Overview of women’s training programs

Weight training programs for women

On this page, you will learn how the training programs for women were designed and balanced, how they will help you, how they differ from the men’s weight training programs, and much more.

Ladies, just to be safe, please consult your doctor before starting the weight training programs. WeightTraining.guide will not be liable for any incidental, consequential, or other damages arising from the application of the information presented on this website.

Weight training programs for women

Currently, there are five weight training programs for women on this website:

  1. Women’s beginner program
  2. Maximum Curves and Functional Strength 1
  3. Maximum Curves and Functional Strength 2
  4. Maximum Curves and Functional Strength 3
  5. Maximum Curves and Functional Strength 4

Program structure

The programs are intended to be completed in the order presented. Collectively, they make up a single program that lasts for one year if you take a deload week after each one (Table 1). A deload week is a week during which you either rest or train lightly.

Maximum Curves and Functional Strength (MCFS) Program (macrocycle)
Mesocycle Duration (weeks) Workouts/Week Workout duration (mins)
Beginner 12 3-5 30–40
Deload week
MCFS 1 8 5 45–50
Deload week
MCFS 2 10 4 45–50
Deload week
MCFS 3 10 4 45–50
Deload week
MCFS 4 8 5 45–50
Table 1. Structure of the MCFS weight training program for women.

In programming terminology, each individual program is known as a mesocycle (“middle cycle”). The year-long program as a whole is known as a macrocycle (“big cycle”). Although not expressed in the table, most of the mesocycles are themselves divided into microcycles (“small cycles”). The mesocycles and microcycles incorporate variations in training, which will be explained below.

Program design

The year-long training program as a whole (or macrocycle) is designed to:

  1. Develop and maintain major “curves”
  2. Strengthen your body’s primal movement patterns, thus improving your functional strength, balance, coordination, athleticism, and performance
  3. Strengthen your core, which is important for stability, body-wide strength, power generation, and power transfer
  4. Encourage the right strength balances between your opposing muscle groups, which is important for proper posture and movement, and to prevent imbalance-related injuries

The program achieves this by incorporating, or following, a combination of:

  • Major compound (multi-joint) exercises
  • Functional exercises
  • Intensity training techniques
  • Undulating periodization
  • Recommended muscle-strength balance ratios

Must I start from the beginning?

No. If you have weight training experience, you can start from a more suitable mesocycle. To learn where you can start, please see the suitability criteria of each mesocycle.

Must I take a deload week?

Yes. The deload weeks are important. They will help you to fully recover and therefore keep making progress. They will also increase your likelihood of not giving up.

Can I repeat a mesocycle?

Certainly! You can repeat the mesocycles as many times as you want to. This will ensure that you get the most out of them. However, before you repeat a mesocycle, you must take a deload week.

How does the women’s program differ from the men’s one?

Men and women usually train for different goals. Men usually want maximum muscle and strength, whereas women usually want maximum shape and “tone”. The training programs have been adapted to meet these different needs by incorporating different exercises and rep ranges.

It’s important to realize that maximum muscle (one of men’s goals) and maximum shape and tone (women’s goals) are actually achieved by doing the same two things:

  1. Losing body fat
  2. Adding muscle to specific areas of the body

Therefore, the men’s and women’s training programs follow the same primary strength and conditioning principles.

Ladies, this means that you have to train (and eat) for muscle growth, just like the men. In other words, in order to develop the shape and tone that you want, you have to lose the light dumbbells and hit heavier weights!

Will heavy lifting make me look bulky, like a man?

No, because women generally possess ten times less testosterone than men do, so you should never expect to grow as muscular as a man unless you take testosterone artificially. Also, women add muscle at a slower rate than men do, which means that you have more than enough time to notice that you are getting too muscular and adjust your training.

Important!

Ladies, please don’t be scared of heavy lifting. This fear will prevent you from getting the results that you want! If you want shape and tone, you have to build muscle in all of the right areas of your body, and the only way you can do that is if you lift heavier weights.

A quick reminder about rep ranges

Before I provide an overview of the weight training programs for women (Table 2), it’s important to remind you of how training in different rep ranges can lead to the development of different muscle properties. This was covered in detail in How many sets and reps should I do?

Generally speaking, training in the:

  • 13–20 rep range leads to the development of muscular endurance
  • 6–12 rep range leads to the development of muscular size
  • 2–6 rep range leads to the development of muscular strength.

In other words, using a weight with which you can perform 13–20 reps in good form is optimal for developing muscular endurance; using a weight with which you can only perform 6–12 reps in good form (i.e. a heavy weight) is optimal for developing muscular size; and using a weight with which you can only perform 2–6 reps in good form (i.e. a very heavy weight) is optimal for developing muscular strength.

Overview of women’s weight training programs

Women’s Beginner program

Focusing mostly on the 13+ rep range, the 12-week Women’s beginner mesocycle is designed to build a strong foundation of muscular endurance upon which muscular size can be built in the more advanced mesocycles. It is intended for beginners, individuals who have less than three months of consistent weight training experience, and experienced gym-goers who haven’t trained for over three months.

Mesocycle Rep ranges Intensity technique Experience required (months)
Beginner 13+ None None
MCFS 1 9–11 Supersets 3
MCFS 2 9–11, 6–8 Training to failure 6
MCFS 3 9–11, 6–8 Dropsets 6
MCFS 4 9–11, 6–8 Rest–pause sets 9
Table 2. The rep ranges and intensity techniques of each mesocycle, along with the level of experience required to start from the mesocycle.

Maximum Curves and Functional Strength 1

The 8-week Maximum Curves and Functional Strength (MCFS) 1 mesocycle starts to build muscle in the 9–11 rep range. It also incorporates an intensity technique known as superset training. You can start this mesocycle without having to go through the Beginner mesocycle only if you have at least three months of consistent weight training experience.

MCFS 2

The 10-week MCFS 2 mesocycle is composed of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges (learn why below). This mesocycle includes an intensity technique known as training to failure. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least six months of consistent training experience.

MCFS 3

Like MCFS 2, the 10-week MCFS 3 mesocycle consists of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges. The mesocycle includes an intensity technique called dropset training. As with MCFS 2, you can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least six months of consistent weight training experience.

MCFS 4

Like MCFS 2 and MCFS 3, the 8-week MCFS 4 mesocycle consists of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges. It includes an intensity technique known as rest-pause training. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least nine months of consistent training experience.

Why alternate between rep ranges?

The process of alternating rep ranges in microcycles is known as undulating periodization. Since training in different rep ranges leads to the development of different muscle properties (endurance, size, or strength), undulating periodization will help you to simultaneously develop and maintain different muscle properties.

In this instance, you will mostly be alternating between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges, which are both primarily for building muscle. However, the 9–11 rep range will help you to develop muscular size and maintain a bit of endurance, while the 6–8 rep range will help you to develop muscular size and more strength. The extra strength will assist you in lifting heavier weights, which will help your muscles to grow, which will in turn help you to lift even heavier weights—thus promoting a cycle of growth.

I could have had you also alternate the 13+ rep range for maintaining the endurance that you develop in the Beginner program, or I could have had you also alternate a 3–5 rep range for developing maximum strength. However, the endurance rep range would have significantly increased the time that it takes you to build muscle, and the maximum strength rep range just doesn’t appeal to most women.

Note that it’s a good idea to occasionally veer into other (higher or lower) rep ranges. Don’t be stuck in your ways.

Exercise selection

As mentioned above, the goals of the weight training programs for women are to develop and maintain maximum curves and functional strength, strengthen the body’s primal movement patterns, strengthen the core, and encourage the right strength balances between opposing muscle groups. Most of the exercises were selected to meet those objectives. I explain how below. However, some exercises were included for other purposes, such as to prepare you in one mesocycle for more advanced exercises in the following mesocycle, or simply to add variation to the workouts to keep you engaged.

Balancing the exercises

When designing long-term training programs, you must select exercises that promote appropriate strength balances between opposing muscle groups. The reason is that if opposing muscle groups have significantly different strengths, the risk of sustaining injuries and developing problems related to muscle tightness, joint instability, and posture will be increased.

In order to encourage the right balances between opposing muscle groups, I followed the muscle-strength balance ratios recommended by the International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA; Table 3).

Muscle group Muscle balance ratio
Hip flexors and extensors 1:1
Knee flexors and extensors 2:3
Shoulder flexors and extensors 2:3
Shoulder internal and external rotators 3:2
Elbow flexors and extensors 1:1
Trunk flexors and extensors 1:1
Ankle plantar flexors and dorsiflexors 3:1
Table 3. Muscle strength balance ratios recommended by the IFPA

The strategy that I used was to:

  • make note of the target and synergistic muscles of each exercise, as revealed on ExRx.net
  • ensure that the number of exercises and sets prescribed for opposing muscles and opposing movement patterns generally agree with the ratios

For example, since the strengths of your hip extensors and hip flexors should be equal, I have tried to make sure that the number of exercises and sets that hit those muscles is approximately equal.

Of course, this will not ensure that imbalances are prevented, and it certainly will not fix existing imbalances; what it will do is reduce the likelihood of developing imbalances.

Note that balancing the beginner program wasn’t as important as balancing the other programs because the beginner program was designed for a specific purpose and isn’t intended to be repeated over and over again. Even so, it is still relatively balanced.

Exercises for curves

Generally speaking, curves are the product of having a high shoulders-to-waist ratio and a low waist-to-hips ratio, producing the desired hourglass figure. In order to promote these ratios, I ensured that the women’s training programs include an appropriate balance of exercises for shoulders, hips, inner and outer thighs, and especially glutes. But this led to complications, which I’d like to quickly explain.

One of the complications was that many exercises that are great for glutes, such as the squat and lunge, are also great for quadriceps. Since most women don’t want big quadriceps, I had to prescribe variations of these exercises that emphasize glutes and hamstrings over quadriceps (such as the sumo squat and the forward-leaning lunge). All the while, I had to maintain the recommended quadriceps–hamstrings balance.

Another problem I encountered was that the relatively large number of glute exercises had to be balanced with hip flexor exercises because the hip flexors are the opposing muscle group. The issue is that people with a weak rectus abdominis who perform lots of hip flexion exercises using improper form can develop lower back problems because the rectus abdominis can’t counter the hip flexors’ pull on the lumbar spine. Therefore, I had to make sure that the beginner program started by strengthening the rectus abdominis a little, before gradually easing hip flexion into the mix. Then, of course, I had to balance the ab exercises with exercises for the erector spinae, which oppose the abs and should ideally be equally as strong—see the complications! Anyway, designing the programs was a pleasure.

Exercises for functional strength

Your body is designed to move in certain ways. The movements can be divided into:

  1. Bending at the knees (squatting)
  2. Lunging (forward, sideways, or backward)
  3. Bending at the hips
  4. Pushing (horizontally or vertically)
  5. Pulling (horizontally or vertically)
  6. Twisting (or resisting twisting forces)
  7. Walking/Running (gait)

You use these “primal” movement patterns, in various combinations, every day of your life. Therefore, when you hit the gym, it makes a lot of sense to strengthen these movements. In so doing, you will:

  • develop functional strength (the kind of strength that is useful outside of the gym, in everyday activities)
  • enhance your motor control, coordination, balance, and flexibility
  • improve your overall fitness and athleticism.

Unfortunately, most weight training programs that you encounter do not cover these movement patterns. Instead, they focus on training muscles, often in isolation, which is not how the body is designed to work. Rest assured that all of the weight training programs for women on this website incorporate effective functional and major compound exercises that strengthen all of the seven primal movement patterns and give you the benefits outlined above.

Exercises for strengthening the core

An important element of having a functionally strong body is to have a strong core. Your core isn’t just your rectus abdominis and lower back; it’s your entire torso, especially all of the deep muscles that attach to your spinal column and pelvis. Your core muscles help to:

  • Stabilize your body when you lift
  • Transfer weight from one side of your body to the other
  • Transfer weight from your lower body to your upper body.

Your core is also where you generate power. As such, it acts as your power base, power transfer center, and stabilization facility. Having a strong core is therefore of major importance for progress and overall fitness and athleticism.

Proper core training involves performing a range of major compound and functional exercises designed to strengthen both the deep and superficial core muscles, ideally, both dynamically and isometrically. All of the weight training programs for women incorporate effective dynamic core training, while some also include isometric core training.

Summary of programming rules and objectives

When designing the weight training programs for women, I tried to follow, or satisfy, the following rules and objectives:

  • Train all muscle groups at least twice a week
  • Strengthen all primal movement patterns using compound and functional exercises
  • Prescribe exercises and sets for opposing muscles and movement patterns in accordance with recommended muscle-strength balance ratios
  • Undulate rep ranges to simultaneously develop multiple muscle properties and maintain properties developed in previous mesocycles
  • Strengthen the core using compound, functional, and unilateral exercises
  • Train the core dynamically and isometrically
  • Only include exercises the equipment for which should be available in any gym
  • Incorporate exercise variation to maintain engagement
  • Avoid exercises that have a high risk-to-benefit ratio, such as the narrow-grip upright row and behind-the-neck pulls and presses
  • Favor free-weight exercises over machine exercises
  • Avoid overuse of the supraspinatus, which is a common problem
  • Train large muscle groups before small muscle groups
  • Prescribe more sets for large muscle groups than for small muscle groups
  • Keep workouts to approximately 18 or fewer sets, which produces workouts that last for approximately 50 minutes or less
  • Force gradual but definite progress from mesocycle to mesocycle
  • Ensure adequate rest by enforcing regular deload weeks

Alternative exercises

If you get bored of an exercise, or if you can’t perform an exercise for some reason, you can swap it for one of the alternative exercises below without significantly affecting the balance of your program.

Legs

  • Hyperextension – Straight-leg barbell/dumbbell deadlift – Stiff-leg barbell/dumbbell deadlift
  • Bodyweight squat – Dumbbell/Barbell squat – Front squat – Hack squat – Sumo squat – Zercher squat – Jefferson squat
  • Forward, backward, or sideways dumbbell/barbell lunge – Dumbbell/Barbell step-up
  • Lying leg curl – Seated leg curl
  • Standing machine calf raise – Standing one-leg dumbbell calf raise – Leg-press calf press (not seated calf raise)
  • Cable hip abduction – Seated hip abduction
  • Cable hip adduction – Seated hip adduction

Back

  • Lat pull-down – Pull-up
  • Bent-over dumbbell row – Barbell row – T-bar row
  • Cable row – Cable wide-grip row (not straight-back cable row)

Chest

  • Dumbbell/Barbell bench press – Push-up – Cable chest press

Shoulders

  • Dumbbell/Barbell shoulder press – Arnold press
  • Cable face pull – Cuban rotation
  • Dumbbell lying external shoulder rotation – Cable external shoulder rotation
  • Dumbbell lateral raise – Barbell wide-grip upright row

Arms

  • Triceps rope push-down – Triceps overhead extension – Lying triceps extension (French press) – Skull crusher
  • Triceps dip – Bench dip – Diamond push-up – Close-grip bench press/push-up
  • Dumbbell/Barbell curl – EZ bar curl (bar must have minimal camber)

Core

  • Front plank – Wheel rollout
  • Cable wood chop – Sledgehammer swings
  • Lying leg raise – Hanging leg raise – Captain’s chair leg raise
  • Lying straight leg raise – Hanging straight leg raise – Captain’s chair straight leg raise – Stability ball pike
  • Lying leg and hip raise – Hanging leg and hip raise – Captain’s chair leg and hip raise

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