Should Women Be Lifting Heavy Weights?

~22 minute read time, 4300 words

There’s an issue with how many women are approaching fitness.

Too many are spending all their time on cardio machines, or they are actually resistance training, but it’s by doing circuit training and other workouts which are all essentially different forms of cardio.

Whereas the free weight sections of gyms are dominated by men, it can often be rare to see more than a few women making use of that equipment and lifting heavy.

You may have your reasons for avoiding heavy weight lifting. The issue is, avoiding heavy weights might be exactly what’s holding you back from finally reaching your goal.

Of course, this depends entirely on what your goal is in the first place. I’m not here to tell you what your goal should be or anything like that. But I do want to address the mistakes many women are making who have a particular aesthetic goal in mind.

Something along the lines of:

  • A smaller waist
  • An overall tighter and more “toned” figure
  • Most importantly, a bigger butt.

Let’s be real here, you may not openly admit it to others, but that’s the big one.

Being able to put on a dress and blow people away with your curves.

Cardio alone doesn’t build that body. Building muscle and lifting weights does. But it only works if you are lifting weights the right way, which many are not.

There are innumerable benefits to lifting weights. It’s fantastic for the health of your bones and joints and really, everyone should be doing it, regardless of your goal. But this article is focusing on addressing that common aesthetic goal.

The Coveted “Hourglass Figure”

The unfortunate reality is that our body’s visual appeal is largely determined by our bone structure. Some women naturally have wide hips and a tiny waist. To add on top of that, body fat distribution patterns, which are also determined by genetics, means some women’s fat may all go to their butt and chest instead of their waist.

If you drew the genetic short straw, it sucks. Trust me, I know. My personal fitness journey has been a constant battle to overcome my lanky noodle limbs yet also fridge-like midsection which is only worsened by my fat distribution.

Meanwhile some dudes have wide shoulders and muscle definition without working out a day in their lives.

No, it’s not fair. But I’m a firm believer that anyone can build an aesthetic, and absolutely beautiful physique through adding muscle mass and lifting. You may not be as naturally gifted as others, but through proper training, you can uncover the unique and one of a kind beauty your physique is capable of.

You may not be as naturally gifted as others, but you may find that through proper training, you tease out strong points your body does have, that were just laying dormant and waiting to be exposed. Combine these with your “less than optimal” features, which now turn into unique quirks that make you, you.

You may not be naturally blessed, but you do have control over your ability to add muscle in the right areas and make the most of what you were given.

You can spend an eternity comparing yourself to others, wishing you had their same bone structure or fat distribution, or you can do something about it.

How Lifting Can Transform Your Body

Your ass doesn’t grow from cardio. Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. All muscles. That tight and “toned” look? Definition? That happens from being lean enough to show off muscle.

If you lose the fat but there’s no muscle underneath, you get more of what’s called a “skinny fat” look – where you don’t look large or overweight, but you’re still kind of pudgy and soft because all that’s there is fat and bone. Or if you get really lean, you’re just left with a skin and bones look.

Muscle is the equalizer that you need in place of fat to achieve a healthy, curvy, and athletic looking body.

But it’s more than just creating a more tight and toned look.

Bigger glutes are self explanatory. What many don’t realize is building up your hamstrings, calves, and quads create more shape to your lower body, providing an overall more curvy appearance which accentuates your glutes. It functions much like an optical illusion.

As you build up the size of your quads, shoulders, and lats (back muscles), your hips and shoulders widen which makes your waist appear smaller by comparison. Effectively creating an hourglass figure.

A common misconception is that lifting weights will make women bulky and manly. There’s a nugget of truth to that, but for the most part, it’s entirely false.

In reality lifting will enhance your feminine features. It’s only once you start becoming massive that you start to err more towards masculinity than femininity.

Think about it this way. You have guys training year round for years on end who are trying to look bulky and masculine and still don’t. It’s not as if you’ll look at a dumbbell the wrong way and you’ll suddenly sprout a beard and balls.

You can technically take it too far and start becoming “manly”, but it takes a really long time. It doesn’t happen by accident. You’ll see it coming from a mile away and can stop well before that point.

What lifting actually does is further enhance your feminine features and allow you to grow into the best version of yourself possible.

I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so here’s a buttload of wonderful examples of the sort of results you could achieve by making lifting and building muscle a priority in your routine:

(all photos have been posted with permission of the owners)

My Online Coaching client Marisol, with her incredible 2 month transformation:

Instagram: legs_with_meg

Notice here how her entire figure has become more “toned”. She isn’t significantly larger, yet her skin appears tighter and firmer.

Instagram: swolesarah

Here’s a competitive powerlifter of 16 years who’s been actively trying to get “big and bulky” to perform better in her sport. Would you say she ended up “too masculine” whatsoever?

Here she is deadlifting 314 lbs in competition.

Donated transformation by fellow fitness enthusiast Brianna

“On the left is when I only did cardio/HIIT, all weight loss focused. On the right is after my first bulk, weight training only, focused on building muscle. What’s not feminine about a plump booty?”

Instagram: ThatGiles

“I used to be fairly overweight for my height. I tried to do endless cardio like 800 calories worth every time I went to the gym and I got fatter so I gave up. Then I started lifting weights and in the first 2 months I lost 20 lbs and became addicted to lifting.”

Hopefully this illustrates why exactly building muscle should be a priority. To build muscle, you need to be lifting heavy weights and getting stronger. That means stepping away from the treadmill and getting comfortable in the free weight section of the gym. Not that cardio is useless, but it shouldn’t be your main focus.

In that regard, your training shouldn’t be all that different than how most men train. Lifting heavy and training hard. There are some differences, but the core principles should remain the same.

There’s a smaller difference between how men and women should train than you think.

The best way for me to illustrate this is to detail all the different types of goals men and women work towards so you understand the bigger picture of what’s going on. It may not seem all that relevant to you at first, but just bear with me.

Generally, most guys want some degree of less fat and more muscle.

On the modest side, maybe just a flat stomach, some visible muscle definition, abs, no crazy amounts of size, but athletic looking. Brad Pitt in Fight Club sort of look.

Or on the more extreme end, Dwayne The Rock Johnson with bulging muscles and veins popping out all over.

The main difference between these two is how much total muscle is built. It’s not that one guy is doing crossfit while the other is doing bodybuilding or powerlifting.

A common misconception is that some specific method of exercise leads to some hyper specific type of look. As if you need to do this if you want to “tone”, and you need to do this if you want size.

It really doesn’t work that way. At least in terms of aesthetics, your muscles either grow or shrink. That’s it. There isn’t some sort of special visual quality that’s achieved by a specific method of exercise.

(Strength and performance is different, outcomes depend heavily on how specifically you are exercising)

Aesthetically, it all comes down to how much fat and muscle you have, and where it’s held. That’s it. That’s why aesthetic based goals can be simplified down to, generally, losing fat and building muscle. Just to varying degrees of extremity.

That’s why two different guys with these two different goals could train basically the same, at least at the start.

The one who’d prefer to match the Brad Pitt look would transition to a maintenance phase pretty early on, whereas someone trying to look like The Rock would have to continually push the envelope, and still may not actually ever reach that size.

Of course, as the guy who’s trying to match The Rock gets bigger and more advanced, his specific program and methods would have to adapt to his experience level. But the core principles are all the same. Lift heavy weights, train near the point of failure, eat enough protein, etc etc. The core principles of building muscle.

(This is my goal physique, personally ^)

Similarly, most women’s aesthetic goals can be simplified down to less fat and more muscle, just to varying degrees.

On the modest side, maybe that simply means attaining a flat stomach, turning a pancake ass into something visible, and a tiny bit more muscle to create a “toned” look, but not much.

(I have some issues with the term “tone” or “toning”, since it doesn’t really exist. Remember all that happens visually is less or more muscle or fat. Muscles don’t “tone” or grow. They grow or shrink. That’s it.)

Then on the more “extreme” side, you do want visible muscle. Maybe you don’t want to be huge, but you want biceps that pop a little when you flex, a defined back, and an ass so huge that finding pants that fit correctly becomes impossible.

So if the goals are so vastly different between men and women, then obviously women should be training differently than men, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are some differences in how women with those goals should be training compared to men with different goals. But, the differences aren’t all that huge.

Similar to men, these goals can be simplified down to losing fat and increasing muscle. 

What changes are the small details, the specifics. Much like how the guy trying to look like The Rock will eventually have to expand and diversify his workout program to build up the specific muscles he wants, yours should reflect a similar focus towards the muscles you want to build.

How To Achieve The Curvy and Athletic Look by Building Muscle – The Fundamentals

First you have to understand the fundamentals of building muscle.

Training intensity is your priority.

The best program in the world doesn’t matter if the effort you put into it is shit.

This is by far the most common mistake I see people making. Not just women, and not just those new to the gym either. Most people I see are vastly undertraining, not pushing themselves hard enough or challenging themselves, at least enough or in the right ways to truly make great progress.

Case and point. My client Heather from 2017.

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She was experienced with lifting weights. She competed in Olympic style weightlifting for two years and had since transitioned to a more “bodybuilder” style of training as her goals transitioned.

Despite all this experience, I still found during our first session together, she simply *was not* training hard enough to grow her muscles.

I asked her to work up to a heavy working set on Hip Thrusts and she did 135 for about 10 reps. That day alone I worked her up to 165 for 12 – she was vastly underestimating her strength.

Over the course of several months, I got her tiny 108 lb frame Hip Thrusting over 300 lbs for reps.

Bigger muscle = stronger muscle. Hip thrust primarily targets the glutes. So if you want to grow your glutes, grow a stronger hip thrust. Challenge yourself, chase heavier weights, and force your muscles to grow. Simple, and effective.

(you can view her testimonial of working with me here, if you’re curious)

The easiest way to understand this is muscle growth is your body adapting to better manage the stress of resistance training.

Now think about this. If your muscles aren’t struggling to overcome a resistance, is there any incentive for your body to adapt and grow stronger to be able to handle that stress? No.

Simply put, you need to give your body a REASON to grow.

That means pushing yourself near your limits when lifting, and when you get stronger, continuing to challenge yourself to do more to continue that growth.

A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, so your priority is to chase more weight or more reps.

Now when I say that, often people misinterpret what I mean by “push yourself near your limits”. This isn’t when you’re really tired, sweaty, and out of breath. That may or may not happen. What we’re looking for is called technical failure, when your muscles begin to exhaust and give out at the end of a set and you’re unable to complete another rep with good form.

This is often referred to simply as failure. There’s multiple types of failure but technical failure is the only one you need to worry about. Remember that term failure.

You should be taking each working set right up to that point, maybe a rep or two short on exercises where it’s unsafe to lose good form.

How many reps you should be doing

This is best done by finding a weight challenging enough for you to move that you can only do anywhere from 5-20 reps with good form before you hit failure. Now, there’s several important considerations to keep in mind for this.

First, you don’t need to take every set to the point where you actually fail to do the last rep with good form. The goal is to be just short of that point. Although if you’re truly pushing yourself you’ll occasionally overestimate yourself, which is fine.

Second, while it’s generally recommended to keep your reps between 5-20 reps, some exercises will simply work better at different rep ranges. Compound exercises that use multiple joints at once like squats, bench presses and rows can work in any range, even lower rep ranges of 5-7.

But single joint or isolation exercises like a bicep curl or lateral raise can be really difficult to do with correct form at a heavier weight. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, keep exercises like that at rep ranges above 8-10. 

Third, I mean something very specific by “good form”. If you’re pushing yourself hard enough, the last few reps of a set may be a bit ‘uglier’. Your rep speed will slow down, and you may lose your positioning a tiny bit just to complete the rep. That’s fine. Those are basically warning signs you’re reaching your limit for that set, and you should often be experiencing them.

What truly qualifies as bad form is when you have to move completely out of position to complete the exercise that places your joints into a position that increases the risk of injury, or starts shifting the focus away from the target muscle to another one.

Some examples of the former would be your back rounding on the deadlift, knees caving in far during a squat, and for the latter, starting to swing your arms and engaging your shoulders during bicep curls, arching your back during glute ham raises, or not being able to complete the full range of motion during rows or glute bridges

How much weight you should be using

Maybe you’ve put it together by now, but I can’t really answer this question for you. It entirely depends! All that matters is that you’re using a weight that’s challenging for you within that 5-20 rep range, continually trying to use more weight as you get stronger, being mindful that some exercises you can execute better at higher rep ranges, and that you should be prioritizing good form despite continually trying to use heavier and heavier weights.

I have a method you can use so you can figure out what weight will hit all those requirements though. I call it the AMRAP Test, As Many Reps As Possible.

First you need to make sure you’re warmed up with some lighter sets avoiding that point of failure so that your muscles are ready to move some heavy weight without getting injured.

Then, grab a weight you think you can do for a max of 10 reps, or whatever your target rep range is. Doesn’t matter how close you are, just take your best guess.

Then, do as many reps as you possibly can with good form. If you got more reps than your intended range, use a heavier weight for the next set. If you got less reps, grab a lighter weight. Rinse and repeat as necessary until you find that sweet spot.

This is how you should be approaching every single set. Don’t go into it with some arbitrary goal of 10 reps. Figure out how many reps you should do with how much weight as you go and always give your muscles exactly what they need to grow.

Nutrition For Building Muscle

This by itself could turn into a full length article. For the sake of brevity and focus, I’ll briefly cover the most important points.

Most importantly, you need protein. Roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, or how much you’d weigh without an ounce of fat. Although if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about the numbers. Just focus on getting 3-4 large servings of high protein foods per day. This should get you close enough to the mark.

This includes meat like chicken breast, pork chops, lean ground beef, turkey, shrimp, tuna, salmon, and scallops (most seafood, really).

For non meat options, whey protein or other similar protein powders, egg whites, greek yogurt (some brands are better than others, read nutrition facts, try to find 15-20g per serving), tofu, tempeh, TVP, and seitan.

(whole eggs are fine, but be mindful of the extra fat and calories. You don’t want to rely on these for your primary protein source.)

Other than that, your body best puts on muscle when gaining weight. This is why you see bodybuilders go through cut and bulk phases. They eat a lot and gain some weight to allow muscle to grow, but unfortunately means you add some fat as well. So then you turn around into a cut phase, where you maintain muscle and cut fat.

The best way to manage gain/loss phases is to take your bodyweight daily, first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink anything and after the bathroom. Take the average of these numbers each week and compare them. For gain phases, shoot for 1-2% increase per month (so for 130 lbs, 1-2 lbs per month), and for loss phases, shoot for losing 1-2% per week.

If you want a more complete nutrition guide, download my free program.

How To Achieve The Curvy and Athletic Look by Building Muscle – The Specifics

With the fundamentals out of the way, let’s dive into the specifics.

Remember earlier I mentioned that while men and women should be training largely the same for aesthetic based goals? That’s referring to the principles. Building muscle doesn’t change whether you’re male or female. The same process works.

Where the difference lies are the specifics – what muscles are prioritized.

Whereas men are typically mostly concerned with their upper body development and just having legs that are “good enough” and not complete chicken legs, women would benefit most from prioritizing full lower body development.

Let me run you through an example.

(If you’re newer to the gym, bare with me. I’ll be referring to a lot of exercises by name. Don’t worry if you don’t know what they are. Just try to absorb the underlying message.)

Many programs I’ve written for men look something like a few sets of squats or lunges, some sort of hip hinge like romanian deadlifts or glute-ham raises, and then a few sets of the leg extension and leg curl machines just so their entire workout isn’t multi-joint movements, which are typically more exhausting and at a certain point have no benefit over the single-joint movements like leg curls.

(That’s not to say you should only be doing single-joint machine work. Compound movements like squats are important.)

Then maybe some calf raises, if they even care to build their calves.

This gets the job done. It stimulates every lower body muscle and they will grow.

But they won’t see full development out of each muscle which fully expresses that curvy look which accentuates the glutes. Proportionately, their thighs will probably grow at a faster rate than their glutes – I think it’s safe to assume most ladies don’t want big thighs and a flat butt.

So a woman who’s prioritizing their glutes and wants full development out of each muscle will want a different approach. If anything, it just builds on the bare-bones lower body program I often give men.

You’ll want more variety so you’re making sure to hit the muscle at different angles. So while I may give a dude who doesn’t care much about his legs just some barbell squats and leg extensions to train his quads, it would probably be better if you were to do barbell squats, elevated reverse lunges, and leg extensions, being mindful to rotate exercises and rep ranges every 6-10 weeks or so.

In general, more variety.

You also want to prioritize the glutes and always be sure to include exercises which target them well. Barbell Hip Thrusts and Single-Leg Elevated Glute Bridges are your best friends. You also want exercises that hit the medial glute, such as the hip abduction machine (pushing out, not pulling in), or banded clam shells. This ensures full development of the glute muscle group, as it’s actually 3 separate muscles, not just one.

Whereas men often don’t care to train their calves, you need to make them a priority. Large and developed calves have a large effect on that “optical illusion” which accentuates your glutes by giving you an overall more curvy and detailed figure.

Lastly, you may find you are better able to focus on your lower body training by splitting it up over two days. Most workout programs just do all of the leg work in one day. But you may find this workout drags on very long, so you start getting tired and losing your focus. Instead, try splitting it up.

Which brings me to the next point, upper body training.

Where men’s aesthetic goals often require complete prioritization of the upper body muscles, this is where you can become more lax, depending on how much you want your upper body to change.

You shouldn’t entirely skip training your upper body. As mentioned before, developing the width of your back and shoulders make your waist smaller by comparison and help create an hourglass figure, as well as just help “tone” everything up.

But you can probably get away with just a single upper body workout, instead of splitting it up over a few days, like many men’s muscle building programs do.

Keep in mind, this isn’t saying you should just do one upper body day per week. Most effective workout programs have you training a muscle at least twice per week. This just means you won’t be splitting up your upper body over two workouts, or four separate workouts just for upper body in a single week.

Where I may have most men doing just 2 leg workouts and 2-4 upper body workouts, depending if they split up their upper body or not, you would be best to do the opposite. 2 upper body workouts with 2-4 lower body, depending if you find splitting up your leg workouts helps or not.

Although if you’re brand new to the gym, you should be doing full body workouts anyways. Most of this section applies to you once you become intermediate.

You may be confused right about now, which is fine. This part is pretty complicated. If you want to just take a look at some programs I’ve made, along with videos demonstrating how to do the exercises, sign up for my free program. This is where you also get the nutrition guide.

I’ve made several different programs fit for multiple different goals, male or female, whether you’re brand new to the gym or experienced and have been lifting for years like me.

It’s good shit. I really recommend you sign up. It’s free. Just give me your email in return. Mwahaha.

In a Nutshell, That’s Why and How Women Should Be Lifting Weights.

Contrary to some beliefs, it actually enhances your feminine features, not to mention provides numerous benefits to your health, both physical and mental, which I didn’t include in the article.

To Recap:

  • Cardio alone doesn’t build a curvy and athletic figure. You need to lift weights
  • Train hard, with heavy weights, near the point of failure. Like how most men train.
  • A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. Your goal is to chase more weight or reps over time.
  • Eat 3-4 servings of high protein foods a day, and vary between weight gain and weight loss phases.
  • Train the shit out of all your lower body muscles, especially your calves, and obviously your glutes. Barbell Hip Thrusts and Single Leg Elevated Glute Bridges are your best friends.
  • Consider splitting up your leg days over two days. One day to focus on quads and hamstrings, another to focus on glutes and calves. Although make sure you’re still hitting each muscle at least 2x a week (so 4 total leg workouts per week).
  • Don’t neglect the upper body. Hit at least 2 per week.

If you liked this article and found it helpful, share it with a friend.

If you have questions, feel free to email me at Dylan@DylanClarkFitness.com, or leave a comment.

If you want more like this, sign up for my email list and you’ll be emailed whenever I put out new content. You also get the nutrition guide and workout programs I mentioned.