Beginning strength training resources?
July 5, 2011 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Strength training basics for women, please.

After years of all-cardio-and-pilates-all-the-time but not changing my body all that much, I'm finally ready to believe in the efficacy of strength training. I want to do it, and like a big girl—I'm not worried about "toning but not bulking" or anything like that. I will lift the heavy weights if that's the right thing to do. But I have no idea where to start!

I've tried to poke around on stumptuous and startingstrength, but the amount of specific information feels too overwhelming to find a place to start. Right now I just want a basic plan to hit my whole body, with very specific instructions as to movements, starting weight ranges, number of reps/sets, and rest period lengths.

My *perfect* plan would be something I could do at home with my body weight and hand weights (up to 15 lbs each). But if that's not really a good way to do it, I can get access to a gym with both free weights and machines.

Assume willingness to read up about proper form for specific exercises, or to hunt someone up at the gym if I need to. I just need a plan to get me started without needing to think a whole lot about it—can you provide me with such a plan, or resources for finding them?

Other possibly relevant details: I'm 5' 2", not overweight, super strong legs and weaker upper body but overall good functional daily life type strength, no chronic injuries. I cannot do a chin up (I would like to, though!). I run and cycle and do stretchy stuff. My goal here is to get stronger/less injury prone, and hopefully to change my body a little bit from sort of soft to something leaner.

Thanks, Ask Me!
posted by peachfuzz to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a smartphone? Jefit is super customizable (I've set replaced the barbell and cable exercises in my routines with similar/equivalent dumbbell exercises since that's all I have) and all kinds of awesome. The default routine suggested in the app is a good starting place.
posted by halogen at 2:26 PM on July 5, 2011

I've heard some good things about The New Rules of Lifting for Women.

Body for Life is also excellent.

I've also heard great things about StrongLifts 5x5.
posted by jclovebrew at 2:26 PM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might like the Gain Fitness site - I like that I can tell it what equipment I have and how long I have and it will spit out a plan for me. But it also lets you customize the plan so if you hate lunges or something, you can select alternate exercises. Most of the exercises have video links to proper form.
posted by macfly at 2:27 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

You are going to need to go to the gym to make quick gains. Focus on compound exercises like squats or dead lifts. Start with just the bar doing a set of 10, keep adding weight in between sets until your reps are less than 10. Do a few more sets at this weight.

Go home.


posted by axismundi at 2:27 PM on July 5, 2011

Hallelujah! Another girl sees the light!

I've been into strength training for a long time, and I've been constantly frustrated by the bogus fear that many girls have that training with weights will make them too muscular and manly. is pretty good for the basics of strength training. There are some differences between the training needs of men vs. women, and I won't pretend to know them, but most of the basics of strength training are the same.
posted by Homo economicus at 2:32 PM on July 5, 2011

If you buy one book, please let it be this one!

This book addresses all of the horrendously misled bulk-vs-tone concerns that so many women have. It is written in an entertaining and incredibly educational tone. It is _EXACTLY_ what you need. I could write a book here about this topic but honestly, it would not hold a candle to the book I linked. If you you are serious about getting educated on the topic and making a difference in the gym, buy this book and never read another tummy-slimming, body-toning, and muscle lengthening women's magazine for the rest of your life.

The wording of your post is exactly what it should be, and this book is going to give you everything you need or want. Match made in heaven.
posted by milqman at 2:32 PM on July 5, 2011

If you have the means, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions. I was like you and had no idea where to begin with weight training. I hired my trainer and she showed me how to work out, which exercises I should be doing in order to meet my goals and they give you routines to follow when you're not meeting with them to do on your own. I was worried about bulking up because I tend to build muscle really quickly, but I haven't done that and maintain my weight at 135-139 lbs (I'm 5'7"). My trainer is invaluable and when I'm not training with her, I can hear her in my head encouraging me. I also know that if I slack off, she's gonna make it that much harder the next time I meet with her, so there's the incentive.
posted by ATX Peanut at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2011

I suggest getting The New Rules of Lifting for Women. You can skip the motivational stuff and the dietary advice if you don't need it, and just use their regimens and their easy-to-follow instructions for various moves. It's good for a beginner-- more guided and less daunting than jumping into the Starting Strength stuff, but still focused on serious lifting with free weights. One of few resources out there that are written for normal women who might not have a background in lifting or athletics, but that still focuses on real strength training techniques.
posted by bookish at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like the Wendler 5-3-1 program - it's very specific, flexible enough but not so much as to present a bewildering array of options, and starts nice and slow. I've gotten good results with it.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:36 PM on July 5, 2011

I love the Tone It Up gals, who are really accessible and encouraging and very active in social media. They started posting workout videos on YouTube and have expanded their community from there using FB, Twitter, and their own site. They often post printable workouts to go along with the video workout and I take those to the gym with me, but generally all you really need are some free weights, a mat, and sometimes a ball.
posted by pised at 3:28 PM on July 5, 2011

I can't believe no one mentioned stumptuous yet. Very entertaining.
posted by genmonster at 3:29 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

oh shit. nevermind.
posted by genmonster at 3:31 PM on July 5, 2011

Seconding a personal trainer to start with, if you can afford it. I've gotten way more out of my trainer than I could a book or website, especially the feedback and corrections on form. I love the weight work and I also love not having to think about what I'm doing when, but having someone else tell me. She's also given me exercises to do on my own.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:35 PM on July 5, 2011

I'll also put in a strong recommendation for The New Rules of Lifting for Women. Your athletic background, height, and mindset sound just like me before I started weight training with this book, and I've been really pleased with how much stronger I feel after going through it. I've also heard good things about The Female Body Breakthrough, but haven't read it myself.

15-lb free weights might be OK to get you started, but I'd recommend joining a gym to start since you'll max out on 15 lbs pretty quickly. If, after a couple months, you decide that strength training is something you'd like to stick with long term, then it might be worth it to invest in some additional weights and equipment to create a home gym. Stumptuous has a nice guide on"The basics of a home gym."

If you want to gain muscle, it's also likely that you'll need to start eating more than you're accustomed to. Especially protein. If you're eating mostly healthy, unprocessed foods and feel hungry, don't think twice about it and eat.

Finally, there's no reason to feel awkward if you look around and don't see too many other females doing compound heavy lifts. Just get to the gym, do your thing, and try not to care if you feel a little funny squatting "ass to grass." Often I feel like the odd woman out, and really wish that more females knew about the benefits of strength training.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by oiseau at 5:59 PM on July 5, 2011

If you are already in decent shape and know what you want, I would start lifting on your own for a few weeks before committing to a personal trainer. I've been working out with weights for eight years. When I started, I would do 3 sets of 8-12 reps on machines that work major muscles (like quads, biceps, pecs, etc.) 2-3 times a week. Figure out the absolute max you can lift in one complete rep, and set the weight anywhere from 50 - 75 percent of that amount.
If you don't notice a positive change after a few weeks of doing this, then I would get the trainer. You'll have a better idea of what is working and what the trainer can help you improve. If you do notice a change and decide to not go with the trainer, you can experiment by changing intensity/quantity of sets, and expand by also working in smaller muscle groups (like abduction, forearms, etc.).
posted by msk1985 at 6:03 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you like taking classes and/or having a social and supportive atmosphere, consider looking into Crossfit. My strength has shot up incredibly in a short time, and I have people to consistently help me learn and maintain proper form to prevent injury. And in case you are worried that heavy weights = bulky muscles, I can attest to the fact that this is not true. Some girls in competition-level Crossfit are bulkier-ish, and I think that tends to happen mostly if you already have a larger frame, but the vast majority are not.
posted by so_gracefully at 7:48 PM on July 5, 2011

I'm loving the results I'm seeing from doing the Convict Conditioning progressive calisthenics program. It doesn't require any tools or accessories beyond something to hang from for pullups (and for the stage I'm currently on, a sturdy desk works fine). The training program I'm on (the Veterano) has you doing one exercise per day (e.g., Fridays are pushups, Saturdays are squats), which makes it really easy to do a set almost anywhere, whenever I have five minutes.

The program is oriented around the "Big 6" exercises, each of which is broken down into ten steps. Level 1 is basically "so you just got out of the hospital or have spent the last twenty years at a desk and are badly deconditioned", and Level 10 is FEAR ME PUNY HUMANS!!!-level strength.

I've never been one for gyms (did weight training several different times but each time stopped as soon as the semester was over and I was no longer getting credit for it) and I've always been on the skinny, unmuscular side. I'm thrilled to look in the mirror and see muscles like I've never had before, and even more thrilled every time I get a new reminder of how much stronger I've gotten. The first time I climbed a tree after I'd been doing Level 2 pullups for a while, I grabbed a branch and prepared to heave myself up as usual, toes scuffing the bark as I try to get traction, only whoops! I seem to already be up on the branch I was trying for. It feels great.
posted by Lexica at 9:28 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

My training partner and I just started on Stronglifts 5x5 (linked above) and we love it. It seems to be making us real-world stronger rather than just making us get bigger numbers on specific machines. Because it involves compound lifts that hit lots of muscle groups, rather than lots of single muscle isolations, it's really quick to get through and still feels like a heck of a workout.

I don't believe it's feasible to start working with free weights without either a personal trainer or possibly a very body-aware training partner who can research what the proper form looks like, knows what a straight back looks like and can tell you when yours isn't. If you don't have any of those things, stick with machines. If you do get a personal trainer for a few sessions, try to get a female trainer who lifts regularly herself.

Watch out for members of the gym staff who will happily give you advice on anything you ask about rather than admit they don't know. Ours seem to be very big on upper body lifts, for example, and have no idea how to deadlift. This didn't stop them from trying to teach us how to do it. For that matter, random gym members regularly decide to provide us with unsolicited advice, nearly all of which has been wrong.
posted by emilyw at 12:22 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

breaking down and just reading the book--the revised edition just came out--really is worth it. sites were helpful for later little niggling questions, but the book really lays it out and there's a reason it gets recommended constantly. form is queen here (you're lifting heavy!) and the book devotes like 40+ pages on each compound lift so you know exactly where every part of your body should be.

i am about to go do my routine actually, but when i come back i will try to say more.
posted by ifjuly at 8:06 AM on July 6, 2011

I've been lifting for cross-training and health for about 30 years and like Karen Andes' A Woman's Book of Strength. Excellent pictures and clear text for describing the precise form and benefits for each machine and free weights, plus many sample workouts in the back (ex: beginner, 3-day gym schedule; intermediate, 2-day gym schedule, etc.). I periodically check out other books and most of them make too many assumptions about my attitude, my goals, or my abilities. The rest of them teach bad form. My trainer also recommends The New Rules of Lifting, which I just haven't checked out yet since I've been happy with my combination of Andes book and trainer.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:09 AM on July 6, 2011

Nthing The New Rules of Lifting for Women. It fits with your level of experience and your lifting goals. The plans that books lays out are really well-designed and flexible enough to have as long as on-ramp as you need. You can do the first round with only bodyweight if you want, but will ultimately need (and want) a gym to challenge yourself to lift heavy things and get even stronger.

I also like Tony Gentilcore's blog, as he shares the book's philosophy. "Heavy things won't lift themselves."
posted by squasher at 11:41 AM on July 6, 2011

OK, I'm back. First off, I know what you mean about how overwhelming websites are--I read and read and read them but until I actually had my own in-my-hands copy of Starting Strength it wasn't coherent and straightforward enough to make me feel confident about what I was doing. That said, you didn't mention the Something Awful threads so in case you don't know about them I'll give them a shout out: here (great for commiseration and feedback; someone even mentions being confounded by Stumptuous and gets tips about which pages are best) and here (good for translating in plain terms Starting Strength's routine into something easily doable at a gym, i.e., no scary power cleans just yet). As for Stumptuous, it becomes a great resource once you already know what routine you want to do and just need to check your form (look at From Dork to Diva). She also has a page called The Less Thinking, More Doing Program which addresses some of your concerns of just being overwhelmed and needing to start somewhere.

You sound quite similar to me in terms of body composition--I'm 5'2 and have always famously had a strong sturdy lower body and woefully underdeveloped, weak upper body. Your goals sound similar to what mine were too, and have something to do with Krista's take on her page Don't Fear the Free Weights--it sounds like you want to be all-around stronger in practical and healthy terms, as in, able to help friends move couches and able to lift things in your day to day without wrenching out your back, having good balance, sturdier muscles to prevent osteoporosis, endurance, etc. If that is indeed what you want then Starting Strength is excellent because Rippetoe is quite fixated on compound lifts and rather vocally anti-isolated movements. The routine he endorses--squats, deadlifts, and power cleans with some bench presses and standing presses--AND the form he advocates for each lift promote all-over strength and full body coordination. In fact, the most noticeable drawback to this routine is you may be hoping your arms catch up with your legs and may find this isn't so, at least not as quickly as if you did isolation exercises for your upper body (somebody, schroedinger maybe, mentioned once in AskMe before SS is more of a lower body and trunk thing than upper body routine, and I totally agree). My workout partner, whose goals differed somewhat from mine (he's taking a more bodybuilder-type tack, where he wants impressive looking upper arms and chest as fast as possible), eventually decided to do way more dumbbell arm stuff. So keep that in mind--if your arms are what you want to strengthen the quickest, you'll probably want to either do assistance exercises for that in particular or even find a different routine altogether.

That said about arms, I love SS because you feel benefits you might not have anticipated right away--your sense of balance, your gait, the way you move in real life becomes safer--when I squat to clean my cats' litterboxes now I know I'm doing it right (and it's a breeze), ditto bending down to pick something off the floor. Once you know the form and your muscle memory retains it, your back and knees will thank you even when you're not at the gym.

One thing that may hinder you at first is flexibility. When I started, my lack of thigh and hip flexibility really got in the way of learning how to squat and deadlift properly. You mention taking pilates though, so maybe you won't run into that. Even if you do, one cool thing about it is that just diligently practicing the right way to squat, etc. will MAKE you more flexible.

This is probably all over the top since you don't even know that you'll be doing these kinds of lifts, but in case you do here's my streamlined notes about the compound lifts we do:

-bar on rack should be at middle of sternum
-on shoulders, bar should be on your traps, not your neck--about 3rd spinal bump or an inch or so below two top knobs (where "meat shelf" muscles are, probably lower than you think) (note: this was really hard to do at first for me, because I didn't have much muscle there--as you get stronger a natural shelf will form that makes keeping the bar low easier)
-thumb on top of bar (not wrapped around), wrists straight/vertical, NOT curled under bar (prevents wrist strain)
-legs around shoulder width apart (probably wider than you think), toes at a 30-degree angle out
-back tight, lower back in extension (curved in tight)
-look 5-6 feet ahead and BELOW, on floor (NOT up!)
-KNEES TRACK WITH FEET! (the entire movement) and STAY WIDE at the bottom
-heels should be flat on floor at the bottom, knees a little forward, upper back feeling flat as you can make it with chest up (back should be 45 degree angle entire time, not vertical)
-go deep, past parallel
-on way up, lift as if a chain is on your butt pulling you up from butt/hips (drive up with hips and butt, not chest), back held tight
-don’t let hips rise faster than shoulders, should both rise at same pace

note: the "lift as if a chain on your tail is driving you up" and "go deep, past parallel" are things which seem confusing at first or counterintuitive, but with practice once you do it right you'll right away feel the difference, it's kind of hard to explain--suddenly the lift will seem much harder in a way, because you're really using your hamstrings and whole body, not your knees, to bring yourself up. this is hard to describe, but for both me and my workout partner once we did on right it was a total "eureka" moment, you'll just FEEL that it's finally right. it's frustrating until you get there, but then it all falls into place.

-start position: heels about 12-15 in apart, toes pointed slightly out (narrower and more toes-forward than squat)
-grip width: just outside legs when feet are in correct position, lets thumbs just clear legs on way up (usually around 20 in)
-grip bar well down into hook of fingers, not too high (in the bottom of hand) to prevent calluses
-set grip, hips lowered, chest lifted, back squeezed flat
-ready to pull up position: you’ve bent over with grip, knees bent to reach a bit, chest up, lower back in extension while upper back tight and straight
-look forward and slightly down
-pull bar up your legs, touching legs
-do not bend elbows when lifting up, straight arms--lift with body, not with arms at all
at top, lift chest and pull shoulders back, eyes looking straight ahead, chin straight ahead, hips and knees fully extended, shoulders back (don’t “snap up”/hyper extend TOO far back when pulling up)
-on way down, unlock hips first to lower bar to knees, then unlock knees to lower bar to floor (don’t let knees move forward first!), keep back tight
-bar should be atop middle of foot when on floor
-DO NOT round back outward, should be straight 45 degree angle

note: I had a hell of a time at first with the deadlift, probably because of flexibility issues as well as my short torso and arms relative to my legs. I couldn't understand how I was supposed to keep my back straight going down, because I couldn't reach the bar without rounding it. I had my epiphany finally when someone reminded me it's not that different from a squat in that to get down far enough to reach the bar on the floor you have to sit back a little, almost like you're about to sit in a chair. That helped a lot. Another good tip I've heard to keep from slouching/rounding your back is to "pretend there's a big S on your chest", i.e., you're like Superman--chest up, proud and heroic sort of.

These sorts of anal notes on body positioning are from SS, and if they're confusing in words, they're less so in the book because he has pretty good pictures/illustrations (the primary model is female even, squee). I like his emphasis on being anal about everything at first so that when you finally get it right you'll _feel_ the way right feels, as opposed to just studying videos of others and trying to guess by the way you think you look while doing it. Going by feel is better, if you're patient. I was deadlifting for like over a week before I suddenly felt it where I was supposed to, similar to the squat I guess, and then it stopped being a problem at all.

If you can get a workout partner, it helps, especially at first. The book also has stuff on effecting cuing that's good--you talk beforehand with each other about things in proper sentences, and connect them to terse (2 or 3 word) cues like "chest up" "knees wide" etc. and it works.

I have other notes on form for the other lifts we do, but it seems presumptuous (more than it already is) to add them all.

The other thing I wish I'd had in the beginning was a straight up no-bull real person's example workout log. The SA thread has a list of them but I always had a hard time accessing them. So if you want an example, here's one:

1x5 (warm up): 45 (I always start with an empty bar for warm up)
1x5 (warm up): 60
1x5 (warm up): 65
3x5 (work sets): 70

PRESS (note: as an untrained woman, you may find you need to start with 35, ie, a smaller than normal bar, and that's fine):
1x5 (warm up): 45
1x5 (warm up): 50
1x5 (warm up): 55
3x5 (work sets): 60

1x5 (warm up): 55 (any time the bar is on the floor, you're gonna have to start with some weight on it just to get it high enough to reach)
1x5 (warm up): 70
1x5 (warm up): 75
3x5 (work sets): 80

(rest a full day at least, and then...)

1x5 (warm up): 45
1x5 (warm up): 65
1x5 (warm up): 70
3x5 (work sets): 75

BENCH PRESS (note: as an untrained woman, you may find you need to start with 35, ie, a smaller than normal bar, and that's fine):
1x5 (warm up): 45
1x5 (warm up): 55
1x5 (warm up): 60
3x5 (work sets): 65

1x5 (warm up): 55 (any time the bar is on the floor, you're gonna have to start with some weight on it just to get it high enough to reach)
1x5 (warm up): 70
1x5 (warm up): 75
1x5 (work sets): 80 (Rippetoe advocates doing only 1 work set for the deadlift, because it's so hard I guess)

The idea is to do three main lifts per workout, where for 2 or 3 sets you're just warming up, as in building up to the maximum weight you can lift with proper form. The workout should get the blood flowing but not tire you out so much it interferes with your ability to do the work set--this takes lots of finagling, finding your pattern at first (I remember being like "oh my god, it's not always going to be this long at the gym is it?"...thankfully no). It goes a lot faster once you have a sense of where your baseline is. If you can complete your work set successfully with good form, then you go up the next workout. If you can't, you stay there the next time.

I feel like there's more to say but so much it's too much. I know form is a lot to swallow, and can be overwhelming, and perfect is the enemy of good at first when you start. You'll get it if you hang in there, and then it gets much easier, you won't have to think every part through. I recommend making blank spreadsheets so you know exactly what you're doing, how much, and how heavy before you're at the gym.

And keep in mind there are lots of opinions about form for various lifts, and how many reps, etc. With that I'd say consider where whoever's recommending something in particular is coming from--are they taking a bodybuilder approach in that they want some part to look good as soon as possible? Do they want to get stronger all-around for daily life? Are they just trying to up their weight threshold as fast as possible? And then decide accordingly if it matches your goals.
posted by ifjuly at 4:05 PM on July 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Ask your question to the woman who runs stumptuous; she can pick a few good posts that address exactly what you're asking.
posted by talldean at 4:09 PM on July 7, 2011

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