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Here is some bro-science for you that gets tossed around in the gym on a regular basis: Women should train with less resistance, more repetitions and do cardio or yoga to “tone” their body.

The reasoning behind this is that from doing heavy lifting (meaning heavier weights or greater resistance and fewer reps), everybody will get bulky and will look like a muscle machine. That’s why most men do resistance training after all – to put on visible muscle mass.

This all is absolute nonsense.

I hate the term “toned”, because it comes with so many misconceptions. The completely unjustified fear of accidentally bulking up keeps women from effectively achieving this defined look.

In this article, I want to clear out the myths that are fogging the female fitness world.

Read on if you want to know why strength training is the most effective tool for women to look incredibly sexy.

The Fear Of Becoming Bulky

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Okay, so you’re a women and you want to have a flat belly, defined arms, a nice round butt and firm legs. But you’ve been told to stay away from heavy resistance training if you don’t want to look like a man with boobs.

Well, when I first joined the gym, all I wanted was to build more muscle and get bulky. I was 19, which means I probably had the largest amount of testosterone (the hormone that plays a huge role in building muscle) in my blood stream ever in my life. I lifted weights for two years before I switched to calisthenics. I hardly skipped a workout and I was able to put more and more weights on the barbell. But I don’t look anywhere near like Schwarzenegger. Never did.

Even for men, it requires a significant amount of training and patience to achieve that bulked up look. Women are a bit handicapped regarding muscle growth because they have roughly ten times less testosterone than men.

For women, it is nearly impossible without added hormones and steroids AND the genetic potential to get overly bulky.

It is even more unlikely that you accidentally build too much muscle. It’s not like you’d lift for a month, wake up one morning and say “Gee, I sure look like The Hulk today, how in the devil’s name did that happen?!”.

It doesn’t work that way.

If you wanted to add significant muscle mass to your frame (man or woman), you’d have to eat a lot more than you do now, train really intense and consistent with heavy resistance and have a tight sleeping schedule to allow for optimal recovery.

It takes lots of dedication to get to that bulked up body. While the look of professional female bodybuilders is not everyone’s taste, they do work and sacrifice A LOT to get that look. And they put in that work and dedication for years.

But if your goal is just to look more “toned”, this biological limit works in your favor. Strength training is actually a very effective way to achieve the typical female aesthetic goals (rounder butt, flat belly, defined legs).

What Good Does Strength Training Do For Women?

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So maybe you now believe me when I say that strength training will do you no harm, aesthetically. But why should you favor it over other alternatives?

Well, that “toned” look you’re after is a result of two things: low body fat AND some muscle to show instead. To merely “lose weight”, you could just deprive yourself from eating and use cardio to burn calories. This caloric deficit results in a loss of body fat as well as muscle mass. The end result is what many refer to as skinny fat. This means spaghetti arms, chicken legs and an overall slim-but-not-fit look.

Strong is the new skinny.

For an impressive and sexy physique, strength training is a great method to achieve your goals more effectively and faster. It has numerous benefits which are not limited to recompositioning effects.

1. Greater hormonal response: Doing an intense, high resistance, compound exercise that uses lots of muscle groups simultaneously will trigger a few different things in your body. What everybody is after by exercising is the adaptation that gets invoked due to the stress you put your body under. If the stress is more intense, the adaptational response should be higher. This is expressed through several hormones, mainly testosterone and human growth hormone (GH). GH and testosterone are shown to be the major players when it comes to building muscle and shedding excess fat. More of this good stuff is produced by your body if you do intense strength training. (Doing cardio actually reduces these two hormones and increases cortisol, a catabolic hormone.)

About testosterone: Yes, this is the stuff that helps develop male features … in men. Women also benefit from having a healthy amount of testosterone in their blood stream. Because testosterone production is much lower in women, you don’t have to fear that your T-levels go overboard from strength training. They might be slightly elevated, which gives you a boost in mood, sleep quality, libido and overall well-being. Naturally elevated T-levels will certainly not make you manlier.

2. Higher resting metabolic rate (RMR): The really cool thing about strength training is that you will burn more calories even after your training session is over. A cardio session can potentially burn more calories than a strength session. But part of the adaptational response to a heavy training session is something that’s called the after burn. Shortly after the workout (1-3 hours), your body stays in a state of higher metabolic rate even if you don’t move one bit. Studies have shown that this effect is most significant for heavy resistance training (one study showed that resistance training increases RMR much more than plain endurance training). Besides, having more muscle mass results in higher energy expenditure during normal activities. It’s like having a bigger motor in your car: Just driving around town in a Hummer will burn more fuel than driving the same distance with a Prius.

3. Strength enables faster results: Being strong means you can use higher resistance, which in turn produces a higher adaptational response. Recompositioning effects are easier to achieve when you are strong. Studies have shown that strength correlates positively with the occurrence of hormones that drive fat metabolism.

4. Muscles give the body its shape: Having a decent amount of muscle mass gives your skin more firmness. It decreases you body fat ratio (because more muscle mass increases overall mass while fat stays the same). With more muscle mass, you’ll look leaner even if you haven’t lost one gram of fat.

5. Bone health: Especially women are at risk of osteoporosis and weak bones. Strength training counteracts this because bone mass and density increase because of heavy resistance training. This is again an adaptation of the body because your bones need to be strong enough to handle the heavy resistance.

6. You will be a total badass: Not only do I find women who do proper strength training extremely sexy, it’s also a pretty badass thing to do. Doing strength training proves that you don’t fear hard work and have some fire in your heart. It will boost your mood and confidence (long-term). It helps prevent injuries because strong muscles can better protect and stabilize your frame. Knowing you can handle some weight and your own body also gives you a great confidence boost.

7. It boosts performance-related results: If you’re an athlete of some kind, then simply having a greater baseline strength might accelerate your progress in your sport-specific skills. A sprinter with already strong legs will get training results faster than his weaker competitors. He already has the big motor, all that he has got to do is fine-tune the damn thing. Strength is the number one performance enhancer in almost every sport. All kinds of physical activities will be much easier if you are strong.

Calisthenics Strength Training for Women

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So, woman. Now that you’re totally stoked about strength training, you’ll probably want to know how to go about it. Here are some suggestions how to start a basic strength training routine, calisthenics style, of course.

Though I recommend that women do not train much differently than men, there is one main difference to keep in mind: Women usually have less upper body strength than men. Relatively to their bodyweight, women can handle the same resistance with their lower body, but they usually fall a bit short when it comes to upper body strength. This is the reason why many women struggle to perform a pull-up or a push-up. This needs to be considered when programming a strength routine.

Don’t get discouraged if your male counterparts are progressing faster on their upper body exercises. Just keep squatting.

What I recommend in general for beginners holds even more true for women: Do full body workouts whenever you can. No isolation or split programming is required here (of course, when you get really strong and want to experiment more with different exercises, more sophisticated programming might be appropriate).

Full body workouts that consist of compound movements usually give you a greater stimulus for adaptation. The overall hormonal response will be greater. Doing the whole workout as a circuit gives you a little bit of a cardio bonus and you’ll maybe burn a few more calories. It’s also more time efficient. Doing this workout usually takes no more than 20 minutes. So there is absolutely no excuse not to do it.

The workout consists of the following exercises:

  • Incline push-ups: Because women are weaker in their upper body than men, I recommend starting with incline push-ups. Have a look at this tutorial for more information on this push-up variation. Push-ups emphasize chest, triceps and shoulders. They also work your lats, core (abs and lower back) and even your butt if you squeeze it to maintain a straight body.

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  • Bodyweight rows: Most women cannot perform a regular pull-up (i.e. hanging from the bar and getting the chin over the bar). So I suggest starting with a lower bar where your feet are on the ground. Body is kept straight. It’s basically an upside-down incline push-up. This works your upper back muscles and biceps mostly, but all stabilizer muscles (read: abs) are also involved.
  • Squats: This is probably one of the best exercises women can do to improve their overall aesthetics. Squats target your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, which form the largest muscle group of your body. Doing squats generates the biggest hormonal response to put on lean muscle and burn fat. And you’ll also target your abs and lower back by consciously maintaining an upright torso throughout the movement.

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  • Planks: So far, the three compound pushing, pulling and leg exercises above all use a fair amount of core strength. By only doing these three exercises, you will work your abs and lower back (important for spine health). But planks work the midsection even more and have a great carry-over to all other exercises where you need whole body tension. The great thing about planks is that they force you to use the front and back of your core synergistically, meaning it’s functional and you don’t develop an imbalance by solely doing crunches. Get on the ground and into push-up position (arms locked out, legs together). Now stay that way. Sounds easy? Try to hold it for 2 minutes. Instead of your hands, you can rest on your elbows. This will be significantly harder.

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Find out how many repetitions you can perform of the push-ups, rows and squats and how long you can hold the plank. If you cannot perform 5 consecutive push-ups or rows, you should adjust the leverage (make it easier by choosing higher platforms/bars). If 20 squats are too much, do easier variations. Planks should be held for at least 30 seconds. Adjust the leverage as necessary.

Do those exercises in a circuit, meaning you’ll first do a set of push-ups, then rows, then squats and then finish with a plank hold. Do as many reps (or hold as long) as you can. Do 2-3 circuits. Rest briefly between circuits (1-2 minutes).

Aim first at increasing the number of circuits. In your last circuits, you will probably not be able to perform as many reps as you did in the first circuit. That’s normal. Try to increase the number of reps of each set.

An example workout could look like this:

Exercises Circuit 1 Circuit 2 Circuit 3
Incline Push-Up 10 8 6
Bodyweight Row 8 6 5
Squat 30 25 23
Plank 40s 30s 30s

The most common question I get is how many repetitions one should do. But because everybody is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As a rule of thumb, you should always be better than your past-self.

To make this happen, log your workouts. Then, every time you do the workout, try to add one repetition (or 5 seconds for planks) to each set.

Here are some numbers to aim for:

Exercises Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Incline Push-Up 10 20 30
Bodyweight Row 10 15 20
Squat 20 40 60
Plank 30s 60s 120s

When you reach level 3, you should think about finding harder exercises (regular push-ups instead of inclines, elevated feet bodyweight rows, etc.). Stay tuned because I will post more and more articles of these harder variations and how to progress to them.

Bonus: Abs, Legs And Butt

And because women love to emphasize their legs, butt and abs, here are some exercises that do just that. Add these exercises as a bonus to your regular workouts. Or to them on separate days if you can handle the volume.

Side note: There are all kinds of exercise programs from popular fitness magazines that promise to give you certain look, be it the way your butt, your legs or your belly looks like. In almost all cases, getting the recompositioning effect you want depends much more on your diet than the kind of exercise you do. Getting a nice looking flat belly is 90% diet, followed by training consistency and other lifestyle choices. Abs, like all muscles, merely give you a nicer shape once you’ve dropped enough body fat.

Jack Knives: Lie on the ground with your back. Extend your arms and legs to make your body as long as possible. Now, with straight legs and arms, bring your hands toes together. If this is too hard for you, keep your arms next to your body and angle your legs slightly. But aim for the hardest variation you can do.

Forward/backward/side lunges: Lunges can put a different emphasis on your leg muscles. Forget those awful machines in the gym where you have to spread your legs or are working every muscle in isolation. Squats and lunges are really all you need to work your legs.


Candle raises: Your butt will be on fire after this. Lie with your back on the ground. Put your feet on the ground so that your legs are bent at the knees about 90 degrees. Now put one leg up so that the toes point straight in the air (ideally, the straight leg and the ground should form a 90 degree angle). Now raise your hip so that your torso and the supporting upper leg are a straight line. Repeat for the other leg.

So here is your sample workout.

Women’s Bodyweight Workout

3 circuits, 2 minutes rest between circuits

AMRAP* for each exercise

Incline Push-Ups
Bodyweight Rows
Bodyweight Squats
Plank Hold


Bonus: AMRAP* Jack Knives, Lunges or Candle Raises

*As Much Reps As Possible

Do this every other day. You can either rotate the bonus exercises or choose your favorite and do it every workout.

 

I hope I could clear up some of the myths concerning female strength and conditioning training. Have fun with the workout and leave me a comment if you have any questions.

-Silvio


Photo sources: Duke University Archives: old school women’s gym, Guillermo V: female bodybuilder, Runar E: badass girl, MOVband UK: squat motivation

Videos and photos: Sabine A
Model: Steffi A

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