If you have read about me and/or my fitness journey, you know that I first began exercising when I was 13 years old, at home, doing exercise videos. They all required free weights/dumbbells/whatever you want to call it. I always thought lifting weights was just a part of exercise. I did not worry about becoming "big and bulky". The women in the videos were not big and bulky, they were just really toned and had pretty muscle definition. I liked it. However, I can see why women worry about lifting weights. It is understandable. There are some women who partake in bodybuilding and try to become bigger. Women can, if they eat a very high caloric diet of protein and carbohydrates and pair that with lifting extremely heavy weights; but truth be known, they will need assistance from an artificial substance to become as big as some of them do. That is just the bold truth. I have friends all across the United States who are bodybuilders, bikini, and figure competitors, etc. and I have been around the industry for a long time. Naturally, women do not have the testosterone in their body to have the muscle enlargement that men do. However, every woman is different. What works for one woman may not work for another so when it comes to exercising, engage in activities that most positively respond to your body.
Weight lifting is important for every woman. There are so many benefits to it that cardio alone can not provide. If you pair weight lifting with a clean diet, you will start to see more results than you do with just cardio. Weight lifting and strength training increases bone density which is essential for us women, it burns more calories at rest, helps with stress and depression, increases "good" cholesterol, makes you stronger, it can assist with lowering blood pressure, and lowers the risk of breast cancer; as it reduces high estrogen levels linked to the disease.
The first thing to understand about weight training is how important your form is. Correct form comes above anything when you are lifting weights. If you have lift a piece of paper because any other weight is too hard to do with correct form, then do it. If your form is not correct, you are wasting your time, not building muscle, and you are very susceptible to injury.
There are many ways one could divide their workouts for weight training. You could do two body groups a day; a lot of my friends who are more focused on building muscle rather than fat loss, do this. I do not right now, as my primary focus is just fat loss. I have plenty of muscle, I just need to lose the fat on top of it.
If you decide to do two muscle groups a day, paired with cardio, I would recommend one "push" muscle and one "pull" muscle. The reason I recommend this is since the two body parts engage in different ranges and motions on the exercises, you do not burn out. You are able to lift heavier, more reps, and with correct form.
12-15 reps are ideal for most women. If you want to focus more on really building muscle, go with 12 reps. That will be hard and it should be. The last two reps should be a struggle for you. If your focus is more on fat loss, go with 15 repetitions. However, even then the weight should not be easy. If you can perform all of your exercises with correct form, and are not struggling at the end, you need to bump your weight up. Your work outs should always be a challenge; if they aren't, you will stay where you are. I recommend 3-4 exercises per muscle group and 3 sets per specific exercises with 12 repetitions. A 60-90 second rest should occur after each set. Often times you will see it written as "3 x 12" - that means 3 sets of 12 repetitions.
The way I personally lift weights now is by a weight circuit. I do this 3 times a week. The other days I like to hike, do a plyometric workout, leg, and core workouts. When I do my weight circuits, I do each upper body muscle group; one specific exercise, 3 sets of the exercises, and 15 repetitions per set. The body parts are back, chest, biceps, triceps, and shoulders.
If you see below I have outlined each upper body muscle group and three specific exercises for each group. This is a sample you can go can buy for a week of training; this allows you three days of weight circuit. Engage in one exercise per muscle group, each day. Anyone can do this - you can do this at the gym or in your own home.