The Benefits of Strength Training and HIIT For Women

Muscle growth promotes fat-loss and women don’t get bulky by heavy lifting, they get bulky by the drugs they take. Research shows that on average a woman’s muscles aren't able to grow excessively. Why? Women have lower levels of the muscle-building hormones needed to stimulate muscle growth.

I’ve learned through personal training that some women want a very specific type of body. 

You want to look toned but not “big and bulky.”

You want to be lean but not skinny.

You want the right lines and curves in all of the right places…your legs, abs, and butt.

You can have all of these things! AND You don’t have to live in the gym or eat like a bird, either.

But there are certain things that are important for women to know so they can structure their workouts to maximize their hormones and boost muscle growth. A woman who wants to reshape her figure, must build muscle and burn fat. Before discussing how to do that, I want to try and re-shape your thinking about a few common fitness misconceptions.

The Importance of Strength Training For Women

The widespread popularity of women’s fitness combined with so much information available to us through Google makes it hard to imagine women avoiding weights in fear of becoming ‘big’ or ‘bulky.’ But I still come across ladies wanting to build muscle and lose body fat who favor long-distance running, treadmill walking, spin, or yoga over lifting weights. After all, cardio and yoga will make them more ‘toned,’ and muscle definition is what they want. They don’t want to be ‘big’ like those female bodybuilders or CrossFit women who lift like ‘men’ throwing around heavyweights.

The preconceived notion that women who train hard and lift heavy become ‘big’ or ‘bulky’ is more than a fitness myth, this way of thinking can be a powerful stumbling block. Just go for it, don’t hold back any longer letting your fears prevent you from ever reaching your full fitness potential. We can’t change our genetic structure, we can only change what we can control. When it comes to muscle bulk, only two factors are under our control: excess fat and excess muscle. If you’re judging a muscular woman who’s carrying a few extra pounds, it’s not the muscle causing the bulk, it is the layer of fat on top.

Muscle growth promotes fat-loss and women don’t get bulky by heavy lifting, they get bulky by the drugs they take. Research shows that on average a woman’s muscles aren’t able to grow excessively. Why? Women have lower levels of the muscle-building hormones needed to stimulate muscle growth.

Studies show that women who follow an intense 6-month strength training program show a decrease in body circumference, a decrease in body fat, and moderate changes in muscle growth. What does this mean? The female body responds differently to exercise than the male body. Women adapt to high-intensity strength training programs by an overall decrease in body fat and body circumference; with moderate muscle growth.
So, you can put your fears of becoming Arnold Schwarzenegger aside! Heck, most men who want to get ‘big’ and look like ‘Arnold’ struggle to do so, and these guys are actually trying! Women have zero chance of excessive muscular development without anabolic help with the use of steroids. Who would have thought stimulating muscle growth and fat-loss by training hard and lifting heavy is one-way women can avoid looking big and bulky!

Muscle Growth Re-Shapes Your Figure

Women who want to change their bodies by focusing primarily on cardio will limit their fitness gains. It’s understandable why someone might think, “losing body fat will cause a sculpted image.” There is truth to that, but don’t forget that fat loss is only one part of muscle tone, and for women, it’s the easiest part.

Muscle tone also requires muscle growth, a much harder component for women and one worthy of your focused time and effort. Even with the loss of body fat, how do you expect to you see your ‘rocking body’ if you haven’t developed the muscles underneath the layers of fat? Replace long-distance, lower-intensity cardio with high-intensity, short-duration cardio. Remember that cardio alone won’t make you fit-and-firm.

Yoga Is GREAT! But…It Doesn’t Make You More Shapely!

This is not a bash on yoga! I think yoga is great, but don’t do yoga thinking you are promoting muscle growth or muscle tone. Studies have shown that yoga is equal to leisurely walking for raising your heart rate, caloric expenditure and improving fitness levels. This does not mean yoga has no value! I’m focusing on one specific area of fitness. There are many other reasons yoga SHOULD be part of your fitness routine; however, muscle growth is not one of them.

Burn Fat By Building Muscle

If you want to reshape your figure, build muscle to burn fat. Muscle growth boosts fat metabolism. The more muscle you have the more fat you burn. Each pound of lean muscle burns up to 50 calories per day. By adding 8 pounds of lean muscle you will burn up to 400 more calories per day you weren’t burning. For a better perspective, walk on the treadmill and see how long it takes to burn 400 more calories. Compare that to the potential of burning these calories while doing nothing!

Don’t Fixate On the Scale!

What if I said: you can look better and weigh the same? Yes, you read that right. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but it applies to many. If you gain 3 pounds of lean muscle and lose 3 pounds of body fat, the scale will say you accomplished nothing.

Scales often mislead us for monitoring fitness progress. This is why a ‘lighter’ version of you, isn’t a ‘shapelier’ or more ‘toned’ version of you. Being smaller and having less muscle means you are burning fewer calories throughout the day and must eat less to stay that way! Before you obsess over the scale, consider that a ‘heavier’ version of you might look better and burn more calories than the ‘lighter’ version of you.

Maximize Hormone Production with Intense Training

Compared to men, women are at a hormonal disadvantage for building muscle. The female body produces less testosterone and relies more on growth hormone for muscle-building efforts. HGH (human growth hormone) helps women burn fat, build muscle, and create that desirable lean, athletic, feminine physique.

Knowing this is important so you maximize your workouts for muscle growth. Women can overcome their hormonal disadvantage by strength training in a way that maximizes growth hormone levels. Women should focus on training hard and lifting heavy during their workouts to elicit a greater HGH response.

To benefit from this response, the workout intensity for women is important. Breathlessness, burning, and strain during your workouts amplify HGH release in the body. To clarify, lifting ‘heavy’ does not refer to the amount of weight you are lifting, it refers to the intensity or challenge of the weights you are lifting. Your workouts need to be challenging, increase your heart rate, and make you sweat.

Doing lighter reps for more repetitions is fine. But, don’t avoid heavy set with fewer reps either. Those heavy sets, as heavy as 5 grunting reps, maybe where a lot of the magic happens! Structure your workouts to trigger your muscle-building hormones. Train smarter by training harder; decreasing your reps and increasing the challenge by lifting heavier loads may be the missing link to the fit-firm physique you desire!

Training Tips For Muscle Growth

  • Train to sweat. Structure workouts in a way that promotes the release of muscle-building hormones.
  • 65% of your workouts should be intense. These workouts should incorporate heavyweight, fewer reps, and more sets. Aim for 6 – 12 reps per set and try to accumulate 8 – 12 sets per body part or body segment (not per exercise). Rest 1 – 2 minutes between each exercise or circuit.
  • 35% of your workouts should focus on training at a moderate-intensity with less weight, more reps, and fewer sets. Aim for 12 – 20 reps per set and try to accumulate 4 to 8 sets per body part or body segment (not per exercise). Reduce rest periods on these days to 20 – 45 seconds between each exercise circuit.
  • Trade-in your long-duration cardio and replace it with high-intensity interval training and sprints. Shorter duration cardio at a higher intensity promotes greater fat loss than longer duration cardio at a lower intensity. Sprint intervals also help stimulate growth hormone helping stimulate more muscle growth! Who would have thought cardio could not only burn fat but also help build muscle?
  • Get the proper rest between sets. Work and rest are not opposites. The more you rest, the harder you can work. Work hard and push yourself each set until you can’t go anymore. Rest only until you can start again. On higher intensity days, rest more. On lower intensity days, restless. Changing your rest between sets is a good way to mix up your workouts, progress your fitness level, and prevent fitness plateaus.
  • Go to the gym each day with a new goal in mind. Training is a process; there must be a measurable increase in the challenge from workout to workout and week to week. Add more weight or challenge to each exercise every week. 
  • Don’t overdo it! Proper rest is important to maintaining fitness progress and prevent over-training. Adding volume and intensity in the weight room is only beneficial until the point where it’s no longer possible to recover from it.
  • Lift to sculpt ‘your’ body, not to look like someone else! Don’t limit yourself by setting unrealistic expectations. Weight training can’t change your God-given body type, but it can maximize your own genetic potential and help define and sculpt your shape.
  • Eat fewer carbs and eat more fat. Train your body to use fat for energy. Dietary fat helps promote satiety, support hormone balance, and muscle recovery.
  • Protein, Protein, Protein. Eat protein every 2-3 hours and develop a daily protein goal. Multiply your body weight by 0.8 to get an estimate for how much protein you should consume every day. Try to eat that many grams of protein every day for optimal muscle recovery and development.


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Verstegen, Mark, and Pete Williams. Core Performance Women: Burn Fat and Build Lean Muscle. New York: Avery, 2010. Print.