There is nothing that drives us personal trainers crazier than hearing women say, "I don't want to bulk up!” It is so surprising to me that in the year 2013, so many women still don’t know how to get fit and into shape.
Weight training does not get you "buff" unless you:
A. Take steroids, AND
B. Live in the gym, lifting all day - and even then, it’s difficult!
My clients, men and women, do about a 30 minutes (for beginners) to 45 minutes of lifting, three or four days a week. No woman will turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger from that amount of lifting.
I’m petite, five feet tall, and currently I can leg press 700 pounds, which makes me a lot stronger than most men. No matter how many hundreds of pounds I lift, my muscles are not going to get huge! That’s science. My 45-minutes-three-days-a-week lifting regimen just makes me stronger and leaner, i.e. smaller.
Which brings me to my main point: Women, please stop worrying about bulking up, and start lifting!
If you want to be firmer, healthier, and stronger, the best thing you can do is to start a challenging weight lifting routine. Please understand that resistance is resistance. Your body does not know the difference if that resistance is coming from using free weights, machines, bands, or Pilates equipment - gradually increasing weight, and frequently varying intensity - is an excellent fitness-time investment, with huge dividends for health, appearance, and mood.
Working out with challenging weights will help you tone muscles and reduce risk of osteoporosis (low bone density) - a terrible health scourge. Best of all, building the muscle helps your body burn more fat.
If you’re just beginning to lift, work closely with a trainer for the first 6 weeks to learn proper form and technique to help prevent injuries and develop good habits. Start with light weights – 5-8 pounds - and work up slowly. In the initial stages, you might do 30 minutes total of weight training, with 15-20 or so repetitions of each exercise.
After about three months, it’s time to start lifting heavier, with fewer repetitions (6-10 reps). The weight level should be a little difficult for your first repetition, and by the time of your last repetition, you should barely be able to do the exercise while maintaining good form. A trainer will help you increase the challenge, and work as a spotter so you maintain good form while pushing out some extra, muscle-strengthening repetitions that you wouldn’t be able to do by yourself. Lifting heavier is what builds and protects bone density.
You should NOT be weight training every day. There should be a minimum of 24-48 hours between lifting sessions, to give your body time to recuperate and build itself back up.
Unfortunately, once you have established a lifting regimen, you need to change it! If you do the same thing every time, your body will adapt, and won’t burn as many calories. Surprising the body causes it to burn more calories, and to speed your metabolism. Every four to six weeks, reconnect with your trainer if necessary, to change something - the weight, the speed, the number of repetitions, the exercise. (For example, instead of doing three sets of 15 repetitions, do four sets of 12, 10, 8, and then 6 repetitions.)
Some days, you won’t want to lift heavy and hard. That’s okay. You don’t have to have a mind-blowing workout every time. Just 20 minutes of light lifting can make you feel better.
I’m not saying I’m opposed to cardiovascular exercise, whether it’s running, dance-based classes, or a treadmill. I’m saying that those cardiovascular exercises should be part of your fitness regimen, but they’re not enough. Ironically, weight lifting is actually BETTER for your heart than running. Running long distances can actually damage the heart. Weight lifting strengthens the heart’s left ventricle, which means you will pump blood more efficiently. There are many fine cardio fitness programs out there for you to choose from, but they won’t give you the benefits of lifting.
Also, beware if you hear from instructors who say you can create "long" muscles on their program. That’s incorrect. The only way you can get long muscles is if you go and get surgery or you are born with them! Instead, focus on reducing your body fat and creating more lean muscle tissue by lifting. Aim to look the best that your body can look for who you are and how you were born.