A recent television commercial advertised the wonders of a new type of cat litter. The scenes transition from a woman in a parking lot loading her car after shopping, who throws the cat litter to a man on a bicycle, who then throws it to the person in the next scene and so on. How is this possible? Because the cat litter is a new kind of ultra-lightweight cat litter.
Everything is getting lighter, easier and less difficult. At the same time, humanity is getting heavier, everyday life feels harder and more difficult, with many people feeling exhausted despite having done very little taxing physical work on any given day. We keep lowering the physical bar for ourselves and our physiology is adapting by reducing our capacity as well.
Yet we want to live in capable bodies and feel good while going about our day. In our workouts, we want to see results for our efforts. A prominent "celebrity trainer" insists that women should never lift more than 3 pounds, which is like telling every mother and grandmother to never pick up or hold her children or grandchildren—ever again. How does such unequivocally terrible advice not get you stripped of celebrity-trainer status? Because many people—especially women—are often more terrified of looking manly than they are of living in an unfit, incapable body.
In general, females naturally have less testosterone than men and as a result, their bodies are less responsive to the muscle-building effects of properly executed strength training. It is very difficult for men to build large muscles, and it takes significantly more effort for women to do so. More on this …
One universal truth of the human body that helps explain many physical phenomena is that our biology is adaptive. Muscle makes your body more capable, and feeling more capable allows you to do more things in everyday life and in your workouts. Bringing a challenge to your physical self makes your body build itself stronger to meet the demand of whatever the next challenge might be. This adaption eventually delivers a feeling of confident movement that is like no other.
But we have to ask for it. And heavier weights are the question.
We have to ask our bodies to build some muscle. With the physical demands of life getting too easy (riding mowers, ultralight cat litter, my Kroger now shops for me and delivers my groceries to my truck, even the TV remote is too much effort, according to Jim Gaffigan etc.), we have two options:
- Do everyday things the hard way, or
- Do heavier strength training.
How do you know if it's a "heavy" weight level? Choose a pair of dumbbells that forces you to do nine reps or less.
The last point is the critical factor. Lifting a pencil for seven reps isn't going to do any good. When I've had a particularly stubborn client resist increasing resistance, we do the following: I have her perform a set with whatever weight she wants, but the rule is that she cannot stop until she feels like she has to. With most typical weights people choose, they will be in the high teens or even close to 30 reps before this feeling occurs. I've done this in camp as well – we'll keep doing a dumbbell curl, for example, until EVERYONE gets to muscle failure. People sometimes think the goal is to be the last one still doing curls … we've gone for over two minutes doing curls, which does no one any good. Pick a weight where you can't do 10 reps, and now you're lifting heavy.
The experience of lifting for so many reps drives home the point that the weight can be safely increased without my having to explain away fears of lifting too much. Experiencing how capable you are makes you want to lift more. Sometimes to drive this point home with a client, I will talk to her about something distracting while she is performing an exercise so she loses count and I have her keep going until she feels fatigue. I'm keeping track of the reps and when she is done I tell her how many she did. "Well done, you just performed 37 reps, which means we're ready to go up in weight!"
Keep in mind that "heavy" is relative to each person's ability, so it doesn't mean that some day we'll all be dragging a jet down the runway with our teeth (sorry hard-core Crossfitters, just not gonna happen!). Rather, we simply need get comfortable using a little more weight than what we're using now, until we get to the point of failure at nine reps or less (with GOOD form).
If you're not a believer in heavy lifting yet, here's my deal with you: Try it for the next 4 weeks, and if at the end of the month you don't feel stronger, more capable, and leaner, you can go back to the lighter dumbbells ... Deal?
Your friend in fitness,
HealthStyle Fitness, Inc. | 4700 Smith Road Suite C, Cincinnati, OH 45212 | 513-407-4665, x-105 | www.CincinnatiFitness.com