When I started incorporating weights into my fitness routine a few years back, I had no idea what I was doing and I was super skeptical. Wouldn’t lifting weights make me bulky? I wanted to get smaller, not bigger.
But despite my fears and greenness, the more I worked with weights, the more I wanted to continue to do so. I began feeling strong, capable, and more confident. Plus, I was actually enjoying my workouts - something that wasn’t common during the days when I would run endlessly on the treadmill.
Fast forward to the present and I have gone on to pursue certifications and continuing education in the fitness space, much of which placed a heavy emphasis on weight training. I myself have shifted my fitness focus from primarily cardio to more of a strength-based approach to fitness, and so many other women have done the same.
But why? What are the benefits of lifting weights for females? Of course, I have my insights and opinions which come from my education as well as experience, but I decided to speak with a few other industry experts to get their take on the matter, too.
In this article, we’re covering everything you need to know about lifting weights as a female as well as debunking some popular myths and misconceptions that are all too common in the fitness industry.
Should Women Lift Weights?
“Absolutely!” says Lauren Lobert Frison, DPT, OMPT, and owner of APEX Physical Therapy. “Everyone should lift weights! You should lift weights 3 times per week in general, unless you have more aggressive goals like competing in bikini competitions.”
According to many studies, lifting weights helps to prevent disease. Your risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes decreases significantly when participating in strength training.
One study even showed that, compared to women who don’t strength train, women who lift weights can reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by 30% and cardiovascular disease by 17%.
Furthermore, weight resistance training helps women to increase their lean muscle mass and decrease their stored fat, helping them to lose weight and achieve that “lean and toned” look that so many of us are striving for.
How Often Should Females Lift Weights?
There’s no definitive answer to this question, however, the majority of female health and fitness experts agree that weightlifting at least 3 days a week is what’s needed to maximize muscle growth and experience the benefits of lifting weights.
What Are The Benefits Of Lifting Weights For Women?
According to Dr. Lauren DeCesaris, a Functional Medicine Doctor who specializes in Women’s health, “The benefits of weight lifting for women go far beyond aesthetics, though I do think the “toned” look many women want can be best achieved by incorporating regular weight training into their lifestyles!”
She goes on to offer the following clinically-proven benefits of weight lifting for females:
- Increased confidence and elevated mood, likely due to the release of endorphins and modulation of other hormones
- Increased metabolic rate, meaning women can burn fat more efficiently
- Increased bone strength and density, which is especially important as women start to go through menopause
- Lower risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes
- Incorporating weight lifting also helps with athleticism for other sports. Many women enjoy skiing, cycling, hiking, paddle boarding, etc. - increasing muscle mass and the stability that comes with that can be helpful for performance in other sports.
Cardio vs Weights: What's better for women's health?
This has been a hotly debated topic, and the number of differing opinions on the topic is dizzying. But according to Dr. Suzanna Wong, DC, owner of Twin Waves Wellness,
“There are benefits to both cardio and weights for women - and for most people, you should include both in your weekly exercise routine. Getting your heart rate up helps your cardiovascular fitness, which can prevent cardiovascular illnesses such as heart disease and obesity - but lifting weights also does this while improving your body composition (building muscle, and reducing body fat) and making you stronger, protecting your joints, and improving your bone density. It's even more important to lift weights as you get older because your body starts to break down your muscle, often leading to people putting on weight.”
Dr. DeCaesaris also weighed in on this topic, sharing that she finds it “interesting that so many people want this to be an “either-or” scenario, when the reality is, they accomplish two different things when done correctly!”
“When we see people warning against “too much cardio,” it’s generally warning against only doing long, intense cardio sessions in an attempt to lose weight and maintain muscle mass
Incorporating HIIT cardio and zone 2 cardio have a variety of cardiovascular health benefits and can help with body composition alongside proper nutrition. Weight training can help with all of the benefits above, as well as help modulate cortisol and stress levels, says Dr. Lauren.
Can a Woman Lose Weight by Lifting Weights?
Contrary to popular belief, “Yes! Lifting weights may not burn as many calories for the 60 minutes that you are doing it as something like running or other cardio does. However, it increases your resting metabolic rate for significantly longer after you work out. This is because your body requires more energy to recover from a strength training workout. This, overall, will cause a larger total amount of calories burned in the 24 hours after your workout than running”, says Dr. Lobart Frison.
She goes on to add that “In addition, lifting weights allows you to gain muscle. By gaining muscle, your resting metabolic rate will increase. Muscle burns more calories than fat throughout the day. So, while running burns more calories while you do it, you are just burning more calories for that short period of time that you are exercising. Lifting weights will increase muscle and therefore cause you to burn more calories 24 hours per day. This will lead to decreased body fat, and improved body composition. It doesn’t always lead to a smaller number on the scale, however, as muscle is denser, or heavier than fat. But, your body will be leaner, smaller, and stronger.”
Do Women Get “Bulky” From Weight Lifting?
Perhaps one of the biggest fears of women who are considering starting strength training is the fear that doing so will make them “bulky.” We get this vision in our heads of looking like she-hulks ready to rip someone’s head off.
I completely empathize with this fear as I, too, used to share the same belief.
When I asked Dr. Lobert whether women get bulky from weight lifting, her answer was “you can, but it is NOT easy. When you see a woman that you consider “bulky,” it most definitely wasn’t on accident. She didn’t do a few months of weightlifting and just look like that. It takes extreme discipline with both your workouts and diet, as well as significant nutritional supplementation the majority of the time as well. You won’t get bulky from lifting weights unless you want to get bulky from lifting weights, and even then it is NOT easy.”
Dr. Wong feels similar, explaining that “the fear of getting bigger is completely irrational. Women don't have enough natural testosterone to "bulk" up. If you are eating enough calories and training hard enough you could expect to gain around 2kg of muscle a year, which is very different from the 1kg of muscle per week that some men experience. The key though is you would have to eat enough of the right foods - and most women don't. Women would only get bulky if they were taking anabolic steroids.”
Essentially, for women to get truly bulky, as in having large, powerful muscles, she would need to dedicate a significant amount of time, energy, and dedication to the sport of weight lifting. For the average woman who is simply looking to tone up, shape up, and improve her health, incorporating strength training a few times per week is in no way going to create bulk. In fact, most women experience the complete opposite.
However, it’s important to note that the process of changing your body composition will likely take you through various stages, and you need to be comfortable and accepting of these stages as part of the process.
“Sometimes when women start lifting weights, their muscles may grow before they drop some body fat. This can make it “feel” like they are getting bigger, but their body composition is just changing. I think oftentimes as women we are just a little harsh on ourselves when our body size changes at all, when the reality is building muscle and changing body composition takes time and isn’t a linear process”, shares Dr. DeCesaris
What Happens When a Woman Lifts Heavy?
So if we’ve debunked the myth that women lifting weights will make them bulky, what will happen to a woman’s body when she lifts heavy?
First of all, I want to point out that the notion of “heavy lifting” is relative and highly dependent on the individual. For example, one woman might consider lifting 10lb dumbbells to be “heavy” while another woman might be squatting 200 lbs. There’s no right or wrong answer here, just know that “heavy” for you will be dependent on your background, experience, and current ability. Furthermore, the goal of strength training is to get stronger, so know that when you execute properly, your concept of “heavy” will only increase as you get stronger and more adapted to weight lifting.
According to Dr. Wong, “If a woman is being coached/trained to lift heavy weights she will become fitter, healthier, and have better athletic performance. She may build muscle, but not necessarily. If you aren't being coached/trained by someone there are some risks of injury if your technique is not good. The key is being sensible and using progressive training programs if your goal is to lift heavy. Preparing your body is key.”
How Should Women Get Started With Lifting Weights?
Knowing the health, wellness, and physique-related benefits associated with lifting weights, how should you get started?
“It depends on your level of comfort and what is accessible to you, says Dr. Lobert. “It is important to understand that you don’t HAVE to lift heavy weights to see a benefit. If you are not comfortable with this or do not have access to heavy weights, you can still gain muscle by going to exhaustion. This is harder to reach this level with light weights or body weight, but it is possible. That being said, you can start on machines if you feel most comfortable with this. I would recommend free weights due to that being typically more compound, or multi-joint, movements that will work for more muscle groups at once but something is better than nothing, and the gym can definitely be intimidating.”
She continues by saying, “In general, I would recommend starting with 3 total body workouts per week. I would alternate an upper body and lower body exercise and make sure to do one upper body pulling, one upper body pushing, one hip dominant, and one knee dominant exercise at least.”
“Generally, 15-20 total sets is sufficient which would mean 4-5 different exercises for 3 sets each. You want to be pushing yourself pretty hard, where this is fatiguing. I would suggest doing the same 3 workouts for 4-6 consecutive weeks, focusing on increasing the difficulty each week. You can do this by increasing repetitions, weight, or changing other variables such as pacing.” This is what we refer to as progressive overload, and it’s critical in muscle and strength development over time.
Dr. Wong shares that “Using random workouts will work for a small period of time, but you will get to a point where your body is no longer adapting or getting stronger.”
Dr. Loert adds a final thought, stating “bottom line is, it does get pretty complex. But it is important to go into the gym with a plan and record your weights and reps. Keep track of this over time and try to improve as time goes on. If you are unsure about your form or programming, you can work with a trainer either online or in person.”
Wrapping Up: Should Women Lift Weights?
100% yes, women of all ages and abilities should incorporate some form of strength training into their routine on a weekly basis. The number of benefits for women is indisputable.
Although I am already an avid believer in and advocate for women's strength training, it was very refreshing and confirming to speak with other industry professionals and licensed providers and hear that they, too, highly recommend strength training for women.
While you may be feeling a little intimidated to get started, take the leap and start from where you’re at. Grab yourself a pair or two of dumbbells and get to work. I highly recommend DribbleUp’s Smart Weight system for beginners because it allows you to track your reps, progress, and form, all while getting in a great workout and saving a ton of space and money.