Women and Weights 101

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Want to be toned and fit in time for summer? Take up weight lifting this spring. Here’s how to get started.

Resistance training can seem intimidating—some gym newbies take one look at the gleaming rows of dumbbells and confusing weight machines and head straight for the treadmills or exercise bikes. Many women are afraid to lift weights because they believe it will bulk them up. Let me allay those fears: Except in very rare circumstances, women don’t build muscle in the same way as men. Resistance training will give the vast majority of women shoulders like Michelle Obama’s, not Vin Diesel’s.

Some people shy away from weights because they’re afraid they will hurt themselves. Certainly there are risks involved, but that’s true of most sports and fitness activities. The key to avoiding injury is to master the techniques of safe lifting—and, as always, it’s a good idea to check in with your health care provider before starting any new exercise regime, particularly if you have existing injuries or conditions.

Learning Proper Technique
There are several ways to learn how to lift weights safely and effectively. One, of course, is to hire a personal trainer. A good trainer will make sure you’re using the right form, provide guidance on how much and how often to lift, and prescribe various lifts to work different parts of the body. For tips on how to find the right personal trainer for you, read our Personal Trainer Primer.

lifting weights classA more affordable way to learn proper technique is to seek out a group exercise class like BodyPump or Group Power. These classes feature choreographed weight-lifting moves paired with upbeat pop songs; each song works a different set of body parts. Listening to the instructor’s verbal cues and watching her movements can be a great way to get some basic moves down.

Strength-training DVDs can be a reasonable option as well. There are many out there—you can narrow the field by trying out a few from your local library or reading reviews on a shopping site like Amazon. If you choose to use the Internet to learn weight-training exercises, one of the best sources is ExRx.net, which is well-researched and well-organized, and demonstrates each lift in a mini-movie.

Designing a Workout
Once you have the basics down, it’s time to design a workout for yourself. Total body strength-training includes, at minimum, working your chest, back (upper and middle), shoulders, legs, and core (the muscles of the stomach and lower back). You can think of the upper-body elements as “push” (chest and shoulders) and “pull” (back). Don’t neglect one for the other. If you have time, you can also work your biceps, triceps, and calves. Choose one or two exercises for each body part (two or three for legs and core).

Do the exercises two to three times per week. Muscles need rest to gain strength optimally, so plan on waiting 48 hours between workouts. Make sure to warm up first—10 to 15 minutes on a stationary bike or treadmill (or just taking a brisk walk) is ideal.

How Much Weight?
There are many theories about how much weight to use. Some people recommend very light weights and a lot of reps, others superheavy weights and just a few reps, but I find moderate weights with about 10–12 reps per set to be just right. The definition of light, moderate, and heavy will vary depending on your gender, age, and level of fitness—and also on the body part you’re exercising. You can lift a lot more with your legs than with your biceps. If you'll be doing your strength training in a gym, you can experiment with different weights and find which is right for you. You should aim to do three sets of 10 reps for each of your exercises, with about a minute of rest in between. At the end of the third set, you should feel like you can’t possibly squeeze out another rep.

Start out lighter than you think you should and work up to a weight that allows you to do 10 or 12 reps but challenges you for the final few. If you plan to lift weights at home, an initial investment for women might be a set of two 8-pound dumbbells; for men, 15-pounders. You will need to adjust the number of repetitions you do based on the exercise—you’ll be able to do a ton of chest presses with 8-pound dumbbells but a lot fewer bicep curls.

After lifting weights it’s a good idea to stretch out the muscles you just knotted up. And studies show that eating a bit of protein—such as plain Greek yogurt, a chicken breast, or a handful of almonds—within 30 minutes of working out will help your muscles repair themselves and grow stronger.

With a little bit of sweat and perseverance, classic weight training can help you achieve the toned body of your dreams—and can also be an amazingly effective way to build the self-confidence that comes with being strong enough to meet the challenges of everyday life.

Miriam Wolf is an ACSM-certified personal trainer, a health coach, and the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter. Her favorite lifts are the bench press and the deadlift.

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