The last time you stepped in the gym, did you walk right past the weights and jump straight on a treadmill?
You wouldn’t be alone! Maybe it’s because you find the barbell intimidating, or maybe it’s because you think lifting is better suited to the protein swigging “bros” by the benchpress. And didn’t you once hear that strength training will make you big, bulky and blokey?
You should start seeing the weights section of your gym in a new light. Lifting weights and resistance training isn’t just for the guys. In fact, there are some serious benefits for women too. And no, you won’t end up looking like a beefcake. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to define strength training a little better, and talk about how it can work as a part of your overall exercise regimen.
What is strength and conditioning?
It’s easy to confuse strength and conditioning training with brainlessly pounding out a bunch of reps on the barbell. And although you might end up doing a load of bench presses in certain strength and conditioning programmes, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
When done correctly, strength and conditioning work is more about looking at how you use (or want to use) your body in daily life and tailoring a set of weight and resistance-based exercises that are going to allow you to use your body more efficiently, more powerfully and with less chance of injury.
This is because when your muscles work against the right amount of resistance in the right kinds of exercise, the extra demand forces your muscles and central nervous system to adapt in a positive way. The extra physical effort creates micro-tears in your muscle fibres, which in turn stimulates the body to rebuild the muscle. Eventually, after enough cycles of stressing and rebuilding, you end up with stronger muscles.
Meanwhile, the phenomenon of myelination means that the more often you activate a muscle in a specific activity, the more you increase the efficiency of the neural pathways that send signals from your brain to this muscle (interestingly, it’s also the reason you might have been forced to spend time banging away on those piano keys as a kid!).
The upshot of all this is that with stronger muscles and a more efficient nervous response, you are able to perform the same task (or similar tasks) more easily and with less risk of injuring yourself.
Why do busy mamas need strength training?
So, that’s the theory. But let’s talk about some real-world examples.
If you’re a mama that loves to run on the trails, you want a regimen that incorporates exercises focused on muscles like your glutes, quads and hamstrings. These are activated in each running stride and making these muscles more efficient will help you run faster and further. You’ll also want to look at building strength in the ankle to prevent injuries caused by inadvertently rolling it.
If you’re a mama that spends a large portion of the day running after and tackling your energetic kids, you’ll want to condition yourself to lift safely and efficiently, so you don’t burn out your back. And if you think about the huge number of situations where you have to carry your kids in different ways (with shopping bags, folded strollers and what not!), this opens the door wide to a massive range of exercises!
Plus, if moving more safely, more efficiently and with more strength wasn’t enough, there are a whole host of other benefits too.
- Strength and conditioning training helps preserve your muscle mass and keep your bones healthy. This is particularly important as we age and we begin to lose both muscle mass and bone mineral density. Studies show that 30 minutes of resistance training, twice a week, helps to reduce this decline.
- Strength and conditioning training helps burn calories. We often associate burning off the pounds with running for miles like hamsters on a wheel. However, studies have shown that test subjects who did only strength and conditioning work lost as much weight (if not more!) as test subjects who did only cardio exercises. Scientists suspect that this may be because strength and conditioning raises your resting metabolism, which means that you burn more calories even when you are not exercising.
- Strength and conditioning can boost your energy levels and improve your mood. This is because the brain releases neurochemicals like endorphins when you work out, which leave you feeling great, while reducing stress and anxiety.
If you are worried about piling on the muscle, then take some comfort from the fact that your body needs loads of testosterone before resistance training translates into massive bulky muscles. Simply put, your body doesn’t have enough testosterone for this to happen. In fact, you might notice that your muscle tone gets tighter, and you start looking leaner and more trim instead.
Before you start
Before we introduce you to some foundational movements that you can incorporate into your exercise routine, you need to keep a few things in mind, especially if you’ve never played with any of the equipment!
- Don’t feel any pressure to rush into these exercises until you feel confident with the basics. Some of these movements can be physically and technically challenging — especially so if you are new to them. I have listed some progressions that can help you build up to the final exercises. Please take your time with these to improve your technique, conditioning and confidence.
- Always listen to your body. The recommended sets and reps are just a guideline. Again, don’t feel pressure to hit them, especially if you are just getting started. A general guideline when selecting a weight is that you should be able to complete all your reps, but still feel like you have two left in the tank. This is a little bit more challenging with pull ups, so don’t worry if you feel totally gassed after doing your reps. I still do!
- If you would like some extra guidance, I would highly recommend that you work with a coach to dial down the technique before you move onto heavier weights. This will make sure you are doing the right things from the very beginning and it will really reduce any chance of getting injured.
Exercises to include
Barbell Back Squat
The squat is all about lowering your hips from a standing position and then standing back up. Squats are great for a variety of reasons. First, they are a full-body, compound movement. This means we are hitting a bunch of muscles at the same time and we are getting more bang for our buck. Second, by working out our legs, butt, core and back muscles, we get stronger and better at lifting heavy things (like children!). Plus, you build massive stability in your core and legs, and you also build mobility in your ankles and shoulders.
The barbell back squat is just one variation of the squat, where we use a barbell and weights to add extra resistance to the movement. Most gyms should have a squat rack, but if you don’t have access to one there are a ton of viable alternatives like goblet squats and even bodyweight squats.
Note for Beginners:
If you are new to the barbell back squat take things slow. Practice the movement without a bar first to make sure that you are comfortable with the squat movement. Then progress to using just the bar, without any weight, before you start adding on the kilos. Again, if the bar is a little intimidating to begin with (or you don’t have access to one), try a squat variation like the goblet squat using a handheld weight instead.
- Setup is key here. Your squat rack should have some stoppers to hold the barbell in place. Set these up so that your barbell is resting just below the line of your shoulder.
- Place your hands on the bar. Hand placement just wider than shoulder-width is ideal.
- Duck down slightly in order to place your head under the bar.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and up to create a cushion of muscle for the bar to rest on.
- Slowly and with control, stand up to lift the bar off the rack and then step back.
- Start the squat by initiating the movement with the hips hinging back.
- Move your bum towards the floor. Keep your core braced and pretend you are holding a tennis ball to your chin as you do the movement. This will keep your spine in a healthy neutral position.
- Stop when your bum is parallel to your knees or a bit lower.
- Push back up to the top by squeezing your glutes and pressing the floor away.
Recommend Sets and Reps:
- 2 to 3 sets. 8 to 12 reps per set.
The pull up is all about hanging from a support and then moving your body up in space. It’s so tough but so effective! You hit a ton of muscles like your lats, deltoids, traps and biceps in just one movement. And because you use these muscles so often in daily life you will feel the benefits in a ton of things you do. Everything from pulling yourself out of a pool, to opening heavy doors will get easier. Plus, you improve your grip strength and you also strengthen your back, which will improve posture and reduce back pain.
Note for Beginners:
Now, I don’t expect that everyone who reads this guide is going to be able to bang out a pull up their first time trying. It may take a long time to master this movement. And that is totally normal. You are lifting your entire body off the ground, which is no small thing. So, if you don’t feel ready to do a pull up yet, start building your strength and confidence with these exercises:
- Band Pull Down
- Lat Pull Down
- Scap Retractions
- Dead Hangs
Honestly, it took me a long time to get to a stage where I could comfortably do and comfortably teach pull-ups. So don’t feel that you have to master this immediately. Doing a drill like the lat pulldown has a lot of the same benefits as the full pull up, so if you are happy to stick with it for now, don’t sweat!
- Grab the pull up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and hang with your arms fully extended.
- Take a big breath in.
- Think about bringing your chest towards the bar and sending your elbows down to your hips.
- Squeeze your back at the top and keep your elbows tucked in while you bring your chin over the bar.
- Drop back towards the floor by extending your arms in a slow and controlled manner. Keep your core switched on throughout, and only stop when your arms are at full extension.
Recommended sets and reps:
- 2 to 3 sets. 4 to 8 reps per set.
Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust is all about pushing your hips upwards while they are weighted down with a barbell. This helps to strengthen your posterior chain, which is a region of muscles including your lower back, your glutes and your hamstrings. Keeping this region strong prevents a ton of injuries and imbalances in daily life. In particular, stabilising this area helps keep the hips level when you walk and run, which in turn can reduce the chances of lower back pain.
Note for beginners:
We always want to start slow and safe, especially when we ask our back muscles to do a lot of work. If you haven’t tried this type of movement yet, I would strongly recommend conditioning yourself with bodyweight exercises. The “Glute Bridge” is the best place to start (watch this quick video).
When this gets easy, challenge yourself with single leg glute bridges. Then move up to bodyweight hip thrusts before attempting this with a barbell.
- Find a bench and a barbell in your gym.
- Position your shoulder blades on the edge of the bench.
- Bring the barbell over your hips. You can use a cushion or yoga mat, so it doesn’t dig into your hips. Rest your hands lightly on the bar- just enough to stop it from rolling around.
- Position your feet about hip-width apart with the toes pointing slightly outwards. Your foot position is super important because you want your shins to be vertical and you want to push through your heels when you lift your hips.
- Keep your chin tucked in and your eyes forward. There should be no pressure in the neck. The movement is initiated from the hips and concentrated from the chest down.
- Squeeze your glutes to push them upwards. Ground through the heels.
- Keep pushing till you come up to a full extension. This means a straight line from the knees to the hips to the shoulders.
- Once at full extension, slowly hinge at the hips to bring the weight down.
Recommended Sets and Reps:
- 2 to 3 sets. 8 to 12 reps per set.
The military press is done by lifting a barbell resting on your chest up and above your head. It’s another fantastic exercise for your upper body. This time, we’re concentrating on building pushing strength rather than pulling strength. Have you ever struggled with bundling too much carry on luggage into the overhead bin of an aeroplane? Well, master this, and the next time you go on holiday it’ll be a breeze.
Notes for Beginners:
Again, if you aren’t confident to start with the barbell yet, there are great progressions to get you there. To begin with, practice the movement with a pair of dumbells. These are a little easier to handle, and you have a lot of control about the weight you pick, as most gyms have a selection in 1 to 2kg increments. You can also adapt the dumbbell exercise by setting up a bench at around a 45° incline to really target the shoulders.
- Set up your weights. The barbell should be just below your shoulder height.
- Place your hands on the bar about shoulder-width apart.
- Get into a front rack position. This means getting your hands under the bar and your elbows forward so that the barbell is across your chest.
- Step away from the rack and position your feet hip-width apart.
- Before you lift, make sure the barbell is across the fleshy part of the palm and that it hasn’t rolled into your fingers. You want your wrist to be straight when you push up.
- Take a big breath in and then as you exhale, push the bar directly up above your shoulders.
- As you drive the bar upwards, lightly reach your chin and chest forward through the arms. This reduces both the chances of a curved “banana back” spine and the bar falling forward away from the chest.
- If you struggle with this part, you may need to lower the weight or to work on your shoulder mobility to ensure you can get your arms up in line with your ears. Again, a good personal trainer will be able to assess this and give you the right exercises to get you there.
Recommended Reps and Sets
- 2 to 3 sets. 8 to 12 reps per set.
What else to know about strength and conditioning
Every mama should incorporate at least a little bit of strength and conditioning into her exercise regime. It can make you stronger, improve your body awareness, improve your bone health and mood AND also burn a ton of calories. On top of that, learning to do movements like the pull up or a heavy back squat can also be empowering, as these are difficult skills to master.
That said, always prioritise your safety! If you are new to this kind of work, start slow. You don’t always have to use heavy weights. There is a whole world of strength and conditioning exercises that include bodyweight exercises, resistance bands and other props like medicine balls and sandbags. And if you are unsure of any of the movements, please find a coach that you trust. They can act as an extra set of eyes, and make sure that you are using your body in the most sustainable and ergonomically appropriate way.
Even if you have not given birth recently, remember the adage “once postpartum always postpartum”. Pelvic floor dysfunction can last for years after you’ve had your baby. So please address any issues before starting a strength and conditioning programme, as many of these movements will involve engaging your pelvic floor.
Likewise, if you are pregnant you can still incorporate strength and conditioning into your workout, but many of these exercises should be modified to make them safe for you and baby.
Finally, strength and conditioning work isn’t the only kind of exercise you should do. Use it as part of a balanced regimen that supports and enhances other forms of exercise like cardio and playing sports. If you can plan two 30-minute sessions every week, that is a great start. And always remember to thoroughly warm up the body before resistance training and to cool it down afterwards.