Women and Strength Training Part 1: The Squat

Learning how to strength train has been one of the most inspiring practices I have ever applied to my life.

My fitness journey started (I’m sure) like many women; inspired by those who graced fitness magazine covers and thought that more cardio and light weights meant carving out a shredded physique. I didn’t want to get big and bulky, because at one point, I too thought that was what happened when you lifted big weights. It took me a few years to actually learn just how wrong that was, and once I learned the movement of the barbell, my relationship with fitness and the gym really changed for the better. I am a powerlifter, but my fitness mindset and focus is based on building a well-rounded and functional physique. It’s more than just what I look like. I want to be able to move well, have a strong body that can push big weights, but also be explosive with heavy Kettlebell swings and be able to run with endurance. Although I did have a lot of trial and error in my past fitness journey, it’s all lead me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change anything.

I believe that women should strength train for many reasons. First and foremost, it’s empowering! How many women would love to say that they can bench press their own body weight? It will improve and change your body composition, burning away body fat and building lean mass. You can actually use it in real life situations, like being able to carry all the grocery bags in on one trip! It’s very good for your health, because it can improve bone density, which is a common issue for post-menopausal women.

Powerlifting consists of the three most optimal lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. There are many variations of each movement and that is going to depend on the person and their body mechanics. These three lifts are the foundation of my being. They have built lean yet dense muscle, a strong and humbling mind, and have allowed me to connect with like-minded athletes (hello strong ladies!) who share similar goals.

The first of the three movements is the barbell squat, which is a compound, full body exercise. The squat is my favourite exercise for building my legs. There are many variations of the squat and there’s no one right way to perform it. The bar placement on the back, grip on the bar, foot stance, shoe heel height and other optional equipment, will vary between lifters. The squat recruits the quadriceps femoris (all four parts of it, hence ‘quad’) and glutes as the primary muscles, and hamstrings as secondary muscles. It also strengthens bones and ligaments, making it more than just a muscle-building exercise.

Some of my favourite leg-building squat variations include:

Dumbbell (or kettlebell) goblet squat
Bulgarian split squat (or back foot elevated; BFESS)
Barbell or dumbbell front squat
1.5 (one and a half) squat
Front foot elevated leaning split squat

And other quad and glute building exercises such as:

Barbell hip thrusts
Dumbbell frog pumps
Back extension
Lunge varations (Barbell/dumbbell, static/walking, forward/reverse, elevated/deficit)
Leg extension

Here’s a great quad and glute focused workout routine to try:

A. Barbell squat, 4 sets of 10 (rest 2:00 between sets)

B. Dumbbell front squat, 3 sets of 12 (rest 2:00)

C1. BFESS, 3 sets of 10 each side (superset with…)
C2. Dumbbell frog pump, 3 sets of 20 (rest 2:00)

D1. Leg extension, 3 sets of 15 (superset with…)
D2. Back extension, 3 sets of 10-15 (rest 2:00)

E. Walking dumbbell lunge, 3 sets of 12 each side (rest 2:00)


Whether you’re an experienced lifter or just starting out at the gym, remember to train smart. Work with weight or variations that you feel you can control and perform safely, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Building muscle takes a long time, especially for women, so remember that in order to see results, you need to stick to a long-term plan that is specific to your needs and goals.

If you’re interested in learning more about me and what I do, please visit my website. I am a certified nutrition coach who teaches clients how to eat the foods they love without restriction while reaching their body goals. I also provide custom strength training programs for clients who are looking for serious results, no matter the level of experience.

About Courtney Ustrzycki

Growing up I participated in a fair amount of extracurricular activities. When I was really young I took gymnastics, dance, baseball and figure skating. School sports didn’t happen until high school, where I played football, rugby and badminton. In college I played a little bit of rugby, touch football and badminton. Although I seemed to be relatively active throughout my younger years, it wasn’t until my third year of college (after I had put on that Freshman 15, erm, 20…) when I actually got a gym membership, wanting to make a change.