Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where My Girls At?: Getting Comfortable in the Weight Room

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!”

Believe it or not, after a while, out of this chaos can come great calm. The gym becomes a sort of iron sanctuary. Dozens of committed lifters striving for their own unique goals, all united in pain. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Thus, one of the greatest gifts you can give a person, especially a woman, is the confidence to mix it up on their own in the free weight section of the gym.

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.

As such, it’s great for newbies to embark on their journey with an experienced and trusted friend by their side. Pick a time like early morning or late evening to avoid the big crowds. If you don't have any friends, well, perhaps try making some at the gym!

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.

The power rack may look especially tricky, but there's really nothing to it. The key is to learn how to manipulate the hooks and supports to match height and squat depth. The hooks should be adjusted so that a slight knee bend gets the bar into position on the upper traps or in the front rack and standing up gets it out of the hooks. Going up onto tiptoes to get back the bar off and on is a big no-no.

How Heavy?

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.

If unsure, just ask the closest guy or gal for a spot when lifting. Unless they’re wearing headphones, that is, in which case they probably don’t want to talk. As a general rule, the bigger the headphones, the less they want to talk.

Also realize that no one actually cares how much anyone else lifts. And not that anyone else’s opinion even matters, but men are generally impressed and googly-eyed just to see a woman lifting. As such, be prepared for a few stares. Especially if wearing yoga pants.

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.

For women who are self-conscious about developing “thunder thighs,” it’s perfectly okay to emphasize posterior-chain (i.e. booty-building) exercises like deadlifts and swings over knee-dominant ones like squats and lunges. In fact, physical therapist extraordinaire Gray Cook goes so far as to advocate up to a 4-to-1 deadlift-to-squat ratio for the general quad-dominant population (Strength Coach Podcast, Episode 43, Ask Gray Cook, beginning 58:22).

In terms of weaknesses, female lifters often have to work a little harder on their upper bodies and core. Push-ups are a great place to start, since they hit both. Working to move the body as one rigid lever from head to toe will have tremendous transfer to other lifts in the gym and even daily life. Start out by doing push-ups on an incline, and lower the incline each week.

Balance the push-ups with a boatload of upper body “pulling” movements, with the end goal being an unassisted bodyweight pull-up. Quite frankly, there’s nothing more badass than a woman busting out a pull-up or two, so get to work on dumbbell rows, inverted rows, band-assisted pull-ups, and pull-up negatives (jump up to the top of the bar and lower down slowly and under control). Practice negatives first thing every other session.

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

The first few trips to the meat locker room will be unavoidably intimidating -- not to mention a bit stinky. But after a while, you get used to the smell, as well as the ebb and flow of the muscle mayhem. Plus, once your own sweat is incorporated into the fabric of the benches, the place pretty much feels like home.

Once you have a set routine of a dozen or so exercises down pat (two complete workouts), ditch your friend, and try going it alone. The feeling of empowerment from squatting on your own for the first time, in your iron sanctuary, is tough to beat -- just like you, now that you lift weights.

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