is what will keep you getting stronger!
After you’ve completed the course, you’ll have the fitness and the skills to try something more challenging! As always, if you’ve got questions, or would like some advice, send me an email- firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you!
I also put out more content on social media- Instagram @run_jump_lift and facebook @runjumplift1 - If you're serious about your Heath and Fitness, you need to follow along.
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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