Well over a month ago, I revealed the deception and some of the misleading information within the fitness magazines and media, specifically the publications directed toward women in my article I Don’t Want to Get Big and Bulky – Fitness Marketing and its Effect on Women.
In fact, as a result of publishing the article, I’ve discovered many women didn’t know anything more than what they’ve been told by the media. It’s no surprise, either. When the majority of our expert information is coming from trainers to the stars, it’s hard to imagine the information could be lacking or misleading.
However, as I mentioned in the previous article, these publications exist for one reason – to make a profit. I suppose their research suggests Americans (and the entire human race) are inherently lazy and that a quick-fix headline is sure to keep the revenue up.
Just looking at any other product being sold, especially those within the health/fitness/exercise niches, it all rings true – no one wants to work for the results if a shortcut is available.
If you can attain the body of a Greek goddess in 3 weeks without having to lift weights and while eating anything you want, why would you do anything different? The problem is the promises don’t deliver.
Month after month, women (and men) continue reading with hopes of the next best piece of information that will lead them to similar results of the cover model of their favorite publication.
Shortly after publishing the article, it was spread all over Facebook, as well as Reddit and questions continued to pour in.
The most common questions were
- “What if we’re just beginners? Are the 5 pound dumbbells okay to get started with?”
- “How would you suggest a lady get started in the weight room using free weights and machines?”
The answer to the first question, of course, is yes. It’s okay if you’re beginning weight training to start with the lightest weight available. You just don’t want to continue with these weights forever. If you do, you’ll never make the adaptations responsible for producing a lean, sculpted physique.
So while the light dumbbells are fine for a short period, the goal is progressive overload (lifting more weight) over time. If you aren’t getting stronger over the long-term, you are spinning your wheels, my lady friends.
Before I get to the second question, I want to make a quick point and then elaborate with some guest contributions from some ladies who’ve been strength training for some time with respectable physiques to show for it.
The number one concern I’ve come across online, and in casual conversation with women who are interested in fitness, is this fear of getting big and bulky. In case you’re unfamiliar with how the male and female bodies differ hormonally, the primary difference is the levels of testosterone between the sexes.
I know I stated this in the last article, but it bears repeating. Men are naturally leaner, stronger and can carry more muscle mass than their counterparts. The reason why is due to the levels of testosterone within their system.
So for all the females reading today, have no fear – I can assure you with all certainty that you’ll never, ever look like a male as a result of training for strength with heavy weights.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Today I’ve pulled from some ladies I highly respect in this fitness game to contribute their thoughts, ideas and to PROVE that proper strength training can be a great way to build a lean, attractive physique and never become bulky.
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Meet Neghar Fonooni
Occupation: General Manager and Personal Trainer at Optimum Performance Training Institute, single mom to a prodigious five-year-old boy.
While Neghar’s formal education is in Arabic, the past 4 years have been completely dedicated to her passion for strength and conditioning. Neghar also enjoys writing and ties her interests together at her blog, NegharFonooni.com.
Training Experience: 11 years experience as an athlete and trainer, working with clients of all demographics including competitive athletes, injury-ridden former athletes, rehabilitation patients, moms and grandmas.
She attributes much of her confidence and sense of self to her success in her personal training schedule.
How She Got Started: As an athlete growing up, she played softball and eventually developed an interest for the iron. Shortly after high school, she got a job at a commercial gym as a trainer and eventually joined the U.S. Air Force pursuing a career as a linguist. She eventually landed in Baltimore, and after finishing her enlistment, returned to training part-time at a local gym and met Joe Sansalone, her current mentor and business partner.
She attributes much of her success in building her lean, athletic physique to working under his guidance.
What her current training looks like and how it’s changed over time: Neghar trains primarily for performance, and the aesthetics portion is merely a by-product.
Here is what she told me about her training:
“I train 3-4 days per week, including strength training, conditioning, power development and movement skills. I almost always lift full body and end with some type of interval based training or metabolic circuit.
I have a pretty organized and comprehensive program, based on “movements” as opposed to “muscles” and I train almost purely for the performance benefits. The aesthetic benefits of training are just a fortunate side effect of a sound training program and smart nutritional regimen.
Some of the lifts I perform include barbell snatches (I LOVE Olympic Weightlifting and hope to be good enough to compete sometime soon), Turkish get ups, front squats, deadlifts, one leg squats and deadlifts, pull-ups, overhead presses, pushups and rows.
Kettlebells have a great deal of relevance in my program both as a strength tool and as a means of achieving a metabolic disturbance. Two out of four of my metabolic routines (“cardio” if you will) are kettlebell based, including snatches, swings, jerks and push presses.
The other two are sprint, slide-board and sled-based. While I do fluctuate my training intensity, volume and load to account for CNS adaptation and avoid overtraining, I never “lift light” so to speak. Training heavy and seriously is what got me to the point where I actually like my body and feel comfortable in my skin.
I didn’t always train intelligently and with such diligence. I always enjoyed exercise, but I was dedicated to yoga and the elliptical machine. I would mess around on some of the circuit machines lift a few 15-pound dumbbells here and there, and call it a day.
There wasn’t really a plan or a purpose, other than to lose weight and change the look of my body. Once I started to lift intentionally, with an actual program geared towards strength and power, everything changed. I still think yoga has a lot of tremendous benefits, but strength gains is not one of them. Now when I train, I train with purpose.
Professional Affiliations: Certified personal trainer for 11 years, RKC level two instructor, and Functional Movement Specialist.
Check out this awesome deadlift of hers!
And one of her favorite exercises, the Turkish Get-Up
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Meet Christine Beauchamp
Occupation: Public Relations for Infinite Labs, and part-time personal trainer and plans to pursue her collegiate studies in psychology, and possibly, physical
Training Experience: Christine was active playing soccer growing up and made the decision in 2006 to get in better shape. Her journey began with hours of cardio on a daily basis for a few years until she began resistance training in 2008.
She began training at home, using body weight movements and dumbbells. In October 2009, she got her first gym membership and competed in her first figure competition on June 5th 2010.
Shortly thereafter, she took up powerlifting and has since competed in two powerlifting meets. She will be competing in figure again come June 2012. While she is young and hasn’t been training a long time, her accomplishments are a testament to what proper strength training can do for your physique.
How She Got Started: She used to struggle with eating disorders and a negative self-image. After getting her crap together and setting her sights on major change, she leaned on a solid diet and strength training to improve the way she felt about herself.
What her current training looks like and how it’s changed over time: She currently follows the popular Westside Powerlifting template which is an upper/lower split consisting of 2 heavy days and 2 lighter days per week. For more information on such a routine, check out this article.
Over her short training history, she went from 3-hour cardio sessions to body weight training, and then to bodybuilding workouts and now to her powerlifting set up.
Christine is one of my favorite online personalities. She blogs about strength training, and other funny stuff at Munchies, Muscles, and Mischief. If you’re looking for great information and some good laughs, please check out her writing!
Here’s a video of Christine box-squatting 260 pounds.
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Meet Nia Shanks
Occupation: Strength coach in western Kentucky with an Exercise Science degree from the University of Louisville. Nia writes about her training philosophy at NiaShanks.com and loves to be outdoors hiking, bouldering and doing various other physical activities when not training.
I’ve been a fan of Nia’s for some time – mainly because she is a female trainer and strength coach who actually gets it. Many trainers are stuck in the pump and tone category but thankfully, Nia loves the heavy, low-rep ranges.
Directly from Nia:
My main priority in the fitness field is to educate women on the simple ways to build a better, stronger, leaner, and healthier body through proper strength training and nutrition. It’s not as complicated, stressful, or time consuming as some would lead them to believe.
I also want to continue providing examples of women who lift heavy weights, and as a result, are strong AND feminine. That is what my program and the “movement” of Beautiful Badass is all about. Women can lift weights, even very heavy weights and look feminine.
More often than not, when my female clients start lifting weights and their strength improves, they not only love the physical changes that result, but their confidence skyrockets.
The last bit is my favorite – it’s amazing how much our confidence can improve as a result of a sound strength training routine.
Training Experience: Nia has been strength training well over ten years and training others for 8 years. Her typical clients are everyday women with professional lives that do not revolve around their exercise routine. She loves helping women with an already hectic schedule incorporate efficient, effective training into their exercise routines.
Most of her training revolves around basic barbell and body weight movements – the usual deadlift, squats, lunges, glute bridges, push-ups, overhead presses, dips, chins and rows.
Nia and I both agree that consistent effort with these types of movements will never fail to produce incredible results.
How She Got Started: She sort of fell into the fitness field on accident as her mother was the first female personal trainer in the area.
At the age of 13, she was introduced to the weight room, and never looked back. Over time, she began seeing personal success and eventually started helping her friends for free. Once she gained the confidence to produce results in her friends, she began taking paying clients.
What her current training looks like and how it’s changed over time: I’ve just copied/pasted Nia’s response below:
I’ve done various types of training programs throughout my weight lifting career, and after many years of trial and error I know what my body responds best to, training and nutrition wise. I thrive on the basics mentioned above. If I deviate too much and incorporate too many different exercises, my performance suffers.
Right now I am not following any set training program. My main goal is to increase my deadlift and so that is what my training is focused on – I want to pull three times my bodyweight; I’m currently 50 pounds shy of this goal.
Other than that, I go by feel most days. The two main barbell exercises I have been doing are standing presses and deadlifts. I’ve also been doing a lot of body weight exercises (pistols, push-ups, chins, single leg hip thrust, inverted rows, etc) and sprinting a few days per week. I feel really good with this current set up, my body composition is improving, and my deadlift is improving. In fact, I set a 10 pound PR just the other day.
I’m a firm believer in having some type of plan, that way you can gauge progress. I’ll definitely go back to a structured routine in the future, but I’ve been having so much fun and great success training by “feel” at this time.
Here’s the video of her 325 pound deadlift. Holy Cow!
JC’s note: Nia is experienced and an advanced trainee. I, nor she, would ever recommend a beginner to go by feel alone. A beginner needs some structure.
Professional Affiliations: BS in Exercise Physiology from University of Louisville. She continues her education through the reading of various strength and conditioning journals, books, articles and websites.
Nia is also the author of an awesome resource called Beautiful Badass. I actually have the product and it’s full of great information for the lady who already has some experience training but needs some guidance or programming.
A few years ago, she competed (Southern Powerlifting Federation) at a body weight of 122 pounds and set the record for her division with a 145-pound bench press and 300 pound deadlift.
Most of the males in my commercial gym can’t pull 300 pounds!
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Meet Erika Laine
Occupation: ISSA Certified Personal Trainer, single mother of 5 kids.
Training Experience: Erika has been weight training for 6 years and has competed in 4 figure competitions and has places either 1st or 2nd in each one.
I think Erika’s story is pretty inspiring, so I’ve copied/pasted her responses below:
I’m tall, (about 6 foot) and although I enjoy being tall, there is always a voice in my head saying “but you don’t want to be BIG and tall” as I visualize a big-boned, rancher-woman. I have been listening to that inner voice since I was 12 years old, tearing out articles from women’s magazines on how to shape your booty and arms while staying thin.
“Never too rich or too skinny” was my motto!
I’ve always been active – volleyball & track in school, hiking, biking in the summer. I started my family at age 19, but still toted my little ones on the bike or in a backpack. Also went to Jazzercise classes, sometimes exercised with Gilad on TV. In spite of being reasonably active, and always on some sort of “diet”, I was what is classified as “skinny-fat.”
After having my baby #5, and becoming a single mom along the way, I desperately needed some “me time,” as well as some more serious exercise! I joined a local Curves Gym for women for a 3-month trial membership.
It was an easy (read: safe) place to start, but I outgrew it quickly. Do you know they only permit you to exercise for 30 minutes? I kept getting “in trouble” for jogging in place; they were worried that my heart rate would go up too high.
Having had a teeny taste of weighted machines at Curves, I knew I needed to join a gym, but YIKES!! Have I mentioned how shy I am???
After 5 kids and being a stay-at-home mom, I kind of hid behind my kids. When I went to sign up at the gym, I felt very out-of-place, but thankfully a guy-buddy of mine from high school came over to say hello and I felt a lot less insecure.
After joining, I went to an orientation tour where I distinctly remember saying, “I am looking to get toned, not get muscles. It’s so funny looking back.
A few months in, I was blow-drying my hair one day and said, “Hey, I have biceps!” I had always kind of liked my thin arms and shoulders as they made me feel skinnier. However, I really liked the shape of my arms.
I got back in touch with the bodybuilder guy who led the orientations, asking for advice on how to maintain my progress, and he offered to lift with me a few days a week. I was very nervous; I didn’t want to lift like a light-weight and let him down. We are still lifting together 5 years later (and now we’re sweethearts). He’s been lifting since his teens, so his training style is very old-school.
Here are some things that have made the biggest difference for me:
- I started out with struggling to eat 100g per day, working up to a little less than my bodyweight. I can’t stress the importance of an adequate protein intake.
- Lifting heavy weights is key to building a shapely physique. Adding weight to the bar is what matters and most people can do so much more than they think.
- The ladies who stay on the treadmills for their workout routines look the same year after year. I wanted to change my shape, so I knew this wasn’t for me.
- The figure/fitness models in the magazines don’t always lift with those little bitty weights they show in the pictures. Those are smaller so they can hold the pose for the photo shoot. Anything you can do a lot of reps can be considered aerobic training.
What my current training looks like: 4-6 days per week training splits, 1 hour per day. On off days I like to hit the trails for hiking and various other outdoor activities.
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Meet Rebecca Rausch
I met Rebecca as a result of my original article, I Don’t Want to Get Big and Bulky – Fitness Marketing and its Effect on Women and as a result of a few email exchanges, I was very interested in her story as I’m sure many other females can relate very well. So thanks to Rebecca and here’s her take on the topic:
I grew up in Buffalo, NY and was always athletic despite being a chubby child and struggling with my weight throughout middle school. In high school I went on and off fad diets week to week. I thought I knew everything about dieting. I became fascinated with nutrition, although I, myself, was embarrassed to eat lunch at school and starved myself most of the day. I was miserable. I began to have trouble sleeping, panic attacks and my social anxiety suffocated me.
The summer of my sophomore year I knew I had to get serious. I wanted to be thin. I did not care what it took to get there. I made terrible decisions, fasting for 3 days straight and bingeing on the fourth.
I did this for several months and dropped 50 lbs. I have no clue how I ever did that, but these are the types of decisions I want to help young people avoid. After losing more weight over the next few months, I was diagnosed as anorexic.
Hearing that was somewhat surreal – I thought, “this is impossible!” It was my wake-up call. I had gone from 200 lbs to 108 in 16 months and I still thought I wasn’t thin enough! My hipbones had bruises on them from bumping into things and from sitting too long. My hair was falling out and the panic attacks had started again.
When I started college in 2006, I majored in graphic design. It was a different world from high school. I felt confident. I began eating again. I found a subject I was good at and I started reading and applying what I learned from many self-help books and fitness and nutrition articles, believing I could be happy if I continued to improve my knowledge. I became obsessed with learning in general. I was getting all A’s and my weight returned to a “healthy” range.
I found graphic design to be a natural talent, but still had an overwhelming passion for nutrition and fitness. I learned so much about dieting and what it was like to be overweight and miserable and the extremes people go through to get the weight off, I knew I had to help others avoid the horrible path I had gone down! I feel it’s my calling.
Two years ago at World Gym, I met my fiancé who has been a huge inspiration to me. He believed in me and introduced me to weight training. He was extremely patient with me as I was resistant to lifting heavy for the same reasons I now hear from women day in and day out.
With his guidance, I began seeing real changes in my physique, giving me more drive than I ever thought I could have. It has helped me grow so much in strength and as a person. I feel sexiest when lifting heavy and pushing my body past what the average girl will do. Resistance training has allowed me to see food as fuel, which allows me to easily make the right choices to power through my workouts. We have little and sometimes no processed food in our house, except for a weekly cheat day (which does benefit you, by the way.)
We are very passionate people and believe a healthy lifestyle is extremely important. I now value life a great deal and strive to live long and healthy. It is my dream to inspire young men and women who are feeling poorly about their self-image, educating them on balanced nutrition and a good weight-training program, which enhances confidence and boosts energy! I especially have a strong desire to educate women on the basic principles of resistance training and that lifting heavy does not equal mass and bulk. I know this is my one chance and must make the most of every life I have the ability to touch!
What my current training looks like and how it’s changed over time: When we first started weight training together, I was unfamiliar with many concepts. I started with very low weight. I was just pressing the bar. I had no idea how important it was to challenge yourself and push past your mental and physical sticking point.
It wasn’t until I started increasing weight and incorporating more power-lifting moves that I gained inner strength and saw and felt muscles I didn’t even know I had. I now bench press 115 lbs for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps without a problem. Besides benching, I love Romanian dead-lifts and barbell squats. These three are my favorite because I can go heavy!
And girls, going heavy does not equal “big and bulky.” In fact, my body is harder, more sculpted and leaner than it has ever been before.
Our current training split is 3 days on, one day off, two days on, one day off. We are fans of Hany Rambod and are following an FST-7 (7 finishing sets) for 2 body parts per split weekly. It is tough, but SO empowering!
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I want to say thanks to all of the ladies who contributed. I think you can surely agree now through picture proof, as well as testimonials, that lifting like a man will not make you resemble one.
Here are a few videos of Sharon Paoletta, (trains in the same gym as I), whom I got to demonstrate some beginner body weight movements – you can clearly see in the video, she is far from bulky with a very respectable, attractive physique.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Hyperextensions (she is using a plate, but these a great body weight movement for beginners.
But now, let’s tackle the second question:
“How would you suggest a lady get started in the weight room using free weights and machines?”
Ideally, if you’re a complete beginner, the best way to get started is to seek out a qualified personal trainer or strength coach in your area who trains in a private studio.
Why a private studio?
Here are a few reasons:
- Less Crowded – Private studios won’t be packed like the typical commercial gym. In a commercial gym, we oftentimes have to wait for equipment or work in with others.
- Personal Attention – Since trainers working in private studios are typically self-employed, you’re the only one they’re working with at the given time frame. If you schedule and hour or two with them – they are yours for the time you paid for. When working with a professional in a 1-on-1-type setting, your confidence is easily built as you learn the proper form and movements.
- It’s Private – You don’t have to worry about a bunch of folks staring at your from afar when you’re learning how to do a proper hip thrust or deadlift. It’s much easier to learn something when you can put all of your focus on the task at hand without worry or fears of what others are doing around you.
What should I look for in a trainer?
This is a great question, but not always easily answered. If you know anything about the industry, the paper credentials you gain as a result of passing your certified personal training exam are hardly anything to brag about. Alan Aragon gives great insight as to what I mean with this article.
I’ll sum it up. You could have a 4-year-degree in basket weaving, have never lifted a weight in your life, buy the NSCA-CSCS book, study, pass the test, and then be a CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist).
In saying that, many of the trainers I know have no formal education (other than their studies for training certifications and personal, self-study) in the field. My best friend, who is a great strength coach, actually has his undergrad in mathematics and an MBA.
So don’t go looking for someone who has a bunch of letters behind their name, because it’s not always going to mean they’re a great trainer.
Before I go into what to look for in a coach, there’s something you should know. Paying for their service is hardly ever inexpensive. When and if you seek out a trainer, you should never go bargain shopping.
Why? Simply because you typically get what you pay for, and as cliché as that sounds, it’s absolutely true.
For those of you who go to a commercial gym, I will let you in on a little secret. Most of the trainers who are employed by the gym don’t get paid very much per hour. As a result, the turnover for trainers is usually very high.
So when you sign up for a training package through the sales team at $80 per session, the trainer is receiving a very small part of that. As a result, you might go through 3-4 (or more) trainers during your training commitment due to the attrition rate of trainers at these commercial gyms.
I’ve had training directors approach me in the commercial gyms to train for them, and I won’t even consider rolling out of bed for the hourly rate they offer. I realize my time is worth more and that in order for a client to get the results they want, an investment must be made.
Anyway – here is what I suggest you seek out when looking for a quality trainer.
- Knowledge – This is an easy one but let me expand. In the health and fitness world, we rely (or should, at least) heavily on science, as opposed to folklore. In saying that, many trainers and even certified nutritionists get caught up in old dogmas, often suggesting ideas and methods without any real reason behind it. Don’t believe me? Read this piece: 6 Meals A Day: Stoke the Metabolic Fire. It’s important that your trainer be open-minded and forever expanding their knowledge base.
- Results-Oriented – Your trainer should be willing to set you up on a plan that focuses on progression toward a specific goal. If they aren’t willing to help you set clear, thought-out goals, they don’t have your best interest in mind. I never, ever want to keep a client longer than I need to. Why? After a certain period, they’ve learned all they need to from me to continue on their own. There’s no point in them to continue paying me and it keeps me from being able to work with new clients.
- They must have a sound training/dieting philosophy – I am a middle-of-the-road (read: moderate) kind of guy. I don’t go for fad diets or the latest and greatest workout schemes. Why? Simply because the basics work, and have worked for many years. There’s no use in fixing what isn’t broken and no need to turn to extremes that can often leave you injured (some of the newer, popular programs call for high-rep Olympic lifts, and other various, not-so-safe practices).
- Personable/Approachable – If you hire a coach, you’re going to be spending an ample amount of time with them, at least first. So, it’s important your personalities do not clash and that you can build a pleasant, professional relationship with them.
As you can see – there’s a lot to think about when you decide to hire a professional for help. Make sure you do your research and get to know whom you’ll be working with.
Train With A Buddy
Lastly, if you don’t have the luxury of hiring a professional or getting into a private studio, I suggest befriending another lady (or a male, if a lady is not available) who is training efficiently and effectively in the gym. Look for the one who is doing what you want to do (using barbells, dummbbells, body weight training, etc.) and then work on building a relationship with them.
Most people enjoy having someone to go to the gym with – I know I do on occasion. Plus, training with a partner is challenging and competitive. You can also aim to keep each other’s form in check and provide a spot when needed.
I hope this piece has done two things. I hope it’s proven to you just how powerful and effective strength training can be for building the physique you’re looking to attain, and that I’ve given some insight on how to get started if you need some ideas.
I know there’s no way we could cover every question in one article, so feel free to ask anything I missed in the comments below.