How to resistance train for women?
By Holly T Baxter
APD Dietitian, MS Dietetics, BS Food Sci & Nutrition
Dec 18th 2017

The quest to achieve a leaner more muscular physique is just as widely pursued by women of today as it is men. What I find frustrating is that even with the wealth of scientific information that demonstrates otherwise, there is still a misconception that women are should workout differently than men in order to achieve a lean and ‘toned’ physique. While there seems to be a general understanding that resistance training is necessary to achieve this, the training volumes I typically see are ridiculously high, much higher than necessary, achieved mostly through high rep ranges and low loads, as well copious amounts of cardio.

I have used the word ‘toned’ to describe the ideal female physique rather than ‘muscular’, despite this being the more accurate term, as the latter ends up giving most females a small complex and an accompanying mental picture that resembles a ghastly faced, fully jacked female bodybuilder, with a jaw line that would rival Sylvester Stallone. Sigh….

I am frequently asked by females if I think they should change up their training routine because they have seen a celebrity fitness model giving their two cents worth on their social media about their superior dieting strategies and training methods. What frustrates me is that many of these well-known fitness people have started out as ordinary fitness enthusiasts with regular day jobs. And by sharing their success in various fitness competitions, have gained rather large followings and recognition amongst the fitness community. While not always the case, majority of these fitness celebrities do not have any formal degree in exercise science or nutrition, perhaps a personal training certification at most, and their dietary recommendations and training advice are largely based on personal experience and lack any scientific validation.

I follow less than a few hundred people on my social media. Those I do follow are typically providing insightful information, and there are a few I follow simply for motivation or because frankly, they are just hot! But every time I see someone sharing their weight loss success to promoting the use of their sponsors latest ‘fat burner’ or a ‘carb blocker’ I cringe. If these people had even a basic understanding about human physiology and anatomy, or the fundamentals of biochemistry and energy metabolism, they would realize that these products have no scientific merit. Sigh

What is the Best way to Train for Females?

Allow me to let you in on a secret. The key to achieving a lean physique is as simple as having a regimented resistance training program. Simple in theory, often difficult in implementation.

There is nothing magical about the exercises you see making the rounds on social media. The use of resistance bands, adding in forced reps, supersets and drop sets are all just tools in the toolbox that can enhance one or several mechanisms to elicit muscle hypertrophy. [Insert here; fit chicks using machines for everything but their intended purpose]. Smile

Muscle hypertrophy can be attained through a wide range of resistance training programs, in fact the principle of specificity, which states that adaptations are specific to the nature of the applied stimulus, dictates that some programs will promote greater hypertrophy than others. Our skeletal muscle is postmitotic, meaning it is not made to turnover or undergo significant cell replacement like other tissues within the body. It therefore requires an efficient method for cells to repair in order to maintain its mass and avoid cell death, this is known as skeletal muscle apoptosis. This maintenance of the tissue is carried out through the dynamic balance between muscle protein synthesis and degradation. Muscle hypertrophy occurs when protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown. Sadly, cardiovascular exercise such as walking, (cough mum), running, swimming, body weight exercises and circuits will not initiate any pathways leading to any significant amount of muscle hypertrophy.

Of course, factors such as age, gender and genetics play a key role in how well one is able to induce muscle hypertrophy, however it is simply the consistent mechanical overloading, stretch as well as mechanical tension and metabolic stress that mediate the hypertrophic response necessary for toned and shapely legs, a firm butt and a strong, flat stomach.

Is it Possible to Build Muscle with Female Hormones?

Resistance training has been shown to elevate certain hormone concentrations such as growth hormone, testosterone and IGF-1, which are hypothesized to drive muscle hypertrophy. Since females naturally have lower levels of testosterone, it is alleged that women are not capable of achieving the same outcomes from resistance training as males and should therefore train differently (3).

While these hormones are thought to be anabolic during puberty, as well as when administered at supra physiological exogenous doses, West DW (2010) and others (4), show that the transient rise in concentration of these systemic hormones in a post resistance training setting, are not the driver for muscle hypertrophy. Instead, it is the acute activation of stress imposed signaling proteins and other local mechanisms, combined with sufficient dietary intakes of protein and specific amino acids, that are more reflective of muscle protein synthesis and the potential to increase muscle mass in both males and females.

What is the Ideal Volume when it comes to Increasing Muscle for Females?

When it comes to optimal training methods for skeletal muscle hypertrophy, there are specific rep ranges and mechanical load required for hypertrophy.

I am often asked how many sets and reps will yield the best results. My first recommendation is to ensure you follow a training program. While those who are new to resistance training can get by without a structured program, someone with more experience will not be able to continue this almost linear strength adaptation and progression without a more carefully planned training program. Strength adaptations for someone who is new to resistance training are much greater due to neurological adaptation taking place when resistance training is initiated aka ‘newbie gainz.’ For an experience resistance trained athlete, there is a blunted training response and less capacity for adaptation since they are regularly exposed to the stimulus of RT (5)(6).

The number of people that contact me and want to learn more about nutrition, yet don’t follow a training program actually amazes me. If you don’t record your workouts, how do you know your volume?

Volume = Reps x Sets x Weight

If your training volume is not consistent from week to week, how can you progressively overload the muscle? Progressive overload is a hallmark of resistance training, and the main driver for continued adaptation and progression.

To give you an example, lets say one week your squat volume was 2640kg (i.e. 4 sets of 6 reps at 110kg), and the next week you change your workout and exercises performed and your new squat volume is much less (i.e. 3 sets of 12 at 70kg = 2520kg). Not only will you fail to elicit the progressive overload necessary to continue seeing change and increases muscle mass, you also have no way of determining if your average weekly energy expenditure is consistent. This becomes incredibly important for the more experienced person looking to refine their body composition and minimize body fat.

Is training with high reps at low loads superior for muscle hypertrophy than low reps at high load?

Volume matched powerlifting training programs and body building programs have been shown to elicit a comparable stimulus for the accretion of skeletal muscle mass when exercises are performed until volitional failure (7). If you are not well versed in powerlifting, a powerlifting program is designed with the sole intention to increase strength, and utilizes lower rep ranges and at much higher loads i.e. 5 sets of 5 rep max.

Body building programs are designed for the purpose of enhancing physical appearance, increasing muscularity while minimizing body fat. Typically, bodybuilding programs use higher rep ranges at lighter loads i.e. 3 sets of 8 – 15 reps.

What has been shown to differ significantly between these two training methods is that power lifting programs yield more significant strength gains, specifically for one rep max efforts than volume matched bodybuilding programs (7). So why do more reps if lower reps with more weight yield the same muscle growth if volume is matched? It takes many more sets. For example, in Schoenfeld et al. the powerlifting group had to do 7 sets of 3 to match the volume performed by the ‘bodybuilding group’ performing 3 sets of 10. Thus, higher reps are a more efficient way to increase volume. I recommend using both if you’d like to gain strength and increase muscle mass.

Is cardio important and how much should I do?

Cardio is great for cardiovascular fitness, when you have a good base level of fitness – any kind of exercise you do is going to feel much easier, and when it comes to balancing time commitments against health and physique benefits, exercising at a high intensiveness (HIT) or with intervals of high intensity, HIT of any nature will result in greater energy expenditure than time equated low intensiveness, continuous exercise, i.e. walking or steady state running (1).

I personally like to include 90 minutes of HIT cardio every week (total for the week) to retain a high level of fitness. I like the challenge of a HIT workout, and it also gives me the mental break I need from resistance training. Too much of anything gets tedious. Cardiovascular type activity is one way to keep in a calorie deficit, but understand that it is not absolutely necessary in order to achieve a leaner physique or reduce your body fat.

A caloric deficit can be created through diet alone, however, by adding in cardiovascular activity, we can increase this deficit. The amount of cardio necessary to create a caloric deficit is highly individual and would be determined by your metabolism, the amount of body fat you have to lose and the time frame in which you would like to lose weight.

In order to lose weight through dieting alone, calories would need to be far more restricted in order to achieve the same caloric deficit. Not only would this limit your food choices, it would likely mean much smaller portion sizes and potentially reduced meal frequency. In my opinion, if you want to be able to eat more reasonably during a diet phase, add in some additional cardio. If the amount of activity you need to undertake in order to achieve weight loss feels excessive (>10 hours of resistance training and cardio per week combined), then it might be time to seek expert nutritional advice for metabolic correction.

In summary, resistance training is a great way for both men AND women to build muscle mass. While women fret about becoming ‘bulky’ it’s typically body fat that looks bulky, not muscle. Muscle makes a woman look toned because it also proportionately decreases body fat. For example, if someone has 10 kg fat and 50 kg lean mass, they will look much leaner than
someone who has 10 kg fat and 40 kg lean mass as their body fat percentage will be lower. For the most part, it is very difficult for women to look ‘bulky’ from having too much muscle, unless they are on illegal anabolic steroids OR they are part of the 0.01% of the female population that builds muscle very easily, in this case, the answer of not getting bulky is simple, don’t resistance train at high volumes and don’t train to failure. For the rest of you ladies, enjoy the heavy weights and the muscle that comes with it. GIRL POWER!

If you would like assistance with your next training program why not send me an email to


(1) T, Shields et al, 2012. Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol113(12):p1831–1837.

(2) E, Sanal et al, 2013. Effects of aerobic or combined aerobic resistance exercise on body composition in overweight and obese adults: gender differences. A randomized intervention study. European Journal Physiology & Rehabilitation Medicine. Vol49(1): 2013:1-11.

(3) D, West, et al 2010. Human exercise-mediated skeletal muscle hypertrophy is an intrinsic process. International Journal of Biochemistry and cell biology. 2010; BC-3266 (4) RW, Morton, et al 2016. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of applied physiology. Vol121(1),2016:129-138

(5) PL, Kim, et al 2005. Fasted-state skeletal muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise is altered with training. Journal of Physiology. Vol568:2005;283-290.

(6) JE, Tang, et al, 2008.Resistance training alters the response of fed state mixed muscle protein synthesis in young men. American Journal Physiology Regulatory Integration Comparative Physiology. Vol294: 2008: R172-R178.

(7) B, Schoenfeld, et al 2014. Effects of Different Volume-Equated Resistance Training Loading Strategies on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: Vol28(10),2014;p2909–2918