Does weight-lifting intimidate you? Maybe you had a bad experience in high school gym class and have avoided the weight rack ever since. Or are you afraid that if you strength train you'll get bulky? Or do you believe that cardio is the key to weight loss, and strength-training shouldn't enter the equation until after you've reached your goal weight?
Here's what I would tell you in response to those concerns: it shouldn't; you won't; and untrue, respectively. Let's address each of them one by one though. As always, I recommend consulting a physician before beginning any exercise program.
The intimidation factor. The good news is that I'm not telling you to buy a gym membership and start racking hundreds of pounds on the bench press bar tomorrow. You don't need to do that. I recommend having two sets of dumbbells--one lighter set for the smaller muscles of your upper body, and one heavier set for the larger muscles. When I started, I had a set of 3lb dumbbells and a set of 5lb ones. Then I moved up incrementally as I got stronger. The 5lb dumbbells became my light set and I bought 8lb dumbbells for my heavier set. Then I moved up again to 8lbs and 10lbs. And so on. I knew it was time to upgrade when I finished a set of an exercise and knew I could keep going, with good form.
Let me tell you, I LOVE when I have to buy new dumbbells. I feel so proud of myself and my body. That's one of the great things about strength training is that I can see and feel improvements in a way that I don't necessarily with cardio. If you aren't sure how to go about strength training on your own, you have a couple of options. Invest in DVDs you can do at home. Any of Jessica Smith's workouts would be a good choice. I use this one and this one quite often myself. I also like these ones from Coach Nicole and SparkPeople.
If you're new to exercise I would recommend at least a session or two with a personal trainer. If training this way isn't something you can afford to do regularly, you have some options. Take the workout DVDs you're going to do at home and ask him/her to watch them and then coach you on proper form. That way, you'll have some idea of how to do the exercise safely and effectively on your own. Or ask them to design a workout you can do at home with the equipment you have, and then come back every 6-weeks or so for some new exercises.
You won't get bulky. This is one I hear a lot, actually. It's rare for a woman who engages in a normal strength-training routine to get bulky. Women have less testosterone than men, and it's this hormone that is responsible for the larger muscle gains men experience from weight-lifting. You may find that strength-training actually has the opposite effect on your body. A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat, so your body can look and feel smaller at the same weight, depending upon the ratio of lean muscle to fat.
And finally, the old do-cardio-first -to-lose-weight rule. Any of you who read this blog regularly or are familiar with our studio know that we never talk about weight loss as a goal of exercise. And I'm still not really going to. But...I am going to address it in this context for two reasons. One: because the idea that you do cardio for weight loss and then worry about strength-training is a fitness theory we reject as fitness professionals. And two: because regardless of whether we think weight-loss should be a goal, the reality is that it is why many women start exercising. So, for us not to address it at all seems irresponsible.
Here's the short version of why we recommend an exercise plan that combines cardio exercise and three days each week of strength-training: it's more efficient and effective.
It's generally true that if you engage in cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, biking, etc.), and change nothing about your diet, that you will run a caloric deficit. Meaning, you will burn more calories on the days you do that exercise than on the days you don't, which may lead to weight-loss. But muscle is more metabolically active than fat, 24-7. So by increasing your lean muscle mass you burn more calories at rest every day, not just on the days you work-up a deficit by spending an hour on the treadmill. There are many good reasons to include cardio in your workout plan (I do it), but focusing on it to the exclusion of strength, flexibility and balance-training is a mistake. That's true whether your goal is weight-loss or just being holistically healthier and fitter.
If there are other reasons you're reluctant to weight-train, leave them in the comments below and I'll do my best to address them in a future post. Take care, friends!