Weight Training for Women

Do you picture bodybuilders as oiled-up musclebound men? Think again! Meet Jenn Farrell, a personal trainer who competed in her first bodybuilding competition at age 44.

Sweat pastes my shirt to my back as I settle into the leg press. The cacophony of the gym becomes distant as my focus narrows. I align my feet on the platform above, inhale, and bend my knees deeply. Now I have to push it back up—all 500 pounds of it.

One rep, two reps, three reps. “Just one more,” I say through gritted teeth, until I cannot do another. I finish the set and take a lap around the floor, legs trembling. I’m smiling as my coach loads yet another weight plate on the machine, because in only two minutes, I’ll get to do it again.

No limits

Only a few months ago, I began training for a bodybuilding contest. Sure, I was a fitness instructor and trainer, and got plenty of exercise just by doing my job, but I had never trained with the goal of making some serious muscle. Now I’m addicted and prepping for my second show.

In under a year, I’ve learned I can lift things that outweigh me—on the leg press, about five times my body weight—and I love it. There’s something about pushing to what I think is my limit, and then—workout after workout—discovering that the limit was all in my head.

I’ve watched my body change: at the ripe old age of 44, it’s stronger and leaner than it’s ever been. I’m not embarrassed to say that I look great, but even more importantly, I feel fantastic, accomplished, and brimming with energy and confidence.

When I walked out on stage at my first show, I felt like a champion. And while I didn’t bring home a trophy that day, I’ll always have the pictures—a woman so ripped (and spray-tanned) that I barely recognize myself.

Reasons to start lifting

Perhaps you also dream of donning several tiny triangles of sparkly material and strutting your stuff onstage. Or maybe you want to feel younger, fitter, and more alive. Maybe you want to get back into running or your favourite sport without hurting yourself. Maybe you just want to look at your upper arms in a tank top and think “awesome!” instead of “ugh.” Welcome to weight training, folks, where the magic happens.

Get strong

First, let’s dispense with the “bulky” argument: the notion that women become hulking brutes if we pick up anything heftier than a handbag. I tailor my training and diet to try to become as huge and muscular as possible, and it’s very hard work.

Aesthetically, if the fashion model ideal is for you, then keep hoisting those three-pounders, walking the “dreadmill,” and eating lettuce for lunch. But if you want to make real changes in your body and enjoy the myriad health benefits of weight training, then come with me, where the iron is big and the protein shakes are delicious!

The gym can be intimidating and baffling for the newbie, which is why hiring a professional fitness trainer to help you develop a safe and effective workout program is a smart investment. Alternatively, you can start training in your own home (I’ve provided five easy moves to get you started).

Get fast results

The best part of being new to weight training is how quickly you’ll see results. Two or three short workouts per week will have you sleeping better, standing taller, and feeling stronger. Soon, you’ll start to see your hard work in the form of sexy new muscle. Make sure you keep challenging yourself—progressive resistance is the name of the game, which means periodically increasing the weight you’re lifting, so your muscles stay challenged.

Enjoy these first few months of unprecedented growth; this is the honeymoon stage for the lifter, and if you stick with it and watch your nutrition, you’ll soon be as addicted to the results as I am.

Get a rush

And it’s not just the results that are addictive: it’s the rush you’ll get from training itself. You’ll rediscover that little flame that burns within you, that finds a way when your mind says you can’t, that digs out one more rep, that gets you off the couch and out the door before you can talk yourself out of it.

You’ll learn to love that big mirror, not just for checking your form, but because one day, you’re going to finish a tough set, and you’re going to flex in that mirror and smile. You won’t care who sees you, because you’re strong and it’s awesome.

5 moves to fitness

These five basic exercises provide a solid workout at home or in the gym, using only a pair of dumbbells.

You can perform these in the order given for 2 or 3 sets with rest breaks between, or, if you’re ready for a challenge, as a circuit—one after the other, with minimal rest between moves (rest for 1 to 3 minutes between circuits). This will keep your heart rate up and burn additional calories.

Pick a weight that’s heavy enough that you can’t maintain good form for more than 8 to 12 repetitions. Remember, pushing (gently) to fatigue is what helps muscles grow stronger! Make sure to take a full day off between weight training days to allow for recovery.

Why weight training?

Weight or resistance training is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle that also includes cardiovascular exercise and flexibility/mobility training. The benefits of weight training are too numerous to list in their entirety, but here’s a sample, just in case “because it’s fun” isn’t enough for you.

Physical benefits
  • helps build and maintain lean muscle mass and offset the loss of bone mass associated with aging
  • may ameliorate symptoms of menopause such as difficulty sleeping, tension, and anxiety
  • improves overall strength for the tasks of daily living and reduces the likelihood of falls and frailty in old age
  • improves sport performance and reduces risk of injury in sport and leisure activities
  • reduces the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and much more
Mental and emotional benefits
  • increases self-confidence, self-esteem, and feelings of accomplishment
  • improves cognitive function and memory
  • improves understanding and appreciation of one’s own body
  • Did I mention the “fun” part yet?


Muscles targeted: quadriceps, glutes

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, begin by standing with feet pointing forward and legs between hip and shoulder distance apart.
  • Initiate the squat by pushing your rear end back and bending your knees, like you’re going to sit on a chair behind you. (You can use a real chair, if it helps.)
  • Keep your torso as upright as possible and your knees pressing out as you sink back as far as you can.
  • Drive through the feet and squeeze your glutes as you return to standing, and repeat.

Beginner option: perform with body weight only.

Chest Press

Muscles targeted: chest, triceps

  • Sitting on the end of a bench, hold two dumbbells on your thighs.
  • Lie back and bring the dumbbells to your chest with elbows out to the sides in line with the shoulders.
  • Your feet should rest firmly on the floor, and head and shoulders rest on the bench.
  • Your palms can face your feet or each other.
  • Press the dumbbells straight up over your chest until arms are straight but not locked, then lower dumbbells slowly and repeat.

(Your elbows shouldn’t sink too far below the shoulders, as this can put unnecessary strain on the shoulder joints.)

No weight bench? No problem! You can also perform this exercise lying on the floor with knees bent.

Rested Hip Bridge

Muscles targeted: hamstrings, glutes

  • Lie on your back holding dumbbells on the crease of your hips, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor and close to your butt.
  • With feet pushing into the floor, drive your hips up toward the ceiling as you squeeze your glutes toward each other.
  • Focus on using this squeeze to propel you, rather than allowing movement through the lower back.
  • Lower with control, and repeat for reps.

Beginners can also perform this exercise with body weight only.

RKC-Style Plank

Muscles targeted: total body, abs, shoulders

  • Lie on your stomach with your elbows directly under your shoulders and toes tucked under.
  • Lift your body so only your forearms and toes are supporting you.
  • Squeeze your body from one end to the other: lift the abdominals up and in, squeeze your glutes, and draw your thighs toward each other (even use a little pillow if it helps).
  • Press your forearm bones into the ground, and think about pulling your elbows and toes toward each other.
  • Breathe—that shaking you feel is a good thing! Hold for as long as you’re able, and then rest and repeat.

RKC stands for Russian Kettlebell Club, so you know this means business! Don’t worry about the duration—it’s better to do several short reps than one sloppy one. Focus on the intensity and do your best.

Double arm row

Muscles targeted: lats, biceps

  • Begin by holding two dumbbells at your sides, hinging forward from the hips about 45 degrees.
  • Keep the spine long and the chest open.
  • Row the dumbbells up toward your rib cage, keeping your elbows close to the body as you squeeze the shoulder blades together and down.
  • Lower and repeat for reps, making sure you stay neutral through your back, keeping the neck easy and the shoulders away from your ears. a

For an added challenge, feel free to double up your dumbbells and perform this exercise one arm at a time!

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