One of the biggest misconceptions about weight lifting is this myth that it will cause women to “get big.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. On the other hand, many women who “lift” weights constantly pick up the same 5-pound dumbbells week after week and wonder why they don’t see any aesthetic changes in their physique. This could be for a number of reasons, but for the sake of this article, we will be discussing the impact of weight training.
Before we get into the “how” of weight training, let’s look at some proven principles and clear up some misconceptions.
1. Lift heavy.
To stimulate muscle growth, or hypertrophy, a stimulus must be placed on the muscle. As mentioned previously, women tend to typically stick with weights that they are comfortable using for a full three sets. However, a greater stimulus must be placed on the muscles to see any real changes. You need to get out of your comfort zone and put greater physiological demands on your muscles. Once you can make this paradigm shift in your mind, you will be able to make substantial progress in both your strength and muscle gains.
2. How to choose the right weight.
Women often underestimate their strength and, by default, grab the lighter weights. This is a mistake. Instead, choose a weight that can be lifted 10 times, with the last two reps posing a significant challenge. It is important to maintain good form when performing your exercises. As soon as you notice your form starting to fail, drop the amount of weight being lifted or take a rest. The goal here is to lift heavy and well, not lift heavy and get hurt. Be sure to have a spotter when performing exercises such as a back squat, bench presses and overhead presses, especially when going up in weight.
3. Sets and reps.
The typical recommendation for building muscle is to complete three to four sets of eight to 12 reps of an exercise. If you choose a heavier weight and do fewer repetitions (e.g., 3 to 6), you’re more likely to gain muscle strength, while lighter weights and higher repetitions lead to gains in muscle endurance. If you’re aiming for greater strength, take a little extra rest time between sets. If you want to increase muscles size, reduce the amount of rest you take between sets.
One of the most important elements to achieving muscle gains is consistency, so aim to weight train four to five days a week, if possible. Recording your exercises and weights in a journal is a great way to track gains. You can have good intentions to lift heavy, but the only way you will know if you are getting stronger is by writing down the sets, reps and weights used during each workout. Another thing to consider is the breakdown of your weight-training sessions. Will you perform total-body workouts or focus exclusively on upper- or lower-body exercises? Or maybe two body parts per workout? Whatever you end up deciding, the key is consistency and overload.
5. Choosing your exercises.
There are countless ways to create a workout to gain muscle mass. Ideally, perform exercises requiring larger muscle groups first, such as squat/squat variations, bench press, deadlifts, lat pull-downs and overhead press. Doing so enables you to expend greater energy on these movements, while still being able to perform well on smaller movements toward the end of your workout. Choose six to eight exercises to perform on any given day. You can split them up into circuits or do them separately, keeping your rest in between sets around 60 seconds.
Sample Muscle-building Exercises
As mentioned above, stimulating muscle growth happens when muscles are pushed beyond their comfort zones. Be sure to include some of these movements into your workout to maximize your muscle hypertrophy.
Whether you choose heavy dumbbells, a barbell or the squat rack, this exercise is great for shaping and building muscle in your quads and glutes. Maintaining proper form is key, so gradually add weight as you train while maintaining good form. Ideally, when you look into the mirror, you should pretend you are sitting in a chair at the bottom of your squat, with your heels on the ground and hips back.
There are a number of shoulder-press variations, including the dumbbell press, Arnold press and behind-the-neck press. These exercises are great for the shoulders, traps and upper body. Don’t be afraid to add some weight, and be sure to have a spotter if you are really pushing yourself.
Whether you choose the single-leg or traditional deadlift, use dumbbells or barbells, this versatile exercise engages the hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles. Form is critical on this exercise, so be sure to keep a flat back and slight bend in your knees. If you feel your back rounding, drop the weight and refocus on your form.
There are a myriad ways to perform a chest press, including on an incline, decline, flat bench or the floor, which will target the chest from multiple angles. Dumbbells or a barbell can be used, and if you are really pushing your upper limit, be sure to have a spotter.
Although a smaller muscle group, the biceps can lift some weight when pushed. Incorporate a few curl variations in to your program, such as barbell curls, dumbbell seated curls, hammer curls or rope curls. Be sure not to rock for momentum and if you feel your back starting to arch, it’s probably time to lower the weight.
Show off that “horse shoe” by sculpting those triceps. For this exercise, you will need a pulley and an attachment such as a straight bar, rope or v-bar. Start with your arms at 90 degrees and press down until your arms are perpendicular to the floor. On the way up, stop at 90 degrees. Remember to keep momentum out of the equation to truly isolate the triceps and shape those arms.
Kelley VargoContributorKelley Vargo, MPH, MS, CSCS, ACE Health Coach is a recent graduate of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University