The Power of Strength Training for Women: Building Confidence and Health

Strength Training as a Game-Changer for Women

Women are strong, that’s a known fact. But we often relate this to mental resilience, determination and perseverance. It’s only in recent years that we’ve started taking over the weights section at the gym. We are here, we are strong and it feels bloody brilliant! If you’ve not yet felt the sheer power, strength and euphoria from a heavy weights session, well, get ready to be inspired.

Breaking Stereotypes: Dispelling the Myths About Women and Weightlifting

Strength training for women isn’t ‘feminine’

A common stereotype associated with women and weightlifting, is that having any sort of definition is ‘not feminine’. The definition of ‘feminine’ is as follows: ‘having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women or girls’. I’d say the key word in that definition is ‘traditional’. Traditionally, yes, women were supposed to be fragile, slim and dainty. They were also meant to stay home all day as ‘homemakers’ (what a job title!) to care for the children, to cook and to clean. We are redefining women’s roles in society. So let’s redefine femininity too.

I’d say an indirect definition would be that it’s about taking care of others, as well as yourself. Your femininity can be expressed and defined however you want. If you want to take care of yourself by building a healthy, strong body and have some muscles to show for it, I’d say that sounds pretty damn feminine to me.

There’s another common misconception that weightlifting will make you bulky. While you can use weight lifting to ‘bulk up’, this is a very deliberate process and you have to put in very specific work for it to happen, especially if you’re biologically female.

Weightlifting is dangerous

I also hear of many women being wary of weightlifting, as it can be seen as dangerous, particularly if you’re pregnant or if you’re over fifty. Whenever there’s a lot of weight involved, it can always be dangerous, and you’re sensible to be cautious. The fact that you’re cautious means you’re much less likely to hurt yourself. You need to make sure that you’re lifting safely, with correct form, and it becomes a much safer activity. As for lifting while pregnant, this is also not inherently dangerous, as long as you have advice from your GP/midwife/qualified PT as to which movements to avoid. Studies have shown that exercise in general reduces total labour time. Weightlifting specifically, lowers risk of gestational diabetes and lower back pain, as well as helping with the baby’s development and gives the birth parent more strength and power for labour itself, along with many other benefits.

Weightlifting when you get older too, is still as important, if not more so than before, to maintain bone density and muscle mass which gives you as many years of injury free mobility as possible.

Whether you’re young, old, pregnant or not, the key thing is to make sure you know what you’re doing in the gym in terms of correct lifting technique, so lifting becomes as safe as any other form of exercise. There will always be risks attached to any form of movement, but there is a much higher risk to your health from you not exercising at all!

The Stronger, Leaner You: Transforming Your Body with Strength Training

As you build muscle through strength training, you often find that you get leaner too.

Carrying too much excess body fat can lead to heart problems, so increasing your metabolism by building muscle is a great way to prevent issues down the line. The two main things to consider if you’re wanting to lose weight, are, looking at your energy in (calories you consume) vs energy out (how much energy you use each day) and, strength training to build muscle, which boosts your metabolism. The more muscle you have, the more energy your body uses, even while sitting down and not moving. So by building muscle you can actually consume more food and still maintain the same weight. This also works if you’re looking to lose weight too. You can consume more food and still be in a calorie deficit than you would have been able to consume before you built the extra muscle.

The Benefits of Strength Training for Women: Beyond Muscles

While strength training for women is great for building muscle – which is often the main reason people choose this activity – there are many other benefits too. My personal favourite is the mood-boosting effects. During strength training, we can enjoy an instant high from the release of Dopamine (the reward hormone) and Endorphins (relieves stress and boosts mood). Post workout, we can enjoy up to a few days of the effects of Serotonin release, which helps to level out our mood and improve our sleep, digestion and certain brain functions – all of which can affect how we feel.

Another great benefit is feeling stronger in general. Feeling more capable and being able to trust your body to perform tasks like moving heavy boxes, carrying shopping and running for the bus is a great feeling.

If you play any sports, building strength can undoubtedly help with overall speed, power and agility, meaning you can perform better. Building strength also reduces your risk of injury, as you get stronger in various movements and ranges of these movements. You also strengthen the structure around your joints, such as your ligaments and tendons, which protects them too.

Strength training for women can also improve your bone density, which for biological females is imperative, particularly as you get older and your risk of osteoporosis increases (a condition that weakens bones, making them more likely to break). It’s never too early to start on the prevention of this.

Building Strong Foundations: The Importance of Form and Technique

There are two reasons that you absolutely must make sure that your form and technique are correct: These are safety and efficiency. You need to make sure that you lift safely to avoid injury otherwise you can a) do some real long term damage to your body which could affect your ability to train down the line and b) set your training progress back as you take time to heal. The efficiency aspect simply means that by lifting with optimal form and technique, you get the most out of every rep, and so you progress towards your goals faster. Both of those reasons are really important, so please make sure that you don’t perform any lifts that you aren’t absolutely sure on.

Strength Training vs. Cardio: Finding the Right Balance

Whether to go for strength training or cardio always comes down to what you enjoy and what your goals are. If you train for enjoyment, then this section isn’t really for you, as you should simply try different activities to find what you prefer. If you’re aiming for a specific goal, and don’t mind trading some enjoyment to get there, then you may need to choose a specific structure. I’ll outline various common goals below, and what can often work to achieve them:

Training for Health

A mix of strength training for overall strength, mobility, joint and bone health and then also cardio for cardiovascular and lung health. Both reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses too.

Training for Aesthetics

Whether you want to bulk up, or get leaner and more toned, building muscle is always the starting point, which comes from strength training. After building muscle, if you want to get leaner and more ‘toned’ you could then increase your cardio to help increase a calorie deficit. If you’re looking for tips on getting lean, check out this blog.

Training for an event

It depends what event you’re training for as to whether you need to build stamina and endurance, or strength, or both. Generally with most sporting events though, both are usually a good idea. For example, for a triathlon, you need stamina and endurance (from cardio) to keep going for an extended period of time, but also strength and speed (from strength training) to help you finish with a good time.

Boosting Confidence: How Strength Training Empowers Women

Strength training for women can be incredibly empowering. It helps us to feel strong, independent and powerful. Seeing a heavy object and not immediately assuming that you’ll need to ask for help, but instead considering giving it a go – and impressing the hell out yourself when you lift it with ease…now that’s an awesome feeling! Deadlifting 100kg off the floor with confidence – that’s badass! What else could make you feel more powerful? I’ll wait 😉

Many of my clients have also told me that since starting strength training and gaining confidence in the gym, they’ve found that they’ve become more confident outside of the gym too! A lot of us could benefit from a little confidence boost, so if you haven’t tried strength training yet, this is your sign to give it a go!

Say Goodbye to Stress: Stress Reduction Through Strength Training

Studies have shown that resistance training can help manage anxiety, which is a reaction to stress. Stress can originate from internal or external sources, and whether a threat is real or simply perceived, it can be really difficult to manage. Using strength training can be a really helpful tool to help reduce stress though. When we train, endorphins are released in our brains which, firstly, give us a great post-workout natural high, but these can also help to reduce our cortisol levels, which is one of our main stress hormones.

Personally, I also use strength training as a form of meditation, to get out of my head and have a moment of mindfulness, clearing the mind of as many thoughts and worries as possible. There is so much to think about when weight training, so it can be used to distract yourself and take a mind-break from everything else. You need to concentrate on your form, create a mind to muscle connection to activate the muscles you’re wanting to target, you need to focus on your breathing and your tempo – you can focus on each rep as it comes, and get into a good flow, getting lost in the movement. Don’t worry if you don’t feel super ‘zen’ on your first go, mindfulness and focus takes practice and it’ll come easier if you don’t put additional pressure on yourself.

Creating Your Strength Training Routine: Tips for Beginners

If you are just starting out, I would advise that you start with machines at the gym. These are great for building strength initially, in a controlled way. You’re less likely to injure yourself and they generally have directions and diagrams on them to assist. Once you have built up some initial strength using machines, you can then move onto free weights – things like Barbells, Kettlebells and Dumbbells.

It’s definitely a good idea to do your research on these and practice body weight movements first, before adding weight, to make sure your form is correct. For online resources, I would recommend Squat University on Youtube. If you feel that you need in-person support, or you try following the videos, but just don’t feel confident enough yet, it might be worth hiring a coach. If this is the case, feel free to fill in an interest form and we can have a chat. Even if you’re not local to Manchester, I may also be able to refer you to another great coach in your area 😊

Nutrition for Strength: Fuelling Your Body for Performance

Optimal nutrition is something that can often be dismissed – you feel fine, so what’s the big deal? Building strength requires energy, and while you may have heard ‘a calorie is a calorie’, (meaning as long as you eat enough, it doesn’t matter where it comes from) that doesn’t mean that you can eat whatever you fancy and still perform well.

You may still perform pretty well, however, with optimal nutrition, you can perform even better. While a calorie is a calorie, and you do need to be getting enough energy, you also need to make sure that your body can release that energy from food properly, and be able to use it effectively as well. This is where vitamins and minerals are important too, as they are key in all of our bodily functions.

A happy, healthy body is a lot more likely to increase in strength and build muscle than an unhealthy one, so make sure you’re consuming a well-balanced, nutritious diet to support your strength building goals. For more on what this looks like, check out my Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Exercise Enthusiasts.

Success Stories: Molly

“I first reached out to Ray in March 2023 after coming across her Instagram page. I had recently moved to Manchester and was looking to build a consistent routine with new habits, which I had struggled to keep going since the first lockdown in 2020. Although I had been a regular gym goer between 2016 and 2019, I felt I had lost a huge chunk of my confidence working with free weights in the gym. I also wanted to start building a programme to follow in the gym, as I often felt lost and used what was available in the gym at the time. A lot of my previous time in the gym was also spent on the assisted weight or cardio machines, and slowly moving into back squats on an assisted machine, barbells and dumbbells. I was keen
to learn how to properly and safely deadlift, hip thrust and squat and can confidently say Ray has helped me achieve that and so much more.

“…there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your hard work pay off and see some baby muscles start to appear!”

Over the past 6 months Ray has devised three separate programmes for me, which incorporate a full range of movements targeting both lower and upper body muscles. These programmes have been really clear to follow and each one has consisted of two 5-exercise workouts. This has made incorporating going to the gym a lot more manageable to fit in alongside busy work and life schedules. By having this split of workouts and a new programme to follow every couple of months, I’ve been able to try a lot of different exercises I might not have felt confident enough to try and have seen real progression throughout my sessions with Ray.

As strength building was a key goal for me at the start, Ray has really focussed on increasing the weights I’m lifting, and I am now lifting heavier than I ever have before and feeling stronger every week. I love how strong and ‘solid’ I feel and have really noticed some muscle definition developing, particularly in my arms and back. I think there’s a fear around lifting heavy and appearing ‘bulky’, but there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your hard work pay off and see some baby muscles start to appear!

“Aside from feeling stronger and the changes I’ve noticed physically, I feel so much better mentally and more energised. “

We initially started with a focus on nutrition and fat loss at the beginning of working together, as I was looking to increase my strength, building some muscle definition and losing some body fat. I was a little nervous about this at the start, as I had had a poor relationship with food and counting calories in the past, but this time it was a total shift in mindset more than anything.

It was more about increasing my protein and having more balanced meals than it was restricting myself – really fuelling my body. I think the phrase ‘calorie deficit’ can be quite daunting for some, myself included, but Ray and I focussed on increasing the deficit slowly so that my body could get used to it. Ray also helped with sending some high protein meal ideas to get me started and I’ve now gotten to a point where I can move away from using a calorie tracking app to being aware of typical nutritional values independently.

From the start it felt a completely personalised experience, by having an initial consultation to discuss my goals and seeing how we would work together. You can really tell just how much effort Ray puts in when working with her clients and her business as a whole, with the weekly check ins and always being on hand to answer any queries. Alongside the individual sessions, Ray also organises walks, breathwork and mindfulness events for her clients to meet and interact with each other as a community. Her space is completely inclusive and has really helped me to fall back in love with lifting – I couldn’t recommend working with Ray more.”

Wrapping up

If you’ve been thinking about starting strength training but haven’t yet made a start, hopefully this has inspired you. It can be daunting, especially as a woman, to venture into the weights section that is often dominated by men, but you belong there just as much as them. You may feel that you don’t know what you’re doing and that everyone is going to notice, but you’d be surprised at how many other people are thinking the exact same thing. Everyone is there to get stronger and healthier and work on themselves. Just take it slow, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and make sure that your form is safe and effective. Don’t expect huge progress in the first few weeks, it takes time to build strength, so allow yourself that time, and more importantly, enjoy the journey!

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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