I know strength training builds muscle mass and keeps my bones strong. So I drag myself to the gym a few mornings a week, use a couple of the less-sweated-upon machines, and pat myself on the back. But that's about all the effort I've given it—until now.
One of my goals for the year is to actually try a strength-training program designed by someone smarter and more experienced about this stuff than I am. And my good friend Erle, who spends a lot of time mulling over the science behind his own exercise routine (and posts his thoughts about fitness at f-40.blogspot.com), has always spoken highly of Alwyn Cosgrove, a coach, gym owner, and writer (www.alwyncosgrove.com). So when I heard that Cosgrove, with coauthors Lou Schuler and Cassandra Forsythe, has a new book out, The New Rules of Lifting For Women (Avery/Penguin Group USA), I jumped at the chance to get him on the phone. Our chat centered on some of the misconceptions that everyone—but particularly women—have about weight training. Here's some of what I learned:
A weights-and-intervals program gives you the best bang for the buck.
I'm an endurance junkie, so for better or worse, running or cycling for a few hours at a time will always be part of my life. But if you aren't training for a half-marathon and your goal is to pare some fat from your bod and make your jeans fit better, Cosgrove says a weightlifting program coupled with intervals—alternating high-intensity bursts of riding a stationary bike or running with a recovery period—is preferable to plodding along at the same slow pace. "When it comes to fat loss and enhancing the way you look, time is the limiting factor," he says. The program in his book calls for three days a week of strength training, with and without intervals, for a combined time of less than an hour per workout. Lift three times a week.
Two will offer some benefits, and one is better than nothing but isn't going to do much good. By contrast, more than three is not likely to give you enough time to recover in between workouts, which is when the strengthening of your muscles is happening. (Government recommendations for heart health include 30 minutes of the equivalent of brisk walking most days, so you might want to add a few days of that to this routine—it's not going to interfere with recovery from the weights.) You need to lift enough weight to make it worthwhile.
Women often choose light weights that they think will magically shape and tone the muscles, whereas men will go right for the big bang kind of exercises," says Cosgrove. Uh, guilty as charged. I tend to use machines that focus on one muscle at a time because squats with a barbell intimidate me. Cosgrove favors free weights: "You can sit on a machine and do a leg extension, or you can spent a minute doing squats, working many more muscles and being much more time effective," he says." Sold, to the woman in the pink running shorts! You need to increase the weight over time.
Cosgrove suggests you let the number of repetitions dictate how much weight you start with. Pick a weight that you can definitely lift eight, maybe 10, but definitely not 12 times. Ideally, you'd increase that weight a smidgen every time you do the routine, but since most weights come in 5-pound increments, he suggests this instead: Do 10 reps in a set the first time, then 11, then 12, and once you're doing sets of 12, increase the weight and go back to 10 reps per set. (His program calls for different numbers of sets, depending on the stage, but two to three sets for 10 to 12 reps is a good rule of thumb.) Don't waste your time doing exercises that only work your smaller muscles.
Machines that isolate the calf, biceps, and triceps muscles aren't doing much good, says Cosgrove. "Muscles are like a web and work as a system," he says. "They're designed to work together." Doing exercises like presses, rows, and pulldowns lets those little muscles work the way they're supposed to: in concert with the bigger ones. Toss the standard back-on-the-floor crunches.
Straining against the hard ground isn't doing your spine any favors, and you aren't working the full range of your abdominal muscles. Instead, Cosgrove recommends other ab exercises, including crunches on an inflatable ball (which are cushier on your back and let you reach the full range of motion) and a deceptively innocent-sounding move called a plank, where you hold your body straight in a modified push-up position, propping yourself on toes and forearms. One-size "proper form" does not always fit all.
You don't want to be so caught up with the so-called rules of an exercise ("Don't lock your elbows!" "Don't let your knee move past your toes!") that you are petrified to even start. Everyone's body is different. So if your basic technique is correct, and you aren't experiencing pain during or after a workout, you're probably OK, he says. One visible test: "My usual rule is that the first rep and the last rep should look the same, though the last rep will be slower." Don't worry—you aren't going to get huge.
It's not easy even for men to get so they look like those folks on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine. For women, because of our lower levels of testosterone, it's definitely not going to happen, unless you have some off-the-charts genetic propensity to pile on muscle and are spending your entire day working out. Worry about global warming, worry about whether Heidi will marry Spencer from The Hills and populate the world with little blond idiots, but don't worry that lifting will make your muscles burst out of your clothes.