Many women shy away from lifting weights, and especially heavy weights, because of fears of getting too bulky or putting on too much muscle. Thanks to a couple of hormones (estrogen and progesterone) and lack of another (testosterone), this is almost impossible without some artificial hormone help, and lifting heavy weights can provide women with not only a well-toned physique, but many health benefits as well.
In fact, there has been a surge in popularity of women’s weightlifting groups online, where women follow a very specific dietary and weight lifting protocol and manage to lose size (not necessarily weight), get much stronger and improve overall health as well. From a strictly practical perspective, strengthening core muscles that are used for common movements also helps make everyday life easier. The ability to lift heavier loads off the ground makes it easier to move furniture, lift boxes and do other household work. The ability to pull up one’s body weight makes it easier to climb and is a helpful survival skill.
If you’ve ever thought of working toward improving strength instead of just losing weight (though you’ll probably lose size in the process!), this is the common protocol:
- Fasting 10-12 hours a day– Easier than it seems. This should only be done if a person has functioning and healthy thyroid and adrenals. Consider this, you likely already fast for at least 8-9 hours a day (during sleep), so adding a couple more doesn’t actually seem like such a big difference. For optimal benefit, a high protein breakfast is consumed (around 7-8 am) and dinner is eaten before 6 or 7 pm to extend the fasting window. The biggest meal is typically consumed after working out, and protein consumption is a focus.
- Monday: Deadlifts (3 sets of 5 reps) increasing weight approximately 2% per session (starting @125), chin-ups (as possible working up to 2 sets of eight)
- Wednesday: Pushups, 2-3 sets of 5-7, and pull-ups (as possible work up to 2-3 sets of 5-7),
- Friday: 2-3 sets of 7 squats, 2-3 sets of 7 lunges, 2-3 sets of overhead press (work up to handstand push ups).
- In between, I’ll just do some kettlebells, hiking, and fun activity but no real “cardio.” I’m also adding some gelatin for protein and joint strength.
Not sure about the fasting? This article is one of the best I’ve seen of explaining the benefits of fasting and how even daily fasting doesn’t cause muscle loss, lowered metabolism, etc. (Warning, he often uses language that many find offensive).
I personally tried this program for three months to see if it was effective at increasing strength and losing size. After looking at the results, I would consider it a success!
- Start: 115 pounds
- Finish: 205 pounds
*As a note: I wasn’t pushing my absolute max before this experiment, and I could have probably lifted about 150 at that point, so it was a strength gain of about 55 lbs over those few months, rather than 90 lbs.
- Start: None
- Several in a set, though still not up to 7 in a consecutive set, but fill in with negatives when I reach failure.
Pullups: Same as Chinups
- Start: Several sets of 7 without trouble
- Finish: to test my max, I did 10 sets of 7 without trouble and can also do 20-30 in a row without a problem (full pushups). Can also do one handstand push up, but my balance gets me before my muscles do on this one… maybe I should do ballet for my next experiment to work on that 🙂
- Start: I would do tabata “sprints” with swings, or do 30 seconds on, 30 seconds rest for 5-10 minutes
- Finish: Can do 75-150 swings consecutively and to test strength, I did 1,000 swings in an hour.
Other notes: I ate a lot of protein during this experiment, more because I naturally just wanted more protein than as an effort to increase protein. I also took Magnesium, Gelatin, Vitamin D, and my normal supplements and didn’t have any trouble with joints or being overly sore, even with increasing the weights a lot. This is not an experiment that I would attempt while pregnant or even nursing, as it does push the body and fasting is not recommended during these times. I would also personally not attempt a program like this without first making sure that my leptin levels were in proper ranges and that I didn’t have a cortisol imbalance, as fasting can make both of these problems worse.
Reverse Pyramid Training
Reverse Pyramid Training, or RPT, is considered by many, including myself, to be one of the most effective training methods for putting on muscle and/or strength with the least amount of time invested. When training for strength, you need to limit volume due to the high intensity of the sets. Since you are typically working with 70-90% of your 1RM (1 Rep Max, the maximum amount of weight you could lift a single time), each set is very taxing on your central nervous system. For this reason, low rep RPT is usually limited to one or two main exercises per workout, with the other exercises performed in a less intense fashion. Furthermore, a de-load week, a week where you reduce the weight to approximately 80% of normal so that the body has some extra time to recover, is usually done every 4th week (i.e. push the weights for three weeks, then spend a week taking it easy). To help illustrate a RPT strength workout, below is a sample back workout.
The workout is started with everyone’s favorite exercise, deadlifts, done in a RPT fashion. You’ll do 2 sets, with 4-6 reps per set. For the first set, go all out, BUT do not go to failure. You should rarely, if ever, go to failure due to the risk of burning yourself out as well as regressing in strength. Once you finish your first set, drop the weight enough to be able to do an extra rep (i.e. if you did 4 reps, decrease the weight enough that you can do 5 reps, usually about 10%). Rest approximately three to five minutes, and then do another set stopping before failure. You should be out of breath after each set, especially with deadlifts. Rest five minutes, then move onto weighted chins. Again the rep range will be 4-6; however, this time you’re doing three sets. Just like deadlifts, the first set will be max effort, stopping just before failure. Weight will be dropped by about 10% between each set, and the rest interval is three minutes with a five minute break after completing the exercise and moving onto bent-over barbell rows. For this exercise, the Starting Strength method will be employed, in which you take your 7RM weight (the amount of weight you could lift 7 times before failure) and attempt to do three sets of five (always stop before failure). Once you are able to achieve five reps for all three sets, you increase the weight by 2.5%.
Progression of exercises done in RPT fashion should be done as follows: once you reach the upper end of a rep range, increase the weight by 5% and work back up. The individual sets should be progressed independently. For example, if you can easily get six reps on your second set of deadlift, then increase the weight for the second set on the next workout by 2.5-5%.
The split I have found to work the best is pull, push, legs done on either Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday (you need a day of rest between each workout and at least two days between the pull and leg workouts due to deadlift). The only exercises done in RPT fashion (with max effort on the first set) are the big compound lifts: deadlift, weighted chins, bench press, and squats. The exercises that are not designated RPT or SS should be completed with about 2 reps short of failure. The following routine proved to be very effective during my last cut, enabling me to retain if not improve strength while on a caloric deficit.
Monday: – Pull
Deadlift – 2 x 4-6 (RPT)
Weighted Chins – 3 x 4-6 (RPT)
Bent Over Barbell Rows – 3 x 5 (SS)
Preacher Curls – 2 x 8-10 (Optional)
Wednesday: – Push
Bench Press – 3 x 4-6 (RPT)
Standing Press – 3 x 5 (SS)
Incline Dumbbell Press – 2 x 6-8
Weighted Dips or Scull Crushers – 2 x 8-10 (Optional, but highly encouraged)
Friday: – Legs
Squat – 3x 6-8 (RPT)
Leg Curl – 3 x 5 (SS)
Lunge – 2 x 8 (per leg)
Standing Calf Raise – 3 x 8
If you have serious issues with one of the exercises listed above, there are suitable substitutions (i.e. leg press if squats hurt your lower back or incline barbell bench press for incline dumbbell bench press, etc.). DO NOT, however, start adding exercises. If you are doing RPT correctly, then this is more than enough volume. By the time you finish the workout you should be tired and ready to feast on your post workout (PWO) meal, rich in protein, fat, AND Carbs.
I really liked this experiment. It was very challenging to keep adding more weight to my lifts each week, but I was able to add more to each lift than I expected. I did no cardio during this time, other than hiking or playing with the kids, and my clothes got looser and I noticed much more muscle definition in my legs and back especially.
Lifting actually required much more effort than I expected, since I was doing only a few sets with high weights. I would crave protein right after lifting, and since I was lifting in a fasted state, I think I noticed faster results. After a workout, I could easily eat 4-5 eggs and a big salad. I was surprised to see the visible changes in my muscle tone, and I slept really well on lifting days (another unexpected affect).
I really enjoyed how little time this experiment took each week and how easy it was to stick to. I think this is something that I could definitely commit to long term and plan to keep up with the training schedule.
What is your workout plan for the next few months? What’s your favorite at-home exercise? Share below!
Discussion (34 Comments)
my friend and i are starting this tomorrow. i have a question about kettlebell workout on day after weights. is that ok? isnt that doing weight training 2 days in a row?
i have a 20# kettlebell, and i do swings and some other stuff with it…. can i do that on tues/thurs? or just saturdays?
Let your body tell you when you are starting out. IF you are using a 20lb, you should be fine, but if you are sore or have too much tightness from weights the day before, back off and let yourself rest. I’m definitely finding much better results than I had hoped from much less effort that I expected. I’ve been having to keep myself from working out more. If your muscles are up for it… kettlebell away!
I think it’s great that you’re ‘getting back in the game’ so to speak with your work out but you might want to reconcile what you’re currently doing in your ‘4th trimester’ with what was written back in Feburary by guest blogger Charlotte: https://wellnessmama.com/1536/fit-pregnancy/
Between sleepless nights, sore nipples (and by “sore” I mean “eaten by
aardvarks”) and the post-partum blues, workouts are going to be really
hard to fit in. And you know what? The research supports rest! Studies have shown
that women who exercise intensely right after having a baby not only
don’t lose the weight faster but also up their risk of getting sick.
I’m in and super excited!!! Starting tomorrow (we were out of town for the weekend, just got back this evening). My weights will be significantly lower because I’m so weak right now, but you have to start somewhere!! 🙂 Chin ups and pull ups will probably be negatives or assisted….
I’m really interested in increasing my strength as well. I’ve been working out for a long time, but I’ve been stuck in “moderate weight, high reps” land for so long. I also have three young children, and not a lot of time! My question is – on any of those days, is the workout you posted the entire workout you plan to do that day? For example – Monday you’ll do the deadlifts and chinups and that’s it? Are you doing kettlebells, etc. on the off days? How long does a workout take you, typically?
This is such a different approach to exercise to what I’m used to, but I’m so intrigued!
Yep… that’s it on those days. On the between days I hike, kettlebell, or play with the kids, but on weigh days, it is just weights, before eating. The weight workouts take less than half an hour and I actually look forward to them. I’m doing deadlifts
tomorrow (monday) and can’t wait (if you haven’t tried them, they are actually a lot of fun).
This approach is different than what I’m used to also, but from what I’ve read and seen with clients it shows really fast results in strength gains and body recomposition. I’m excited to see what it
does over a few months!
Thank you so much for your reply!
I’m really inspired – I think I might give this a shot. I’ve been thinking I need to really focus on strength and I keep looking into crossfit, but I don’t have the time or money to join a new gym.
I have to get over my preconceived notions of the length a workout should take :). I keep looking at your plan and thinking… that’s it? It’s so simple! But that’s what I love about it, and having a goal always makes a huge difference. I’ve been sans goal for too long, hence I’ve slacked and I feel it.
Oh, and one more question if you don’t mind – how long do you rest between sets?
2-5 minutes usually. Definitely join me… I’d love to hear your progress too!
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be Miss Crazy-Question-Asker, but I have one more :). Is there a difference between a chin up (Mondays) and a pull up (Wednesdays)?
Thank you so much for your replies!! 🙂
chin up is with the back of your hand facing you (overhand grip) on the bar – pull ups are with your palms facing you in an underhand
type grip. Not sure if that made any sense (i’m tired) but google for pictures if it didn’t. I’moff to bed 🙂
Yes, that makes perfect sense. Thank you so much!
I’ve been thinking I need to get back into more lifting. I’m wondering what you are using at home for the chin-ups or pull-ups??? I’ve looked at the over the door-trim pull-up bars, but I’m skeptical if they would work.
They do work! I love mine and it works well. There is a link to one
in the “store” tab and it also has an option to wall mount, if that would be better.
Hi! I just found your blog, and love what I see. I just started a heavy lifting program by Nia Shanks (www.niashanks.com) and she follows the IF, and designs programs similar to what you list. I have been lifting heavy for about 2 years, and am slowly dialing in my nutrition. I was already gluten free, and recently have been experimenting with grain free and/or paleo type of eating. My challenge with IF is that I workout first thing in the morning; I did not eat enough friday (squat day!) and ended up with an exercise-induced migraine due to low blood sugar. So, no IF for me unless I fast from after lunch till 5AM. 🙂
Funny you should mention this. I just read The New Rules of Lifting for Women which also recommends using heavier weights. I’ve been loosely following the lifting plan in that book, but need to bump up my nutrition a notch (this book espouses low-fat and whole-grain, no thanks) and found the article you linked to on fasting quite interesting. I don’t have equipment for chin-ups or pull-ups or deadlifts at this time, but the rest of my workout is quite similar and I will be continuing that and hopefully progressing with weight.
I have an at home pull up bar and it works great… It was under $50 and my husband uses it too. I think there is a link in the “store” tab
Do your kids have a swing set? That’s where I’ve started doing negative pull ups/chin ups 🙂
Are you nursing? I had a baby in May and was wondering about fasting and nursing and whether or not that was okay?
I was going to ask the same thing. In my experience with my 7 month Old fasting leads to less milk. This seems extreme for a new mom but she is an expert… We aren’t.
I’d definitely encourage watching carefully and knowing your own
body. I usually have trouble with too much milk, rather than too little, but I’m definitely going to keep an eye on it.
I am nursing and I’m monitoring really carefully to make sure my milk doesn’t decrease at all. I’ll still be eating the same amount, if not more, and only waiting a few hours longer to eat in the morning, so I’m not too worried. I’m also going to be making sure to get plenty
of coconut oil, keep taking prenatals and drink tons of water, just
to make sure. Of course, if my milk goes down, or I see the least problem with baby or nursing, I will back waaaay off the weights/ fasting.
I see this was.a year ago so did it have any affect on your milk? I am currently nursing a very hungry 7 month old.
My milk didn’t go down, but I’ve since reached my goal and have been eating normally to maintain. If you have any milk concerns though, I’d avoid the fasting aspect…
How do you consume the gelatin powder? In a protein shake or smoothie? My husband is always looking for ways to get extra protein in his diet, and this looks pretty cost effective and easy. I would love to find out more about it!
In a smoothie, veggie smoothie or even in plain water. It doesn’t taste like anything, so I can add it to pretty much anything. It is also supposed to be great for hair, skin, nails and joints, which is an added protective benefit when lifting!
My goal is to be as fit as you look in that picture. I can fast, hike, kettle bell and can stand to drop a few pounds. I can’t do a pull-up or chin-up, that will be my goal along with losing a few lbs. and feeling all around more fit and energetic.Count me in!