When you think of workout programs for women, what comes to mind? Many people automatically picture spending hours on the elliptical or StairMaster, trying to fit in as much cardio as possible, while also cutting as much fat out of your diet as you can. Maybe you pick up a few five-pound dumbbells from time to time and perform high repetitions of the same exercises over and over again toning your body. If you lived through the 90s, you might also be picturing the weight-loss shakes, bars, and snacks that proliferated throughout that decade and into the 21st century. Fortunately, the old ways of thinking have been replaced by scientific evidence that demonstrates that women don’t have to live their lives on the treadmill or avoid cheese forever in order to burn fat and get lean – in fact, doing so is far from the most efficient way to lose weight and build strength. Here’s what to look for when choosing workout programs for women.
We’ve already established that spending hours on the treadmill isn’t the best way to lose weight or build strength, so what is? There isn’t one simple answer, because the best workout plans for women incorporate many different types of exercise to improve fitness, burn fat, and build muscle. Look for the following components when you’re trying to choose the right workout program:
- Strength training workout: While many women shy away from strength training, building muscle is a great way to burn more calories throughout the day while increasing your strength and helping to prevent injury. There’s some debate over what strength training needs to look like in a workout program in order to be effective. Some people think it’s necessary to lift barbells and use resistance training with resistance bands, while others believe that you can get an effective workout with bodyweight exercises alone, like pushups, pullups, and situps. Which group is correct ultimately depends on your goals. You can definitely get a great workout and build strength using bodyweight exercises, but if you’re looking to take your fitness to the next level, you’ll probably need to utilize weight training at some point. There are several different types of strength training that should be incorporated into your workout routine:
- Movements focusing on speed and mobility, performed with higher reps and lower weights as a warm up
- Movements focusing on muscle strength, with heavier weights and lower reps
- Movements focusing on muscle shape, which are medium weight and medium reps
- Some muscle groups that you might want to focus on here include upper body areas like biceps and triceps through deadlifts or lower body areas like glutes and hamstrings through a leg press.
- Cardiovascular training: Cardio workouts used to be the be-all, end-all of women’s fitness programs, but today, it sometimes gets a bad rap due to years of being overdone. The reality is that getting your heart rate up is important in order to strengthen your heart and reduce your risk factors for certain types of diseases. If the idea of running around your neighborhood or hopping on the elliptical for half an hour doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry – there are plenty of options!
- Low-intensity steady-state: This type of cardio is probably the most popular and it’s what most people think of when they think of cardio. Whether you choose to spend 20-30 minutes on the elliptical, going for a jog or taking a bike ride, low-intensity steady-state cardio gets your heart rate up and keeps it at a consistent level throughout the workout. Most exercise that is characterized as low-intensity steady-state cardio is done at a moderate effort level.
- High-intensity interval training: High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, as it is sometimes called, is a highly effective way to burn fat. While some people find it intimidating, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can do HIIT on any type of cardio equipment or with just your bodyweight by moving as quickly and intensely as possible for 30 seconds and then resting for one minute. Repeat this cycle for 20 to 30 minutes. As you get more fit, your body will need less rest, so gradually begin to reduce your rest intervals over time.
- Endurance training: Endurance training, like training for a half marathon or marathon, works on building muscular and cardiovascular endurance so that you can perform the same action at a moderate intensity for increasingly long periods of time. If you add endurance training into your training program, you’ll gradually increase the amount of time you perform a given exercise, like running.
Any effective workout program for women is also going to feature a strong nutrition component or personalized nutritional coaching in order to help you achieve the best results. Every person’s body is unique, and while some programs might try to convince you that they have it all figured out when it comes to the perfect meal plan, the reality is that learning what works best for your body will probably take some trial and error. In general, the nutrition component of effective workout programs for women should include:
- Calorie guidance: Most people know that you have to eat fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight, but how do you know how many calories you should eat? Your workout program should help walk you through how to calculate your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories your body needs just to stay alive) and your total daily energy expenditure (your basal metabolic rate plus the additional calories your body uses throughout the day to perform tasks like walking, sleeping, exercising, etc). This will give you a general idea of how many calories you should be eating in a day.
- Protein: Protein helps build lean muscle mass and is important for building strength. A good rule of thumb is to eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, so if you weigh 150 pounds, you would consume 150 grams of protein throughout the day. Good sources of protein include lean meats like skinless chicken breast, fish, and shrimp, eggs, greek yogurt, beans, and more.
- Fat: Yes, you need fat as part of your nutrition plan! Fat gets a bad rap thanks to an erroneous (but major) study that linked the consumption of fat to heart attacks and other illnesses. Decades later, we now understand that healthy fats help you feel full, provide cushioning for your organs, help you absorb certain vitamins, and maintain brain health. Good sources of fat include avocados, olive oil, and nuts, but make sure to stay away from trans fats.
- Carbohydrates: The low-carb craze is all the rage these days, but carbohydrates, especially complex carbohydrates like potatoes, oatmeal, and brown rice, are an important source of energy for the body. Look for whole grains and complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal, vegetables, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, and brown rice when you make your grocery list.
Tracking Your Progress
While many people use the scale as the ultimate way to track their progress, especially if they are focused on weight loss or fat loss, there are many other ways to measure your progress. While seeing your body shed some excess pounds is great, the scale doesn’t always reflect the hard work you’re putting in for any number of reasons, such as hormonal fluctuations, water retention, sodium consumption, and more. A good workout program for women will offer lots of suggestions on different ways to measure your progress, including:
- Taking measurements on a monthly basis to see if you have lost inches in body fat
- Taking progress pictures on a regular basis as you work through the program
- Keeping track of the number of repetitions of a certain exercise that you can do, like pushups
- Trying on a pair of jeans that is slightly too small once a week until they fit
- Noticing as your endurance increases and you can run for a few minutes longer than the previous week
- Making it all the way through a song in your favorite dance video without stopping to rest
- Making a healthy choice at a restaurant and avoiding peer pressure
- Feeling confident in a bikini or formal outfit
Remember, seeing progress on the scale is great and can be extremely encouraging, but just because the scale isn’t moving as much as you’d like doesn’t mean you aren’t making great progress towards your fitness goals.
One often-overlooked component of an effective workout program for women is support. Let’s face it – getting fit and healthy can be challenging and intimidating, and sometimes, you need to talk to someone else who is going through the same thing you are. Online fitness communities like Body FX not only offer a wide variety of workouts that meet women’s needs, they also offer private support groups that allow people to connect and support each other throughout the journey, in addition to personalized nutritional plans and daily coaching. You don’t have to be a fitness expert because you’ll have a ton of resources right at your fingertips without the expense of hiring a personal trainer, nutritional coach, and therapist. There will inevitably be questions, doubts, and fears as you work to build your fitness level, and having a great support network in place will dramatically increase your chances of success.