Having written about fitness for years and being a qualified personal trainer means I have tried pretty much every form of exercise you can name. From barre to Barry’s, I’ve even completed a run streak where I ran at least a mile for 500 days (I know; not my sanest moment). But there is one workout that I return to time and again. It’s the exercise that keeps me relatively lean and allows me to eat more food without having to worry too much. Sounds too good to be true, I know. So what is this magical exercise? Weight training.
But those aren’t the only benefits, according to a new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, it’s key that women master this workout. Researchers found that women who did strength training had a lower BMI and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 2011 study even found it can slow the ageing process by strengthening muscles.
Since taking up weight training, I have dropped a dress size and kept it off. I didn’t just lose weight; I have been able to sculpt a body shape I’m happier with—a flatter stomach, a rounder butt and shapelier arms. And I don’t spend my life in the gym: I lift weights three times a week for around an hour each time. Sure, I’ll do other things like yoga, HIIT and spin, but I keep coming back to the weight training. The only downside is that the free-weights area of the gym is often filled with testosterone-fueled men huffing and puffing their way around barbells and throwing impossibly heavy dumbbells down triumphantly.
The thing is that they are, for the most part, too focused on their own workouts and getting those PBs to care what you’re up to, and quite a few of them don’t perform the exercises right. The key is to know your stuff so you feel confident in what you’re doing. So where do you start? I called on Lyanne Hodson, a trainer at FitMiBody and co-founder of StrongHer, which holds events to educate and empower women to get stronger.
Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about weight training.
So what are the benefits of weight training?
“Whoa, this list is endless!” exclaims Hodson. “The moment a woman picks up a weight is the moment everything changes, both physically and mentally, and men should run,” she laughs. “In all seriousness, the perks include correcting posture (especially for all the city girls in heels at a desk). It’s the most efficient way to tone up (even though we don’t like to use this term, toning is defined as building lean muscle and decreasing body fat). You will burn more calories and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, along with many other health and hormonal issues women face, including the very common PCOS. You feel and look stronger, happier and healthier,” says Hodson.
You have to admit that weightlifting is daunting—how do you start?
“Well, firstly, I would say get involved in StrongHer! Our aim is to educate and empower women in fitness, nutrition and wellness through our accessible events and workshops that demystify resistance training.
“Or if you’re not in London, speak to a good personal trainer or fitness instructor, and ask for help on what to do, as usually, the fear comes from not knowing or understanding. It’s time to figure out why you are afraid and challenge it. On the other side of fear is an unreal journey,” says Hodson.
“Both myself and Sam Prynn, my StrongHer co-founder, started our own fitness journeys with Bodybuilding.com. Another website is T-Nation.com. Both are okay places to start finding out more about weight training; however, if you have never been shown the correct technique and form of movements for your body, I would not recommend just using online guides. It’s always best to have a professional assist you first; then go solo. Also, online guides are not tailored; anyone can use them—your body is unique, so your program and training should reflect that,” advises Hodson.
With weight training, you tend to go through a bit of a journey, to find out what works for you. “If it’s your first time using weights, it’s a bit of trial-and-error,” agrees Hodson. “When you’re starting out, it is one of the very few times I would recommend going lighter than you are capable of. The reason being is that if you are new to this way of training, you will probably get delayed-onset muscle soreness, aka DOMS, after the first few sessions, so going a little lighter will mean you won’t be in too much agony the day after. You don’t want to put yourself off going back into the weights section!”
Okay, so what's the deal with reps and sets?
“To work out your reps and sets it depends on your end goal. A very loose way of framing reps and sets is:
1–5 reps = power and strength
6–12 reps= hypertrophy (muscle-building)
12+ reps = endurance
“This is very loose, and you will want to include a combination of these during your program, however a good place to start is in the endurance phase, so 12+ reps for three sets. As here you can practice your technique, the weight won’t be too heavy, but be moderately hard for the 12 reps. A very simplistic way to view reps and sets is as the reps go down the sets go up,” explains Hodson.
[Ed. note: There are tons of free training plans online at the websites mentioned above, but a good affordable plan to start with is Mike Matthews’s Thinner, Leaner Stronger (£11); it’s where I started. The book is packed with information, and all readers get a free bonus one-year training plan that outlines the exercise, reps and sets for each workout.]
Answer this once and for all: Will I get bulky?
“Ladies, do not panic. You cannot bulk from just picking up a weight. Women do not produce anywhere near enough testosterone to build big muscles (it’s this hormone that is the main building block for muscle growth). The women that wish to look this way have put in hours, days and years of pure graft at the gym, absolute precision on every gram of food and also are in the 0.01% of women who are genetically predisposed to be a female bodybuilder.
“Lastly, most women look to see body-fat reduction, so in this case, it’s physically impossible to bulk, as bulking requires you to eat a hella amount of calories over your TDEE (totally daily energy expenditure known as your daily requirement of calories) over a significant period of time. So stop fretting. It ain’t gonna happen!” says Hodson.
Do I have to go to the gym?
“You can most definitely try weight training at home, but not with the tiny pink dumbbells. If you are weight training, you would require a good set of equipment, including a bench, set of dumbbells (a good amount of weight), a kettlebell (8/12kg is a good start); some resistance bands and maybe a TRX if you fancy it. Again, the same rules apply as before: You should seek some help from a fit pro to help you with technique using your new equipment, form and adaptations before you begin training alone,” advises Hodson.
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What exercises should I do?
“We recommend training three times per week and doing whole body compound lifts (multi-joint movements like squats and deadlifts) each time. Good exercises to start with are:
Squats: works the legs and butt
Deadlifts: targets the legs and back
Military Press: works the shoulders
Bent Over Row: for the back and biceps
Hip Thrust: targets the butt
Bench Press: works the chest and triceps
Lunges: tackles the legs and glutes.”
So what's this about eating protein after working out?
“Before training, approximately 90 minutes before, have a good protein and carbohydrate source. The amount depends on your goal and daily macronutrient intake, but a rough guide would be 30 to 35 grams protein and 40 grams of carbohydrate (however, as I said, this is a rough guide),” says Hodson.
“Immediately after training, you want to replenish your energy fast, so a piece of fruit and a protein shake would be great, and then about 75 minutes afterwards, have a similar meal to the one you had before you trained, but this time add in a small portion of fats too. Myself and Sam no longer drink shakes after a session, as we manage to get out protein in from food. So once you can do that, you no longer need shakes.”
Okay, I'm almost convinced…
“It will honestly change your life and give you a newfound sense of accomplishment, strength and happiness. In all the years I have been a PT, and all the women that have walked through my doors, it has not only impacted them physically but mentally too, altering the way they see their lives, making them believe they can be who they want to be as opposed to what they think they should be. It’s ok to be afraid of something new, but that fear is only limiting your capabilities, so FACE IT. If you are stuck at where to start please get in touch with StrongHer as we are here to help any woman, any shape, colour, background,” says Hodson.
Next up, the best Joe Wicks workouts on the internet.