The Importance of Strength Training for Women

By Cindy Abrami, NASM-Corrective Exercise Specialist, UESCA Running and Multisport Coach and holds a BS in Nutrition

I was fortunate to have had an initiation into weight training many moons ago (30 years to be more precise) when I was a track and cross-country athlete in high school.  I can’t say I enjoyed it at the time but my coaches were wise and made sure it was an integral part of our competition seasons.

Onward to college competition, those coaches were equally as wise.  Strength training and overall conditioning continued to be a part of our running training programs and carried over into my off-season to become a regular part of my lifestyle.  I’ve been strength training ever since.

I’m grateful for the early induction of this healthy habit, especially during a time when far fewer women were spending time in the weight section of gyms.  Back then I had no idea how important it really was and how crucial it would be as I aged and I didn’t realize how empowering it was going to be.  The benefits went way beyond improved athletic performance in that my confidence as a strong woman became part of my self-perception and lifestyle framework.

30 years later, I’m not the spring chicken I once was (I’m closing in on 50 years of age this year), and now more than ever, strength training is extremely precious to me.  For women specifically, starting at around age 30, we lose around 3% of our muscle mass every decade and we experience significant reductions in overall strength, especially between the ages of 50-70 where we lose 30%.  This natural decline threatens our ability to remain capable and independent in our daily lives.  Our muscles are far too precious to just let slip away and as is usually the case with our bodies, there’s stuff we can do about it.

I love when my sweet husband helps me with heavy stuff, but he often gets a “thanks, but nope!  I can do it myself.”  I want to put the 6 gallon water bundle in the basket at Costco (and into the car from my Costco basket, and into the house from my car).  I want to carry 5 bags of groceries into the house in one trip (why take two trips when you can power through one), you just string three bags on one arm, hold two in the other hand, and your fingers are free to lock the car and open the house door.  I want to independently perform my own heavy lifting because it empowers me and instills confidence in my female strength.

Strength training is essential for women, especially as we age.  It truly is “use it or lose it” and we were made to use it.  We were not made to be feeble or weak.  We just have to take the time and make the time to be strong.  Here are 4 things we as women need to know about strength training, now that we’ve established it is a Must Do!

Cardio Doesn’t Cut It

Cardiovascular exercise, endurance training and partaking in sports (running, swimming, cycling, volleyball, tennis, soccer, etc.) does not substitute for strength training. This type of exercise is of course very important to perform and in many ways can contribute to sport specific conditioning, and is a daily part of my life, but strength training is in addition to these activities.  Building and maintaining overall muscle mass can only be done via specific weight training.  Hence my smart high school and college coaches made sure their athletes added strength training to their seasons.

Must Be Challenging

In order for strength training to create the needed adaptions (meaning the muscle is stressed enough to create micro tears that in turn create the development of new and more muscle tissue), it needs to be challenging. There are a couple of ways to make sure you’re challenging yourself when you lift.  1)  Lift a heavy enough load so that when doing a set of 10 repetitions of a given exercise, the last few are truly a struggle BUT you still maintain proper form.  Rest and repeat.  2)  Lift a lighter load but for an extended period of time (always maintaining proper form) so that the last portion of the set is almost impossible.  In this case, some exercises can be performed just using body weight as long as you apply the pressure for a long enough period and use proper form throughout.  Adaptations aren’t going to happen if you lift too light.  And equally important, if you lift so heavy that your form falls apart, you risk injury and won’t get the most out of your effort.  When I’m lifting, as soon as it becomes super hard and I really begin to struggle, I remind myself that my body is now adapting to the new challenge I’ve given it.  So make sure you challenge yourself with every exercise!

Frequency is Key

How often we strength train is very important. In order to capitalize on the awesome adaptations that we work so hard to obtain, don’t let too much time pass before you challenge those muscles again.  Strength training for all major muscles groups (full body) should be performed a minimum of twice a week, and ideally should be done three times per week, never training the same muscle group two days in a row.  So always allow a day of rest between sessions for a given muscle group.  If you are able to commit to strength training 4-5 days a week, a great option is to vary which muscles groups are worked on a given day.  For instance you can focus on upper body on Monday and Wednesday, and lower body on Tuesday and Thursday.

Keep Your Body Guessing

Consistently change your strength training routine. Using a variety of exercises will prevent your muscles from becoming complacent in the work load.  Because our bodies adapt so well, we want to keep switching things up and keep it guessing.  It’s ok to stick with a specific set of exercises for 2-4 weeks or so, but then it’s time to find a new way to challenge it.  This also keeps things a bit more fun.  Have you ever had that experience where you did something totally new (or something you hadn’t done in a long time) and ended up sore, thinking “wow, I didn’t even know I had that muscle.”?  It’s a crazy thing to discover that although you maintain a great deal of strength in a given muscle group, a new challenge actually pulls in a different muscle or works the same muscle in a different way.  I do a lot of shoulder work, from all different angles, but if I go out and throw a baseball for 20 minutes, my shoulder will be sore the next day.  It’s that pesky rotation movement that I hadn’t been implementing in my training.

Strength training allows us to really use our bodies in the many ways it was intended to be used and keeps us capable of every day function.  Building lean muscle mass improves our body composition and having a higher percentage of muscle versus fat has a positive impact on our overall metabolism.  It should be a regular habit for all women (and men of course), athletes or not. It’s not just about athletic performance, it’s about life!  Just make sure you’re doing it right, using correct form, have a balanced lifting program and doing the right types of exercises for your individual life demands.  If you need assistance with your strength training, please contact me.  This is specifically what personal trainers do.  Live epically!!


About the Author: Cindy Abrami, BS Nutrition, NASM-CPT/CES, AFAA, Pn1 Nutrition Coach, UESCA Certified Running and Multisport Coach, Schwinn Certified Indoor Cycling Instructor