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Pumping iron for women: A guide to weight lifting

Kim Grundy is a mom, writer, expert laundry folder and sandwich maker, not necessarily in that order. Raised in Oklahoma, she is now a West Coast gal and lives in California with her husband and two sons, along with one dog, two fish (oo...

Master your strength

Lifting weights is no longer reserved for burly men who are looking to bulk up. In fact, weight lifting is the best way to tone your body — and there is no truth to the myth that pumping iron will make you big and bulky.

"Weight training is such a great thing for us women to do, because it builds lean muscle that boosts our metabolism and changes our body composition and posture for the better," says Shannon Colavecchio, trainer and owner of Bada** Fitness.

In addition to helping you burn more calories at rest, weight lifting has many more benefits including improving your heart health, helping you sleep better, preventing Alzheimer's and it is a mood booster to boot. Because women lose muscle as we age, it is so important to incorporate weight lifting into your workout routines to prevent this from happening.

Will lifting weights make me bulky?

The short answer: no, as women do not have enough of the male hormone testosterone to bulk up. The female bodybuilders that you see work hard to get that big and they spend hours at the gym, training with very heavy weights. Men, especially those between the ages of 16 and 25, develop big and bulky muscles easily because of testosterone and other male hormones.

Where do I start?

Focus on form first. "When starting to lift weights, form is everything," trainer Jennifer McAmis says. To help put you on the right track, McAmis says a qualified trainer can be a lot of help, even if it is just for one or two sessions. "Hire a personal trainer for just a few sessions or find a friend to go with you and check your alignment. If you aren't doing the exercise correctly, not only are you often not working the intended muscles, but you are also at a much higher risk of injuring yourself."

Ask your local gym for training packages or even get recommendations from friends to find a trainer that will help you reach your fitness goals.

Which is better, weight machines or free weights?

It is good to mix up your routine with both weight machines and free weights, however weight lifting newbies might want to consider machines.

"For beginners, it helps to start with machines, which provide more support and controlled range of motion than free weights, which, if used improperly or too heavy at first, can lead to injury," says Colavecchio.

"I recommend keeping exercises simple for those just starting out, to build a strong foundation in terms of form as well as building confidence in this new fitness challenge. Bicep curls, trice kickbacks or presses, shoulder presses, weighted squats and hamstring curls are a few favorites."

How much weight should I lift?

You want to challenge yourself with a starting weight, however you also want to maintain good form.

Keep this rule in mind when picking a starting weight, says McAmis. "Starting weight takes some trial and error. Ideally, you want to only be able to do between 11-13 reps. If you choose a weight and can only do six repetitions, you need to lower it. More weight if 15-20 reps is easy."

Listen to your body to see if you have your starting weight at the right spot. "You need to be able to do the full extension of any movement, with proper form, or odds are the weights are too heavy for where your current strength is at. For example, if you are doing a shoulder side raise and can barely get the dumbbell up, or you find yourself really struggling to stay standing straight, dial back the weight so you can perfect your form and get stronger over time," suggests Colavecchio.

What issues should I be aware of?

"Some of the biggest mistakes I see in my clients are knees locked, backs not straight, shoulders tensed and pulled up by the ears and, one of the most important, holding their breath as things become more challenging," says McAmis, who also says it is important to take rest days. "Breathing and keeping the other parts of the body where they need to be are key."

Colavecchio agrees, saying proper form also depends on the exercise you are doing. "Generally speaking, you want to keep your core braced, your gaze straight ahead as opposed to the head or chin hanging down into your neck and your shoulders relaxed as opposed to tense," she says. "For squats, think about sitting down in an imaginary chair. And for lunges or squats, make sure your knees don't track past your toes."

Remember to keep your workout positive. Erin Shirey, trainer and owner of Power Fitness PDX says to make sure you applaud yourself for each workout completed — and try not to get discouraged if your friend is lifting more weights or can do more reps than you can.

"Do not compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone is on their own fitness journey and has their own strengths and weaknesses," she says.

More exercise tips for women

7 Exercises that rapidly improve your strength
11 Fitness tests to test your strength
Get sexy sculpted curves with weight lifting

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