A Woman's Guide to Weightlifting
Guest Post with Heifer
This one is for the ladies!
Today’s post will be a little different than my usual posts.
This is a guest post with BowTiedHeifer, my wife, geared toward women lifting, some common myths, and her personal story. Guys, please print this out for anyone that could use these words of advice.
And even if you’re not a female, she lays out some advice really ALL of us could use.
Girls, please listen to what she has to say, you might not listen to me—I am a mean scary man—but Heifer is by far one of the most knowledgeable women I know on the subject. She has done more research and studied this more than any “influencer” you’re going to find on IG or Tik Tok.
Obviously I’m not an expert (coming up on 4 years of lifting), so most of what I’ll say here aligns with what Ox puts out.
I follow all of Ox’s programs with some variations (my advice is do the same and manipulate programs to suit your goals). i.e. I focus on shoulder work as opposed to chest work, and add in extra glute work because well.. preference lol.
Debunking Some Common Myths
Before we even get into it, I want to address a few myths I hear all too often… “Women should train differently than men to avoid getting bulky.” “More reps with less weight = more “toning” for targeted muscles minus the bulk.” “It’s dangerous for women to lift weights.” “Cardio is better for losing weight than weightlifting for females.”
The Feared Bulky Look
I can guarantee you won’t get bulky or look masculine following the same plans that men do. It’s more complicated than that.
I have followed Ox’s same routines for roughly three-ish years (with the exclusion of DC training) and I’m still waiting for the “you look like a man” or “wow you’re bulky” remarks. In fact, in Ox’s words, “the opposite is happening and [I look] extremely feminine, and in [his] biased opinion, hotter than ever.”
Don’t get me wrong, I too was that girl at one point “I want to be lean and toned, but don’t want to get too big.” I clearly didn’t understand how this all worked and was definitely intimidated, but it takes years to build muscle.
Women simply don’t have the hormones it takes to build “big, bulky muscle”. We have almost 50 times less testosterone than men—we simply cannot build as much muscle as they do.
Almost all women, except an extremely small percentage of outliers (0.1%) will not get too big without steroids.
Understanding that packing on muscle takes work debunks the whole “I will get too big” myth alone. Most of us aren’t getting enough protein intake and taking the proper steps to build—at least 1g per pound of bodyweight in protein and lifting at least 3-5 times a week with optimal recovery (Ox says this at least once a week on Twitter or Substack—it’s not a secret).
“Oops… I did an extra bicep curl today, surely my biceps will be way too large going forward… I will never recover from this.”
The most important thing I’ve learned while training is having a well-balanced diet. When it comes to bulking and cutting, 80% of the work will be diet and 20% of it is determined by our training and recovery. (We use the rule of 80-20 in many fitness aspects—life too really).
TLDR; it’s not gonna happen to you.
“Toning” a Muscle
Simply saying “tone” implies that you can change the shape of a muscle. We all have different muscle structures—take a look at pro bodybuilders. They have different categories of competitions for a reason (Bikini, Figure, Wellness, etc.). The shape of your muscles will never change, but the size will.
We don’t target specific areas of the body (belly, hips, thighs, etc.) because unfortunately we don’t get to pick and choose what parts of our body we lose fat from. Using a lower weight with more reps will not “tone” your muscles. In fact, adding definition comes from actually growing your muscles - this will give you that desired, defined look. If you don’t have any muscle to begin with, you won’t see its definition.
SO Dangerous… Not
It absolutely is not dangerous for women to lift weights… Sure, if you aren’t doing it correctly or using a weight that’s too heavy for you, it’s dangerous, but there are many resources out there to eliminate “dangerous” conditions. Proper technique, form, recovery protocols, etc. etc.
Look at the women’s olympic teams, any women’s college sports teams, women’s IFBB or NPC competitors… All these women lift weights safely and based on their capabilities.
There are pregnant women out-lifting me and many other women. It is SAFE. Check out Yanyah Milutinović—she was lifting well into 40 weeks pregnant and still crushing it, safely! (@yanyahgotitmade on Instagram).
(Though it’s not recommended you start as a newbie in the gym while pregnant. You can do any activity you were doing prior to pregnancy with proper caution—this is not news).
If you’re concerned about hurting yourself in the gym - find a good trainer or physical therapist in the beginning to ensure you’re doing everything safely. BowTiedLindy is a fitness trainer and very knowledgeable about the body. BowTiedBengal is also very knowledgeable of the body and a great resource for recovering from injuries and lifting with proper form.
*Please consult a doctor before performing any new activities if still unsure.*
Cardio… Vs Weights
Sheesh, I had this myth down in my notebook as my main activity. Cardio only burns calories as you’re performing it; whereas, with weightlifting, your body continues to burn calories, even after the lift.
This is where hypertrophy makes its entrance. While we are lifting, the fibers of our muscles are being “damaged” and in this process the body repairs these fibers by merging them back together. This “damage” elicits an adaptive response to grow the muscle, which takes place during our recovery period—up to 48 hours after the workout. (I know any of you that have done leg day feel this in your soul). This response takes energy—you know where I’m going with this—which means burning calories.
*Revisit this post for more on hypertrophy.*
We also have the process of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). During this process your body will use oxygen to restore glycogen to the muscle and rebuild the muscle proteins “damaged” during the lift—again, energy is being used for this process and your body continues to burn calories.
More research is finding that resistance training is linked to increasing EPOC, though adding in some HIIT can also increase this process. Refer to this post. 1resistance training (RT) is not only good for muscular adaptations but is beginning to prove similar benefit in increasing caloric expenditure and increasing oxygen consumption after exercise.
Helpful Tips That Pushed Me
Do not be ashamed of what weights you start with. I started with 5-10-15 lbs. dumbbells (and I still use them on some movements). I definitely said “I’m so weak” too many times in the beginning, but that’s why we start in the first place—to build muscle and confidence in the gym. Finding mind-muscle connection is more important in the beginning and progressive overload comes naturally when you start focusing on your numbers.
To caveat that, really focus on tempo, and dial into perfecting your form when you’re just getting started. You don’t want to be lifting 300+ pounds on deadlift with a rounded back because you skimped out on building a healthy posture early on. I promise you your results will be much better in the long term.
Don’t overexert yourself—the results aren’t going to happen overnight. This goes hand-in-hand with comparing yourself to others. Do not compare your results to others in terms of your progress. Focus on your plan and stay consistent—don’t stress about your transformation happening slow. I know when I started it was extremely difficult because the results weren’t happening as fast as I wanted/thought they would. It’s about the steps you take throughout the process. Check every box as consistently as you can and you will crush your goals.
You also may not notice the transformation at first, so document your progress! Take pictures as you work on yourself (once a week/month/whenever comfortable). You’ll look back and realize you’ve come a lot further than you probably thought prior to looking at the pictures.
The scale won’t be accurate all the time. It’s a great tool, but look for your physical progress as opposed to your *weight* because characteristics like hydration, time of day, fasted/not fasted will affect the number you see on the scale.
If it helps to work out with someone else, absolutely ask a friend, your sister, your brother… hell uncle Joe, etc. to join you. You can always pull a power move and ask the most jacked person in the gym to spot you too—offer to be their spotter, help them remove and replace weights, strike up a conversation. You’ll most likely make a life-long friend and get jacked simultaneously. Win-Win.
*You want to have a spotter when you start getting into heavier lifts and the support helps immensely when you’re getting started.
We’re humans, we’re not gonna be perfect 100% of the time—DO NOT stress over that. Don’t feel guilty if you fall off a day or two, we all do it. Pull yourself out of that slump and get back to the grind. One thing about this journey will be the mentality. Do it for yourself and no one else. Go because it makes you feel good, makes you look/feel healthier and not because you want to be that way for someone else.
Lastly, be intelligent with your diet. Don’t restrict yourself—your body needs fuel - protein, carbs and fats. (Though we’re often told we should cut carbs, this is not true. Carbs are not our enemy. They’re very crucial for hormone health and variables like muscle growth and recovery). A great source to start with is Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan.
Take a Walk in my Shoes
There was a point that I was doing everything wrong. I have always followed “workout plans” that I believed women should be following (refer to cardio section LOL). I was doing 1-3 miles of running and other types of cardio EVERYDAY and adding calisthenics (with 2-3 days of yoga) in after my cardio sessions. I was told by multiple people “cardio is how you lose weight and lean out.” But…
Sure at first I saw the needle move a bit, but it wasn’t long before I plateaued. I wasn’t losing or gaining anything and I didn’t understand why. Part of that had to do with my shitty diet “well I burned around 500 calories combined with cardio and calisthenics, surely what I eat doesn’t matter—I’m not gonna track it.” You simply can’t outrun a crappy diet.
I began integrating lifting the correct way and making intelligent food decisions. This didn’t happen overnight—I was still struggling to balance a healthy lifestyle when I first started because I would always make the excuses “I don’t have enough time. I work and go to school full-time so I can’t really focus on what I’m eating, how much exercise I’m doing AND getting efficient recovery.”
There were even days I’d say f*** that I’m just not doing it today, I don’t feel like it. The mindset of putting myself and fitness first didn’t click for about the first year of training.
Then sh*t shifted quick. I started thinking about my future—wanting kids and building a healthy foundation for them to grow in and around. I didn’t want my kids coming in, seeing me being a lazy sap, watching the latest hit on Netflix, etc. etc.
I started with ridding my social media of tempting food accounts and posts about partying, and instead started following famous fitness names—CarrieJune Bowlby, Dana Lin Bailey, Sophie Van Oostenbrugge, Brooke Ence, etc. Then I actually started following Ox’s plan PROPERLY... What we consume translates to our daily lifestyles.
(I know everyone always bashes the “motivation” and “mindset” takes, but they really do matter). Mindset is key when it comes to fitness. If you don’t want to make changes, YOU WON’T make changes.
It all boils down to priorities. I started planning my days around the gym and what I would be eating. I started noticing my newbie gains and taking things seriously. No more excuses—just get in there and get it done! Then of course, time to get the proper nutrition and sleep in. 😊
How I Personally Started
Like I said before, I’ve followed Ox’s advice for the past three-ish years—intelligent eating, proper training, proper hydration, adequate sleep, daily steps, etc.
I started calculating my rough estimate for daily macros, set out an easy-to-follow diet plan and started focusing on proper lifting techniques.
Macros change with each day of progress, little by little, but for the most part the plan is perpetually consistent—it’s all about adjusting plans accordingly to your goals.
For me, at 120 pounds, gaining muscle consists of eating around 150 g Protein, 270 g Carbs, 80 g Fat, and around 2400 Calories. For weight loss I would eat around 120 g Protein, 200 g Carbs, 40 g Fat, and around 1600 Calories (which I cut later while competing).
*Don’t follow my macros, use a calculator to determine yours! Every body is different and requires different protocols.*
Calculations aren’t always going to be perfect, but the main goal is to hit your numbers as consistently as possible. The more effort you put into reaching your goals, the better your results will be.
I know we all start with “I don’t want to count calories and be obsessive - I don’t want to be restrictive.” However, after a certain point in tracking what you eat, you have a baseline forever and it becomes a ritual. “What gets tracked gets managed.”
Here’s a few sample meal plans I followed in the past (not strictly but to have an idea of what kind of foods you can work with):
The other half was training intelligently. Like Ox stresses in most of his posts, Progressive Overload, High Intensity and proper form are my main factors. Every session you should be going in with the goal to beat your numbers from the last lift and ending most (if not all) movements with total muscle failure.
Here is a sample plan I followed when I started weightlifting:
Hopefully you can see why a bro split isn’t optimal as it’s mostly volume and there’s not much room for recovery, and thus muscle growth. I was going 6-7 days a week with no rest in between. It’s definitely not a beginner program—highly suggest starting with Full Body, progress to Upper/Lower, PPL then Bro (if ever necessary).
Sticking With It
I’ve obviously been doing this a long time, so my techniques, motivation (if that’s what you wanna call it), and routines have been refined immensely. My greatest advice to anyone feeling like they’re falling off or have fallen off is - remember why you got started.
I tell people all the time it’s not about looking great, but feeling great. I’ve come a long way and what’s kept me in the gym is the consistency of feeling good: in my health physically and mentally - How far can I push my body? What am I truly capable of? Am I giving it my all? What do I want my kids to learn from me?
Putting It All Together
There are a plethora of myths out there surrounding resistance training/weightlifting, especially for women. We won’t get bulky/masculine from it, we can’t “tone” our muscles, it’s not dangerous for us to lift weights, and cardio isn’t better as opposed to weight lifting for weight loss. This message alone speaks volumes.
We all start somewhere so when you’re just getting into the swing of things, don’t focus on what weight you can do (whether you’re stronger or weaker than someone else).
As beginners, we want to focus on building a healthy mind-muscle connection, so later on we can optimize progressive overload when we start getting comfortable in the gym. This means nailing tempo and perfecting our form right out of the gate so we can progress safely overtime—and remember, recovery (proper sleep and restorative protocols) is just as important as the lift itself.
Results won’t happen overnight so don’t overcompensate, don’t compare yourself to others, and focus on your personal journey! Document on your own accord to see how far you can go while utilizing the scale as a tool.
If you’re not comfortable going by yourself, take a friend or make a friend at the gym! Having someone with you can be both beneficial for you and them.
Don’t feel guilty if you fall off a day or two, we all do it. Just remember, stick with it - do it for yourself and no one else.
Lastly, be intelligent with your diet. Eat for fuel and don’t restrict yourself.
*Swiftly steals Ox’s closing, #WAGMI. Your friend, BowTiedHeifer.*
And there we have it, I won’t add anything to this because her article is nearly perfect, nuff said.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.