Before taking the helm at Byrdie UK, I worked at Women’s Health magazine. I’m also a qualified personal trainer, so I know a thing or two about exercise. The one thing I find most frustrating is when I head to the free weights section of my local gym and there isn’t a woman in sight. They’re all pounding it out on the treadmills upstairs, which is exactly where I used to be before I realised the sweaty, testosterone-filled weights room isn’t as daunting as I had first thought, and that it is exactly where I need to be if I want to make long-lasting changes.
Since lifting weights on a regular basis (for about 18 months), I have dropped a dress size and kept it off, even if I don’t get down to the gym for a couple of weeks every so often (life can get in the way!). Whereas when I was a cardio-holic, if I missed a couple of runs, I would just pile the pounds back on which had me yo-yoing between dress sizes and confidence levels for years. Keep scrolling to find out all you need to know about weightlifting, plus the exercises you need to do.
There are a couple of things worth knowing: Don’t assume all the guys in the free weights section know what they are doing because they don’t—some have great form and some have terrible form. Also, they’re far more interested in what they are doing than what you are doing. Promise. Most important, though, you won’t bulk up by lifting heavy. Women don’t have enough of the male hormone testosterone for this to happen. Sure, some of us can gain muscle more easily, but then you just scale back on the amount of weight lifting sessions you do. Get it right and weight lifting can strip fat and build lean muscle.
So what exercises should you be doing? There are some key moves that every woman should incorporate into her routine: squats, lunges, deadlift (traditional and Romanian), bent over row, chest press and shoulder press. These are known as compound exercises, and they require you to utilise more than one joint for each move, which means you’re working more muscles. That makes them seriously efficient muscle builders and calorie burners.
To get results you need a plan: Each time you go to the gym you want to improve in some small way—whether by doing an extra rep on an exercise (just one exercise!) or lifting a heavier weight than you did the last time. This is known as progressive overload and as long as you are progressively overloading your body over time then you will see results. I follow Mike Matthews's Thinner, Leaner Stronger (£6), it’s an e-book with a downloadable PDF that includes a yearlong (!) workout plan for you to follow. I then record every weight and rep using the app Strong (free), so I can keep track.
You need to lift heavy. We’re talking a weight that you can lift for 6–8 reps, and that last rep should feel really, really tough—that means you’re doing it right. You then rest (usually for 2–3 minutes), and do another set of 6–8 reps. Rest again and repeat.
So what results can you expect? Well, by building lean muscle over time, you’ll find that your body is more efficient at burning calories throughout the day. If you measure your body—waist, hips and thighs—with a tape measure on day one, you’ll soon notice the inches drop off. Unless you want to build a Kardashian-esque butt, in which case you may want to add a couple of inches, which is totally possible (you just need to focus on the glute building exercises like squats and lunges).
When you’re in the gym don’t be afraid to start light at first while you’re learning the moves and nailing that form. Gradually you can add the weight; once you have the form sorted, don’t hesitate to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You’re stronger than you think, I can guarantee it.
The team at Lomax in Chelsea is here to show you how to do seven compound moves. Keep scrolling to see how to do these five exercises in your gym.
Top tip: Always breathe in before the exertion (the hardest part of the exercise) and breathe out during. Controlled breathing when lifting heavier weights is essential. Just like in yoga, the correct breathing can really help!
Targets: Quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves
Using a squat rack for safety, place the bar across your back just below your shoulders—you’ll notice there is a ridge where it will sit comfortably. Now remove the bar from the rack and step back.
Stand with feet hip-width apart and feet slightly turned out. Bending at your hips, bring your butt back and down as if sitting on a seat. Ensure your knees don’t travel over and in front of your toes (this can strain on your knees) and keep your body weight in the heels of your feet.
Aim to get your thighs parallel to the floor. If you can get lower then that’s a bonus!
Now drive back up with your glutes to a standing position. Repeat.
Targets: Quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves
Just as with the squat, use a squat rack for safety. Again, place the bar across your back just below your shoulders. Now remove the bar from the rack and step back.
Step back with your right foot and squat down so your back knee stops just above the floor. Again, ensure your front knee doesn’t travel over and in front of your toes. Squeeze your glute muscles on the way back up! Repeat all the reps on this leg before starting on the other side.
Note: If you find it hard to balance with the bar, swap it for dumbbells holding one in each hand down by your side.
Targets: Hamstrings and glutes
The deadlift is a great exercise for recruiting lots of muscles (you can see how to do a traditional deadlift here), but the Romanian Deadlift is a lesser-known version that’s great for targeting your hamstrings and glutes.
Place both your feet under the bar, hip-width apart. Bend your knees, keep your back straight and bend down to lift the bar so you’re standing tall and holding the bar at arms’ length. This is your starting point.
Lower the bar by pushing your butt back, and try to keep the bar close to your body. Once the bar is just below the knees return to standing position by driving your hips back up. Again, you should feel this in your glutes! Repeat.
Targets: Back, biceps and shoulders
Place both your feet under the bar, hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, keep your back straight and bend down to lift the bar. Your back is almost parallel to the floor and you’re holding the bar at arms’ length. This is your starting point.
Now, keeping your arms in close to your torso pull the bar up to your tummy. Squeeze your back muscles at the top, and pause before lowering the bar back down to the start position. Repeat.
Targets: Chest, shoulders and triceps
Lie on a bench positioned inside a rack. Lift the bar off the rack and hold it above your chest with your arms locked out (this means there won’t be a bend in your elbows).
Slowly bring the bar down to your chest, pause and drive it back up to the starting position. Focus on using your chest muscles during this exercise. Repeat.
Targets: Glutes and hamstrings
Pick up a bar and sit onto the edge of a bench. Get into position so your shoulders are resting on the bench.
Now, using your glutes, drive the bar upwards towards the ceiling. Squeeze your butt at the top before lowering the bar. Repeat.
Note: If you find it uncomfortable leaning on a bench, you can do these lying on the floor (called a glute bridge) which is also easier once you start to use heavier weights that aren’t so easy to lift! Here's a glute bridge how-to.
Targets: Shoulders and triceps
Sitting on a bench with the back raised, take a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs.
Raise the dumbbells so they are at shoulder height with your palms facing forwards. Push the dumbbells up so they touch at the top. Pause and lower them back to shoulder height. Repeat.
Are you tempted to try weight lifting? Or do you already lift? Share your experiences in the comment box below.