A Fit Beginning
by Cheryl Zovich
There isnít very much written by women for women on the subject of weight training. I think thatís partially due to the differences between the way male and female bodies develop and age. Men physically mature by about age eighteen. Men who want to alter their physical appearance can put some time and effort into an activity or sport and theyíll usually get a positive result for their effort. Unless men ignore their bodies or exercise to change them theyíll stay relatively unchanged until about the third or fourth decade of life, when most will begin to notice a moderate metabolic change. Women on the other hand, mature physically around age fifteen. From that moment forward women can expect to spend the next four decades of their life on a physical roller coaster; little of which seems to be under their complete control at any given moment.
At age eighteen young women tend to fret over the fit of a bathing suit or worry if they canít get into clothing from the year before. If a woman has a history of participating in high school sports then she has better odds at continuing to do so in college, keeping moderately fit and active in the process. However, once a young woman graduates from college team sports become less of an option and sheíll probably be forced to devise a program of either cardiovascular or weight bearing activities on her own. This is a crucial time for women as many first begin to feel mounting pressure to concentrate on a career. The end result is often a complicated dance of balancing work, recreation and exercise. Many women opt to ignore scheduled physical activity altogether and those who lack a naturally high metabolism will begin to see their weight increase and their figures change significantly in direct proportion to their lack of physical activity.
If our young woman isnít married and starting a family by her late twenties she should be; her biological time clock is ticking. Itís popular for women to postpone conception until late into their third and even fourth decade of life, however, medical statistics show conception, a smooth, full term pregnancy and the delivery of a healthy baby decrease as women age. If our subject does conceive and bear children the ensuing hormonal and subsequent body composition response to pregnancy can be dramatic. The physical, emotional and financial demands of childrearing can dominate a womanís life for a decade or more, leaving her with little time, energy or financial reserves to spend on physical pursuits.
By the time a womanís young family is independent enough to afford her the luxury of some much needed personal attention our wife, mother, sister or friend is left facing a brand new body; one sheís quite likely never experienced before. Her metabolism has probably slowed to a grind as a result of a shift in hormones, years of erratic dietary practices and a lack of consistent exercise. Her bones are beginning to lose their density and her muscle tone may be poor. Sheís probably used to getting by on far less sleep than she truly needs, her stress level is most likely through the roof and her to-do list longer than her grocery list.
Obviously, finding a way to address a womanís exercise needs throughout the many significant changes sheíll encounter in the course of her lifetime can be daunting, at best. So how can any woman reap the rewards and health benefits of a sane, productive exercise program no matter what age or stage her body or life might be in? The answer can be found in weight training and moderate but consistent cardiovascular conditioning. Weight bearing exercise increases bone density and lean muscle mass, which in turn boosts the mechanism that regulates metabolism. Regular cardiovascular work increases the amount of blood the heart pumps with each stroke and helps improve body composition by moderately tipping the bodyís metabolic balance in our favor.
Women donít need to aspire to be an Olympic weightlifter or a marathon runner to benefit from a basic weight training and cardiovascular exercise program. What she must do is dedicate herself to the process of making some gradual improvements and changes in several areas of her life by using the simple program Iím about to outline. If youíve been absent from the exercise scene for an extended period of time please consult your medical doctor before proceeding.
Good beginner weight-training programs teach trainees a handful of basic exercises that are mastered through repetition. Rather than correct exercise errors later itís best to learn proper exercise execution right from the start. Therefore, the emphasis at the beginning of this exercise program will be the physical mastery of a small assortment of compound exercises. Many commercial gyms provide certified personal trainers who should be capable of demonstrating correct exercise execution and designing a weight training routine for a new member. Donít believe it. Women seem to be a particularly vulnerable target for erroneous weight lifting information unless theyíre already confident and well educated about weight training. Instead, I recommend all new weight trainees purchase Stuart McRobertís book: The Insiderís Tell-All Handbook On Weight-Training Technique. (Hereafter called Insiderís for simplicity.) This book continues to be the best source for reading about many important weight-training exercises and viewing photographs that accurately demonstrate the proper form for each exercise. (See Cyberpump sponsors to order.)
Warm up: Warming up before you start weight training is important, not something you do only if you have a little extra time. Consider your warm-up PART of your workout so youíll never be tempted to skip it. The easiest way to warm up is to perform 5-8 minutes of cardio exercise using a treadmill, rowing machine, elliptical trainer, or Airdyne bicycle. Itís important the warm-up includes movement in both your upper and lower extremities so choose your activity carefully. Donít be afraid be creative here; if you walk to the gym on your lunch hour, walk briskly and your walk can be your warm up. If youíre exercising at home you might skip rope, jog in place or perform some light, full-body aerobics. The idea is to gently prepare all your muscles and joints for physical work before you begin lifting any weight.
The Routine: The routine will be limited to major exercises. Yes, there are smaller areas of the body to think about, but not now. The purpose of this routine is to get you familiar and comfortable with the way each major exercise feels and start to build a moderate base of strength. The exercises are as listed: dumbbell bench press, pulldowns or rows, dumbbell overhead press, squats or leg press, back hyperextensions, shrugs, abdominal crunch. Thatís it. If an exercise isnít on the list donít add it! If thereís a choice between two exercise variations select one variation for now and stick with it. Plan to perform the exercises in the order listed and please refer to the Insiderís for instructions on how to correctly perform each exercise.
The routine is a full body routine, performed two or three times a week. Your strength will increase more quickly if the routine is repeated more frequently. For now, resist the temptation to divide the exercises or put different exercises on different days. Perform three sets for each of the first five exercises and two sets of the remaining two exercises. For each exercise keep the weight and the number of repetitions the same for all of the sets. Again, your goal is to improve exercise proficiency and develop strength slowly. The repetition range should be 8-10 for all exercises except squats and abs; for squats perform 10-12 reps, for abs 15 reps. Once youíre well acquainted with the list of exercises this routine should take no more than an hour to complete from start to finish. Allow just enough time between sets for your heart rate to return to a comfortable level but move quickly from one exercise to the next. Donít dawdle or stop to chat with friends. If you find youíre short on time perform the abdominal crunches at home and donít worry about the dumbbell bench press, just focus on the other five exercises.
Donít add weight to any exercise until youíre able to get (with good form) all of your reps for every set. Youíll probably discover youíre stronger in some areas than others or notice all the exercises donít seem to progress at the same rate. Thatís fine. It may take a month or more before youíre ready to add weight to any or some of the exercises but donít become discouraged or tempted to forge ahead too quickly. If youíre fighting to maintain good form during any of the reps in a set then youíre not ready to advance the weight. When youíre able to show good control over an exercise, have mastered its form throughout the entire range of motion and are able to complete all the reps in each set you may start to add a small increment of weight to that exercise. Continue to add weight to an exercise only if youíre able to fulfill the proceeding criteria each time you workout. After a weight increase it might take several workouts before youíre able to perfect the exercise at the new, increased level of difficulty. Thatís normal. It takes the body time to safely adjust to a new challenge. For that reason, donít add weight to any exercise more frequently than once a week. Rather than rush your progression learn to enjoy each part of the journey.
Lifting journal: Keep a lifting journal and make an entry after every exercise noting the weight, number of complete and incomplete repetitions in each set and a comment or two about how each exercise felt. You donít need to write a book about your performance but the more detailed your notes the better it will help you down the line. For now, a simple formula to keep track of your training progress will do. As this beginner series continues youíll be instructed to add other pertinent information to your training log so select a notebook that will offer you plenty of space to record additional information. I suggest trainees start a new journal at the beginning of each year and keep a yearís worth of notes compiled in one log. I also find it helps if the journal is large enough to accommodate all your notes for one day on one page. Over the years Iíve treated myself to a few expensive, fancy, writing journals and Iíve purchased very inexpensive college ruled notebooks. Either works fine as long as youíre able to decipher your notes at a later date. Some people are more creative and design their own computer spreadsheet for tracking their training statistics. A few words to the wise: back up! Your training journal tells your story so treat it as one of your most valuable tools.
Decide on a style for recording your workouts and stick with it. For example, I always record the date, day of the week and time of day I workout first. Then I list the exercise and the weight I used followed by the reps and the number of sets performed at that weight. Always write your notes as soon as you finish your last set for each exercise to help combat confusion over reps, partial reps and weight. If you postpone writing your notes until the end of your workout youíll leave yourself open to lifterís brain fog; forgetting how many reps you actually performed on your second set three exercises ago.
An example of weight training notes for one exercise might be:
DATE: Friday, Oct 19, 2001: 5-5:45 PM.
OHP (DB):†† (Dumbbell Overhead press)††††††††††††††††††††††
5 x 10 x 1 (W/U)
12 x 10 x 2
12 x 8 & Ĺ x 1
Last two reps felt very heavy on last set!
Donít go up; get 10 reps on the last set next.
Watch form when tired!
These notes explain in very straightforward terms exactly when you trained and what you did during your last workout. It shows you performed 1 set of warm-ups with 5 pound dumbbells for 10 reps followed by 2 sets with 12 pounds for 10 reps and 1 set with 12 pounds for 8 & Ĺ reps. The notes indicate the last few reps of the last set felt heavy and you should wait until you can perform a total of 3 sets for 10 reps with 12 pounds before you add weight to this exercise. Finally, you remind yourself to be conscious of your form when pushing hard on this exercise.
At the end of a workout itís wise to log some general comments. You can state how the workout felt overall or jot down some general thoughts or specific concerns regarding your next workout. Before each training session go back and review your observations from your last workout or two. When starting a new routine always list your exercises in the order in which they are performed. If you prefer to save space by listing them alongside one another draw an arrow to indicate the order. Remember, some day you may have a reason to go back and examine certain entries from your old training logs and when you do you may discover that while your notes made perfect sense to you then, they might seem quite undecipherable at a later date. Develop good, consistent habits from the start and youíll be rewarded when you review your journal in the future.
If youíre new to exercise or returning after a long hiatus youíll need to incorporate some cardiovascular exercise into your routine. Conditioning helps aid strength training. More on cardio conditioning next time!