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Back-to-basics guide to weight lifting for women

Linda Melone, CSCS, is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and certified personal trainer based in Orange County, CA. Visit her website at www.LindaMelone.com.

The right way to lift weights

The allure of cardio for many women lies in the fact that it requires little to no instructions. Tie up laces, untangle headset chord, plug in iPod and go. Not so with weight training. You can zone out listening to music on the elliptical trainer, but try that while lifting heavy objects over your head and you could end up with a broken nose or worse.

woman lifting maps

Questions abound: How much should you lift? How many times? When should you increase the weights? And why is there always one big sweaty guy hogging all the equipment? These questions (except for the last one) are answered simply in this back-to-basics guide.

Should I use free weights or machines?

Consider your experience and ability. If you're new to weight training, you may want to start with machines, where the exercise is done in a controlled manner or where it's controlled for you. After your muscles adapt, you can safely progress to free weights, which require more balance and coordination.

How much should I lift?

This depends on your goals. But assuming you're looking for strength and muscle tone, studies show that poundage that enables you to lift for 12 to 15 reps gives you the best results. The key: The last two to three reps should be challenging. If they're too easy, your muscles won't be challenged enough to make gains.

How many sets should I do?

Plan on two to three sets of each exercise, although you can start with one set if you're short on time. To keep your heart rate up and to get the most bang for your buck, alternate between two or three exercises in a mini circuit, e.g., a set of squats followed by chest presses and a set of crunches. Think: legs, upper body, and abs or core.

How do I know it's time to increase the weights?

In order to continue seeing results, you must up the ante every once in a while. Here's when: For general strength, bump up the weight when the last two reps are no longer a challenge. Depending on the muscle group (less for smaller arm muscles,  more for larger leg muscles), add five to 10 percent.

Should I start my workout with cardio or weights?

Start with whichever one you want to do better. If you're focused on strength, warm up with a few minutes of cardio and follow with resistance training. If you're a runner and are focused on increasing your cardiovascular fitness, you should run first and lift later. If your goal is weight loss, however, you may want to base your decision on the calories burned during each activity. From a calorie-burning perspective, whether you perform cardio before or after lifting isn't likely to make much of a difference.

More weight lifting tips for women

Upper-body workout for runners
5 Reasons women need weight-bearing exercise
Ask the trainer: 10 Reasons women need weights

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