The last time you ate an unforgettable meal at a new restaurant, read a captivating book, took a trip to a place that changed your life with its beauty — did you tell everyone who would listen about it? You had the most wonderful experience and wanted others to enjoy it too, so you told them, “It’s too good to miss!” They should have the same incredible experience you did.
That’s what I’m doing here.
The proclamation that women should get strong isn’t based solely on my personal experience, but from working with women for over a decade and witnessing the life-changing rewards they gained from that singular focus. The term “life-changing” no doubt has a hyperbolic ring to it, but in this case, it is accurate.
There’s a story I will never tire of hearing: how a woman comes to love her body even more, or in a new, unexpected way, when she chooses to work out to get strong. It’s a story told in statements like:
- Being strong feels incredible.
- I appreciate my body on a new level.
- Working out is actually fun now.
- I never thought getting stronger would help me build a better-looking body, but it has!
- For the first time ever, I look forward to going to the gym.
- I never thought I could be this strong.
For too many, working out has become a means of punishment for eating “bad” foods or from gaining weight over the years or not fitting into their favorite clothes anymore. And they deserve better. They deserve more.
And that is why …
Every woman should, at least once, for several consecutive months:
Forget about burning calories. Forget about doing workouts that will leave you dripping sweat. Forget about shrinking your waist.
Focus exclusively on getting stronger, primarily with compound exercises that use a lot of muscle mass (squat and deadlift variations, presses, pulls). Perform more reps with the same weight; perform more sets; add more weight over time. Put simply, steadily improve your performance.
Most women aren’t aware of the mental and physical benefits from strength-focused training … until they experience it for themselves.
Start Where You’re Most Comfortable
I’m partial to free weights, and barbells are my favorite strength training tool: you can squat, deadlift, row, bench press, standing press, and perform many other exercises with it. Dumbbells are excellent too and provide an abundance of variety. You can begin strength training with machines if those tools would give you more confidence when starting out.
Don’t be swayed by discussions that say you must use only free weights to get results if you either can’t, or simply don’t want to, use those right away. Working out and getting stronger with machine exercises provides ample benefits and is significantly better than not strength training at all.
What matters is that you strength train regularly. Use whatever tool you prefer (or have available) that will make that happen. You can always try new exercises and equipment as you build confidence.
Remove Preconceived Limits
I could never squat my bodyweight; I could never do a pull-up; I could never deadlift one and a half times my bodyweight; I could never bench press one-hundred pounds.
Plenty of women have made those statements, only to end up proving them false.
Preconceived limits reveal themselves when milestones are reached, like when a woman deadlifts 135 pounds for the first time (this is a barbell loaded with a 45-pound plate on each side). It’s not uncommon to have an Oh my goodness, this is a lot of weight! moment when you pull that off the floor for the first time. Just seeing that amount of weight may be intimidating, but don’t let it stop you. Don’t let it make you hesitate if you know you can pull it.
The same thing may happen when bench pressing 95 pounds for the first time (a 25-pound plate on both sides of the barbell), squatting your bodyweight, or reaching other milestones that involve heavier loads.
You don’t have to expect to be able to squat the equivalent of your bodyweight for reps (nor do you have to desire to do that), but you shouldn’t assume you can’t do it either with consistent training. Go into your strength-focused journey knowing that you have plenty of opportunity and potential to get much stronger than you are now.
Your strength potential is greater than you realize. Don’t artificially limit it.
What about Cardio?
The same get strong mentality can be applied to cardio too. Cardio (such as jogging, spending half an hour on an elliptical machine, high-intensity interval training) is too often exclusively about burning calories: to “work off” food that’s been eaten or, perhaps even worse, to “earn” food that will be consumed later.
Recommended article: Break Free from the Ugly Side of Health and Fitness
If you include cardio in your health and fitness regimen, embrace the get stronger perspective with it just as you will strength training. Instead of thinking about burning fat and calories, aim to improve your conditioning and work capacity.
For example, if you’re currently left winded and sucking air like a Dyson vacuum cleaner after a 15-minute bout on an air bike, the goal over the next month could be to gradually increase the effort level to improve work capacity. Another option, every four to six weeks add five minutes to the cardio bout until you reach 30-minute sessions, and then gradually increase the effort level.
Regardless of what type of cardio you perform, make it about improving your cardiovascular health and work capacity — or something you do for enjoyment or because moving your body more often feels good — not just burning calories.
How to Start Getting Strong
If you have a desire to pull, push, and squat heavy weights, that’s terrific. Let those goals motivate you to train. If you don’t have the desire to get really strong, I encourage you not to dismiss it too quickly either. It’s not uncommon for women to start strength training without the intentions of getting very strong (e.g., to deadlift 200 pounds or more), but once they see what they’re capable of doing, they’re excited to keep going.
In other words, if you don’t have a desire to squat the equivalent of your bodyweight (or much more) right now, that doesn’t mean you won’t want to later once you experience the benefits of a strength-focused journey.
Strength train three days per week with the goal of improving your performance, gradually and steadily. If you’re new to strength training or haven’t done it regularly, the Women’s Beginner Strength Training Guide is an excellent place to begin. (If you want, and need, more detailed information, start with Phase 1 in Lift Like a Girl.)
If you want to work out at home with dumbbells, or you’re simply more comfortable using dumbbells, start with the Lift Like a Girl Dumbbell Program.
If you’re not currently ready to use barbells and dumbbells, start with bodyweight exercisesor whatever machines are available at your gym and perform three workouts per week.
What if you already are strength training, but nothing seems to be happening? Then you should subscribe to the free seven-part email course that discusses the most common mistakes that are made with a health and fitness regimen.
I have nothing to gain, or lose, from you choosing to get stronger — to using your workouts as a means to discover what your body can do. However, it would be irresponsible of me not to boldly proclaim the physical and mental rewards it provides as proven from what I’ve seen and heard over the course of my career, and continue to on a weekly basis.
You have a choice to make. I hope you choose strength.