There are many ways to exercise for fun and happiness and health, but personally, I think the very best is to lift some heavy-arse weights. As a woman, though, I had a hard time finding the right information about how to get started. Popular advice for women generally has you “toning” and spending entire days doing exercises for your butt. Advice that purports to be written for humans in general is often aimed at young men, with people of any other demographic either relegated to a footnote or treated as a complete blind spot. So where do you even start?
I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years. There are multiple thriving communities of women who lift, and I promise that in time you’ll find your way to one or more of them. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know.
The basics hold true for everybody
Lifting progressively heavier and heavier weights will build muscle in the specific body parts you exercise. Practicing heavier and heavier lifts will also make you stronger in those specific lifts. (This phenomenon works hand-in-hand with building muscle mass, though strength and muscle size are not technically the same thing.)
Losing fat is not part of strength training, but people often pursue fat loss and muscle gain goals at the same time, so it’s worth mentioning that you can lose fat (over your whole body, not in specific places) by burning more calories than you eat while lifting to maintain muscle. “Toning” is not a type of exercise, but you can get a “toned” look — which really just means muscle definition — by building muscle and losing fat.
The exact response to training will vary from person to person, and your strength in the gym may vary from day to day.
Following a well-designed program will get you to your goals no matter who you are. (That’s in contrast to doing random workout videos or wandering around the gym and lifting whatever you feel like that day)
All of this will hold true no matter your gender. Humans are human, muscle is muscle, and the differences between men and women are not so significant as to require totally different types of training.
Specific numbers are often written with dudes in mind
So what’s different? Mostly that a lot of the strength training information out there is presented as if it is general advice for humans, but it is actually written with dudes in mind. Often, specifically dudes in their teens and 20s. Or, to be even more specific, dudes in their teens and 20s who already have high motivation to lift, have spent plenty of time in gyms, and just need a little bit of direction so they don’t spend years doing curls for their entire workout.
Even though this is a fairly narrow demographic, a lot of information you’ll find online about lifting heavy is written assuming you’re in this group of people. And if you’re not, you may need to adjust a few things.
You might hear people saying that you can add 5 kg to your deadlift each workout when you’re new, or that you are a beginner if you still squat less than 130 kg, or that while you’re in a muscle-building phase you should drink four litres of milk a day. These statements all reflect more basic truths: that you can add weight to your lifts every week when you first start training seriously, that your squat will soon reach numbers you’ve only dreamed of, and that calories and protein help you build muscle.
Instead of relying on specific numbers, you may need to put in more work to figure out the right numbers from scratch. (Is it unfair that women have to do more mental work than the average bro just to get started? Yes. But is doing that work worthwhile in the long term? Also yes.) For example: The increases from workout to workout will depend on what your body can handle. You outgrow a beginner program not when your squat hits a certain number, but when your regular increases slow down and then plateau. Your protein intake should be in the range that’s appropriate for muscle gain, which you can calculate based on your body weight.
You don’t have to throw the whole plan away. It can seem, when you’re looking at something like Starting Strength, that it’s simply not made for you. And, yeah, it’s not written with you in mind. But the idea of lifting progressively heavier works for any human being, so make sure you’re not ditching the mere idea of lifting heavy because it seems like a guy thing. You may not add 5 kg to your deadlift in your second week, but you’ll be able to add something. (In fact, starting with less training experience than the typical dude may mean that you’ll progress faster than they will.)
Body size often matters more than gender
Here we come to our first physiological difference that can make life harder in the gym: A lot of the equipment is built for average-sized men and doesn’t always fit people who are smaller. That includes many women.
A standard barbell may be difficult for smaller hands to hook grip, so if you do Olympic lifts, you’ll definitely want a women’s Olympic bar. In powerlifting, there aren’t separate bars for men and women, but you may find that you prefer a deadlift bar over a power bar, or that hook grip simply isn’t your preferred way to grasp the bar.
I want to make one thing clear: You don’t need special women’s equipment or special women’s advice to navigate a typical gym. Be wary of anyone who tells you using the same bar or following same advice as a bro is training like a man. Look instead at women who excel in your chosen sport — Instagram is great for this if you don’t have in-person role models — and notice how they train.
As a general rule, when it comes to gym equipment, take a minute to consider the best way you can use it, rather than simply doing what other people do. For example, the pull-up bar may be at a height that’s convenient for a tall guy, but if you’re shorter you may need to pull over a plyo box to be able to reach it. The bench press stations might be set up with the bars at a certain height, so you will need to remember to move the bar to a lower set of hooks before you start loading on plates.
“Adjust as needed” may seem like obvious advice, but sometimes you don’t realise that you’ve been reaching for things. Moving the bench press bar lower was a revelation for me, as it allowed me to take a wider grip and get my shoulders underneath me better. I could bench with the higher bar, it just forced me into a less efficient position and made me think I was weaker than I actually am.
Your upper body has more potential than you think
Compared to men, women tend to have proportionally less muscle mass in their upper body than their lower body. That often leads us to give up on the idea that we’ll ever be strong in our upper body, which is a mistake.
What it does mean is that we can often make respectable gains in our squats, deadlifts, and other lower body lifts right away. It may not take long before you have more leg muscle than the stereotypical bro who skips leg day. Enjoy that.
But don’t stop there. We tend to get discouraged about things we think we are “not good at,” which can lead to making every day leg day and assuming that our arms, backs, and chests aren’t worth training. But your upper body muscles will respond to training just like any muscle will. If you think your upper body is weak, you should train it more. Your effort will be rewarded.
Higher volume training can often help. If your progress is stalling on bench press or overhead press or pull-ups, look for a program that gives that lift more reps per set and/or more total sets. I made my best gains on overhead press when I was doing it five times a week.
As with anything else in life, train hard and you’ll get results. It feels super badass to have a huge bench when you previously thought you were doomed to T-rex arms.
Average differences don’t mean much for individuals
There are some subtle, research-supported differences between the physiology of cis men and cis women, but remember that these differences are based on averages, not individuals.
For example, you may read that women are better at endurance work than explosive power, or that women can recover more quickly between sets, or that women can often do more reps with a heavy weight than a man can — even if that women and that man have the same strength when measured as a one-rep max. These statements are mostly true, and if you’d like to read more, coach and researcher Greg Nuckols has a detailed breakdown here of what the research says about these differences.
But when you’re training, it doesn’t matter so much what’s true of women in general or men in general. You pick up a weight, and you either lift it or you don’t. It doesn’t matter whether somebody else could have lifted that weight more times than you or not. You train to get yourself strong.
Personally, a lot of the things that are true of women on average aren’t true for me; I don’t do well with high-rep efforts, for example. But that’s just me. You can use information about sex differences as a starting point for experimenting with your training, but the only real answers to those experimental questions are your experiences in the gym.
Your menstrual cycle won’t necessarily impact your training
There’s some research to suggest that the hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle might affect strength or performance in the gym. If they do occur, though, these changes are small, and they don’t necessarily affect everyone with a cycle.
If you take hormonal birth control, you won’t have a menstrual cycle, but there is also research exploring whether contraceptives themselves can affect strength.
Some coaches and influencers suggest people should adjust their training programs according to these factors (such as doing lighter workouts the week before one’s period) but plenty of women don’t bother to adjust their training to their cycle, and they do just fine.
I asked powerlifting coach Claire Zai about this. She tells clients, “we’re going to approach training with the idea that training is going to go well until proven otherwise, and that you are strong every day until proven otherwise.”
A good coach, or a good training program, will give you room to adjust training based on whatever is going on in your life. Sometimes you can’t lift as much as you expected, whether that’s because of a bad night’s sleep or a stressful day at work or some other factor in your life or your biology. If your menstrual cycle affects your training, your training can adapt as needed. But you don’t have to go into training with the assumption that you’re going to be weak. We’ve all had bad days during which we still put in a good performance.
“The most important thing you can do is be consistent,” says Zai. If you’re having cramps or feeling tired, exercise often helps you feel better. And you’ll get stronger in the long run as long as you keep showing up to training, even if every day at the gym isn’t perfect.
I work out every day. I don’t really get sore. I don’t worry if I have to miss a workout. I make progress over time. I have good days at the (home) gym, but I almost never have bad days. My secret, while effective, is extremely boring. It is, simply,...Read more
Re-orient your normal
To help get your bearings, surround yourself digitally (if not in real life) with women who are knowledgeable about heavy lifting. I am old, so I remember when Stumptuous was one of the few sources of lifting advice on the internet written with women in mind. These days we also have the Swole Woman and countless other qualified coaches and athletes on social media, like Meg Gallagher (aka megsquats), and Claire Zai (who I quoted above), and Sohee Lee, and Alyssa Olenick.
As a side note: I’ve always been wary of men who declare themselves experts on women’s lifting or women’s physiques. Without naming names or repeating allegations, I’ll just say that instinct has so far never steered me wrong. (This doesn’t include men who are knowledgeable in general and who happen to be inclusive of all genders when they communicate; those guys are fine and in fact being inclusive is good.)
Use Instagram or other social media to inspire you or to learn about the lifting world, but curate your follow list. When your feed is full of women powerlifting and weightlifting, killing it at CrossFit, doing strong(wo)man events and more, your viewpoint on the world starts to shift. You start to get a better idea of what is possible and what you might aspire to. It’s far more fun to dream of joining these strong women on the platform someday than it is to anchor yourself to the here and now, when the here and now means looking around and realising you’re the only girl in the gym.
Beware people who try to limit your potential
There are people out there — people of all genders — who may try to lower your expectations. Women who talk about lifting and getting stronger, but only ever use booty bands and tiny dumbbells and fake HIIT. Bros who take the 20 kg plates off your rack at the gym because it never crosses their mind that you might actually use them.
The best community to find is one where people believe in you. That doesn’t mean they have to rah-rah encourage you, but they need to expect that everyone in the room, regardless of gender, is on their way to bigger and better things. Maybe you’ll find that community in a gym or on a team; maybe you’ll find it in a group text with like-minded friends from across the country.
Then there are people who will say explicitly that you should lift less, or that training will make you “bulky,” or that you’re “too small” to be lifting a certain weight. They’ll try to sell you 40 pounds of weight for $US300 ($396) while telling you it’s all you need “to succeed.”
Sometimes this misguided advice is explicitly sexist; other times, it’s couched in terms of slowing your progress so you avoid injury. While that sounds smart on paper, it often sets women up to fail in the end. The human body is more resilient than it is delicate. Plenty of dumb gym bros test this theory every day, and usually they come out of it alive.
If you find yourself feeling confused at conflicting advice, remember: Consistent training and heavy weights will rarely steer you wrong. In the same spirit as “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man,” ask yourself what a determined and slightly dense gym bro would do in your shoes. Probably quit overthinking things and pick up a weight, right? You can do that, too.