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The Truth About Strength Training and Cardio for Women

By Jerod Langness, NASM Master Trainer, CPT, CES, PES, WLS


As personal trainers, we advise many of our weight loss clients to adopt strength training into their fitness plans. At times during these consults, we encounter concerns from our female clients that strength training adds “bulk” on a woman’s frame, and they’d prefer using cardio to create a leaner body. Education is an important part of a trainer’s job, so we work to dispel training myths or misunderstandings such as these, instead communicating the benefits of a well-rounded fitness program that relies on both cardio and strength training to achieve a client’s goals.


Fitness success comes from a customized program designed for you, and strength training should be included within that plan. Because cardio works in mostly the aerobic (with oxygen) phase of training and strength training works mainly in the anaerobic (without oxygen) phase, our bodies respond differently and benefit from each. By creating a fitness program that has both training modes involved, you get the best of both worlds. Add to that proper nutrition, proper supplementation and education gained through comprehensive lab testing, and you’ve got a game plan for success.


The best educational starting point for women concerned about strength training would be to speak with a trainer or Personal Training client with experience. We’ve rounded up two great examples in the interviews below. Jane and Rebecca explain the truths about strength training directly from their own experience and expertise.


  • Jane is a longtime training client now studying to be a trainer herself in the Life Time Academy, our nationally accredited personal training education program.
  • Rebecca Niccoli is a top Personal Trainer at Life Time in Colorado Springs.


Thanks to Jane and Rebecca for providing their perspectives here.


Q&A with Jane


Q: Talk about your transformation since you started working with a personal trainer.


JANE: Overall, during the past two years of training, I’ve lost 30 pounds of fat and gained 15 pounds of muscle. I also went down four pants sizes. I’ve learned to celebrate accomplishments beyond the scale, such as performance improvements, strength gains, better sleep, easier food choices, improved endurance and even clothes fitting better. I’ve also gained an understanding to work smarter rather than harder and to get the best results by breaking up my cardio into zone training. I’ve learned how periodization in resistance training plays a huge role in changing body composition, from stabilization to strength and power, and all the other acute variables that are involved.


Q: With both cardio and strength training involved in your program, do you feel you could’ve accomplished this success with just cardio?


JANE: No! Not even close. Resistance training elicits a different hormone response. I also was dealing with injuries. If I would’ve concentrated on just cardio, I more than likely wouldn’t have overcome the injuries. The combination of proper strength training and cardio through metabolic coaching helped me overcome the injuries while building a balanced body. Cardio was only part of the puzzle.


Q: During your strength-training journey, you’ve progressed to lifting heavy weights. Did you ever fear gaining too much muscle or losing a “feminine look”?


JANE: No. Weight training creates a lean silhouette. I’ve found that the more lean muscle I put on my body, the better my clothes fit. Even though I wouldn’t always see incredible changes on the scale, I did see positive changes in my body. Beauty is strength. When you feel stronger, you feel empowered. A strong, empowered woman comes from within. When you begin to see results, you begin to see your potential. For example, I cleaned and pressed a weight over my head that I once wouldn’t have been able to even get off the ground. This was so empowering to me, and it made me see clearer my potential as a strong woman.


Q: What advice would you give other women that are looking to make a transformation?


JANE: First, I would say it’s possible. You can do it. Just remember that with any new task, it’s difficult to create anything without knowledge and instruction. Don’t be afraid to try new things, including putting resistance training in your regimen. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a professional.


Next up: Rebecca Niccoli. She is a Certified Fitness Professional and Metabolic Technician at Life Time Fitness. She has great perspective as a fitness professional and trainer. Rebecca is a well-conditioned athlete herself and can provide the perspectives of both trainer and athlete.


Q: As a Personal Trainer, what challenges have you dealt with in regard to encouraging women to strength train?


REBECCA: The biggest challenge I face with my female clients is their fear of becoming bulky or “looking like a man.” But as women, we do not have the testosterone men do, making it very difficult to get bulky. It is challenging and would take a very long time for a woman to even become bulky looking. It would take a very structured strength-training program, an extremely strict nutrition plan and even supplements to get that look. There are also other factors, like genetics, that would play a role in whether her training results in a bulky look.


Q: Is there a certain style of strength training that works better for women?


REBECCA: It really depends on the person’s goals; however, the most common method I use is total-body functional movements. It uses exercises that target multiple muscle groups in one movement. For example, walking lunges with rotation. These movements target multiple major muscle groups while forcing the person to activate their core to stabilize.


Q: Do you train women differently than men in regard to strength training?


REBECCA: I do a lot of the same assessments on all of my clients to track their progress and to make sure the program is working. Also, there is a science behind strength training, so I do follow similar progressions with everyone; I just cater the program to the individual and their goals. Not all men want that big bulky look—some men want to look lean, some have specific performance goals they want to achieve and others want to gain mass. The same goes for women. Most women want to look toned and lean, others have performance goals, and I do occasionally get a woman who wants to gain some muscle mass.


Q: Where do you think women can most improve in their workout choices?


REBECCA: I see a lot of women using very light weights. You must lift heavy weights to gain lean muscle mass. It really comes down to balancing your metabolism with regular resistance training, cardio, clean eating, being active throughout your day and getting enough sleep to help achieve your goals.


Q: How do you sell your female clients on the concept of strength training vs cardio?


REBECCA: It’s important to have a balance of both cardio and strength training to achieve peak fitness. For women, strength training is also essential for health reasons. Women are more prone to osteoporosis, and strength training helps to keep our bones strong and functional. I also get a lot of women who want to “tone” or “not look flabby.” I encourage all women to strength train to build lean muscle and achieve the toned look they want.


Q: How do you see the fitness changing in the future for women?


REBECCA: I can already see fitness changing for women based on their presence and frequency in areas of the club. I see more and more women in the gym using the free-weight area, squat racks and Olympic platforms. Women are becoming more confident in lifting heavier weights, proving to themselves and others that you can lift heavy and still have a beautiful body!


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The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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