Saturday, May 25, 2013

Strength Basics For Women - By Cheryl Zovich

I lay crumpled on the gym floor having just finished a grueling set of squats when Donna Determined marched in. I rolled for cover. She strode fiercely toward the Smith machine and had I not moved, I'm certain she would have snarled and advanced right over me! It must be leg day, I thought.

I watched as she loaded the machine and warmed up with robot-like precision. My knees ached in sympathy as she pound out five progressive sets with moderate weight. Since I was close to finished and somewhat fascinated, I decided to casually observe the rest of her leg workout. Presses were next, followed by extensions, curls, lunges, SLDL and calves. Her entire leg routine took over an hour. Just watching her drained me, but not Miss Determined! She had energy to spare! Why? Because never once did she come close to challenging her muscles to the point of fatigue. I was perplexed.

I know Donna has the ability to build tremendous strength yet she fails to come close to tapping her full potential. Why is this? First, let me say that Donna is a seasoned lifter. She trains with determination and reliability. She has focus and concentrates hard on the job at hand. What she DOESN'T have is a good grasp of WHY she's training and how the LACK of that effects her results! Donna is not alone. My gym (and I'm sure yours too)! is filled with women who are certain they should be working out, but have not defined for themselves why. They're pretty sure that training has something to do with body shape (improving it) and if they read or watch TV they would have to be comatose not to get the message that exercise is healthy! But still, women are not sure just HOW lifting weights should be applied to their gender or why!

Primarily, I think women end up in a gym because no woman wants to be fat! This dread of fat is so intense that the very word BIG will send shivers of fear down the spine of even the most courageous woman. In fact, the actual lingo of a gym is probably enough to cause the majority of women to stampede toward the exit! Size, gain, big, increase, heavy, hard, squat, are words that by their description make the average woman shudder and recoil in horror. They invoke the image of stuff that men are made of, not ladies. Is it any wonder that the concept "tone" was conceived for women? Its such a kinder, gentler word for...Um, well. You know. EXERCISE!

Most women decide to join a gym with no actual plan in mind. When they first began to work out they were probably shown a ridiculous number of exercises by some idiot who initiated them with either too much weight or not enough. If she was positively a rookie, then she probably has no understanding of the connection between weights and strength and likely none was provided. Sounds odd, but I can't begin to tell you how many women think their arms got "toned" simply through osmosis. (Or some other scientific explanation.) Possibly, she might look around to see what other women are doing which of course, is a grave mistake. If she was unfortunate enough to be bunny of the week she might get lots of additional (bad) instruction and (stupid) advice from resident pumpers. Her prevailing objective for working out will most likely be to stay (or get) trim and "tone" her muscles, not to get bigger or stronger. Elementary, here. Given that she doesn't do anything to encourage strength, she’ll become trapped in "pumper hell" lifting the same weights forever, making little or no significant changes. Her entire routine eventually will become boring and her goals will remain undeveloped, making her another gym fatality.

I have actually overheard novice female lifters being told that lifting weights will not make them big. Well, duh! If you don’t lift ENOUGH weight, you’ll stay pretty much the same and if you don’t eat enough food to feed a starving bird, you won’t grow! If you’re not doing either, then why are you taking up space in a gym in the first place? For those women reading this who are currently hedging between lifting for strength or staying in pumper-toner hell, I have news for you. Getting stronger WILL require that you change your structure. Now, for those of you who have the spine to accept that, read on.

For those of you who don’t, this isn’t written for you. Go back to starving, lifting 5 lb. dumbbells and reading Shape.

Getting strong is going to make you larger. There is no avoiding that hurdle, so you may as well decide here and now if you are willing to take the leap. How you will look individually depends upon how much change you force your structure to undergo. There are women who are very strong and maintain a reasonably lean physique. There is also the opposite. All judgments aside, the only opinion that matters is your own. Unfortunately, too many women worry about what everyone from their male audience to their neighbors will think. Until you reach the point where you don’t give a hoot about pleasing the public, this will continue to be THE sticking point for 99% of all women who lift. Once a woman decides she wants to be strong, I have little doubt that she will ever really care what others think of her appearance. Now THAT’S freedom, ladies!

So what’s it going to take to get strong? First, at the very top of your list should be DESIRE. If you don’t want strength badly enough, all the other sacrifices you’ll need to make will feel like a burden when the time comes to make them. Second, if you don’t already own some patience I suggest you go out and buy some because getting strong, REALLY strong, takes time. And while you’re waiting in line to pay for that, grab a handful of common sense, because that will come in handy too.


OK. You’re over your fear of BIG, you have desire, patience and common sense. Now what? Well, the hard part! You lift! It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or advanced lifter, you need to pick about 5 core compound exercises and work the dickens out of them. I’m talking about the same core exercises MEN use, ladies. Squats, bench (or dips) chins, overhead presses and weighted abs. And when I say work, I mean WORK, as in adding weight to the bar as frequently as possible or adding a rep every workout. If you have any doubts as to the effectiveness of this type of training, try it for a few months and see for yourself! If you question just how tough lifting HARD should be, visualize lifting to the point where the mere THOUGHT of lifting more makes your stomach lurch and your mind reel. Then go back and DO IT!


As you begin to learn what real honest hard work is, make sure you take the time to educate yourself. Read, talk with other experienced, seasoned lifters. Evaluate your progress frequently. Make sure you log your workouts thoroughly. It doesn’t take a lot of smarts to lift, but you sure have to be smart to remember WHAT you lifted and how it felt! Don’t be quick to make changes in your routine or jump ship until you have a clear idea of how your training is working for you. Make changes only after you have been following a program long enough to see a documented disadvantage in an exercise.

Common Sense

Most women are more than able to handle lifting with focus and intensity. However, inadequate caloric and protein requirements coupled with insufficient rest are probably the two biggest stumbling blocks in progress.

Women have forgotten how to eat. Remember how you felt in your teens watching guys eat while you starved? Do you recall feeling envious of their metabolism? Well, pay back is a bitch! You need to start eating to fuel your lifting and the diet you want to follow isn’t recommended by Oprah! When I upped my average protein intake to a minimum of 1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass my strength and energy took off. You can’t imagine how nice it will be to EAT after years of thinking you couldn’t.

A word about rest. When I say rest, I don’t just mean the kind that you get at night but also the sort you get from taking more days off between workouts. Lifting more than three times a week is not only unnecessary, but damaging to your progress. Twice a week is even better once the weight begins to creep into the very heavy category. Remember, your body grows and repairs during the days you are not lifting. Make sure that you give yourself the advantage of enough rest between work sessions or you will risk over training your gains away. You can kiss those days of lifting four times a week and running five good-bye! (I’m not sure who started that guilt driven craze in the first place, but in my opinion when we find out, they ought to be shot.)

Women who want to get strong need to follow the same basic prescription for strength that men have been using for years. Lifting weights is not a gender specific endeavor. Don’t treat it as though it is. Make goals and get serious about them by doing what has to be done, which in short means NOT doing what everyone else is doing! And finally, seek support from like-minded lifters who will honor you for the creditable athlete that you are!

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