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Why Aren't More Women Lifting Weights?

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The "Bulk" Controversy

Even with all these benefits, many women still resist strength training for one reason: fear of getting bulky. "I have no clue what to do with the weights, and I'm scared I'll end up looking like a pro wrestler," says Rachel Herod, a nurse in San Diego, California.

The reality, however, is that it's nearly physically impossible to build bulky muscles like a guy. "Women simply don't have the hormonal makeup to get as muscular as men," says Kraemer. In fact, studies show that combining resistance training with regular cardio will only help you to look leaner as you become stronger.

And if squeezing in one more activity into an already packed schedule seems impossible, take heart: Resistance training doesn't have to be a big time commitment. "The bottom line is that women should do two full-body strength workouts a week, but you can do them in as little as 20 minutes," explains Pagano.

Nancy Smith, a 33-year-old social worker from Atlanta, is sold on strength training. Before she got a weight tutorial at the new gym she joined a year and a half ago, she just ran on the treadmill in the workout room at her apartment complex. "There were weights, but I didn't know how to use them. So I ignored them," she says. "I didn't know the settings on the machines. Even with the little picture, it was still too complicated."

But at her new gym, she joined a group training class and has seen a "remarkable difference," she says. "Before, I could do an 8-pound biceps curl, and now I can do 15 pounds. Because I'm stronger, I feel more confident. For the first time I have definition in my arms. I bought a strapless dress because I wanted to show them off, and I felt fantastic. Now strength training is a priority for me."

Does Yoga Count?

What if your strength training comes in a less traditional form than dumbbells or machines? Devotees of disciplines like yoga and Pilates say they get all the lean muscle they need from their chosen disciplines. But experts disagree.

"You will build some muscle with yoga poses that have you supporting your body weight against gravity, but eventually you'll reach a plateau and will need to add weights or some other form of resistance," says Joan Pagano. Pilates mat classes present the same limitations, and while spring-loaded machines like the Reformer do offer a progressive resistance, they at least partially support your body weight, so you won't get the same weight-bearing benefits of many standing strength poses.

Sculpting classes can be a great introduction to resistance training for many women, says Joe Dowdell, co-owner of Peak Performance Fitness in New York City. If you do take sculpting classes, make sure you're working at the right intensity, or you'll stop seeing results, he adds.

And if you can't get to the gym, a variety of equipment, including resistance bands and medicine balls, can be a challenge. "So long as you're fully fatiguing the muscles, it doesn't matter what is providing resistance," says Pagano.

 

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, December 2006.

 

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