Why women should lift weights and three rules to get started

Stop avoiding the weight room! Lifting with free weights or machines won't make you bulky, but it will get you toned and strong. James Fell explains how to begin a weight-training program.
By James S. Fell, CSCS
weights, dumbells, woman, lifting, weight training Getty Images

In the past 17 years of being an active guy, I’ve patronized approximately 40 different gyms across five countries and two cruise ships. One thing I’ve noticed in that time is that women mostly stick to the aerobic machines like treadmills, bikes and elliptical trainers.

They really should come over and join us guys in the weightlifting section. Or, if you don’t like the way we smell (and who could blame you?), go to the women’s-only section or even join a women’s club.

Just don’t be afraid of hitting the iron too, because you’ll be pleased with the results. I’m still a big fan of aerobic training to stay slim and for health benefits, but there are also significant benefits to weightlifting:
1. Being able to open your own pickle jars (getting stronger), and generally making your body more functional.
2. Improving the look and shape of muscles.
3. Reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
4. Making you more resistant to injuries from other activities such as running.

Many women tell me they just want to be “toned,” and “I don’t want to bulk up.” Well, unless you start insane lifting like you’re training for a bodybuilding competition, plus popping all sorts of muscle-building supplements and possibly even taking anabolic steroids, then you have little to fear about gaining the kind of muscle mass that makes you look freaky.

I know there can be an intimidation factor if you don’t know what you’re doing, so I recommend finding a qualified personal trainer to create a program and show you the ropes. If you’re on a budget then there are different options, but I advise making sure that your trainer teaches you independence — meaning that he or she teaches you how to eventually go it alone.

In terms of an overall approach to weightlifting, here are some important rules to keep in mind:

Focus on multi-joint movements
Think of a squat. This exercise involves movement in the hips, knees and ankles. Compare this to a leg extension machine which only moves a single joint (the knee). Guess which one is better.

Not only that, but the squat is better because it’s a “structural” exercise, which means it’s creating a downward gravitational force on the structure of your skeletal system. This is what makes bones and connective tissues stronger, and that’s good.

Lift heavy (when you’re ready)
It’s important to master technique first, and this is when focusing on lighter weights is a good thing. Unfortunately, most of the women I see lifting never progress past light weights with higher reps. Again, I hear from women that they lift light because they believe it gives their muscles “tone,” but in reality, it just doesn’t. Lifting light weights focuses on smaller muscle fibres that create improved muscular endurance. For example, if you wanted to improve your abilities as a swimmer, then you would also want to do some light weightlifting with high repetitions (meaning more than 12 reps).

Conversely, lifting in the 12-or-less repetition range focuses on working the larger muscle fibres, which means improved strength, size and shape. Hoorah.

An important thing to take note of is that building muscular size and muscular strength involves two different repetition ranges. When you lift weights one to five times you are building mostly strength, with a bit of muscular size increase; the six to twelve range is more size-focused, but still increases strength, although less so.

Another important note is that strength-focused lifting (one to five reps) requires longer rest periods between sets; usually two to four minutes. For size-focused lifting (six to twelve reps) take shorter breaks between sets (30-90 seconds).

Finally, there is one really important thing to keep in mind when it comes to the number of repetitions, and that is called…

Going to failure
Imagine this: I tell you to lift a weight 10 times to work in the size-building range and you do it. Great work, right?

Maybe not.

The fundamental key in this is the amount of weight you choose. If you picked a weight that you could lift 15 times, then only lift it 10, I’m afraid it doesn’t really count. You’re still working those smaller, muscular endurance fibres.

The important thing is to choose a weight so that for your target number of reps, you can’t do any additional reps.

So, if you intend to lift for 10 reps, pick a weight where doing 11 is impossible. And by impossible I mean with good technique. You don’t need to kill yourself. Do 10 good reps focusing on quality technique so that to do 11, you’d have to cheat and flop around and maybe swear a little. That’s what I’m talking about.

It’s the same deal for the lower-rep range. If you want to focus on strength and intend to do four reps, then five should be impossible while maintaining good form.

Finally, be careful easing your way into going to failure. Don’t jump into it immediately if you’re a rookie. Start off with, if you could do 10, just doing eight for the first few weeks (so 80-percent capacity). Then maybe kick it up to 90-percent capacity for a few weeks.

After that, you’re 100 percent. You’re hardcore.

James S. Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. Visit or email him at 


Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.