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Thinking about adding some strength training to your exercise routine, but aren't sure how to get started?
Building up muscle strength is really good for you. (More on that in a moment) And if you're female, we promise you're not going to end up looking freakishly masculine and massively proportioned. First off, you need a bunch of testosterone for that. And secondly, hardcore muscle-building is kick-ass hard work! It involves effort, frustration, exhaustion, and pain, and it's pretty much impossible to accidentally do too much.
Wait, where are you all going???
Sorry. Strength training really doesn't have to be all that unpleasant. That's mostly a problem for whiny slackers like yours truly, who would love to look pretty darn muscular, but would like it to happen via Fairy Dust, not actual work. Even for slackers, working with weights is pretty rewarding. Not just in terms of appearance and health benefits, but in actually being able to lift heavy stuff without ending up in the hospital.
So, for some tips to get started, who is better suited to offer advice than Crabby McSlacker?
Almost anyone, that's who!
That's why I asked some much better informed folks, like MizFit and Kelly of Fitness Fixation and Rupal of 101 Exercises and Personal Trainer Terri Walsh to help me out with links from their sites and helpful tips. Plus... we got The Google in on it too.
And if you already strength train, hang in there, because I'm really hoping you'll read this post, realize you know a LOT more about the subject than I do, and chime in with your tips and personal experiences for newbies to benefit from.
Why it's So Important to Learn The Physiological Processes Behind Muscle Building
In order to start strength training, it crucial that you first understand the process by which muscle is built and concepts such as progressive overload, zzzzzzz the distinctions between isotonic, isometric zzzzzzzzz and plyometric zzzzzz zzzzzz zzzzzzzzz zzzzzzz.
Okay, maybe we don't really give a crap about that after all.
Why Is Strength Training Good for You?
There's a handy list at WebMD. But there's also a nice summary over at 101 Exercises of what strength training can do:
- increase metabolic rate which in turn allows your body to burn calories more efficiently, even at rest
- cut down on cardiovascular stress by reduction of resting blood pressure and heart rate
- increase bone density, thus reducing risk of osteoporosis
- improve strength, power and muscular endurance
- and even help firm up ‘bingo arms’ ‘moobs’ and ‘muffin tops’!
"Each pound of added muscle burns approximately 35 to 50 more calories daily. That can add up! And if you're a competitive sort, strengthening can enhance athletic performance. Swing the golf club harder, climb hills faster in a race, jump higher and cycle faster! It can also help prevent injuries: stronger, more balanced musculature equals greater stability at joints, more effective and efficient biomechanical relationships and enhanced movement performance."
Choosing Equipment and Setting
You can do your strength training in a gym. You can do it at home. You can do it on a train; you can do it in the rain; you can do it with a fox; you can do it in a box... oops, wait, maybe not! (Too much Dr. Seuss as a child, sorry).
As to equipment, you can use weight machines (they have combo home versions too); or use barbells, dumbells, a weight bench. Don't like heavy objects? You can also use resistance bands or tubes; fancy suspension systems; you can use use your own body weight for many exercises too. You can use even use live human children, but don't tell anyone we said that.
How to decide which way to go?
It's all very personal, and of course has quite a bit to do with convenience, space, goals, and costs. There's no right or wrong answer. I would advise against making huge financial commitments, either with long-term gym memberships or fancy-pants equipment, until you've tried a few different methods.
One tip: there are many reasons you might want to avoid gyms, like you don't want to leave the house to exercise, or you hate to wait for equipment, or the smell of a gym reminds you of high school and causes you to burst into tears at unpredictable intervals. All very reasonable. But don't let self-consciousness keep you out of a perfectly good gym.
You have every right to be in that gym, beginner or not. If you get some basic instructions before you start off, and don't do anything too obnoxious, no one will even notice you. The regulars are all too busy flexing, grunting, cursing, and staring at their own reflections in the mirror to care that you're lifting bright pink 2 lb dumbbells or grand pianos. You can join for a brief period; try out all kinds of things; get some instructions; and then use that info to put together your own home set-up.
Virtually everyone I asked and every place I googled emphasized the same two important points:
1. Learn about proper form before you start.
2. Start off easy and build the habit before you try to lift heavy. Eventually, you will want to lift heavier and heavier weights--and in fact, I remember a study saying that most people, and women in particular, settle in at weights that aren't nearly heavy enough to challenge them.
But worry about that later. When you're just starting out, your job is to learn proper form and get in the habit of regular strength training. Save injury-inducing bonehead feats of stupidity for later on! By then, you'll have enough invested in your progress that mere sprained, torn, broken, or otherwise abused body parts won't keep you from quitting completely.
If you have googled around a bit looking for general guidance on getting started, you may have discovered that the advice you get is frustratingly general (like mine). Or, it is way too overwhelming--you get hundreds of possible exercises and contradictory instructions depending on who is offering the advice.
Thus I'd recommend picking one fairly reliable source, learning the basics, and then progressively getting more and more information customized to your particular goals and needs. Note: MizFit is one of our favorite reliable sources, and much of the rest of this post is swiped from her blog with her very generous permission.
Here are some of the options for designing your program and starting out:
Human: This is one of the best methods, because an actual live person can listen to your goals, note your limitations, and see what you're doing wrong and corrrect your form. How to find a helpful human? Many gyms offer a free orientation to their equipment when you join; and it's no secret you can pay a personal trainer. Mizfit has some great tips about how to choose a good personal trainer, and so does Kelly from Fitness Fixation.
Virtual Human: There are online sources offering more personalized plans than a book. Of course they can't hover over you like an in-person trainer and tell you your knees are in the wrong place or your butt's sticking out too far. One I happen to know of is Terri Walsh, a celebrity personal trainer in NYC. Have I trained with her? Heck no, do I look like a celebrity? But she did send me a nifty ebook full of useful exercises, and she also does an online training service for (just) under $20 a month. (She's also one of the 2009 trainers in People Magazine's "Half Their Size" project). But there are plenty others out there I haven't been introduced to, and maybe readers could share their experiences, good or bad.
Books, DVD's, etc:
Mizfit helps us out again on books: She likes Arnold Schwarzenegger's book because, "while I don't wish to look like he does, the explanations and photos are immensely helpful." She also finds that Weight Training For Dummies "gives clear, concise, bottom-line suggestions for how to devise and stick to a weight training plan."
This is another area where we could use some help. The last book I consulted one by Diana Nyad, which was very comprehensive and helpful at the time, but came out
UPDATE: look for more suggestions in the comments! But one that came up over and over was: The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess. Lots of folks have found this book helpful.
How Much and How Often? What Exercises Should I Do?
This is where it starts to get overwhelming. I'll just include the advice of a few folks, but again, you may want seek Professional Help to craft a routine that's right for you.
MizFit again is a super resource.
While she is, like Crabby, a believer in starting off with guidance from a live human, she offered up a sample beginner full body routine in one of her posts.
"Start off twice a week (remember, we are setting ourselves up for success!) doing only two sets per exercise at a weight where you can complete 12-15 repetitions the first set without struggle and 10-12 repetitions the last set and feel *challenged* but not in pain.
What should you include in this routine?
1 exercise for chest.
1 exercise for back.
1 exercise for biceps.
1 exercise for triceps.
1 exercise for shoulders.
2-4 for your legs (depending on time available and your current fitness level.)
As you become more fit you can increase your workout to three times a week (never on back-to-back days) and, as your fitness level increases still, you may wish to break down your routine into an upper body workout one day and lower body/shoulders on another.
And you know what's really cool? MizFit has videos to show you how to do these exercises, with emphasis on proper form.
Legs Video 1
Legs Video 2
Legs Video 3
Legs Video 4
Arms Video 1
Arms Video 2
Arms Video 3
Arms Video 4
Arms Video 5
Terri Walsh, when she's not busy shrinking people to half their size, recommends working towards these essential exercises:
However, as we've mentioned, tough exercises like pushups and pullups may require modification, especially for beginners. Terri says that as a trainer, she always starts people off slow and then adds workouts as they get more comfortable. She suggests "Start off with two workouts per week. If you make all those workouts happen in a month, then add ONE more to the week the next month. And so on. The goal is not to torture yourself, but to allow your mind, body and life to catch up to, and get used to your new thinking. Too many changes all at once is harder on the psyche than most people will admit, and that imo, causes 'relapses'."
Here's another list of "top ten exercises"; Stumptuous has lots more information on free weights for women, and of course Rupal has tons of exercises over at her place.
Warnings and Hazards
Kelly at Fitness Fixation has some very specific warnings about common exercises that people do wrong. Sample tip (among many) for the squat: "Your chest should remain upright and your back curved. I mean curved so that you are sticking out your chest and ass, like, yes, a supermodel in a waterfall."
So, do any of you have any advice for those just starting off? Any inspirational tales or horror stories?
(And if you've got a great post on this that you've written or seen somewhere, feel free to leave a link in your comment below for new folks to check out! Unless you're selling something slimy, in which case, please go somewhere else to leave your spam.)