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You've probably heard it before - if women lift heavy weights, they'll end up more Arnold Schwarzenegger than Michelle Obama.
Personal trainers and many lean, fit women are debunking that myth, demonstrating how it's impossible to get overly bulky without the assistance of steroids. They say a weightlifting program is beneficial for women of all ages and all fitness levels.
Yet many women still get the wrong ideas about weightlifting from fitness magazines, says Katie Brumley, fitness coordinator at Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center. "A lot of the fitness magazines show women lifting 1-kilo or 3-kilo dumbbells," Brumley says. "If you want to improve body composition and gain muscle, you have to make sure you are working in the appropriate repetition ranges and using appropriately heavy weight in order to elicit that kind of a response from your body.
"The so-called toning these magazines advocate is not going to give you what most women are looking for."
If you're thinking of adding weights to your fitness routine, here's how to avoid the traps ...
Start with a trainer: Brumley says a good personal trainer will take you through different protocols for strength, muscle growth, muscle endurance or power. Your goals determine the weight, reps and sets you would do. "If you've got a good trainer, they're going to take you through those different cycles," she says.
Dr. Riva Rahl, medical director of the Cooper Wellness Programme at Cooper Aerobics Center, recommends getting a trainer at least for a few sessions to learn some of the basic exercises and how proper form looks and feels and to develop an idea of the amount of weight you should be lifting.
Choose the right equipment: Baylor Tom Landry trainer Kim Williams tells her clients that if they're trying to gain strength, they need to decrease repetitions and lift heavier weight.
"If you come in here and lift 4-kilo dumbbells every day, you're not stressing your body, and if your body never has to stress itself, it will never build itself back up stronger," she says.
"You're trying to overload the muscle."
Choosing a weight depends on what the exercise is and the woman's strength. "If you can squat down holding your kid to pick something up, you can squat more than 5 pounds," Brumley says. "Most purses weigh more than 5 pounds."
Change weight depending on the exercise: "The mistake I've seen women make is they grab those tiny dumbbells and do every exercise with that weight," Brumley says. "You're not going to see any real changes doing that."
Williams says she'll watch for when the client starts to sacrifice form, and then she knows the weight is heavy enough or too heavy. "A lot of it is having the confidence in themselves," she says. "When they have a trainer, when you're there to spot them, I'm here holding it, making sure they feel comfortable. Then they're like, 'Whoa, I didn't think I could do that.'"
One exercise Williams uses with clients is the farmer's walk, in which you carry weights in each hand and walk a prescribed distance, such as 10 meters down and back.
Williams has seen this in action firsthand. Her parents are farmers, and her mother gets a workout from carrying feed in buckets. "How many times a day do we carry children, groceries, our briefcase? It's a good functional exercise that carries over into daily activities," Williams says.
Create a home routine: For women who work out at home or for when you can't find time to make it to the gym, it's still important not to rely on one weight for every exercise. Purchasing different weights for lower body and upper body can get expensive.
Brumley says bands of varying resistance are a sensible option, as well as TRX suspension equipment, which helps you do bodyweight exercises with a set of straps that anchor to a door.
Williams says that women who don't have a gym membership or a personal trainer could weigh down buckets to do a farmer's walk and do bodyweight exercises, such as rows, tricep dips and pushups. For pull-ups, try using the monkey bars at a playground.
Know how many repetitions to do: Brumley recommends working in the eight-to-12-repetition range for three to four sets to increase lean muscle tissue.
She says if the weight you're using is heavy enough, you shouldn't feel like you can do five more reps - you should feel like doing one more would be a challenge.
But take it easy: Rahl says that some women just beginning a program make the mistake of starting out too quickly without having proper form, putting themselves at risk of injury. She also says women tend to think they need to do a lot more than they do.
She says anyone can benefit from the levels recommended in the government's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans - eight to 10 muscle-strengthening activities and doing even just one set of eight to 12 repetitions, twice a week.
Know your goals: Amy Martin, 46, is a runner who started strength training about three years ago. She bought sessions with Williams for her husband, and he suggested she join him. "I have pretty extreme scoliosis, which makes me prone to back problems," she says. "I think the strength I've developed over the last couple years has helped."
She says she has seen results that have helped her with her running and have given her a more full-body workout. "As a woman, it helps keep the chicken arms away," Martin says. "It's kind of a no-brainer. With going to see a trainer regularly, I never worry about summer much or wearing sleeveless anything. That's aesthetic, but it also makes you feel good."
Integrate weights into your workout: Williams and Brumley stress the importance of a weightlifting workout, rather than using it as an add-on to a cardio workout. "I think that women focus too much on cardio," Brumley says.
"They'll get on the elliptical for an hour, then do a couple sets of bicep curls. I think that's a really big mistake. I think women don't understand how resistance training can improve the way that your body looks."
A SAMPLE WORKOUT
Here are typical components from trainer Kim Williams' strength workout for Amy Martin ...
Squat with a press: Three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions using about 6-kilo dumbbells
Sumo squat: Three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions using 20-kilo dumbbells
Body-weight row: Three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions
Pull-up with a resistance band: Three sets of eight repetitions
Chest press: Three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions using 10-kilo dumbbells
Farmer's walk: 10 metres down and back holding a 20-kilo plate in each hand
Sled pull: 10 metres down and back with a sled holding two 45-pound plates
- The Dallas Morning News