Weight Lifting for Women: How To Get Toned Without Bulking Up
I have been a writer for most of my adult life and it comes with one professional requirement: Spending most of one’s adult life alone and sitting in a chair. And so I have been spared a lot of the water cooler conversations women might have together at work. I have no idea what women actually talk to each other about at work, but I’m imagining conversations might turn to food and fat and diets.
I’m basing that assumption on the fact that my mother works in an office and discusses weight and its imminent loss with me all the time, and has done for the last 25 years. “I’m cutting out caffeine, sugar, alcohol and dairy!” she told me last week. “Why live?” was my response and last week, while the rest of the family tucked into a glorious meal of traditional Mexican seafood soup, she scraped at a container of hummus with a rice cracker.
When I told her I didn’t think it was appropriate to bring the tub of hummus to the table and scrape at the corners of it, she sulked and ate it over the sink. I have to admit though, she is terrifically and cheerfully thin. My body, in the meantime, was taking me from place to place okay and when I did put on weight, my mother would have to point it out because I hadn’t noticed. She would try to put it delicately at first, “You’re putting on a little bit of weight,” and in case I hadn’t got the message, she would add, “I’ve never seen you this large.”
So I would head out the door for a sluggish, painful jog at night and when gasping with breath, wonder at how it had only been 10 minutes since I’d left the house. It wasn’t a ‘relationship with my body’ one hears in yoga class that I was having. I was a head my body carried around with the hope that in return, I wouldn’t let it get too fat.
And then something happened to change my head and my body’s life – I started dating a man whose body looked like it stepped off the pages of Men’s Health Magazine. He would peel off his clothing and walk towards the bedroom and it was so laughably perfect, in the back of my mind I would be thinking – no one would believe what I am witnessing right now, even if I posted it on Facebook. Which would be in bad taste, so I can’t do that.
A body this perfect, I soon discovered, requires a bit of work and healthy boyfriends enjoy the company of healthy girlfriends and so I listened without much enthusiasm as he explained how I could get a body this hot. Weight lifting. The last time I considered weight lifting was at high school when another school girl mentioned she had tried lifting weights but it was making her arms too bulky. She peeled back her school jumper and that’s when I turned around to look at her and indeed, her arms did look thick. Nope, I thought, not doing that then. I’ll just keep eating apples and diet coke and see how that goes.
The boyfriend explained that engaging the whole body in a single movement, ie. lifting a bar bell over one’s head, or holding a plate against the chest and squatting, will transform the whole body rather than lying on the ground and doing sit-ups. Movements that use every muscle get one’s heart rate up and strengthen the core and the elusive six-pack is simply a result of having more muscle than fat, all over the body. I wouldn’t get bulky, he promised, but stronger and leaner. If that was something I was interested in…What I was interested in was keeping the hot boyfriend, and lifting a few weights over my head seemed like a small price to pay.
Because I am someone who doesn’t like to be told by their boyfriend how to lose weight, I decided to join a gym and talk to a professional, instead. A personal trainer took me for a tour around the facilities. “See these people on the tread mill, wasting their time,” he said. “They’re here because they’ve put on weight and they are shocking their system by running for an hour after which, their body is going to store fat in the awful event that it happens again.” Okay, so how do I not do that, I asked. “Warm up for 10 minutes on the treadmill and then follow me.” He took me, dear reader, straight into the weight room.
“Muscle feeds on more calories than fat and so if you build muscle, your metabolism is raised and it will stay raised for the next 24 hours. If you want to lose weight and get toned, walk towards the weight room and stay here.”
The weight room, I discovered, doesn’t have a lot of women in it. But the few women in there weren’t Chinese Olympic Swimming Team bulky, but lean and defined. My approach to learning the various techniques was to eagle eye what somebody else was doing and when they moved off the machine, to copy them.
Now I have my own routine and what looks like the beginning of a six-pack. At least when I scrunch forward and tense my stomach, there is definitely something brewing in there. My arms and shoulders are strong and my glutes have a roundness that will keep the dreaded Anglo-Saxon pancake arse at bay. And the greatest benefit of all is that when my mother asked me what diet I was on, I shuddered my head as if it was out of the question and replied, “I lift.’
The very best approach for finding your way around a weight-lifting room is to hire a personal trainer for a session. After which, they will try very hard to coax you into seeing them regularly and if you are like me, you might have to blurt out your after tax income so they will stop hassling you.
After your five to 10-minute warm-up, when you enter the weight-lifting room on your own, head towards with the machines. Ultimately, you will move off the machines when you have developed your muscle strength, but they will keep your movements stabilised at first. I walk over to the machine and I study the stick figure animation. I am not pretending to know what I’m doing and there’s a chance I could get it wildly wrong and nobody wants to be the one doing star-jumps on top of a bench press.
- Position yourself inside the machine and make sure your back is straight. If you have to curl or hunch your back for any exercise, you are doing it wrong.
- Adjust the weight so that there is some resistance, but you can do 8-12 repetitions before you become fatigued. If you can do 30 reps without fatigue, it’s time to increase the weight.
- Rest between sets or move to another machine within a minute or two. Your heart rate has spiked and you will want to keep it high. Be careful not to go too fast. The aim is to engage as many muscles in your body at the same time, even with the simplest exercise.
- If the machine has been racked with heavy weights which will require you to lift them off, I usually find another one that’s less intimidating.
- Create your own circuit by moving between three or four machines.
- Try to eat a small meal before your work-out and a snack as soon as you have finished. The faster you can eat that snack afterwards, the less muscle ache you will have tomorrow.
I lift weights for 45 minutes, twice a week and my body is toned but still very curvy. If I work out more than that, I start looking like Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. The greatest benefit of all is the word ‘diet’ never crossed my lips. The more I ‘lifted’, the more proteins my body wanted to eat. Carbohydrates didn’t feel as nourishing, anymore. And when people are struggling to put their luggage into the over-head cabins, I really enjoy that moment when I offer to help and plop that sucker in with the greatest of ease.
Vivienne Walshe is an Australian playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been highly awarded and published by Currency Press. As an actress she appeared on The Secret Life of Us and many other television shows and performed in plays at the Melbourne Theatre company, Sydney Theatre company and Queensland Theatre company.