Starting Strength for Women

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | August 12, 2020

going down in the squat

The Starting Strength program works for every post-pubescent human being every time it’s applied correctly. This obviously includes women. There is no special women’s program, just “the program” that can be optimized to match the hormonal, anatomical, and other physiological characteristics that distinguish women from men. However, technical distinctions are not the main impediment to women achieving their genetic potential. The main barrier is societal.

Psychology and Culture

setting up for a press

Popular culture has come a long way, thanks to organizations like CrossFit, in de-stigmatizing women’s use of barbells. Unfortunately, there is still widespread misunderstanding about women and lifting heavy weights that colors the perception of a substantial part of the population. We regularly overcome this nonsense at Starting Strength Gyms and inform prospective female trainees that lifting weights will not make them look “manly,” that it is perfectly safe, and that stronger is actually what they want to be. After all, what does being “toned” actually mean? Fit? Athletic? Healthy? Shapely? Stronger actually has a meaning everybody understands, because it's a part of everybody's experience. Yoga, running, spin, Pilates and all of the other sub-maximal exercise “modalities” that are marketed towards women don’t contribute to any meaningful level of strength acquisition. 

If you are new to strength and this seems hyperbolic, perform the following thought experiment: how many yogis (or any of the promoters of the aforementioned exercises) are able to help you move a couch easier after training for one month? Three months? A year? On the other hand, consider how much easier it is for an average female strength trainee to perform the same feat when her deadlift goes from 95lb to 135, then 185, and then to 225 and beyond. Everything in daily life becomes easier. 

Young Women 

woman deadlifting

In popular culture, fitness – especially women’s fitness – has been harmfully conflated with leanness. As a society we still suffer from this confusion, and both sexes are negatively affected by it. But women in particular, are twice as likely to have an eating disorder. The beauty of strength training, as Coach Nick Delgadillo has recently demonstrated with Bre Hillen, is that redirecting obsessive behavior away from calorie reduction, “burning fat,” and getting skinny can be achieved by establishing a more productive goal: getting stronger.  

The number on the scale becomes less meaningful since staying the same weight by losing fat and gaining muscle – or even gaining weight – might not only be necessary, but desirable for health, performance, and aesthetics. Being hungry all the time, for a strength trainee, is not only unnecessary, it’s almost always counter-productive. Improving bone density and acquiring lean muscular body mass is a more productive goal, which just so happens to improve shape at the same time, making bodyweight a much less relevant metric to obsess over. After all, form follows function. 

Unfortunately, popular culture has perpetuated a skeletal aesthetic, especially for women. If Starting Strength has any impact on combating this destructive mind virus, we will have made a meaningful contribution to society. Being emaciated is not healthy, and we are, after all, in the “health and fitness” business, not the “punish yourself to pursue a false aesthetic” business. 

Fortunately, the advent of Instagram and the development of the big-butt economy has made skinny and weak less desirable in women’s pop culture, and our job is becoming easier. The good news, for women that care about the power of the booty (like our friend Phoebe at Starting Strength Houston),  is that big glutes can be developed by progressively loading the deadlift and the low-bar squat. Since the function of the glutes is to “extend” your hips, bending over with a weighted barbell forces the glutes to work hard. If weight is added to the bar every training session for as long as possible, strength increases, and so does size. 

“Aging” Women

older woman barbell training

Post-menopausal women typically are less concerned with Instagram followers. This is good for us and good for them because this is the demographic that enjoys the most profound quality of life changes from strength training, and who typically have less aversion to eating. Aging women are the most susceptible to bone density loss (osteopenia) than any other demographic. That, coupled with the loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia), is the road to needing a cane, a walker, or wheelchair. And in the event of a fall, a broken hip is a catastrophic and life-threatening injury. With a properly applied strength training program, older women can rapidly increase bone density and muscle mass while simultaneously improving balance. This means a significantly improved ability to avoid a fall in the first place, let alone to better withstand one. 

Training Considerations

modifying the program

To maximize progress and minimize the risk of injury for women, there are a few important distinctions for you as a trainee (or for your coach) to be aware of. The majority of women have the ability to over-extend the lumbar spine, which presents the risk of injury. It’s your job to become familiar with how to avoid this common error. Large men can be taught to squeeze their chests up, with full effort, while attempting to pull their lower backs into an anatomically safe and normal lordotic curve. Cueing most women in this way will result in a potentially dangerous over-extension. 

The fix is “flattening” the back with a pronounced abdominal contraction. A tactile cue – a tap or smack on the belly to cause an involuntary abdominal contraction – will help the trainee understand how to squeeze the abs. The goal is to make the spine as rigid as possible, in a safe and natural anatomical position. A belt is critical to provide proprioceptive feedback which aids the trainee in contracting the abs as hard as possible. 

Another difference worth noting is that women typically have a shorter torso segment in proportion to their legs when compared to men. If this is the case, it will result in a more horizontal back angle (more bent over) than most males in the bottom position of the squat, and a more horizontal back angle in the start position of the deadlift. In contrast, people with long torsos will appear more upright in the bottom position of both lifts. There is no standard back angle that applies to all trainees. Don’t be alarmed by female trainees that appear to be “too” horizontal in the bottom position of the squat or the deadlift setup. Simply focus on the tenets of the model and understand that back angle varies per trainee. 


squatting with a broomstick

Training women effectively requires the use of a women’s barbell: 33lb instead of 45lb for at least the upper body lifts. This is not an absolute rule – some younger women can begin with a standard 45lb barbell for all of the main lifts, but the majority will require a lighter barbell. Older, smaller, and/or severely detrained women may require a 22lb junior bar and in some cases, something as light as a broomstick. The starting weight doesn’t matter, as long as it’s appropriate for the trainee. What matters is that weight is added to the bar every training session, or as often as recovery allows. 

Standard sets of 5 work for nearly everyone, at least during the first couple of weeks. Most women will need to move to sets of 3 early on in their training, especially for the upper body lifts. On the press, for example, 5 sets of 3 may be required after only a few weeks of running 3 sets of 5. Micro-loading must occur earlier in most women’s linear progression, too – 2.5lb jumps (or less) will be mandatory within the first few weeks for the press, and the bench will follow shortly after. Most women will also benefit from more volume on the deadlift in the novice phase, since the intensities being handled are considerably less than their male counterparts. Two sets of 5 instead of one set is a good rule of thumb. 

Strength training can be an intimidating endeavor to pursue for anyone, and this is especially true for most women. If you’re a gym owner or a coach, go out of your way to share success stories of your strong women: DEXA scans that show bone density and muscle mass in the 99th percentile of their age groups, social media posts showing grandmothers deadlifting more than the majority of bicep bros at commercial gyms, and the look of amazement when a female trainee completes a set at a weight that she never imagined was possible. 

We will do our part by featuring testimonials, like this one from Starting Strength Austin, to inspire other women to pick up a barbell and improve nearly every aspect of their existence. At Starting Strength Gyms, we have nothing but respect and gratitude for our community of strong women that are blazing the trail for others to follow. 

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.