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Ladies Lifting Weights: Get Strong, Not “Toned”

When I first started my weight loss journey, like every other person ready to get into the best shape of their lives, I purchased a gym membership. Unfortunately, also like every other person just starting out, I was overwhelmed by the gym. My first foray into fitness involved me slowly walking circles around my gym, staring at each piece of equipment in apprehension. I mean, sure, most of them came with instructions, but my over-analytical nerd brain took it too far. Instead of picking a random machine and plopping down, I started to wonder which machines were good, and which were a waste of time. What order should I do things? Should I do only “leg things” one day and “arm things” another? I really aspired to lift the free weights, but that was even scarier to me! If the machines were blowing my mind, the idea of lifting weights downright terrified me. I knew nothing about free weights except that they were hard to do correctly. Worse than my fear of doing it wrong, though, was my fear of people seeing me doing it wrong. All I could think was, “I’m a girl. A fat girl who is obviously not athletically inclined. In an area of the gym girls don’t normally dwell. Doing it wrong. They’re all going to laugh at me.” Sometimes I would summon the nerve to finally walk to the barbell, ready to try my hand at squats, and then would immediately run like a frightened animal when a guy would come inside the gym.

Because of my fear, I turned to cardio. I would spend 20-60 minutes on the elliptical, blasting my happy 80’s dance music while swishing the bars in time to the songs. Everyone said when you were first losing weight, that cardio was the way to go, and that “strength training” was something you did when you wanted to “tone.” They said cardio burned fat and lifting weights would make you look bigger than you are due to muscle. These terrible, terrible misconceptions combined with my fear of failing at weights kept me in the cardio section. I wasn’t happy with this exercise routine, though. I was bored with the cardio, even when I felt physically challenged by it. My muscles never ached after workout sessions, although I was sufficiently sweaty. Worse, though, is that I wasn’t seeing the physical progress I had expected to see from getting a gym membership. I still looked pretty squishy with zero muscle, and as my weight number kept dwindling as the months passed, I still had the same physique. I had lost over 60 pounds and I still felt.. well, fat.

With my frustration level pretty high, I had finally found the motivation to do my research on weightlifting. I started watching youtube videos, reading guides, and posting a fitness log on Something Awful to get constructive criticism on my workouts and form. I didn’t get the forms right at first; in some cases, it took me many months of trial and error to finally get it. People stared and I felt uncomfortable, but guess what? I got over it. Because, in the end, the results are worth a little staring. Sometimes, guys will try to “help” me unload weights off the barbell, or will make patronizing comments, but again: it’s worth it. It’s really scary going in there ignorant and afraid of judgment, but I’m stronger now, in more ways than one. Sometimes you’ve just got to take a deep breath and force yourself to push through. I like to compare it to jumping in the pool, really. You think if you take little baby steps, it’ll be easier to gradually expose yourself to it, eventually becoming comfortable enough to swim. You soon realize, though, that it’s really freaking cold, and after dipping your body in each inch and realizing how unpleasant it is, you just stop there or use it as an easy out. Instead, you’ve got to take a deep breath, take a running start, and dive right in. Once you’ve gotten over that initial unpleasantness, you realize, Wow, it’s not that big of a deal after all.


I know I’m not an expert by any means- hell, I’ve only been doing this for a few months!- but people have been requesting tips on how to get into weightlifting. I’ll try to keep it brief, but I’ll leave a few links to the sites that helped teach me what I know.  If you have anything you think should be added, or any information that seems not correct, feel free to let me know!

Let’s start with the basics: muscle. The whole premise behind weightlifting is to make your muscles stronger. For that to happen, you have to push your muscles, and when you push your muscles, you are basically breaking down the muscles to rebuild stronger. The cells build up faster than they break down, though, so you have to increase the pressure on the muscles or the process will balance out and the muscles will stay at the same level. Which means, ladies, that everything you have probably been told about weightlifting is wrong. Low intensity workouts that don’t challenge your muscles, or doing repeated reps at lower weights, do nothing for your muscles. All you’re doing is burning calories, and not even efficiently.

“But Criss,” you’ll stubbornly argue. “I don’t want to get bulky and big like a man! I just want to be toned.”

Stop right there. It’s time to debunk a few myths.

“Tone” is a term women’s magazines coined as an alternative to “gaining muscle,” since women picture bodybuilders at any mention of muscle. It refers to a very specific, lean look of low body fat and a bit of muscle. Guess what? That’s the look you obtain through lifting weights. You will not look bulky if you pick up weights! The “big” women who weightlift didn’t get there by accident, but by working as hard and intelligently as they could to get there,  some even using steroids.  If you need any reassurance, look at my pictures. Do I look masculine or bulky? I didn’t think so. If anything, weightlifting actually gives us curvier silhouettes, giving us shapelier, rounded butts and thighs. Yes, please; give me my free hourglass figure!

Let me just mention a few facts about women and weightlifting to ease your fears. Unlike men, we are not genetically predisposed to put on large amounts of muscle, since we lack enough testosterone (no, really?). I know some tiny little 105-pound Asian girls who can lift more than most men, actually. And even if we could put on muscle as easily as men.. well, it’s actually not that easy. You have to follow a very specific lifting routine religiously, eat thousands upon thousands of clean calories as fuel, get hundreds of grams of protein, and even still, it won’t happen overnight, or even within a few months. As a woman, if you put on 5-10 pounds of pure, lean muscle in a year, that’s an impressive feat, and requires an intense amount of dedication. It doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t just wake up one day with 10 pounds of muscle and go, “Oops, I went too far!”

“But Criss,” you’ll again argue. “I just want to get rid of my thigh fat and tone my core to see abs.”

Spot reduction is a nasty, nasty myth. Unless you have plastic surgery, it is literally impossible. Where you gain and lost fat is 100% dependent on genetics. You can’t “replace” fat with muscle (they are two different things!), but you can gain muscle underneath to make it look firmer and less flabby. Which debunks yet another myth that lifting weights when you’re trying to lose weight results in you looking fatter. Nope! You actually look sturdier and more athletic. You might gain a couple of pounds of muscle and water weight from lifting on the scale only, but you will actually look slimmer and leaner. Isn’t that what you want? As for abs, well, let me repeat the time old adage that is so true: abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym. You will see abs when your body fat percentage decreases, which will be a result of your diet. Doing 500 sit-ups is a waste of your time.

Need more reasons to lift weights? I’ve got ’em.

  • Fact: lifting weights actually increase your metabolism. Um, yes, please, I’d like to make getting obese again harder.
  • Fact: lifting weights actually cause the bone to become more dense. Since women are more at risk for osteoporosis (four times as likely as men, actually), this is a very healthy means of preventing that.
  • Fact: the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, period. Even while doing nothing at all! So for those of us who go to the gym and then want to come home and play some good ol’ video games like the nerds that we are, you’re burning more doing nothing at all. Isn’t that awesome?
  • Fact: the more focused you get on fitness, the less you have to obsess over silly, frivolous things like calorie counting the rest of your lives. Did you know most people who lose weight not only re-gain their lost pounds, but then some? There’s a reason for that: it’s just mentally and emotionally taxing to have to restrict yourself like that, and a lot of people find it depressing to have to spend the rest of their lives stressing over every calorie and carb. But when you focus on fitness, food not only becomes fuel instead of the enemy or comfort, but it also means you can EAT MORE while maintaining or improving your figure. You’ll also feel better about yourself, because you will eventually start finding delight in your increasing numbers instead of huddled in a bathroom corner, sobbing over the silly scale number that went up after a night out with friends. Who wants to live like that? I don’t!

“Okay, fine, Criss,” you grudgingly concede, “you’re right. I’m mentally braced to do this, but.. I’m like you were. Afraid and overwhelmed. How do I start?”

You can start reading the guides I started with! I can’t be there with you to show you how to do everything, but I can give you the tools to learn on your own. Don’t be afraid to learn on your own. You might think you need a physical trainer, but save your money. Most don’t bother with weightlifting, and will waste your time and money. Everything you should be doing you can learn to do on your own.

Here are the three main lifts you will need to do:

The Squat

The Bench Press

The Deadlift

You will do other exercises to supplement your workout, but these three lifts are called the “Big Three,” and are the meat and bread of your workouts. They are compound workouts that work multiple muscle groups, which means you get more bang for your buck, basically.

As for specific workout routines, I recommend Starting Strength, as it’s meant for people who lack strength and knowledge of the gym. It’s an amazing beginner routine, but more importantly, the most popular, which means a WEALTH of resources and knowledge on it. It even has its own wikipedia! Check it out here. It explains EVERYTHING.

Here are a few other tips I will leave you with before I conclude this post:

  • Use Fitocracy to track your workouts. Don’t have an account? That’s okay! I have a code for you HERE! Why should you track? Because, one, getting involved with other people keeps you accountable, and two, it will help you when you get constructive criticism and positive comments on your progress.
  • Use a camera or a phone to record your squats and deadlifts every once in a while. Post them on places like Reddit’s fitness community or on Fitocracy’s forum to get feedback. Be brave, it’s okay. The mean internet people don’t usually come out to play when you’re posting form checks. I have NEVER been trolled when asking for help on form. Form is a very serious subject for most, and if anything, you might just get more detailed answers than you wanted.
  • If you think people are staring at you in the gym, it’s likely they aren’t. Most of us are there to work, and are focused on our work. I know it’s easy to fall into anxiety over lifting, especially as a woman, but I promise you: nobody cares. You might get a glance your direction, but sometimes it’s just someone looking to see if you’re done with the squat rack yet! I’m not saying people won’t be jerks or patronizing, because people can suck, but to this day, I’ve never had anyone be a jerk to me. I’ve had maybe two people ever say something to me, and it was about form or asking if I needed help unloading the weights. Just politely smile and refocus. Do your thing, giiiiiirl. (Oh god, I did not just say that!)
  • Recruit a friend to start coming to the gym and learning weightlifting with you. It makes it a lot easier to learn when you aren’t alone. Plus, hey, they can load the weights on the barbell while you’re lying there, catching your breath! Aw yeah.
  • This is probably the most important thing in this list of tips: do not get discouraged when you can’t lift a lot initially. That’s okay! Besides women not naturally starting out very strong, you’re also weaker initially because form is muscle memory. If all you can squat is the 45 pound barbell (yes, that’s how much it weighs!), that’s okay! If you can only bench press the bar, that’s okay too.
  • Don’t worry about increasing your lifts yet. Numbers do NOT matter at first. Focus instead on getting your form right and feeling comfortable doing it. It should feel natural to you.
  • Stay away from most of the machines! It’s okay to do some of the machines (cable crossovers, lateral pull downs, assisted pull-ups/triceps dips, chest flys) to supplement your workout, but try to keep your workout using primarily free weights. Machines basically make you do the work without as efficient results as the free weights. They’re not any safer, either, so don’t be fooled into that line of logic.
  • You don’t need to lift everyday! In fact, giving your muscles time to recover is absolutely necessary to make them grow. I lift 3-5 days a week only.
  • Your philosophy in the gym should be harder, not longer. Intensity is what gains you muscle, not length of time. If you are wasting your energy on large amount of low intensity things, you are basically just burning calories. Plus, by the time you try anything hard, you won’t be able to push your muscles to their max, because you are fatigued.
  • But on that same token, don’t push yourself TOO hard, especially if you don’t have a spotter. With a little time in the gym, you’ll learn to feel what is your line and how to edge it safely without putting yourself in danger.
  • Eat protein! Lots of it. Don’t know how? I’ll write on this later, but eggs, lean meats, peanut butter, and protein shakes are my favorite forms of protein. Protein is what feeds your muscle and fuels its growth.
  • Stay away from the Smith machine! The Smith machine is the bar attached to the rack with levers and whatnot. It’s bad. Don’t use it. Why? Here, read this article!
  • If you’re afraid to do bench presses without a spotter, take a deep breath to feel braver, and ask a kindly person in the gym. It might feel weird if you do, but believe me, that’s actually normal. Most guys will even ask each other if they need a spotter to help. If you don’t feel like you can even press the 45-pound bar without a spotter at first (totally reasonable!), it’s not unreasonable to perform the exercise with dumbbells. It’s not quite the same thing, and it’s hard to stabilize your arms and keep them parallel, but it’s a good substitute.
  • BREATHE. Right before you lift, take a couple of very even, deep breaths. Inhale before, and then slowly exhale on exertion. Don’t be afraid to be noisy while exhaling; it’s normal! Breathing correctly will seriously make or break some of your harder lifts, so it’s better to get into the habit NOW while you’re learning the forms.

Resources: A great tool for tracking your fitness endeavors, and a very supportive, knowledgeable community. Starting Strength is the best lifting beginner program. The best tool for weightlifting ever! It tells you everything you need to know, from actual animated GIFs of the exercises being done, strength standards, to exercise lists sorted by muscle group or body parts! A female-oriented website for weightlifting. Very helpful!

Happy lifting, ladies!