This is the first post I’ve published on Travel Strong that has been written by somebody else, and there’s nobody I would rather it be by than Jen Sinkler (that’s her in the photo)!
A former rugby player for the US, Jen lives and breathes fitness. Through her website, Thrive with Jen Sinkler, she dishes out advice on everything from fitness to fashion (she’s a huge fan of fanny packs), and she has also built an incredible community on Facebook. In fact, she’s such an inspiration that she has been named as one of the most influential people in the world of health and fitness multiple times by various publications.
So when Jen agreed to write a post for me I was over the moon (thanks again Jen!). I wanted a go-to article on the site for women who are serious about getting in shape, and she kindly agreed to write just that. So without further ado, here it is…
At first, the free weights zone in many gyms can be a daunting place — a seemingly bros-only zone dominated by grunting hulks, clanging plates and surreptitious (or not-so-surreptitious) flexing in the mirror. But that doesn’t mean you’re relegated to the cardio machines! The truth is that the weight room is a coed space, and carving out a place for yourself within it should be your number-one priority if your goals are to lean out, reshape your body and increase your strength.
Strength training has the potential to boost both your confidence and the ease with which you perform day-to-day activities. Simply put, there is not a single activity — from getting down and playing on the floor with your toddler or heading out for a jog around a nearby lake — that won’t improve when you build more muscle.
These four tips will get you off to a strong start:
1. Use Big Muscle Groups.
Variations of the squat, deadlift, upper-body presses and pulls are four main movement categories you need to incorporate into nearly every workout.
The reasons? First, such multi-joint, compound movements recruit more muscles fibers to the party, thus increasing the number of muscle fibers that are sent the message to grow back even stronger. More muscle fibers also equals greater energy expenditure. Movements that require the coordinated effort of multiple joints and muscles (such as squatting, lifting things off the floor, and pushing and pulling against resistance) mimic real-life activities, as well, and improve balance, reaction time and athleticism. These exercises are also a time-saver, allowing you get a full-body workout in less time.
For comparison’s sake, let’s take two upper-body pushing movements: the dumbbell triceps kickback (during which only your elbow joint moves) and the pushup. The former targets the three heads of the triceps muscles, a smaller muscle group running from the base of your shoulder down the back of your arm to your elbow. The latter exercise, on the other hand, will target your pectorals (chest), anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders), anterior core (your abs) and triceps.
When compared, it’s easy to see which one will get you most return on time invested.
That is not to say that smaller, isolation movements don’t have their place in your routine — just don’t make them the main event. Dedicating the majority of your workout to bigger, multi-joint movements will get you the results you’re looking for in less time.
2. You Won’t Get Bulky (But If You Want To, That’s Fine, Too).
Here’s the deal: There is a perfect trifecta of variables that need to be in line for a woman to put on considerable muscle mass: high volume in training (which is calculated by multiplying resistance used by repetitions performed), high training consistency over a long period of time and, most importantly, a consistently high caloric intake. Each one of these variables affects the other and you can’t have significant muscle growth if one of those variables are lacking.
Women are also relatively lower than men in a hormone that plays a key role in muscle and bone development, testosterone. We have it, but not at the same levels as men — women produce about 5 to 10 percent the amount of testosterone men do, limiting our muscle-building potential when compared to men.
That is not to say that women are the weaker sex. Even though our muscles are, on average, smaller than a man’s, our relative strength is right on par. Meaning, if the weight being moved is scaled to height and weight, a woman can move just as much weight as a man.
And here’s a twist for you — that perfect trifecta of variables I listed above? I didn’t list them as a warning of what not to do: they are exactly what you should do if you want to make progress. Small differences lie in how much you eat, how frequently you train, and the particulars of your training program so that it is geared toward your goals, but the basics are the same.
And remember, in the world of health and fitness, body shaming directed towards anyone of any size has no place. Blogger and author Hanne Blank coined one of my favorite phrases: “There is no wrong way to have a body.” It is, however, up to us to make the best out of the bodies we have, while casting no judgment upon others in the process.
3. Make Your Gym Your “Third Place.”
In his book The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg divides our time spent between three places. The first: your home. The second: your workplace. The third: your communal place. That’s where everyone knows your name and if you’re gone, you’re missed. Our environment holds massive influence over our lifestyle choices and will factor greatly into the creation and implementation of new habits.
He further defines the third place as a public place on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company around them.
In my book, community is everything, and especially when it comes to workouts. Having a place to rendezvous with a group of people sharing similar goals and experiences makes working out much less a chore and more about having fun. And, it’s not hard to be accountable to fun workouts. Recall that consistency I mentioned above? Before you know it, accountability has led you right to consistency, which in turn leads you to results. Soon enough, you’re enjoying the journey too much to worry about the destination, even though you’re on the correct path to get you where you want to go.
So how do you find your tribe? Shop around. Feel out the vibe of the places you visit and scope out the regulars. How easily do your questions get answered? How happy do the members look? Do they engage with each other? Are you introduced around? Are the members doing things that you’re curious to try? If you’re looking for more than a place to plug in your ear buds and hop on a treadmill, these questions are very important.
Whether it’s a small, private gym, a CrossFit box, or your local YMCA, you are worth the time it takes to find a gym that suits you. You are investing time and money in your health — you might as well also make it an experience you’ll enjoy.
4. Everybody Needs A Coach
Here’s the very best thing about strength training — the learning never ends. The opportunities for improvement are endless, and once you get your first taste of success — when you hit a personal record that you never thought possible — you’re a gym rat for life (this is a title I fully embrace.) That’s why it’s very important to start off your journey on the right foot.
If you’re starting completely from scratch, your money is best spent on at least a few sessions with a qualified coach who can teach you the basics and help you navigate the gym floor. Movements like squatting and deadlifting are completely safe, but are best learned in a teacher-student environment. Whether it’s private one-on-one training, small-group training, or a group class, take the time to learn from someone who’s qualified to teach you.
Unsure who that is? Look and ask around. See who’s doing what you want to be doing and looking like you want to be looking like and see who taught them. Then invest your time and money in someone you mesh with on a personal level, who’s looking out for your safety and wants to see you improve. It’s an investment with unlimited returns and one you won’t regret.
Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis who talks fitness, food and general health topics at her website, jensinkler.com, and writes for a variety of national health magazines. Earlier this year, she authored Lift Weights Faster, an e-library of over 130 conditioning workouts for fat loss, athleticism, and overall health.