Lifting for Beginners

I staggered to the water fountain at the gym. It was around 9:30 am on a Monday and I’d managed to roll out of bed for a personal training session. I was out of shape and hadn’t eaten breakfast, and the session was kicking my entire behind. Standing at the fountain, I gasped for water, feeling like I might heave. I felt frustrated with myself and super embarrassed.

This was about a month into working out and it’s safe to say I said some stuff during that time that I’m not proud of 😂 I mostly HATED training sessions, save the rest breaks when I could talk with my trainer and attempt to stall.

Funny how sometimes the things that challenge you the most become the things you’re most passionate about.

The tide shifted about eight months in and now, almost 10 years later, I’m answering one of the questions I get asked most frequently: “What’s the best kind of exercise?”

The short answer is that there’s no right or wrong answer to this question – it depends on what changes you’re aiming to make in your body and what you enjoy doing (or at least dislike the least). Keep in mind that growing a love of lifting – or any kind of exercise, really – can take time and persistence.

Want to look toned? Lifting is the fast track

Not everyone wants to change how her body looks so let’s not normalize that. But about 85% of my clients do want to look more toned – and also improve their general health. If that describes you, lifting will be a great help in reaching your goals. For most women, looking more toned means increasing their muscle mass and decreasing body fat, which decreases your body fat percentage. Lifting is the most efficient way to do the first part of that equation: increase muscle mass.

Valerie Bisharat squat

Why lifting?

Lifting – or using weights that equal a significant percentage of your body weight – is super powerful. Pun intended!

It’s a common misconception that to lose fat, you have to burn calories (usually by doing lots of cardio) in order to expend more calories than you take in. While this does cause weight loss and works to a degree, for many women, it’ll only take us part of the way there. It won’t give us definition. So rather than thinking about losing fat, think about building muscle to reveal when you lose that fat.

Lifting is also linked to:

  • Decreased risk of osteoporosis
  • Decreased risk of fractures
  • Improved balance, reducing falls and injuries
  • Lowered risk of sleep apnea
  • Better cognitive function
  • Improved memory
  • Prevention of loss of muscle mass as you age
  • Better posture
  • Decreased stress
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Of course, it also makes you stronger, which can make day-to-day life easier and more enjoyable.

But… what if I don’t want to lift?

It goes back to what results you’re looking for – for most women who want to look more toned, lifting is a part of the deal. You might not like it immediately. Heck, you might not like it for the first six months. But I think it’s possible to find passion for many things so consider giving it some time. I usually see clients turn a corner around the two month mark when they notice themselves getting noticeably stronger, more fit, and leaner.

How often should I lift?

This depends on several factors: your goal, how quickly you want to see results, your starting body composition, how often you can work out and maintain a balanced lifestyle, and how you might want to include other movement modalities into your routine.

I typically do four to five workouts per week and three to four of those are weight training.

Any well-rounded program also includes cardio for improved heart health, mood, and circulation.

Here’s how an example week in my training regimen fits together:

  • Monday – Lift 1, upper body focus
  • Tuesday – rest day
  • Wednesday – rest day
  • Thursday – Lift 2, lower body focus; 25 minutes cardio
  • Friday – rest day
  • Saturday – Lift 3, upper body focus; 25 minutes cardio
  • Sunday – Lift 4, lower body focus

I usually fit in a couple of yoga practices a couple times a week, usually about 20 minutes each.

Valerie Bisharat weightlifting

Two important keys: you want your workouts to be hard and to get progressively harder. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.

Also, our bodies are designed to adapt to whatever stressors we place on them so planning what’s called “progressive overload” is important. Progressive overload means systematically making your workouts harder by increasing the intensity of a certain movement through the addition of weight, reps, sets, or training frequency, or through the reduction of rest time between sets.

Getting started

If you want me to write a more detailed guide to getting started lifting in the gym, leave a comment and let me know!

In the meantime, here are some guidelines:

  • To get more comfortable in the weight room, ask the front desk at your gym if the fitness manager is available to give you a tour. The manager will show you the layout so you know where to find all of the equipment.
  • Ask a friend who works out to show you how to use some of the equipment. Start with a couple of exercises to get your feet wet and build from there.
  • Watch videos of lifting movements and practice them at home in privacy. No, this won’t be a perfect solution, but it’s a big stride in the right direction.

If you’re like many women (myself included!), this will feel intimidating at first. But in the end, the juice should be worth the squeeze.

FAQ’s – let me know if you want me to write an article about any of these topics by leaving a comment below or DMing me on Instagram @valeriebisharat!

Q: Will lifting make me look bulky?
A: It depends on several factors including what you consider bulky, your nutritional habits, and your stress levels. In general, lifting is a tool to decrease your body fat percentage and for most women, it takes a lot of hard work in the gym to build muscle.

Q: What should I eat before and after lifting?
A: You want to have energy to throw into your training session and eat afterwards in a way that supports recovery and muscle growth. For pre-workout, you could have an energizing meal by eating a serving of protein, colorful veggies, a healthy fat, and half a baked sweet potato. For example, you could have an organic rotisserie chicken breast, roasted Brussels sprouts, half a small avocado, and the sweet potato. Afterwards, have a serving of protein and a starchy carb for recovery and muscle growth. Veggies could go here too! For example, this could be a high quality protein powder shake with a banana, unsweetened almond milk, frozen berries, and kale.

Q: How many sets and reps of each exercise should I do?
A: This goes back to the importance of progressive overload, or making your training sessions more intense over time. Start with a set of exercises and week to week, increase the intensity of each by upping the reps, weight, sets, or frequency or decreasing the rest times. This takes some planning but can be highly motivating! Little by little, a little becomes a lot.

Q: Lifting seems like a guy’s thing and I identify as a woman. How can I make lifting feel more organic?
A: Find female or female-identifying athlete(s) who inspire you and keep them in your mental orbit. That might mean finding an athlete on Instagram and following her for a daily dose of inspiration or asking a lifting loving-female friend or family member to talk workouts with you. There’s nothing like having an example to motivate you!

Q: Can I lift while I’m traveling?
A: Yes! Most hotel gyms have at least a set of dumbbells, which is enough equipment to have a good workout while traveling. Also, you can incorporate body weight exercises like push-ups, squats, planks, burpees, and pull-ups.

References:

  1. Lifting is linked to weight loss and getting leaner:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22777332
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/add-strength-training-to-your-fitness-plan
  2. Common misconceptions about burning calories and weight loss and the connection between strength training and waist size reduction:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25530447
  3. Some ways in which lifting is particularly important for women (including many of the specific benefits listed below):
    https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/downloads/growing_stronger.pdf
    http://time.com/4824531/strength-training-women-exercise/
  4. Lifting may help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, and muscle loss while it also may improve balance:
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/strength-training-builds-more-than-muscles
    https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/five-benefits-of-strength-training.html
  5. May help decrease the risk of sleep apnea and improve cognitive function and memory:
    https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/RTandMentalHealth.html
  6. May help improve alignment:
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/strength-training-relieves-chronic-neck-pain
  7. May help increase self-esteem and decrease stress:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10146790
  8. Some people see results after only a brief period:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20048509
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465144/

Research contributed by Mayfair Rucker.