Strength Training For Women: A Beginner’s Home Workout Plan
This expert advice will convince you it’s worth taking up strength training, and we have a home training programme to help you get started
Fitness instructor and personal trainer Ruth Stone specialises in strength training for women and is evangelical about the benefits. There are the obvious ones – health, fitness, shaping and toning – but Stone is convinced that more than any other form of exercise, strength training can also have a hugely positive impact on your mental health, giving self-esteem and body image in particular a boost.
Stone points out it’s also really important to get into the habit of strength training before your body begins to change as the menopause approaches, although it’s never too late to start. To that end, Stone, who is working with online fitness retailer Sweatband, has developed a beginner’s strength training programme of three home workouts a week exclusively for Coach readers. Stone used moderately active women aged 25-34 as a starting point when designing the plan, but of course you can make it easier or use the given progressions to make it harder to suit your ability.
You can skip to the workout plan, or read on for more from Stone about what constitutes strength training, what equipment you need and why it may transform the way you feel about your body.
What is strength training and why is it important? Isn’t cardio enough?
Strength training complements cardio and should be a part of everyone’s fitness mix in some form. Cardio certainly has its place – the main benefit is burning calories – but the more strength training you do, the more muscular you become and the higher your metabolism will be, so you need to burn more calories just to exist. Also, if you do strength training in tandem with regular cardio workouts, you’ll be moving a body that has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio and will burn even more calories doing cardio.
Strength training can also address postural issues, or help guard against these developing. It can help avoid injury – people who just run a lot can get knee and back problems purely because they don’t have enough strength in their core to hold the correct form while running.
How can strength training help women in particular?
Building strength training into your routine early on will really help you at the perimenopausal stage and during menopause when hormones affect bone density, osteoporosis becomes a risk and other ailments can arise. Strength training during that time can offset these risks. Build strength training into your life in your 20s and 30s, and when your body starts to change – usually in your 50s – your routine won’t have to change quite as dramatically as it would if you were starting from scratch.
Are there any misconceptions about strength training? Some women may worry they’ll end up with huge biceps and quads, for example.
I think less so these days. Programmes like Body Pump transformed women’s relationships with weighted workouts and I think the misconception that you’re going to get bulging biceps from doing strength training is quite rare now. Unless you’ve got a very specific DNA, or you follow a very high-protein diet, that’s not going to happen to you.
Also, the female aesthetic has changed: being a strong, toned woman is celebrated these days, rather than the previous ideal of being thin. The advertising industry presents a far more diverse range of body shapes and sizes now, which is great, and that “strong woman” image is a particularly positive one. I think people know that they are not going to end up looking like a bodybuilder – unless they want to, of course, but that’s a different story.
With strength training, a woman’s body shape will change and you may find certain parts measure differently. The waist and hips may end up smaller, and the tops of the thighs may be a little bigger, and around the knee may slim down. It’s redistribution, but it’s pretty marginal. The way clothes look on you and the way you’ll feel in them will improve hugely, although of course there’s so much more to it than that.
What equipment is needed? Do you need specialist equipment?
In the short term, no, you don’t need equipment. In the medium to long term, yes, you probably do. You can do strength training with just your bodyweight, but the number of exercises you can do are limited. Plus, if you stick with a programme for a couple of months you will find that your bodyweight doesn’t work you as hard as it used to. Rather than doubling the reps, you can make it harder with weights and still do half an hour three times a week. Kettlebells and barbells are great. Resistance bands are brilliant and you can tuck them away anywhere.
How would you recommend getting started? Are there any common mistakes people make when starting?
Put it in your schedule so that it becomes a ritual that you stick to. That’s the most important thing at first. Start with three times a week for four weeks. Just that. Don’t worry if you can’t quite do all the reps – creating the habit is the most important part.
Also try to figure out out what time of day is best for your energy levels: some people are morning people, some are night people. And having a dedicated space to work out in helps.
I would recommend writing your intention down as you’ll find you’re far more likely to stick to it. Go for simple, achievable goals.
How long do you need to leave between sessions? Is it that important?
When you work your muscles with resistance they get damaged and repair back stronger, so having a day off between sessions for the repairs to happen is crucial. For three strength workouts a week I’d leave at least one day of rest between each session, but even an advanced strength training programme will ensure there’s a degree of rest. That might be active recovery, which means some kind of aerobic activity instead, or you may be alternating between opposing or distinct muscle groups.
Which different muscle groups should I be working?
You want to work yourself top to toe through the course of a week. Making sure each part of your body is able to do what it’s meant to do – known as functional training – is useful. If you have a joint that rotates, you should rotate it; if you have a joint that bends, you should bend it. If you have a joint that does both, like the hips for example, you need to do a bit of both. The muscles are the strength you need to manoeuvre those joints. To be functionally fit as well as to build strength, you need to exercise every muscle in the body from the neck down.
My muscles are really sore the day after a workout – is that bad?
This ache in your muscles is called DOMS, which stands for delayed onset muscle soreness, and it’s a sign that you’ve worked at the right level. While it varies from person to person, if you’re doing a new exercise with resistance that you’ve never done before, the chances are you will feel an ache for two, possibly three, days afterwards. All beginners will experience it, but even a seasoned weight trainer who takes a break from regular training will feel the same thing.
It’s an ache, not a pain, so it’s different to feeling injured, which is more likely to be around a joint than a muscle. If you’re in actual pain you need to stop and possibly consult a doctor. But if you exercise safely you shouldn’t injure yourself.
How can I tell if I’m using the right weight or resistance?
If you do the exercise through the full range of movement at a slow and steady pace for the prescribed number of repetitions, and you don’t feel that the last one or two are tough, your weights are too light. If you’re getting to, say, 10 of 15 reps and it’s too much for you, the weights or resistance you’ve chosen is too great.
If people go silly on the weights or the resistance then their form suffers, and they start using momentum rather than muscle to move. That’s when you risk injury.
If you are new to this, do make sure that all the reps are manageable before you even consider increasing the resistance. It is hard to tell if you’ve got the resistance right the first time you do it, but it’s better to do 15 easily than 10 and need to give up.
How much warming up and stretching should I do?
Never, ever weight train without some form of warm-up! A three- to five-minute warm-up should suffice. If you’re at home, you can just dance around to your favourite tunes. The key thing with warming up is you want to warm the whole body: start with slow, controlled movements and progress to faster, freer movements as the muscles warm up and the joints are lubricated.
The programme below starts with the big muscles first. It’s good practice to start with squats, because the quads are big muscles – when you move them they ask for more oxygen – before you move on to the smaller muscles.
Stretching after your workout helps you realign the body and it’s part of the ritual – like a reward after a hard workout. It aids flexibility, which is very important for injury prevention. I don’t mean during exercise: people who have less flexible bodies are more likely to injure themselves when they fall. Also, your body is far more supple when it’s warm, so you can move more safely into deeper stretches and hold them for longer.
I recommend doing a simple stretch sequence that you run through once then repeat. If you’re anything like me, you’ll notice a real difference the second time around.
How soon after I start strength training will I notice a difference?
It depends where you’re looking. You’ll notice changes in your body and in your head. The body is probably the slowest, because recruiting muscle mass takes longer, but your endurance and strength should increase within two to three weeks. And you can start playing around with range and resistance then, pushing yourself a bit more. You will often find that certain muscle groups improve quicker than others. Typically, with women, the legs get strongest quickest, and the biceps and triceps trail behind a little.
There’s another hugely important change that typically happens when you take up strength training: it’s to do with body image, or rather the awareness and appreciation of your own body. When you’re doing cardio, you tend not to look at yourself because you’re focused on the pavement you’re running on or what’s around you. With strength training, the focus is on your own body.
I recommend training in front of a mirror – it will change how well you work. You’ll be able to correct yourself, and also over time it will change how you feel about your body. You just appreciate your body so much more. I don’t think you get that from any other form of training.
It’s empowering, in my experience – the women I have helped to train have ended up mentally stronger and happier. It’s transformed their relationship with their body, especially if they’re starting from a place where they’re not entirely happy with it or proud of it. I teach aerobics, step, yoga, I love it all, but I would say strength training does the most for your self-esteem and body image.
Strength Training Home Workout Plan For Beginners
This training plan from PT Ruth Stone asks you to complete the workout below three times a week, leaving at least one rest day between sessions. The workout should take 25-30 minutes and requires a minimal amount of space to move around in – ideally in front of a mirror to make it easier to check your form. You don’t need any home gym equipment – you can use common household items as weights – but a set of long, looped resistance bands can be employed to make some moves harder. Stone is working with online fitness retailer Sweatband, which has an affordable range of bands on offer.
There is a warm-up, then a workout, and a set of stretches to finish. The workout consists of paired exercises, where opposing or distinct muscle groups are worked back to back, giving each one time to recover. Move slowly with absolute control through the full range of motion for each exercise. Rest as needed.
Aim for 15 reps of each strength exercise and three sets in total of each pair of exercises, then move on to the next pair. So you will do 15 reps of exercise 1A, then 15 reps of exercise 1B. Repeat that sequence two more times, then move on to 2A and 2B.
Spend three to five minutes warming up. Put on your favourite tunes at the highest permitted volume and dance like no-one’s watching! Start with slow controlled movements, then progress to larger, more dynamic ones. Aim to move every joint in every way it can move.
1A Wide squat
Sets 3 Reps 15
Targets Glutes, quads
Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart with your toes turned out. Bend at your knees and push your hips back as you lower until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then stand back up, pushing through your heels.
Make it harder Stand on a large, looped resistance band with your heels, then loop it over the back of your shoulders to add resistance as you stand back up.
1B Wide hand press-up
Sets 3 Reps 15
Place your knees and hands on the floor, with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then push back up to lengthen your arms again.
Make it harder Support yourself on your hands and toes with legs extended, rather than on your hands and knees.
2A Biceps curl
Sets 3 Reps 15
Stand up straight and hold a weight in each hand at the sides of your body, with your arms straight and palms facing forwards. Keeping your upper arms tight to your upper body, bend at the elbows to bring the weights towards your shoulders. Reverse the movement slowly and under control.
Make it harder Use resistance bands, anchored under your feet.
2B Triceps dip
Sets 3 Reps 15
Sit on the floor with your hands behind you, palms down and fingertips pointing forwards towards your back. Bend your elbows to lower your torso, then push back up using the backs of your upper arms until your arms are straight again.
Make it harder Place your hands on a raised platform like a chair so you begin the exercise with your bottom off the floor.
3A Landed lunge
Sets 3 Reps 15 each side
Targets Glutes, quads, calves
Kneel on the floor with your knees hip-width apart. Lift your right foot and place it directly in front of your right hip with your right knee at 90°. Tuck the toes of your left foot under, then lift your body by fully extending both legs. Bend your legs to lower, returning your left knee to the floor, then bringing your right knee back to kneeling. Repeat with the left leg.
Make it harder Work harder by anchoring a resistance band beneath your front foot and holding it in your hands, maintaining tension at all times.
3B Side raise
Sets 3 Reps 15
Hold a weight in each hand by the sides of the body with your palms facing in. Lift the weights out to the sides so your body makes a T shape. Lower the weights to back to your sides under control.
Make it harder Work harder by isolating one arm at a time using a resistance band anchored by your right foot and held in your right hand. Repeat on the other side.
4A Glute bridge
Sets 3 Reps 15
Targets Lower back, glutes, hamstrings
Lie on your back, bend your knees and position your feet on the floor hip-width apart and close to your bottom. Push through your heels to lift your hips as high as you can. Hold, then lower.
Make it harder Raise one leg off the floor so you’re using just the other to lift your hips.
4B Leg lift
Sets 3 Reps 15 each side
Targets Hips, quads
Sit on the floor with both knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Keeping your knees together, lift your lower right leg until your leg is straight. Slowly lower your whole right leg to the floor then lift it so your knees are next to each other again. Repeat on the other side.
Make it harder If this is easy, try doing both legs simultaneously while supporting your torso with the hands on the floor behind you.
5A Sit-up with twist
Sets 3 Reps 15 each side
Targets Abs, obliques
Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor and head supported in your hands. Raise your torso, rotate your torso to the right, rotate back to centre and lower your torso slowly to the floor. Repeat on the left side.
Make it harder Hover your feet off the floor during the lift and lower phase.
5B Back extension
Sets 3 Reps 15
Targets Upper back
Lie on your front on the floor with your hands behind your head. Elevate your chest and then return to the start position.
Make it harder Extend your arms behind you while holding the elevated position.
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Aim to hold each stretch for 10 seconds. Perform the sequence twice.
1 Quad stretch
Lie on your front. Bend your right knee to move your right foot towards your bottom and take hold of it with your right hand. Keep your hips on the floor and ease the right heel up and back. Repeat on the left side.
2 Chest stretch
Sit on the floor. Place your hands behind you then edge your bottom forward, your chest forwards and your chin upwards until you feel a stretch. Hold for 10 seconds.
3 Biceps stretch
Extend your right arm in front of you, and your inner elbow up with palm forwards. Gently ease the fingers on your right hand back with your left hand. Repeat on the left side.
4 Triceps stretch
Reach your right arm up and bend at the elbow to “walk” your hand down your spine. Ease the right arm further to the left by applying pressure to your right elbow with your left hand. Repeat on the left side.
5 Hip stretch
Sit cross-legged. Extend your right leg out in front of you and hinge forwards at your hips. Repeat on the left side.
6 Glute stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Bend your right knee and place your right foot on the outside of your left leg, then ease your right knee towards your body with the crook of your left arm. Repeat on the left side.
7 Shoulder stretch
Take your right arm across your chest so it points left. Bend at the elbow of your left arm to pin your right arm to your chest until you feel a stretch. Repeat on the other side.
8 Abs stretch
On all fours, arch your back so your stomach moves towards the floor, and your head and hips move up.
9 Back stretch
On all fours, round your back so it arches up, then move back so your bottom touches your heels.
10 Hamstring stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Take hold of your legs and lever your torso forwards by bending your arms.
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Camilla Artault is a writer and keen runner. She has covered women’s running gear – testing leggings, jackets, running bras, tops and shorts – for Coach since 2018, as well as interviewing experts and writing about a range of health and lifestyle topics.