My Vegetarian Strength Training Routine for Women

I haven’t done a Monthly Challenge for a while, and that’s because I’ve been focusing on a new fitness routine. For the past 8 weeks, I’ve taken on the new challenge of cross training.

I’ve really enjoyed mixing up my routine from just running alone. I love the endorphins of running. I love the practicality of running to actually get somewhere. But I was also getting burnt-out on doing the same thing, running the same routes.

I had hit a kind of plateau – either physically, mentally, or both.

Leading up to this, my only experience with weights was machines at the gym. And this was years ago, before I had kids. I had no actual training about how to safely go about gaining muscle, especially at home. The idea was intimidating. But a new challenge sounded like fun.

I decided to give myself 6-8 weeks of being disciplined with strength training, and then decide if I wanted to stick with it.


There are several books that were helpful. Here are my two favorites:

The New Rules of Lifting for Women

Strength Training for Women

One major thing that neither of these books address is the vegetarian aspect. For that, I had to take what I already know about forming complete proteins from grains, legumes, and dairy.

(I also read No Meat Athlete, although it is mostly focused on vegans running. Not vegetarians strength training.)

One more thing worth noting is body type. Not everyone builds muscle easily. It certainly doesn’t come easily for me. I’ll never be “bulky” no matter how hard I train. I’m built more for running, but that doesn’t mean I can’t train myself to lift also.

Here is a brief rundown of what I learned, as well as some sample routines and recipes I’ve been using at the end. These rules are adapted from The New Rules of Weight Lifting for Women.

I’m proud of my growing “veggie muscles!” Getting stronger is a good feeling!

You Won’t Get “Too Bulky”

Apparently most women don’t lift because they are afraid of looking too much like a man. Let me just assure you, this isn’t going to happen. Muscle doesn’t come easily for anyone – and especially not for most women. “Bulky” men and women who compete in fitness competitions look like that on purpose. It’s no accident – they worked very hard to look like that. Lifting weights at home or in the gym will sculpt and tone you. It won’t make you look like a man or change your overall physiology. You will still look like you…just stronger!

(Here’s my thoughts on working out just to look a certain way, in case you’re interested.)

You Need More Fuel Than You Think

Another thing I learned is that most women aren’t eating enough. Maybe this surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t. While most women want to lose weight, eating less actually slows your metabolism down. We need to adjust our goals. Our goal shouldn’t be to make the number on the scale go down. Our goal should be to lose fat and gain muscle. Increasing muscle will increase your strength and your metabolism. I noticed an increase in my metabolism the second week of strength training. It surprised me because I’m already a runner! But as our bodies get more efficient at running, they also learn how to go farther on less and less fuel. This is cool, but it’s not the greatest for keeping up a fast metabolism unless you cross train or otherwise mix up your routine.

Women should pre-hydrate and pre-fuel about 30 minutes before a workout, and then follow up with 20-30 grams protein (as well as carbs and fat) immediately following the workout. I don’t count calories, but I try to listen to my body. I eat when I’m hungry and I stop when I’m full.

My aim used to be 3 meals a day and no snacking if I could help it. This isn’t an optimal way to eat though. Most athletes aim for 5-6 small meals a day – at least one of them being a protein smoothie. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?! We aren’t meant to starve ourselves to be healthy. In fact, not giving our bodies enough fuel can cause them to hang onto fat because they think we’re living in a famine. It also depletes us of necessary nutrients. Let’s make eating fashionable again! And not just vegetables. But protein! Good carbs! And yes, even fat! We need all these things in order to gain strength.

You Can Lift Heavier Weights Than You Think

When many women think of weights they think of graceful, high-repetition movements with very light weights. (Like Pure Barre.) That’s great and all. I’m a fan of doing whatever workout makes you feel good and gets you moving! But women aren’t limited to these light, high-rep workouts! We can do more than we have previously been told we can. We can bench, we can deadlift, and we can build upper body strength.

That said, it is important not to overdo it. If you have barbels, start with just the bar and gradually increase the weight over time. A good rule of thumb: do high weight, low rep sets (8-10 reps). Ideally you are lifting the weight you can manage 8-10 reps with good form. Any more than that, add weight. Any less than that, remove weight.

Look up videos on Youtube that demonstrate good form. Get a mirror and watch your form. Make sure your core is engaged while lifting or you could hurt your back. But don’t think for one second that you have to stick with five pound weights because those are the only ones that come in pink. Again, lift whatever weight you can manage 8-10 good, solid reps with…and the 10th should be a challenge. 

You Don’t Need a Gym Membership

An added bonus of my challenge was I didn’t want to spend any money. I know, I know. I’m a frugal weirdo. And you really can’t put a price on health. So if you want to join a gym, join a gym. Do what you have to do in order to get moving.

But I’ve read that good dumbbells are actually better than barbells or weight machines because they require even more side-to-side control and stability. This was good news because I already had dumbbells.

In addition to the 40 pound set I already owned, a friend let me borrow a set of Bowflex adjustable dumbbells that go up to 100 pounds. These will keep me busy for a while, without ever needing to set foot in a gym. I also have a bench that’s just a normal bench that I use for dips, bench press, flies, etc. If you’re like me, and prefer to workout at home, ask around and see if anyone has dumbbells or barbells sitting in their basement. It’s the kind of thing a lot of people might have, but few people actually use regularly. You could even consider pooling your resources and sharing a basement gym with someone who lives nearby – that way you both have more options.

It Takes Less Time Than You Think

You don’t have to be total gym rat to start a strength training routine. In fact, rest days are even more important with strength training than they are with running routines.

Ideally, you only want to strength train 3 days a week. 30-60 minutes a day. 

That’s it! More isn’t more. Less is more. Because you’re breaking down your muscle fibers in a good workout, recovery days between workouts are super important. During that time, you can do cardio and eat healthy carbs and protein to fuel the rebuilding process. I noticed a difference in how much I could lift right away, and noticed a difference in how I looked after the first 2 weeks or so. (Results won’t always be drastic. But you’ll notice the biggest change pretty soon after starting if you’re new to this.)

Veggie Muscle Building Blocks

There are several different ways to get your protein before and after working out:

Quinoa, soy, and eggs are all examples of complete proteins – meaning they contain all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle.

Legumes, dairy, and grains are examples of proteins that can be combined to make a complete protein. Any two of these three will make a complete protein:

Beans + rice = legume and grain

Oatmeal + milk = grain and dairy

Cheese + whole wheat tortilla = dairy and grain

Peanut butter + whole wheat bread = legume and grain

If you use a protein powder after workouts (which I started doing) look for one that doesn’t have any flavor or sweeteners added. I add fruit to the smoothie to make them taste good. The powder itself is pretty tasteless. I just want the protein, not the additives.

I also gave up alcohol for the first 6 weeks of this routine. I have dehydration issues that I’m working on, and I need to pay attention to my electrolyte balance. Alcohol doesn’t help. A note about electrolytes: plain water isn’t hydrating if you don’t have enough salt and minerals in your diet. I notice when I train hard that I have numbness in my hands and feet due to lack of salt. I’ve been using these drops in my water to help stay hydrated and they have helped a ton! Taking an extra rest day here and there also helps.

My Favorite Recipes for Workouts

Egg Coconut Custard

5 eggs

3 Tbsp honey

1 C coconut milk

1/2 tsp vanilla

Dash of sea salt

Dash of cinnamon

  1. Preheat oven to 350 and butter an 8×8 pan
  2. Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl.
  3. Pour into pan and bake 35-40 minutes until cooked through.

Protein Power Bars – Adapted from No Meat Athlete 

1 can white beans, drained (or two cups beans you’ve cooked yourself)

1/2 C peanut butter (or any kind of nut butter)

1/4 C honey

1 mashed banana

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp sea salt

1 1/2 C oats

1 C white whole wheat flour

1/2 C nuts / sunflower seeds

1/2 C unsweetened coconut flakes

1/3 C plain (unflavored, unsweetened) protein powder

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13 x 9 inch pan
  2. Combine all ingredients in food processor (or mash beans with a fork and combine in a bowl)
  3. Spread mixture into pan.
  4. Bake 15-18 minutes. Let cool and cut into bars. (I make these in huge batches and freeze them.)

Pre-Workout Baked Oats

2 C oats

1/3 C peanut butter

2 smashed bananas

3 Tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 Tbsp milk or milk alternative

1/4 C dark chocolate chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Blend ingredients with a spoon in a large bowl.
  3. Spoon into greased muffin tin and bake 15 minutes. Makes 12-24 oatmeal cakes depending on how full you fill the tins.

Post-Workout Smoothie

1 banana

1/3 C plain (unflavored, unsweetened) protein powder

1/2 C frozen spinach

1/2 C frozen kale

1/2 C frozen fruit of your choice

1/4 C greek whole milk yogurt (for probiotics)

1 C milk or milk alternative

Dash of sea salt (for electrolytes)

  1. Blend all ingredients together in blender
  2. Add water if needed to achieve smoothness

A Sample Weekly Routine

Adapted from The Body Sculpting Bible for Women. I love that all you need are dumbbells and maybe a bench to do this routine!

Monday – Weights, focus on upper body
3 sets of 8-10 reps each:
One-arm rows, pushups, dumbbell shoulder press, dumbbell squats, deadlifts, triceps dips, dumbbell curls, dumbbell step-ups.

Tuesday – Cardio – walk, run or bike ride

Wednesday – Weights, focus on legs
3 sets of 8-10 reps each:
Dumbbell squats, dumbbell lunges, ballet squats, deadlifts, dumbbell step-ups, dumbbell upright rows, dumbbell calf raises, triceps dips.

Thursday – Cardio, ab day
(I use Insanity for this. Not promoting them, it’s just what I use. And man, I can feel it!)

Friday – Weights, focus on upper body
3 sets of 8-10 reps each:
Two-arm bent-over dumbbell rows, dumbbell flys, bent-over lateral raises, dumbbell step-ups, hammer curls, lying triceps extentions, wide-stance dumbbell squats, dumbell lunges.

Saturday – Cardio – walk, run or bike ride

Sunday – Rest day

Obviously, if this is too much, do less. This isn’t a rigid routine to follow, simply ideas if you’re new to this like I am. Listen to your body, most importantly. If you feel really great, add in some pull-ups or planks. If you feel depleted, add in a rest day or two. I just needed a place to get started, and this routine was my starting point.

I’m no professional athlete, but I’d be happy to try to answer any questions and cheer you on! Let me know how it goes!


Add yours →

  1. How in the world do you find time to read all these books, exercise, blog, and make homemade healthy food as a mom? I’m seriously baffled. You go girl!

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