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A Women’s Guide to Shaping Muscle (Part 2)

In part 1 of our Women’s Guide to Shaping Muscle, we found out all about how your muscles respond to resistance training. In part 2, we’ll show you how to use this knowledge to construct the ideal exercise program to get the results you want.


Sacrificing technique for weight is more of a male than a female tendency in my experience, but it is worth mentioning that bad technique could make you end up with muscle bulk without shape. By ‘bad technique’ I mean using momentum rather than your own strength to ‘yank’ the weight up (instead, move the weight in a steady, controlled fashion); performing the exercise without giving second thought to your posture; and not moving the joint involved through its fullest possible range of motion.

Using a full range of movement creates longer, leaner muscles.


Because the same amount of volume (the muscle) is more spread out. Working in a limited range makes the muscle short and bulky.

Finally, good technique entails good body awareness. If, for example, you are doing a triceps pushdown exercise, it’s easy to let the triceps muscles off the hook by leaning the body forward, rounding the shoulders and pushing down with combined force of a number of different muscles. The body will always take the path of least resistance. It takes focus to remain upright, with shoulder blades drawn back and just the triceps working hard to straighten the arm.

Type of Exercise

Strength training exercises are often divided into ‘compound’ and ‘isolated’ moves. A compound move is one that involves a number of different muscle groups, such as a lunge, which uses the hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves. An isolated exercise is one that uses just one muscle group to execute the move, though in truth no movement is entirely isolated, as other muscle groups act as either stabilizers or helpers while the action takes place.

For general strength and health benefits, we are advised to do compound moves, because they minimize time spent training, reduce the risk of overstressing a particular area or causing an imbalance, and, since they involve more muscles, burn more calories. But there is a place for both types of training in your program, depending on what you want to achieve. While you can’t ‘spot reduce’ – burn fat from specific areas – you can ‘spot sculpt’, by focusing on specific areas you want to firm and strengthen. Bodybuilders will use half a dozen exercises for one muscle or muscle group to target different areas of the muscle, and train it from different angles.

Compound Exercises
Overhead Press
Bench Press

Free or Fixed

Another distinction in strength training is whether the weights being used are ‘free’ or ‘fixed’. A free weight is one that isn’t attached to a machine, such as a dumbbell or barbell, while a fixed weight moves in the plane and range dictated by the machine, it is attached to solid object, such as a leg press. Fixed weights are widely recommended to beginners as they take away the need for the body to stabilize other joints while the movement is taking place – although I would argue that this isn’t necessarily a good thing after all, when you lift a child high above your head and spin around, there isn’t a machine providing stability and support for you.

Free weights mimic real life more fully than fixed weights, but they also carry a greater risk of injury and a higher level of challenge. Like compound and isolated exercises, there is a place for both free weights and fixed weights in a strength program.

Reps, Sets & Rest

If ever a debate in fitness has raged, it is about the optimal number of times we should be exercising. Apply the argument to women and it becomes even more heated – as trainers argue over what builds muscle and tones it.

Number of Sets

As far as number of sets goes, the latest thinking is that, with a couple of caveats, multiple sets (two or three) are more effective than single set workouts. A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research from Appalachian State University in North Carolina found that, in untrained women, multiple sites yielded greater strength gains and other positive adaptations than single-set training.

Another study, from Goethe University in Germany, found that women with basic weight training experience gained more strength after a three-set program compared to one-set program. What’s more, all the subjects in the study performed the same number of repetitions and the same exercises, making comparisons between one and three sets clear and simple.

I mentioned a few caveats. One relates to the part of the body being trained. The study found that the advantages of three sets over one were particularly pronounced in upper body training compared to lower body exercise (in other words, you are more likely to get away with single set training for legs than for the arms). Second, if you are a total beginner, it seems that one set will suffice to make significant strength gains (the Appalachian State University study found that almost any overload at all could instigate change, as the subjects were totally inexperienced at strength training). Third, one set training has been shown to be sufficient to offset the loss in muscle tissue associated with losing weight.

Research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise found that adding strength training to aerobic exercise and diet lessened muscle loss while still allowing fat loss to take place.

And, finally, if your main goal is to develop your aerobic fitness (if, for example you are training for a half marathon), one set may be enough. It is worth mentioning that the one-set group in the Goethe University Study and Appalachian State University studies did get stronger, just not as strong as the multiple set groups. However, research shows that we reach maximum power in the second or third set of an exercise, not the first.

Taking a Break

There is a fine balance between not enough rest and too much rest between sets. In the Goethe University study mentioned above, the rest interval between sets was two minutes. Insufficient rest means optimal effort cannot be out into the next set while too much rest deactivates the muscle.

The researchers suggest that the protocol they used may have improved strength because the two-minute rest means that these second and third sets took place under a certain amount of pre-fatigue, triggering a process called motor unit rotation,’ which means that the tired muscle cells recruit more motor units to help with the workload, as those already used in the first set are whacked.

The inclusion of more motor units increases the overall stress on the muscle and also, because of the activation of large numbers of nerves, improves neuromuscular efficiency, which has a bearing on strength. If you don’t want to waste time hanging around between exercises, you can, of course, use your rest time to work on a completely different muscle group, to allow the worked one to recover.

We recommend that you allow two minutes between sets – perhaps less if you’re focused more an aerobic fitness. But never allow less than one minute, as you just won’t give the muscle time to recover sufficiently for the next onslaught.

How Many Reps?

Now that you’ve decided whether you are a one set or a three set kinda girl, how many reps are you going to do per set? This is when the low rep / high weight for strength, high rep / low weight for endurance model is usually wheeled out, but the truth is that, to produce the physiological changes in the muscle needed to make it stronger and thicker, you need to lift something heavier than your muscles are used to.

Somewhere between six and 12 repetitions seems right for general strength gains, and firmer, denser muscles. In the Goethe University study, the multiple set group were doing just six to nine reps, but at an effort level at which they couldn’t actually perform another rep. Remember, though, that muscles can’t count. So, don’t do a specific number just because you said you would. If your technique has gone astray, then you should stop.

How Many Time Per Week?

So, you’ve decided on reps and sets –  and you know what weight you’re going to lift. How many times a week are you going to train with the program? A study from the University of Alabama looked at the relative strength gains of a group of subjects who either worked one day per week, performing three sets to failure, or three days a week, performing one set to failure.

On upper and lower body strength, the three-day-a-week group achieved greater gains in strength and lean body mass, implying that, although the total exercise volume stayed the same, the more frequent training was more successful. But the differences were not that great (the one day a week group gained 62 percent of less strength than the three day trainers did) and the researchers also found that the more experienced a subject is in strength training, the more important volume and the less important frequency.


This research seems to suggest that using three sets, two to three times per week would be the best bet, as it incorporates both frequency and volume. If, you do choose to train more frequently than that, do not strength train on consecutive days, unless you are training different muscles groups on different days. Otherwise, allow 48 hours between workouts to allow adaptation to take place.

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