This isn’t a topic I ever intended to cover on this blog, but I’ve realised in packing up all my stuff that I have completed so many strength training programs that it’s worth reviewing them all in one place. I started lifting weights when I was 12 years old, with some old equipment in my parents’ basement, and I have never looked back. Though I started with light weights, by the time I was 18 I realised that I needed progressive overload, and I started to lift heavy. These days I love strength training (dare I say it?) even more than running, which is saying something.
I often reflect on how happy I am that the internet was not what it is today when I was growing up, as I think it would have made me more neurotic in those already insecure teen years. It wasn’t until the internet became more popular that I even realised some people thought it was weird for girls to lift weights, or that you would look ‘manly’ if you did. I can’t even imagine how weights could work that magic on my small frame, so I won’t even get into that nonsense. There are plenty of great posts around the web if you are looking for myth-busting on that topic, see these posts by Nia Shanks or JCD Fitness. (Though I would add that yes, it is possible for some women to get more muscular than they want to, but to me it seems that this is in part due to a belief that athletic equals bulky, see here.)
Until I was 26, I mainly did my own programming. At some point I just decided I wanted a bit more structure and needed to have a few less decisions to make every day. Especially during my PhD, I am happy to have some decisions already made for me (especially if the ego depletion hypothesis is correct).
Onto the reviews, in no particular order:
1. Strong Curves by Bret Contreras
Strong Curves is a book with four different 12 week programs in it, designed by Bret Contreras, aka ‘the Glute Guy'; building on all he has learned about building strength, power, and shape in the glutes. It is perhaps my favourite weightlifting book, and certainly my favourite of those geared toward women. I have been lifting weights for more than half of my life, so at this stage I don’t look for books that promise big things. Rather I look for books that explain the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ behind programming, and this book certainly delivers that. It has solid information, and if you read Bret Contrera’s blog, the book and program will deliver exactly what you expect. If you haven’t read his blog, I suggest you check it out before buying this book. Not for women that want to just restrict calories, do leg lifts and “toning”, this is part of that new generation of weight lifting books that encourages women to lift heavy weights, with a very strong emphasis on the glutes.
For me the program was just what I needed, as I have a hip problem that benefits from a strong focus on the lower body, and incorporating big lifts along with single leg and accessory work. This book is also excellent value for money, as it provides several 12 week workout programs and a huge catalogue of exercises as well as nutrition information. I still use the exercise catalogue in the book for reference often, as Bret does a great job of explaining proper form. Even though I have been lifting weights for nearly two decades now, I started with the beginner program because I really wanted to focus on glute activation, and it was a great decision. Bret states that the beginning program can be used even by advanced lifters, and I found that was certainly the case. I have done all of the programs in the book, with one exception: the lower body only routine. I am still a bit nervous to neglect my upper body, but I am sure I will do it eventually.
The advanced program was where I got really strong; you will be amazed at how strong your glutes can get. I was putting all the weight plates I owned on the bar for hip thrusts. Bret has amazing progress photos on his blog. Some people put on a lot of size (the good kind), especially those who didn’t have much of booty to begin with. I have an hourglass shape, which means I’ve already got glutes and hips, so I didn’t put on size but had notable differences in the composition of my lower body.
2. Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove
I chose to do this program after reading Charlotte’s review over on The Great Fitness Experiment. I have little to add because I would merely be echoing Charlotte’s sentiments. This is an excellent 16-week program, and again it’s another book encouraging women to lift heavy weights and stop thinking they need to torture themselves with endless cardio. I found the volume of training to be good for me, although I did not drop cardio or yoga. Rachel is among those who discourages too much steady state cardio and encourages you to do high intensity interval training (HIIT) instead. She includes HIIT programs in the book. I continued on with both the program as written and three runs per week. The book does encourage you to fuel properly and train hard, which is great, yet it’s written in this ‘hey girlfriend! let’s have a chat!’ style. It’s cringeworthy, but Rachel is unapologetic about it. The information is quality, even if you don’t like the delivery. Just remind yourself that you only need to read through the text once, and then it’s all about the programming. I didn’t experience massive changes in my body with this one, but I did it right after New Rules of Lifting for Women (see #4), so I think I just needed to mix things up because the two programs are similar.
3. STS by Cathe Friedrich
Remember Cathe Friedrich, one of the original home fitness video stars? I had no idea she was a strength training star as well, and when I stumbled on her STS program, I couldn’t find any reviews online at the time. I took a chance and bought it; sold by the fact that it had a squat and bench rack option in the final phase of the program and by the the fact that I could get an immediate download of all the DVDs. This 12-week program was one of the best I have ever done, and my progress photos show it (sorry, I won’t be posting those online!). I experienced a bigger difference in my physique than any other program I’ve tried, especially in my legs and arms.
The program includes 40 DVDs (!!), which can also be downloaded. You’ll be strength training 3 days per week for about an hour each session. It has three ‘mesocycles’ (phases), and the body part splits vary by cycle (although legs always get their own day). In the third mesocycle, you have the option of choosing the videos that use a squat rack, so you can lift heavier. The videos are professionally produced, building in the rest periods and telling you what % of your 1 rep max to complete (both of which vary over the three phases). It incorporates both compound lifts like deadlifts, chest press, squats, etc. as well as body part split exercises/accessory work. It has become mainstream in the fitness community to diss body part splits in favour of the big lifts, as they are less time efficient, among other disadvantages. However, the fact is that body part splits are effective in building a better physique. That’s why fitness pros use them. I never expected this quality of programming from someone who I thought was a step aerobic superstar. Shows how much I knew!
4. New Rules of Lifting for Women by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove
The New Rules of Lifting for Women (NROLFW) is one of the most popular books for weightlifting ever, so I won’t say too much about it because there are tons of reviews online (example). The book has 6 months of programming, 3 days per week of full body workouts. The volume was lower than I was used to, but not too low and that just meant shorter workouts and more time to do other things.
The book is also packed full of information about why women should strength train, mobility, cardio, and nutrition, including meal plans by Cassandra Forsythe. For this reason I think it’s excellent for beginners, but it’s also great for advanced lifters because, of course, you lift with the weight and intensity that’s right for you. There are a lot of similarities between this and Female Body Breakthrough, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that Rachel and Alwyn are married. The benefit is that NROLFW is not written in that ‘hey, ladies’ style. Like Rachel’s book, they also recommend HIIT over steady state cardio, but I did both.
Even though weightlifting is one of my favourite activities, I find most fitness books off-putting, either because of the tone or because of the promise of ridiculously impossible to achieve results. I not only like Shuler’s voice, but I like how humble he is about both the research and the results one can achieve with weight lifting (hint: there’s no way you can promise everyone will achieve amazing results with a single generic program). The workouts in this book are solid, and though a lot of people complain about repetition, there’s actually just enough repetition to ensure you progress. Sure, they could have thrown in several dozen different workouts which makes some people feel like they are optimising “muscle confusion”. But then they wouldn’t have given your body time to improve at the workouts you are given. All in all, I would say this is one of the best fitness book I have read, particularly for female weight lifters.
5. LiveFit by Jamie Eason
LiveFit is the most comprehensive and effective free program you can get. I won’t dwell on it because Janetha’s review at Meals and Moves is comprehensive. This is another 12 week program, and one where you will train like a fitness model, so that means body part splits and, in the latter stages of the program, high volume and intensity, with plyometrics. Like STS, I experienced big changes in my body with this one, although my progress plateaued in the third stage because I think that it was too much volume for me. The workouts can go for up to 90 minutes! And it’s not just waiting around for your next set. It’s pretty intense.
There’s a diet that comes along this one, but I didn’t follow it. It’s a low calorie, body builder type diet and it would make me sad to eat that way. So I didn’t. And yet even just eating my normal diet – which is healthy but full of variety, based on vegetables, and full of flavour, unlike a bodybuilder diet – I was able to make big changes, which really surprised me. The longer you’ve been lifting the harder it is to make progress, and I do not have a naturally athletic body type. I don’t build muscle easily at all. In this program I was able to improve my body composition, as well as my strength and endurance.
There are several Facebook groups for women doing LiveFit, if you’re into that sort of thing.
6. Lean and Lovely by Neghar Fonooni
Neghar is one of my favourite fit females (here’s her blog), as she is among the few that don’t talk about ‘toning up’ or getting a bikini body; and has been open about her decision to actually gain a bit of fat in order to regain her sanity. I bought the Lean and Lovely program as soon as it came out. This is a program that is less about aesthetics than something like LiveFit, and more about helping you become more athletic, fitter, and stronger. Lean and Lovely is all available as a download and includes a training manual, nutrition manual, ‘sweat sessions’ guide, how-to videos, and admission to a private Facebook group.
Another 12 week program with three phases, there is also an optional primer phase for those who aren’t ready to jump right in. She recommends kettlebells, which are her favourite training implements, but you can do the program without kettlebells and just modify them to work with barbells and dumbbells. Since I only had a 20kg kettlebell, I mixed it up with other equipment when I needed a lighter or heavier weights. The workouts generally only took me about 30 minutes or so; but unlike some programs with short workouts, they aren’t just cardio disguised as weights. The use of kettlebells will get your heart rate up, but you are lifting heavy in this program, so it’s not just metabolic conditioning in disguise. That said, she does have finishers at the end of each workout and there are also optional ‘sweat sessions’ you can do on your days off weight training. There are also mindfulness exercises. While I didn’t do the mindfulness exercises, I think this would be appealing to people who want something more out of a weight training program. I’m in it for the fitness (and the stress relief, but that’s automatic).
This is a program that will make you strong and functionally fit. It’s solid programming and not at all gimmicky. I actually wished for a bit more volume, so I would sometimes add some of the short (10 minute) Lift Weights Faster workouts to the end of the sessions. I love that this program includes yoga, and I did do her videos a few times*. I didn’t follow the nutrition plan because it’s basically just paleo. I was a little bit surprised by that, but I guess I shouldn’t be because it’s so trendy. I like to live life on the edge and eat things like brown rice and legumes, which paleo tells me are poison, so it isn’t exactly my jam. All in all, though, this is a solid program that can be used by beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters yet is also great for those that are pressed for time.
My main complaint about the program is that the PDF could be designed better. You’re scrolling endlessly and there aren’t clickable links to the relevant places in the guide or online. It’s so easy these days to create more sophisticated PDF products. I’d love to see her make the manuals easier to navigate (or offer a mobi version for Kindle, as it wouldn’t convert properly!).
7. Lift Weights Faster by Jen Sinkler
Lift Weights Faster is not just the excellent t-shirt and funny retort Jen Sinkler offers when people ask her what she does for cardio. It’s also a program available for download with a massive 130 workouts, extensive exercise library, user guide, and gear guide. Just as the title suggests, this is a style of exercise where you lift weights faster. Jen doesn’t care what you call it – I prefer metabolic resistance training – she just provides the reasons and the tools for you to do it. What’s great about this program is that the workout manual is so well organised. You can choose a workout based on the time you have available (from less than 10 to 30 minutes) and the equipment you have on hand (bodyweight, minimal equipment, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or a full gym).
Lift Weights Faster also now includes a ‘no assembly required’ workout manual and calendar that includes four 12-week programs for those who were overwhelmed by selecting their own. You also get membership to her site, where she demos various workouts and moves from the manuals, and her coaching is absolutely amazing. I honestly can’t say enough about how talented she is in explaining proper form to strangers on the internet. A skill that is much harder than most people think! Just have a browse of her site and you will see. On the membership site, you can also log your times and weights for some of the workouts, and they have a leaderboard. Great for those who are competitive.
I hesitated to review this because I haven’t done this program exclusively over a period of 12 weeks – or even for just a few weeks, for that matter. Rather, I’ve used it as an addition to other programs, and frequently use it while travelling since it has a lot of great workouts that only require bodyweight or minimal equipment. But that’s what prompted me to buy it. This was something I could use in addition to my regular routine, and if I wanted to focus more on it later, then I could.
8. P90X, P90X+, and P90X2 by Tony Horton
Yes, these are the classics that anyone who considers themselves a ‘serious’ lifter or coach loves to mock. True, muscle confusion is a nebulous, slightly stupid term, but the principle is legit and it works. I did P90X twice (not back to back), and I also did a short stint (maybe 4-6 weeks?) of P90X+. I actually really loved this program. It’s the reason I can do 10 unassisted pull up, which isn’t too shabby, and it’s the thing that really made me start to love lifting even more than running.
Like some of the other programs, I won’t review this in detail because others have done it better. There is much to be found
online, and again I’d recommend Charlotte’s review because she’s awesome and is a fitness enthusiast who has done many programs, much like myself. This is yet another 12 week program with body part splits, but what I remember the most from it is how strong my lats got. It’s got so many pull up variations that you will be amazed (and possibly confused). It has a lot of push-up variations, too, and I’ve seen many people imitate them since. In the first P90X, I hated the fact that you did the legs workout so often, especially since it kind of made Tony Horton’s whole ‘muscle confusion’ claim even more confusing. Tony Horton is entertaining – in a vain and sometimes tragic kind of way – but by my second time through the 90-day program, I had to watch it on mute. Hearing the same joke that many times is a threat to your sanity. But his humour and attempts to push you in the videos really do work, at least for a while. It’s a fun program, despite the fact that you’re working out about an hour a day, and it’s not easy. I don’t have much to say about P90X+, other than that it’s great value for money and fun.
As for P90X2…I hated it. I just couldn’t understand why he tried to make fitness so complicated, after focusing so much in P90X on variations of classic exercises like push-ups and pull ups. I guess you have to offer the people something new, but some of it seemed dangerous. I can’t even talk about the push-up on 4 med balls without getting angry. Again, I direct you to Charlotte’s review of P90X2, where one of her training companions actually quit. She even refers to that very push-up variation!
So I will defend P90X, and say it’s a solid program that can really ignite people’s passion for lifting weights. It can help people do their first unassisted pull up. It’s fun, and it draws on tried and true exercises. As for P90X2, I just don’t want to talk about it. I cringe even thinking about it.
9. Custom Programming by Tara at Sweat Like a Pig
All of these ‘out of the box’ programs are fine, but many people would argue that custom training is far superior. They are probably right, but not all of us have the money or mental energy for that! Tara’s programming is both effective and reasonably priced, especially considering that she will question you about all the important things (what you like/dislike, your level of experience, equipment you have access to, etc.). I won’t review this in detail because the plan is customised specifically to the client. I will say that I had Tara write two programs for me, and they were excellent. I still return to them now and again because their 6-week length sometimes is exactly the length I need in between major travelling events (which have been very frequent, as of late!).
10. Full-Body-Licious by Flavia Del Monte
I don’t like the names of a lot of these programs, but this one is among the worst. I cringed every time I had it open on the computer. However, not one to pass by a fit female trying to sell women on the virtues of weightlifting, I thought I’d give FBL a try anyway. The program comes as a digital download, including demonstration videos and a bunch of bonuses you can get, including nutrition info. I of course didn’t follow the nutritional plan (Sensing a theme here? What can I say? I know what I like and what I don’t). The program is circuit based and intense, and fairly high volume. It’s only five workouts, each of which you do once per week, and then she recommends doing steady state and HIIT cardio as well. With warmup and cooldown, you are talking about 60 minutes, 5 times per week, plus the cardio.
I loved this program at first, but I quickly felt over-trained. Although each of the five workouts has a different body part that is emphasised more than others, you are still working your entire body, five days per week, at a high level of intensity. I ended up retaining a lot of water, which is what happens when I workout too hard. I found the repetition too much after 6 weeks, and moved on to Strong Curves. To be honest, I didn’t love this program. It wasn’t right for me, and the quality of the downloads wasn’t great. The videos weren’t that helpful, and the style of training didn’t really work for me. Plus you end up getting endless emails from Flava, which you can of course unsubscribe from, but I find that a bit annoying when I compare it to the other programs I’ve joined. None of them send out so many emails.
11. Body Earned by James Wilson
Body Earned is an odd one because, at least when I bought it, you purchase it by emailing James Wilson and you get some word files. I think now it’s more formal if you go here. Like some of the other programs, you can also join a private group on Facebook. I heard about this one from a blog I used to read, and that’s how I think it made the rounds. It is based on James’ work with fitness professionals, and is not all that different from LiveFit or FBL, but again not right for me. It’s high volume and focuses on burning a lot of calories per session. Just like FBL, it made me just look a bit puffy and retain water. Results may vary, of course, but for me I’ve found it’s actually more effective to lift heavy weights for lower reps instead of trying to get a massive ‘pump’ like a body builder and moving quickly onto the next exercise. It’s not all about the calorie burn. Plus, the Facebook group made me sad, as it’s full of women who expressed a lot of anxiety around food and the classic body builder definition of ‘clean eating’.
12. 12-week body transformation by Michelle Bridges
Michelle Bridges is not just a trainer, but a brand in Australia. She is Australia’s Jillian Michaels. As a result, the 12-Week Body Transformation is professional, and it has a lot of resources behind it. That means you get not just a 12-week exercise program (from which you can choose a wide range of goals, both strength and cardio based), but also a detailed diet plan and a bunch of resources you can tap into. You can customise the plan to so many of your preferences, and you get support from specific staff members who are focused on your particular plan. There are a lot of pre-season tasks that you can complete to help you be more successful. I don’t think I’m necessarily the audience for this, however, as I think this is for people who want to be motivated to be healthy. I chose the program not focused on weight loss, but on building muscle. It was a bodybuilding split sort of program, so I went back to isolating my biceps and triceps for the first time in a while. I didn’t see much changes in my body. I think I’m just not the target audience for this one. It’s a program that would do wonderful things for people who want to get fit; but for those that already have a good base level of fitness, I don’t think it’s as helpful. That said, you get an enormous amount of resources for the amount of money that you pay, even if the price tag seems a bit steep. She has staff, and they engage with you. You don’t just pay money and then walk away; you join a community. A great program for beginniners and those that need ongoing motivation from others. It just wasn’t right for me.
13. Miscellaneous programs
I have also done various programs geared more towards women who want to ‘tone’, like the 30-Day Shred by Jillian Michaels and the Tone it Up by Karena and Katrina. I don’t have much to say about the former, but I do feel like the latter is overhyped. I feel like these workouts are geared toward a different audience, and not me. The Tone it Up workouts didn’t offer any strength gains, physique changes, or any of the mental and physical benefits I normally get from working out. These programs tend to use light or no weights and are thus probably great for beginners, but for me they just didn’t do much. I felt like an idiot doing them, too, as they are sold on the premise that you can look like the southern Californian beach babes who sell them. The trick to getting the results shown for the Tone It Up guide is in following the nutrition guides, which will have you on a low calorie diet and eating 5 tiny meals per day.
I am currently doing the Bikini Body Guides by Kayla Itsines, and I like these workouts because they are short and require minimal equipment, which is great when you are moving across the world. However, the program is more like cardio dressed as strength training and the programming isn’t balanced. The program doesn’t focus on your back at all but has a heavy focus on abs, which makes me think it’s just setting people up for injury. It also includes a lot of plyometrics, which isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not great for my hips, but the low volume of the program has meant I haven’t felt over-trained. People rave about her programs, but I think they aren’t that well designed and find the progress pictures on her Instagram shocking (so I won’t link to them). Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I hesitate to even say this is a strength training program or good for very fit people, even if it’s sort of billed as such. The Nutrition Plan offers a vegetarian option, but it has fish in it which…isn’t vegetarian. This program is very expensive for what you get, and again, it’s food restriction that will get you the results she showcases on her site.
Here’s a summary of the programs. Bear in mind that this is based on memory, as all my books and training logs are packed and about to be shipped. If you spot an error, I’ll be happy to change it. As for time commitments, green is about a half hour a few times per week. Yellow is 45 – 60 minutes a few times per week. Red is 60 to 90 minutes and/or 5 times per week strength training.
Given my intro about weights and ‘bulky’ women, I should probably share what I look like, after all these programs. I am not destined to have big muscles, nor am I destined to look as athletic as my brain sometimes wants. Ultimately, I just want to be fit and healthy, and I have achieved that. Weights, running, and yoga are also what keep me sane; I am convinced I would be a very anxious person if I stopped taking the time to exercise.
I always take before and after photos, but I am not keen to share half-naked pictures online. So I’ll just add a picture of me in my favourite running skirt: happy and healthy. If I flex, I look stronger than average, but if I chose to, I can just look normal like this. Given all the benefits of exercise, my hope is that women will stop being afraid of what getting strong will make them look like, and just get in the gym.
* As an aside, I love yoga and do it every day My favourite site for yoga classes by far is YogaDownload.com. Unlimited class downloads for a really low price, and the quality of classes are excellent. They range from 10 minutes to 2 hours, with most landing in the 30 to 60 minute range, which I like. I have done most of the classes on there, and have loved so many.