Ah, the dreaded bathroom mirror self-portrait. It’s an awkward and somewhat unsightly cliche, but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable asking a co-worker to photograph my [admittedly rather nice] gun show. I’ve been training regularly, though, and poorly-lit pic aside I’m very pleased with my progress.
While I’ve had some ups and downs with self-esteem and positive body image, I’ve always been happy with my ability to add muscle fairly easily. One of the most popular fitness myths is that a lady should avoid lifting large weights, lest she “bulk up” and look like a man. Well, unless your goal is to add a ton of muscle mass, and you’re planning your workouts and meals accordingly, it’s not going to happen. Even female power lifters, while typically ripped and well-defined, don’t get to the point of looking masculine or bulky. Ultimately, hoisting a pastel 4 lb. weight isn’t going to have the same health benefits as hauling around some serious iron, so why let an old superstition get in the way of your fitness?
One of my favorite sources for weight-lifting facts is The New Rules of Lifting for Women. Strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler (together with fitness expert Alwyn Cosgrove and certified nutritionist/registered dietician Cassandra Forsythe) put together a program that combines strength training and conditioning moves, a sensible eating plan, and a good dose of myth-busting.
Did you ever go to a Pilates class hoping that enough Hundreds would grant you the promised “long, lean” dancer muscles? Well, the truth is that your muscles are a certain length and thickness based on your genetic makeup. Nothing less than a medieval torture device will make them longer. Now, you can develop the tone of your muscles, and make your entire body leaner by decreasing your body fat percentage. I’m not terribly tall, meaning my muscles aren’t all that long, comparatively. But my muscles are well-defined, and I’m proud of that. Going beyond looks, my muscles are strong. I can squat and deadlift a respectable percentage of my body weight, or explode up into a high box jump.
And that translates well to my martial arts practice: I may frequently be the lightest person in the room, but my instructors, training partners, and students don’t expect me to sit out a technique just because the other person outweighs me by 25 or 50 pounds. You’re not going to tell a mugger than they need to choose another target in their own weight class, are you? Plus the feeling of lifting and throwing a larger guy properly is a huge rush.
I want to encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone a little. There’s nothing wrong with a cardio program if you enjoy that type of activity and it works for you. But if you’ve been looking longingly at heavier free weights, and dream about loading up a bar, don’t let anything hold you back!
There’s something truly empowering about checking yourself out in the mirror, liking what you see, and loving how you feel. One of my other weight-lifting lady friends and I even greet each other by flexing. Yes, in public. If you’re ready to challenge your preconceived notions of what exercising has to be like, step away from candy-colored weights and high reps. I’m not an expert, and all my advice comes from personal experience. But I’d be willing to bet most women are lifting far less weight than they’re actually capable of using.
Start with a weight 5-10 pounds higher than your usual, and slowly go through a set of your favorite exercise. Pay close attention to your form! Try a few reps with heavier weights, gradually getting heavier, until you find a weight that you can move for about 12 reps, still using proper form. Start slowly– the only thing worse than undertraining is overtraining. You want to be able to go back to the weight room regularly, not sideline yourself with a pulled muscle or other injury.
If you’re really a novice, work with a trainer first. There’s really no substitute for working in person with an expert who can correct your form and help you come up with a fitness plan that’s best for you. But I’ll bet you my favorite medicine ball that channeling your inner She-Hulk is going to be much more satisfying than tricep kick-backs with 3 lb. Barbie weights.