Help me be strong
September 8, 2010 8:08 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way for a girl to build upper body strength with weights (and not hurt herself)?

I have skinny arms and very little upper body strength, as in, I can do probably five kneeling push-ups max before I collapse.

I have access to 2.5, 5, and 10 pound dumbbell weights. My school also has a weightroom but I'm kind of intimidated by it, so I think I want to stick to the dumbbell weights first.

I know there's wrong ways to exercise and that it's very possible to injure yourself in the process, so if you could recommend any exercises/tips or online videos, that would be really helpful. And I also don't know which specific muscle I need/want to work out...

Oh, and are there any warm-ups I need to do before lifting weights?
posted by bluelight to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
There's a great program in Joyce Vedral's Fat-Burning Workout book. She spends time explaining how to approach the exercises if you have no muscle tone at all. It's about using an aerobic approach to strength training, basically, which I found made a very comfortable introduction to using weights. She has other books as well if this one doesn't work for you, quite the dynamo.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:15 AM on September 8, 2010

Just realised that one's out of print (I found it at a second-hand stall), but here's a listing of her other books.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:16 AM on September 8, 2010

Stumptuous is a great blog for this topic. Check out the starting and training sections in particular.
posted by jedicus at 8:16 AM on September 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I started out with the dumbbell workout on Don't worry about which muscles to work on, as you learn more about lifting you'll realise that its about working groups of muscles with compound exercises - which is what youre getting from that dumbbell routine.

Half the battle in not being intimidated by the free weights area of the gym is to go in there with a plan. Write down the exercises, look them up on to see them in action if needs, take your list into the gym with you.

Personally I don't warm up before lifting, I do some stretching after.

Good luck, it wont take long to feel right at home in the gym.
posted by Ness at 8:34 AM on September 8, 2010

Push-ups and pull-ups would be great for you.

For push-ups, you can progress by keeping your feet on the ground while you put your hands on a table, chairs, or other elevated platform. Once you can consistently do 10-12 of them, put your hands on a lower platform. Eventually you'll be able to put your hands on the ground. Then elevate your feet higher and higher.

For pull-ups, you can invest in these IronWoody fitness bands or find a cheaper alternative on Amazon. Then use them like in this video assisted pull-ups. Eventually you'll be able to use lighter and lighter bands and then start adding weight by holding those dumbbells between your feet.
posted by just.good.enough at 8:36 AM on September 8, 2010

I know you want weights, but I think those weights are too light to make any real change in your upper body strength. 10lbs is probably what you would start with, and you'd probably outgrow them pretty quickly. I agree on the point above re: push-ups and pull-ups.
posted by smalls at 8:48 AM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I believe this exact question has been asked before, but I can't seem to find it, so maybe someone else can.

A few points:

1) Women don't need to work out any differently than men. There's no need to seek out advice that's specifically by or for women.

2) Assuming you have no lifting experience, focusing specifically on upper body strength is not the most productive route to take. You'll get the best results from working your full body.

3) 10 pound dumbbells will not be sufficient to produce any kind of training effect for more than a couple of weeks at best -- and if you listen to my point 2, which you should, they're already probably not enough. Getting stronger requires lifting challenging weights, and making them progressively heavier over time. In my experience, most average young-ish female beginners can squat at least 50 pounds right away, and deadlift more than that. If you want the time and effort you spend training to pay off, you need access to the right equipment.

4) Dumbbells aren't necessarily easier to work with than barbells, and in many cases they're more difficult, especially for beginners. I'd recommend focusing on lifting barbells for now. Barbells are ideal because they force the body to function symmetrically and they are finely scalable -- moreso than dumbbells or bodyweight exercises. There are lots of ways to modify pushups or chinups to make them easier, but with a barbell you can control the weight being lifted down to the half-pound if you want.

5) The "right way" for beginners to lift and to avoid injury is to use multi-joint movements with a full range of motion and proper mechanics. This means you should focus on the following exercises: squat, deadlift, bench press, press, row, chinup, pushup. Each workout should ideally consist of a squat, a press, and a pull, and little if anything else. Learn the proper form for each exercise from someone who knows what they're talking about. Starting Strength is one of the best resources for doing so. Once you understand the basic rules, you'll see that they apply pretty much across the board.

6) Warmups can consist of some light cardio to get the blood flowing, some stretching/mobility work as needed, and performing light sets and increasing the weight as you approach your work sets for the day. The first two are not always necessary, the third one is. So if I'm going to squat 300 pounds, I may perform sets at 45, 135, 185, 225, and 275 pounds as warmups, for instance.
posted by JohnMarston at 8:52 AM on September 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

As a weight room rat, I can assure you that no one pays any attention to other parties there. Don't be intimidated, everyone in the gym is there to improve themselves.

Do your homework on the routines you want to do, bring a pencil and pad of paper, and go.

Failure (dropping weights, not completing a set) happens to absolutely everyone, from Skinny Minny to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reset yourself, make a note in the notebook and move on. It'll take a few weeks before you really 'learn' how your muscles work and by then you'll feel like an old hand in the weight room.

Then you need to post online to encourage others to go.
posted by unixrat at 9:04 AM on September 8, 2010

Women don't need to work out any differently than men. There's no need to seek out advice that's specifically by or for women.

This is not strictly true. For one thing, the average woman will need to start out with less weight than the average man. She should also expect to progress somewhat more slowly than the average man due to lower testosterone levels and other physiological differences. Training advice, workout plans, etc written with women in mind will take these things into account.

Beyond the strict physical differences, going to the gym can be intimidating for some women for cultural reasons. There's also the (misplaced) concern that some women have that they will 'get big' if they do strength training (short answer: you almost certainly wouldn't even if you tried to). Advice written by and for women can often address these issues more meaningfully than that written by and for men.
posted by jedicus at 10:00 AM on September 8, 2010

This is not strictly true.

No, it's not, but it's true in just about every way that's going to be significant to the OP. All trainees, male or female, need to make appropriately-sized increases in weight based on their size, level of training advancement, anthropometry, etc. Women will tend to require micro-loading sooner than the average man on the pressing movements, for instance, but this is equally true for a smaller-than-average man, or one with long arms, etc.

But there exist broad misconceptions that women need to train in a different style than men -- that they shouldn't be linearly progressing, or lifting at high intensity, or working with compound movements, or that they can't handle more than 10lb dumbbells. The fundamentals of training men and women are the same. Practical Programming for Strength Training by Rippetoe and Kilgore includes a chapter on "Special Populations" with a 2-page section on women which exists largely to explain that women are in fact not a special population. "With very, very few exceptions, they are trained in exactly the same way as men of the same age and level."

But yeah, if you're looking for positive reinforcement that it's a good idea for women to lift because it'll prevent osteoporosis and what have you, there are a bunch of books out there for you that have "women" in the title.
posted by JohnMarston at 10:16 AM on September 8, 2010

Seconding those suggesting you try lifting with barbells. I've been finding it a lot more fun than I ever anticipated, and six months ago I was about where you are strength-wise. Now I can squat more than my body weight. :)

I finally got my library's copy of Starting Strength last night, so I haven't had a chance to do much more than flip through it yet. It looks like it'll be very helpful, but I wouldn't use it as a full substitute for having someone show me how to do the lifts properly. I'm not sure what resources your school offers, but I know a lot of schools do have staff to help with that sort of thing (you make an appointment, tell them what you want to learn, they make it so.) It's easier to get into the weight room atmosphere when you've got a guide.
posted by asperity at 10:33 AM on September 8, 2010

Make a real effort to use the weights the right way -- that is, with proper form. You'll need to remind yourself quite often, but it makes a difference. You get more out of your exercise, and you won't hurt anything.

Example: For the triceps extension -- video here -- there are several things to keep in mind: Keep your elbows close to your head and "glued to your ears. Keep your abdominal muscles tight (but not "sucked in). Lower and raise the dumbell or dumbells slowly. Squeeze triceps at the top of the lift.

If you try it now without weights, you'll feel a big difference between, say, elbows out and elbows in, or keeping elbows stationary vs. letting them move forward.
posted by wryly at 12:31 PM on September 8, 2010

Learning to perform the exercises properly will minimize injury., mentioned above, will provide this. These light dumbbells and some bodyweight exercises will get you started. As you progress you can purchase a few heavier dumbbells. By then you may feel more comfortable going to the gym. If you have the money getting started with a personal trainer to learn how to properly do the exercises can be valuable, but is hardly necessary. To avoid injury, progress slowly. Watch out for some of the programs out there that push fast progression, like "100 push-ups" and "Stronglifts." They are loaded with good info, but stick to a pace that feels right for you. You should feel some muscle fatigue but if your joints or tendons hurt, or you have an unnatural muscle pain, back off, and if necessary stop, at least stop using that part of you which is in pain. Performing the exercise with proper form, seeking modest progression and listening to your body will keep most injuries at bay.
posted by caddis at 12:47 PM on September 8, 2010

I would also suggest working out in the weight room, doing compound lifts like the bench press, overhead press, deadlift, and squat, preferably with barbells. You will probably be able to do most exercises with the empty bar to start. It's 45 pounds, which should be do-able for you for everything other than the overhead press -- this was the case for me, and I'm a 5'4", 120 lb. woman. If you can't press (and/or bench) 45 pounds to start, that's OK: you can do the exercise with dumbbells and work your way up until you can manage it with the bar.

It's easier to progress with the bar than it is with dumbbells, anyway. Most dumbbells go up by 5 pounds per hand (which is more of a difference than it sounds like!), whereas they'll have 2.5 pound plates for the bar, and you can even get 1 1/4 lb plates if you need to. The bar tends to be easier to handle, also: you don't have to work as hard to keep it under control as you do with dumbbells. Just make sure to get someone to spot you when you're bench pressing. Most guys around the gym will be more than willing.

I know a lot of people recommend push-ups and pull-ups, but I'd go with the bar. Push-ups and pull-ups are hard, especially for female beginners -- you may not be able to do more than one or two of them with decent form, even with platforms or resistance bands. In contrast, you can start by lifting light, and make steady progress from there. The bar will get you to the point where you can do a bunch of push-ups or pull-ups... but in my experience, it's much harder to progress the other way around.
posted by vorfeed at 1:45 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

but I wouldn't use it as a full substitute for having someone show me how to do the lifts properly.

Pretty much spot on, if you can find someone who is decent. I've said it before I'll say it again and stand by it; you can find more than enough information on the internet about working out without having to run out and by a book. I can see the fanatical SS linkage continues on though.
The second part I would suggest is to actually define your goals. Are they defined on looks or are they a point of metric for a challenge or contest? Strength is a great goal but I've seen a lot of people misunderstand it as just a metric for some goals.
According to your question though the answer would be, as other people have mentioned: get in the weight room and do compound lifts.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:02 PM on September 8, 2010

The problem with the internet is that you will find more than enough information. It can be overwhelming and misleading. I think Starting Strength is an excellent beginner program because it is simple and explains how to do the basics. If you are like most people you probably need to focus on your overall strength and not just upper body.

You are going to quickly outgrow your 5-10 lb weights if you are serious about getting stronger. Bite the bullet and hit up your weight room. It might be intimidating at first but like any new experience it will wear off with time. Plus, the stronger you get the less anything will intimidate you.
posted by useyourmachinegunarm at 6:51 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wait, what, 10lbs dumbbells are too light to start?

Im quite new to freeweights and these numbers are astonishing to me. Are folks saying 2x5lbs dumbbells are too light or 2x10lbs are too light for a female beginner?

I'm 35 yo woman who has been lifting dumbbells for 4 months. I would have really, really struggled to standing raise or row a pair of 10lbs to start with. I'm on a pair of 7lbs now and they challenge me.

Am I misunderstanding just how much more you can lift with a barbell, has everyone else forgotten how dumbbells felt when they started out or am I below average strength?
posted by Ness at 3:08 AM on September 9, 2010

Sigh, now that Ive typed that out I'm wondering if the dumbbells I've been using at the gym arent actually in Kilograms.

I've just been thinking of them as 2.5's, 5's, 6's, 7's, 10's. Guess they call them dumbbells for a reason.
posted by Ness at 3:20 AM on September 9, 2010

Sigh, now that Ive typed that out I'm wondering if the dumbbells I've been using at the gym arent actually in Kilograms.

I've just been thinking of them as 2.5's, 5's, 6's, 7's, 10's.

If they have 5, 6, and 7, kilograms seems very likely. Dumbbells in pounds usually go 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 15, and then go up by 5 from there. 17.5, 22.5, 27.5, and/or 32.5 are also reasonably common.

At any rate, I absolutely wouldn't say that 10 lb. dumbbells are "too light to start". If that's the heaviest dumbbell you can lift with proper form, then it's not too light, by definition... and there are definitely lifts (like the front raise or triceps extension) which may start at 10 lbs or less for beginning women. I see people (men and women both) pick up the 10s all day long in the gym.

If a pair of 10 lb dumbbells are the heaviest weight you have, though, they're going to be too light over the short-to-medium term. Most women will be benching more than that to start, and if not, will progress to 15 pounds or more very quickly... and that's to say nothing of squats and deadlifts. Even 10 kg dumbbells are nowhere near heavy enough to allow for progression.

Am I misunderstanding just how much more you can lift with a barbell, has everyone else forgotten how dumbbells felt when they started out or am I below average strength?

I find these strength standards to be a useful yardstick when wondering about these things. Note that the charts are for barbell exercises measured in pounds (if you're doing dumbbells only, the numbers on the chart will probably seem large even if you add both dumbbells together, because most people can lift more with a barbell) and reference 1 rep max, not multiple reps (you can use this calculator to figure roughly what your 1RM would be from sets of reps). Note that these numbers are not averages or norms -- if you're above or below the standard, it's no big deal. It's just for reference.
posted by vorfeed at 11:05 AM on September 9, 2010

I can strongly recommend the book The New Rules of Lifting for Women. It's good for a total beginner, but it's based around a serious, free-weight focused lifting program, and will answer all your major questions about good form, warm-up, recovery, diet, etc. After doing the initial stage-1 workouts (which took about two months), I had noticeably stronger and more muscular arms and shoulders (and legs and abs and butt, etc).
posted by bookish at 4:00 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

an excellent beginner program because it is simple and explains how to do the basics.

Yeah, like Stronglifts except that's free.

Am I misunderstanding just how much more you can lift with a barbell, has everyone else forgotten how dumbbells felt when they started out or am I below average strength?

Ness, it depends on what your doing and what your goals are. I harp on that constantly from askers because that will shape what type of program you use and accordingly what weights you'll use. I could give anyone a program with exercises that makes using ten pound dumbells "hard to use".
People tend to use "strength training" as a catch all term for lifting weights, but some people automatically assume that gaining strength (i.e. "I want to lift x amount of weight") is the end goal when usually it's just a means to an end (i.e. "I want a better looking body").
So if your goal are to specifically to get stronger, than the basic 5x5 program with compound barbell lifts that's been around forever is a good go-to. If you're goal is otherwise than there is plenty to chose from.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:31 PM on September 9, 2010

Yeah, like Stronglifts except that's free.

I can see how it would seem that way, but there are some substantive differences in the programs, and more importantly, the quality of instruction. In my experience, a good trainer and a good reference book are both worth paying for.
posted by JohnMarston at 7:34 PM on September 9, 2010

I agree knowledgable people and reference books are great but that doesn't mean casual lifters should run out and spend money. Nor does that actually mean SS is any better, book or program wise, than other options. Because, really, it isn't. I could name at least four or five other programs that are just as widely accepted, can be freely found, and have the same end goals. I could also name a couple of other books that are just as good as reference books if not better. Linking to one single program (book) for every single weightlifting question seems to either mean you are basically unaware of the other options or have a deluded fanaticism about that product.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:01 PM on September 9, 2010

reference books are great but that doesn't mean casual lifters should run out and spend money.

Of course not. The poster likely has the option not to spend much money on either instruction or other educational materials -- the school gym is presumably staffed, and every university rec center I've seen has scheduled instruction available. And public libraries allow us to read books without buying them!

I could name at least four or five other programs that are just as widely accepted, can be freely found, and have the same end goals. I could also name a couple of other books that are just as good as reference books if not better.

Then do so. Snarking about SS without suggesting alternatives doesn't help anyone.
posted by asperity at 6:28 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I already mentioned Stronglifts, which is free and is a perfectly good starter program. Anyone who is aware of SS could just as easily post them, but here you go:
Wendler - 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength
DeFranco - Westside For Skinny Bastards
Which is a variation of Simmons - Westside Barbell Trainining Methods

Does that help? My guess is probably not because as I mentioned I don't think the asker necessarily cares much about increasing her max PR on her Bench as she does about gaining a bit of muscle. Which can easily be done without having to undertake a strength program and buy books and blah, blah, blah.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:02 PM on September 10, 2010

The OP is a beginner. 5/3/1, Westside, and lots of others are great programs, but they are not appropriate for a beginning/"casual" lifter. They all contain far more variation and complexity than is necessary or efficient for a beginner. Beginners can progress steadily for several months to a year by focusing on just 5 or 6 exercises and using mostly sets of 5 reps -- heavy enough to be hard and spur growth, light enough to be a safe range for learning a movement, etc.

Starting Strength and Stronglifts are both designed with beginners in mind. They're about as simple as it gets. Once someone has been training long enough that the beginner program can't work anymore, then they need to move on to something more specialized with more variation and complexity, like a 5/3/1 or a Westside. But a large percentage of the training population, and certainly the vast majority of people that would be asking a question on metafilter, don't make it to that stage. Plus those things don't teach you to do the lifts like SS or Stronglifts do.

I see beginners using intermediate or advanced programs before they're needed all the time. It's a shame, because they're at best training inefficiently and not getting as much payoff as they could be from their training, and at worst asking for injury by trying to do things they aren't ready for, e.g. 1RMs, high-rep sets, speed work, lots of variations, etc., when they haven't even mastered the basics yet.

Conveniently, for a beginner, increasing their strength on the major barbell movements is also the fastest route to "gaining a bit of muscle." Once they've reach a certain level of advancement, it won't be so simple, but again, someone like the OP isn't there yet and is not going to be well-served by getting ahead of herself.
posted by JohnMarston at 7:41 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

[folks, this debate needs to stop here, please take this discussion to email or metatalk]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:31 PM on September 10, 2010

Good form is the key to avoiding injury. This guy, Scooby1961 on youtube, shows you how to do many dumbbell exercises using proper form. The gnome is obnoxious but the education on form is quite good.
posted by caddis at 10:12 AM on September 17, 2010

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