Strength Training for women: the Lean & Toned Look

lean toned women


If you want a better than average body, you need a better than average training program. If you think that you will “bulk up” from heavy weight training, think again. The only way your are going to look bulky is if you are overeating or taking performance enhancing drugs. I have heavy squats and deadlifts to thank for my feminine, petite and toned body. I guarantee you, by following the structure outlined below, and tracking your macros to eat according to your body’s requirements, you will not become bulky or masculine. Training smart, combined with eating to lose fat, will allow you to maintain lean mass while shedding the fat to give you a desirable feminine look.

lean toned women

  1. Lift heavy

Throw away the tiny pink dumbbells. Start with heavy compound lifts like squats, lunges, deadlifts, overhead press, bench press, hip thrusts, pullups and dips. Make these major lifts your first 2-3 exercises of the workout.  Fearing the weight room is one of the most common mistakes I see.


  1. Don’t do body part per day splits

If you are training like a bro, with one body part per day, is not ideal. A full body workout, plus upper lower splits, should be used if you want to train smart. According to a study on the effect of recovery time on strength performance in males and females, women are able to recover faster from strength training. This means you can train harder with higher frequency, while still being able to recover fully between workouts. (JR, 2017)

My training involves 1 – 2 full body sessions per week then 1 upper and 1 lower session primarily focusing on your weak points or whatever you want to work on. This means you make the fundamentals a staple part of your program and can play around with the rest to make it suit your goals and preferences.


  1. Add accessory exercises

Choose the areas you want to focus on, that may be your weak points, and add in more targeted exercises for these. For example, adding in banded glute work for more developed glutes or lateral delt raises for shoulders. These smaller movements can make up the last 2-3 exercises of your workout.

female workout

  1. Don’t forget to track

Tracking your workouts will make sure you are progressing. I find tracking to be a powerful motivator. It encourages you to push past what you thought you were capable of. If you are aiming for constant progression or even just maintaining your current strength, you can avoid major muscle loss when dieting.


  1. Use reverse pyramid training

Start within the lower 3-6 rep range for strength on your first 2-3 sets. Follow this up with 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps, pushing one rep short of, or to failure on the last set.



Bench Press

Set 1: 50kg x 4-6 reps

Set 2: 50kg x 4-6 reps

Set 3: 40kg x 10 reps

Set 4: 40kg x 10+ reps

Once you can push past your current rep range with the weight you are using, it’s time to move up in weight.


  1. You don’t need to “keep your muscles guessing”

If you are constantly varying your program you will not be progressing very effectively. Back when I did crossfit 6 days a week, my one goal was to be able to do a pullup. After months of training there, I still wasn’t getting any stronger at pullups. I had barely gained any strength due to the constantly varied approach with minimal rest. Stick with something for 4-6 weeks, or until you stop progressing, before changing things up. It’s all about sticking with the plan and not getting side tracked. 


  1. Getting a Coach

When I finally realised I wasn’t getting anywhere, I started strength training with strength and nutrition coach Denver Steyn. Denver understood that girls don’t need sissy light weights and lots of cardio. On my first session we started with deadlifts, squats and heavy leg press. Having a coach almost guarantees you are going to be pushed harder than you would push yourself. But a good coach will also track your workouts and periodise your programming so it is tailored to your goals and preferences. Having someone knowledgeable take care of all the programming allows you to enjoy the workout without having to think too much.


  1. Rest Periods

The 2 minute rest periods between sets gave my body time to recover and maintain better strength through my workout. This meant higher total volume for the workout, even though it felt easier. It is scientifically proven that resting longer than 60seconds is better for both strength and hypertrophy. “The amount of rest between sets can influence the efficiency, safety and ultimate effectiveness of a strength training programme” (de Salles BF, 2017). It’s a common mistake to rush through workouts without taking adequate rest. I understand a lot of women think keeping your heart rate up and not resting will make you more hardcore or give you better results. This is not the case. When studying the current findings on the topic, it was shown the current literature does not support the hypothesis that training for muscle hypertrophy requires shorter rest intervals than training for strength development” (Henselmans M, Schoenfeld BJ, 2014). If you want to train for anything other than endurance, stick to timed rests of 2-4mins depending on the exercise and intensity of the set.


Why is muscle loss bad?

If you want a lean and toned look, you need to hold on to and promote lean muscle mass with adequate protein intake and heavy weights. If you have ever seen someone with the “skinny fat” look, you’ll understand why. If you cut calories too quickly and don’t train right (eg using light weights or too much cardio), your body will be less likely to hold on to metabolically expensive muscle. You don’t have to be in the gym 6+ days a week or do excessive cardio to look good. Combining a tailored strength training program with IIFYM (if it fits your macros) means you can get to your goal efficiently without wasting time wondering if you are on the right track or not.


If you’re interested in a personalised training plan, email me at and mention this article for a discount.

Once you’ve got your training plan down, check out my top tips for IIFYM here.



de Salles BF, e. (2017). Rest interval between sets in strength training. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].


BJ, H. (2017). The effect of inter-set rest intervals on resistance exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].


JR, J. (2017). The effect of recovery time on strength performance following a high-intensity bench press workout in males and females. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2017].

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