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Benefits of Strength Training for Women

by Barbara Bradley - The Commercial Appeal Memphis

Dr. Jane Berry, 50, recently went on a dinosaur bone hunting expedition in Wyoming, where she spent days "banging rocks" and toting them in buckets. After that, she went home and took down a tree in her yard with a chainsaw.

Not bad for a woman with an unusual joint disorder who once spent two years unable to bend her elbow.

Berry, a physician in general practice, recently began a fitness program that includes weightlifting three times a week. She says it's giving her new strength that is changing her life.

Nationally, increasing numbers of women have come to see pumping iron as more than just a way to trim flabby arms.

In 2001 women accounted for 45 percent of all those who train with free weights, up from 30 percent in 1987, according to American Sports Data Inc., a leading consumer research company for the sporting goods and fitness industries. Strength training for everybody jumped 12 percent from 1998 to 2001.

"You can be thin with aerobics and flexible with stretching," said Neal Cordell, a personal trainer and an instructor of fitness and wellness at Southwest Tennessee Community College. "But it's weight training that builds muscle, and muscle that keeps the bones aligned and prevents injuries and breakdowns. I don't think you can be physically fit without all three."

"Maintaining muscle mass is one of the biggest controls you have over the aging process," said Pam Green, fitness manager at Wimbleton Sportsplex.

High-quality strength work gives us strength to do daily tasks, helps make it possible to do aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health and helps control weight, because people with more muscle have a higher metabolic rate, she said.

According to American Sports Data, the fastest-growing exercise programs balance cardiovascular exercise, flexibility and strength components.

Such a three-pronged workout is offered by Greg Liebermann, owner of Greg's Gym in Midtown and personal trainer for Berry and other clients, the majority of whom are women.

Liebermann offers a six-week program that requires stretching at home or the gym six times a week for 7 to 9 minutes; cardiovascular work (walking, biking, swimming) five or six times a week for 30 or 45 minutes (you work up to this time); and weight training three times a week for 45 minutes in his gym.

The first six weeks, clients lift mostly on Nautilus equipment. Dumbbells and barbells are incorporated as the client progresses.

"At first people are intimidated by all this apparatus," said Liebermann. "It looks like the Spanish Inquisition ... But they get results right away. And usually after two weeks, I have to slow them down."

The shock of the change is most noticeable in older women, he said. Soon running for a bus or picking up laundry becomes no big deal. "They're astounded. They feel powerful."

Weight training gets a lot of press as a way to combat osteoporosis, a common problem for women and, to a lesser extent, for men. But men and women both have much more to gain.

According to Liebermann, weight training, in addition to building and toning muscles and increasing strength, helps people maintain lean body mass, helps develop coordination and balance to prevent injuries, helps prevent strokes, lowers cholesterol, fights depression and enhances sexual ability.

"I think I'm getting strong," Berry said. "You should see the muscle in my arm. I didn't know I had it. It looks good."

Berry has trained for four months. One of her motivations for beginning was the pain she had from a disease that leaves her joints so limber she can easily pull them out of place.

She hasn't had an incident since she began training, she said. Her arm feels better than it has in years and there have been a few other changes.

"Three weeks after I got into it, I couldn't wear my pants. I was shocked," she said. There wasn't so much a change in weight as a change in shape. "My beeper was pulling my pants down."

Liebermann said Berry's weight training consists of one set each of 16 weight-bearing exercises. A set for her means 15 repetitions in exercises for the lower body and 10 in exercises for the upper body.

She does about 85 percent of her weight training on Nautilus machines, and the rest using dumbbells that can be held with one hand as well as heavier, larger barbells.

For example, her shoulder routine typically consist of one set each of:

Lateral raises, moving arms straight out from the sides, lifting 45 pounds on a machine.

Shoulder presses, pushing 50 pounds of weight straight up over her head on a machine.

Front raises, lifting 10-pound dumbbells laterally in front of her while standing.

A young woman training for bodybuilding competition or an older woman trying to build bone are common sights among the male weightlifters in gyms today.

But like a lot of women who've begun weightlifting, Lauren Holloway is neither.

Holloway, a 30-year-old trial lawyer, was an athlete in college. But as she got more involved in her career, she felt she wasn't as strong as she used to be, even though she was doing aerobics. She started getting aches and pains.

After about four months of working with Liebermann, she reports a more toned appearance, reduced body fat, greater strength and energy and a benefit less tangible but just as important to her:

"It's a confidence-builder," she said. "When you go before a jury, you have to exude confidence. In a male-dominated field, that's difficult and stressful for women. Being physically fit is an advantage."

What's the best way to begin using weights?

Almost everyone uses both free weights and machines, Cordell said. But for a beginner who has an instructor, he recommends higher repetitions with lighter free weights.

They provide more range of motion and more variety in how they can be used, and the balancing they require helps work out secondary muscles — "a big plus you don't get with machines," he said.

(Some advantages with machines are that they are safer and easier for beginners who aren't getting instruction, resistance can be changed quickly and easily, and there are some exercises difficult to do any other way.)

After six weeks, you should "wake up" the muscles by changing the program to heavier weights and fewer repetitions, he said. If you get an injury, drop back to the first program to let the muscles recover, he said.

Muscles need to rest, he said. So, for example, you might do weights only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On the off-days, you could make your aerobic exercises more strenuous.

He stressed there's no one right way to do this type of exercise program or any other.

"The whole concept of strength training is based on progressive overload," said Green. She recommends choosing a weight that allows you to do two or three sets of about 12 repetitions.

"If you don't have a safe overload, and you're not feeling the work, you don't get the changes," she said. "When you finish, you should be very glad it's over."

She advises combining abdominal exercises with weightlifting because abs are worked by traditional calisthenics, but a weight routine may have nothing for them.

"Abs are the core of power for the body. You need them for all the other stuff that's going on," she said.

Many people get personal instruction now, she said. But if you want to do it yourself, she recommends reading Body for Life, a 12-week diet and exercise program by Bill Phillips. Green said this popular book offers good basic strength exercises that don't require any more equipment than dumbbells with adjustable weights and a bench.

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