4 Common Mistakes Women Make When Training with Weights

image of a female bodybuilder's muscular back lifting weights

Weight training is what changes your body composition, the amount of muscle you carry on your frame. Consistent weight training also helps reduce body fat, particularly if you lift heavy. Any type of exercise burns calories and has potential health benefits, but to develop a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, you have to work your muscles against resistance. The goal, of course, is to increase the ratio of muscle to fat and become stronger.

Once the domain of males who want to become muscle bound, weight training is now hot for both genders. These days, more women are grabbing dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands and using them to sculpt a stronger, leaner body. But, the results you get depend on how you approach weight training as well as how you feed your body. That’s part of the equation too!  Some fitness professionals believe that nutrition is 80% of the equation when it comes to building a healthier body composition. Let’s look at some of the mistakes women make when training with weights that make it harder to get stronger and leaner.

Not Lifting Heavy Enough

A common myth is that lifting heavy creates a bulky physique. Fortunately, this myth is being rapidly dispelled as more women realize that lifting heavy makes you leaner, not bulkier. Unless you have a high level of testosterone, due to a condition like polycystic ovarian syndrome, it’s unlikely that you’ll develop bulky muscles without bodybuilding supplements. In the past, women gravitated toward small, pink weights in hopes of “toning” and shaping their muscles without building size. But, using light weights and high reps isn’t the optimal way to change the shape of your muscles, unless you’re lifting to near muscle failure. When you’re using light weights, that takes a lot of reps.

A better approach is to use a weight that fatigues your muscles after 8-12 reps and complete 3 or more sets. This is the optimal formula for hypertrophying a muscle. Plus, the anabolic effects of going heavier helps you lose the body fat that’s covering the muscle. It’s a good idea to change things up periodically to avoid reaching a plateau or periodize your workouts so you’re lifting heavier during some workouts and lighter for others. Varying the stimulus you place on the muscle also helps you avoid overtraining that muscle. Keep in mind, a workout that consistently feels easy won’t change the composition of your muscles or make you stronger. The take-home message: you have to progressively challenge your body to see change. The little, pink weights won’t cut it once you’re no longer a newbie.

Not Doing a Balanced, Total Body Workout

Women are more likely than men to pick a body part they want to change and focus the majority of their training time on transforming it. For example, if you want a firmer, more rounded backside, you might devote a large portion of your workout time to targeting your glutes. Why is this not the best approach? If you’re doing mostly isolation glute exercises, like donkey kicks and barbell glute bridges, you’re not burning many calories or training your lower body in a functional manner.

Don’t stop doing targeted glute exercises but round out your workout by including compound exercises that work multiple lower body muscle groups simultaneously, like deadlifts, squats, and lunges. These are the calorie burners that help you get lean and develop balanced muscles. In fact, the ratio of compound to isolation exercises should be a ratio of at least 2 to 1, as compound exercises are ones that work the most muscle groups.

Doing Too Many Crunches & Not Enough Core Work

When you’re trying to develop abs, what exercises do you do? Hopefully, it’s not just crunches. That’s a mistake many women make. They think that doing multiple sets of crunches sets them on the road to a six-pack. Crunches mainly target the superficial muscles and don’t hit the deeper transverse abdominus muscle, the “girdle” muscle that holds everything in. Plus, crunches don’t work your core in its entirety.

To balance out your ab workout, replace some of the crunches you normally do with planks and plank variations. Make ab and core work more dynamic by doing twisting mountain climbs and renegade rows. Renegade rows get your upper body in on the action too. Remember, the more muscles you work at the same time, the more calories you burn. The take-home message is to do more than crunch!

Placing Too Much Emphasis on Cardio

Yes, you need cardio for the heart health benefits it offers, but the bulk of your workout shouldn’t be only cardio. If you overdo it, especially if you’re not eating enough, cardio can send your body into a catabolic state that makes it hard to develop strength and muscle size. Plus, excessive amounts of cardio will fatigue your muscles to the point that you can’t lift as much.

Also, switch some of the moderate-intensity cardio you currently do for HIIT training. High-intensity interval training workouts are shorter and still highly effective for improving cardiovascular fitness. Plus, you can include exercises, like plyometric moves, that improve your ability to generate power. When you compare high-intensity interval training with repetitive, moderate-intensity cardio, you work more muscle groups and improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

All in all, the amount of time you spend doing cardio should be in line with your goals. If you’re trying to build strength or muscle size, make sure a large portion of your training is devoted to working your muscles against resistance.

The Bottom Line

How many of these mistakes do you make? Work on correcting them as these weight training habits make it harder to get stronger, more defined muscles. Make the most of your time by training as effectively and efficiently as possible – and be patient. Change takes time and consistency – but it’ll be worth it as you become stronger, leaner, and more defined.



The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 32(3):587-593, March 2018.


Related Articles:

Strength Training: Avoid These 5 Mistakes When Lifting Heavy

5 Things You Might Be Getting Wrong about Rest Days

What is Weightlifter’s Shoulder & How Can You Avoid It?


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