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Strength Training Basics for Women

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Do you have questions about strength training?

How much weight to lift? How many sets and repetitions to do? How often to strength train? I'll answer these questions below, but before I do, let me say that I find most women underestimate how strong they already are and how much weight they are capable of lifting. So, take a moment and think about the heaviest thing(s) you lift on a regular basis...

Your 20 pound grandchild?

Your 45 pound dog?

A 25 pound Kitchen Aid mixer?

15 pound bags of groceries?

40 pound bags of mulch or soil or dog food?

8.6 pound gallons of milk or water?

Chances are the things you are already lifting are heavier than you think, often outweighing a dumbbell you might select as an appropriate weight for you!

Facts about muscle strength:

  • Men typically have more muscle mass, but compared muscle-to-muscle, women are equally as strong as men.

  • Adults who do not perform resistance exercise, experience a 5-10% decrease in muscle strength every decade.

  • Muscle strength gains are approximately the same whether you train 2 or 3 days a week, however muscle strength gains are reduced by about 50% if you train only 1 day per week.

  • 1 set of a strengthening exercise is the bare minimum needed to gain strength. (There are additional strength gains with 2-3 sets, but the measurable difference is relatively small.)

  • The number of repetitions in a typical set of a strength training program can range from 4 to 16 repetitions depending on the amount of load (weight) lifted. (See chart below). (Generally, if you can’t perform 4 repetitions, the load is too heavy and if you can perform more than 16 repetitions, the load is too light.)

  • The amount of load you should lift is based on a percentage of your One Repetition Maximum (1RM). This is the amount of weight you can lift exactly one time. The optimal strength training range is 60-90% of your 1RM. (See chart below.)

Chart showing percent of 1 Rep Max and number of Repetitions per Set.
Chart showing percent of 1 Rep Max and number of Repetitions per Set.

Figuring out how much weight to lift:

It isn’t prudent or practical to figure out your 1RM by trial and error. Instead, for any given exercise choose a load (weight) that you feel you can lift for approximately 8-12 repetitions. Then use the 1RM calculator below, entering the weight you lifted and the number of repetitions completed (which could be more or less than 8-12). The calculator will use the information you enter to estimate your 1RM.

For example, to figure out your 1RM for a bicep curl using a 5 pound weight, perform the bicep curl as many times as possible (until muscle failure, meaning you can't do even one more). Let’s say I’m not great at guessing how much I can lift and am able to perform a bicep curl with that 5 pound weight 18 times…

Using the calculator above, I would enter the weight (5) and the number of repetitions (18) for an estimated 1RM of 8 pounds. My results would look like this:

Chart of Results from 1 Rep Max Calculator
Chart of Results from 1 Rep Max Calculator

Strength training basics for women: Beginners should lift at approximately 75% of their 1RM.

Now I know that if I want to work at 75% of my 1RM, I should lift a 6 pound weight for approximately 10 repetitions. (Note: If all I have is a 5 pound weight, according to the chart I know I have to do 16-20 repetitions with that 5 pound weight to gain strength.)

I hope the information above gives you some clarity about strength training basics for women.

Don't hesitate to call me at 732-690-9497 or email me to schedule a private strength training session or try a Mindful Strength class. It often only takes 2-3 sessions to get you started on a custom strength program.

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