2 minutes of stretching, an hour on the stepmill (or similar piece of equipment), 10 minutes of “abs.” Bing-bang-boom.
Does this gym routine look familiar? It should, since it’s the fitness plan of about 90% of female gym-goers worldwide.
Don’t get me wrong. Daily movement is great, practically regardless of the particulars. And if the stepmill brings you great joy, then by all means, don’t let me block the stairs.
But if you want to make serious, lasting changes to your physique and function -- not to mention gain confidence, bone density, and a whole host of other residual benefits -- you have to lift weights. Heavy ones. And that can be scary.
Discovering the Iron Sanctuary
Walk down into the meat locker room of the gym (AKA the free weight room), and you’ll likely notice a few things. Sweat-stained benches, weights and chalk strewn across the floor, and big, hulking guys yelling primally at each other, “ALL YOU, BRO!”
Getting a Lay of the Land
I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for a woman to set foot in a crowded, male-dominated weight room for the first time. Power racks, Smith machines, pull-up bars, benches. Weights flying everywhere. Testosterone soaring.
Knowing a little bit about what goes on in each section of the gym is important. (If more men spent some time on this phase, there would be a lot less curling in the squat rack.) It’s not necessary to know everything about every piece of equipment, of course. At first, just the basics will do -- like how to set up for barbell and dumbbell squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows.
When selecting weights, always start off on the lighter side, but not so light that it doesn’t burn after 10 or 12 reps. Form comes first, weight second. With dumbbells, start with 10- or 15-pounders and work up from there. With the barbell, use just the bar at first (or the bar plus a couple of 10-pound bumper plates for deadlifts). Adding a little bit of weight each week builds a strong body. Throwing a bunch of weight on all at once breaks it.
Strengths & Weaknesses
To help get acclimated when starting out, women should play to their strengths, which are typically lower body lifts, and in particular, hip-dominant ones. Whereas men tend to struggle to keep a flat back when learning to hip hinge for deadlifts and swings, woman are often naturals. Making the movements that come naturally the foundation of training will build confidence that will carry over when it comes to working on weaknesses.
But what do you do for cardio?
As Jen Sinkler says, just “lift weights faster.” That is, use the weights themselves for cardio by moving quickly between exercises to keep the heart rate elevated. Perform “giant sets” of several exercises back-to-back. For example, perform 10 bodyweight squats, 10 inverted rows, 10 push-ups, and 10 reverse crunches in rapid succession. Then rest for a minute or two and repeat for the desired number of rounds.
Full Steam Ahead