Ladies Guide to the Weight Room Pt. 3: Starting out

So you’ve decided you want to lift weights, and you’ve told your inner frenemy to STFU, and you are ready to start weight training.

But as you stare at all of the equipment, with their metal racks and their pulleys and their strange contraptions, you feel a little overwhelmed.  What exactly are you supposed to do?  How do you hook up this doo-hickey to that thingamabob?  Do I pull this handle over my head or to the right or what?  Can I do this without looking stupid?

Then before you know it, that underminey little voice is acting up again, and running back to the safety of the cardio machines is looking more and more appealing.

Don’t listen to the Mean Girl in your head!  She doesn’t know what she’s talking about!  Yes, weight training can be filled with complicated moves and positions and gear, but don’t concern yourself with these things at first.  As with all things, you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk.  Focus on your current abilities, and then as you become more and more confident, you’ll find yourself ready to take on different and more challenging moves.

But for now, let’s focus on getting you crawling.

1.  Don’t fear the free weights.

The allure of the Nautilus machines is based in the way they show you exactly what to do and how to move.  At least, this was the case for me when I first started lifting weights.  I was afraid to mess up with free weights, too concerned I’d do something wrong and irreparably damage myself, or even worse, my dignity.  So I stayed far away from the free weights and spent all of my time on the Nautilus machines.

Don’t be like me.  Make friends with the free weights, and do so early and often.

The machines definitely serve a purpose, but you will get so much more out of your workout if you spend the majority of your time with the weights.  The reason for this is two-fold:

  1. With Nautilus machines, your body is forced to move along a predetermined range of motion, which may or may not be what your body would do if left to its own devices.
  2. Machines only work the major muscle, while free weights work the major muscles while recruiting the smaller muscles that serve as stabilizers.

As a result, you spend about the same amount of time working out, but you get a lot more out of it than you would otherwise.

This isn’t to say that the machines are worthless.  On the contrary, they are great if you have an injury or a weak spot (like, the leg press is a great substitute for those who cannot do squats).  I’ve also found them useful when doing a program that has me working a specific muscle group with free weights, then working that group with a cable move, then finishing up with a machine move.  I get the benefits of working my stabilizers while also working the major muscle to exhaustion.

2.  Basics are a girl’s best friend.

When I say “basics” I’m not talking jeans or cute worn-out Converse. I’m talking push-ups. I’m talking squats. I’m talking deadlifts.  I’m talking pull-ups (which I still cannot do and probably could not do even if my life depended on it, so let’s hope it never comes to that).

These are the workouts that are going to kick your ass around the block and back again.  You could spend an hour on the adduction/abduction machine and another hour doing donkey kicks, and you will not give your legs half the workout they’d get from one session in the squat rack.

These moves get their general awesomeness from the fact that they are multi-joint moves, which is pretty much what it sounds like – a move that uses more than one joint at a time.  So squats and deadlifts use your knees and your hips, while push-ups use your shoulders and your elbows.  Squats are extra awesome because there is almost no body part that is left untouched by those bad girls.

Take the push-up, which I have been working hard to mistress. (Terminology shamelessly stolen from Krista at Stumptuous.)  Once a week, I do a routine of full push-ups, followed by push-ups on the Smith machine bar and topped off with some bench-pressing.   Those three moves leave my chest, back, shoulders and upper arms aching (in a good way, of course).  The push-ups also bring my core into play, much the same way as a plank does.  Thirty push-ups gives me the kind of work-out that I used to get from four different machines.  Plus, it makes me feel like a total badass to drop to the ground and pound out push-up after push-up until my muscles are exhausted and I can no longer lift myself up.

I learned to do these moves by reading the following instructional guides from Mistress Krista.  They are awesome and thorough and come complete with videos, so you can know exactly what you should be doing:

3.  Form, not weight, is what counts.

Yesterday I watched in horror as some tattooed lunkhead sat down on the lat pulldown machine, loaded it up with 160 pounds worth of plates, then proceeded to do the worst set of pulldowns I have ever seen in my entire life.  He leaned way back, jerked his arms down hard, then let the weights pull his arms back up before repeating the whole ugly mess over and over again.  I’m sure this guy thought he was a superstar, but for reals, dude is on the fast-track to Pulled Muscle Central, pop. him.

Don’t be like him.  What matters is not how much you can lift, but how much you can lift while using proper form.  ‘Tis a far, far better thing to do a proper squat with no weight at all, then to do a half-ass squat with a loaded-up bar that rips your lower back to pieces the first time you go down.  You are much better off using lighter weights while you perfect your form.  Then once you’ve got the mechanics down, you can start increasing the amount of weight you lift.

Something I’ve found that works for me is to know exactly what muscles should be hit by a specific exercise.  Then, when I perform that move, I focus on that muscle.  I don’t know enough about physiology to say why thinking about a certain muscle group makes that muscle work harder, but I’ve found that in my case, it absolutely does.

Remember:  it’s not how much you lift, but how you lift.

4. Rest is as important as work.

I know that we live in a society that says we are not being good citizens unless we are productive and always doing something, but you know as well as I do that this is horseshit.  We need rest and relaxation and play just as much as we need to work hard.  Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about sitting on the couch watching TV or reading a book or goofing off!  Remember “The Shining”?  “All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy”?  And then Jack snaps and tries to murder his whole family?  I’m not saying you’ll snap and try to murder your whole family, but you’ll burn out and be miserable and sad, and no one wants that.

Rest is equally important when it comes to working your body.  When you lift weights, you are inflicting little microtears all over your muscles.  This sounds totally freaky and scary, but this is actually what should be happening.  The way your muscles get stronger is by healing those little microtears together to build stronger, bigger muscles.  (It’s similar to the way scar tissue is often tougher and thicker than the original unwounded tissue.)  But if you never give your body a chance to heal, you’ll never recover or get stronger.

Most lifting routines will encourage you to train one body part no more than twice a week.  (The routines will split body parts up as follows: legs, chest, back, arms, shoulders.)  This gives your body plenty of time to recover.  I personally train each body part once a week, and I make sure to do my legs the day before I take a full rest day.  I’ve trained legs, then done a spin class the following day and then a long run the day after that, and then guess what?  On the fourth day, I can barely walk down stairs.  NOT GOOD, CAITLIN.

5.  What you eat is as important as what you do.

Your body can only use what it’s got when it comes to that rebuilding process.  If you want your muscles to knit themselves together into something awesome and tough, you’ll need to give them the material to do so.  You don’t need to invest a ton of money in shakes and protein powders and supplements.   I have found that making sure to eat something that is high in protein within 30 minutes after working out has not only helped with my muscle growth, but it’s also helped me to recover from those workouts and to not be so tired.  (This is particularly important as I do my weight training in the middle of my workday.)

I’ve tried protein bars and cans of tuna, but so far I like using prepackaged protein shakes the best, like Myoplex or Muscle Milk.  You can also drink chocolate milk, which I highly recommend (if only because it’s super yum.)  I recommend experimenting until you find something that works for you.

You also want to make sure you don’t lift on an empty tummy, because seriously, you will get so tired so fast, and you’ll fade like a cheap shirt from Target after one wash.  Eat some good carbs at least a half-hour before you hit the gym.  I like granola bars, fruit, raw vegetables, things like that.  I’m also a fan of hard-boiled eggs with some pepper.  I am not, however, a fan of lifting weights after eating lasagna or pizza, which are both things I have done (and regretted – hello heartburn!)

Nutrition is something I’m still learning a lot about, because it can get sort of complicated, but lady-lifting magazines and trainer blogs have a lot of information about this if you are interested in going down that rabbit hole.  I’m not all into bodybuilding, so I’m mostly interested in functional nutrition to help me get the most out of my various workouts.

If you missed the first two parts of this series, you can read them here:

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4 responses to “Ladies Guide to the Weight Room Pt. 3: Starting out

  1. YES on form! Poor form makes me cringe–even if I can’t do much while I’m just starting out, I’d rather do a knees-down push-up with good form than try to do something where my lower back isn’t protected and my core isn’t engaged.

    And I think what really helped improved my form for weight training was joining a yoga studio several years ago. Even though I only did it for one year, the focus on form really made me realize how my body should feel during things like squats, lunges, plank, etc. Having someone to come around and be like, “You should tilt your pelvis in like this to protect your lower back”–and then *poof* I felt immediately more stable–was really game-changing.

    • I can totally see how yoga would play a role in helping someone have good form in the weight room. I’ve never taken yoga classes, but I did take some classes that a friend of mine taught at USF a few years ago that incorporated yoga and Pilates, and she was a beast of an instructor, which helped with knowing how certain things should feel. My wellness center also has trainers who used to offer free consultations, and they worked with me a bit, too. It’s a shame that classes and instruction can cost so much because you can really get some invaluable information from professionals.

      I swear, every day at the gym is like a fiesta of poor form. Some of the trainers will step in and offer guidance, but I’m sure the rest of them just stand back and cringe.

  2. As you can probably see from the paper trail of ‘likes’ this has been really good to read! I really want to get into weight training and while I do do free weights, which are near the comfort of the cardio machines, our main weight room is kept on another floor, a testosterone den that I’ve been in about three times and left for all the reasons stated! Has been a really encouraging post though, and thank you for recommending the websites, I feel way more courageous!

    • Awesome! I’m so glad you found it useful! There are a lot of really great resources out there for women who are getting into weight training.

      I’ve found that once I worked up the courage to work out in the main weight lifting areas, I’ve found that the intimidation factor was really not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The vast majority of men leave me alone when lifting. The big key was learning how to actually use the weights and do a wide variety of lifts. Once I did that and I felt that I had a basic level of competence, I didn’t have to rely on the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ trick and felt like I actually had a right to be there.

      Let me know how it goes for you!

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