Many years ago, I used to belong to a “big box” gym chain that featured women’s-only locations, as well as women’s-only sections in some of its bigger gyms. There were no squat racks in these areas, but plenty of weight machines. My trainer, whom I had hired for six sessions, introduced me to the gym’s 20 minute weightlifting program. In just 20 minutes, three times a week, I could improve my strength and appearance by completing the “fitness circuit.” The circuit, which alternated between upper and lower body machines, involved doing just one set of 8-12 reps, pushing for two seconds and relaxing for four for each rep.
This scenario is pretty common: take a novice, dump her on a machine circuit, and everybody wins. Or do they? For gyms, this solution is ideal. Trainers can teach clients how to use a machine in a minute, without ever having to watch their form. Consequently, they can supervise several clients simultaneously. In terms of liability, the gym also benefits because they don’t have to worry about someone hurting themselves on a machine.
For the new female lifter, machines are easy to use. Adjust a peg, and maybe the height of the seat, and you’re set. You feel stronger as the weeks go by, watching your numbers climb. And yet, it still feels hard to lift ‘real things,’ like boxes during a move, or overstuff stuffed suitcases.
While machines are preferable in some situations, they don’t help you build functional strength. Functional strength means being able to transfer your strength from the gym to the real world, being able to do things like haul your luggage to the bin and back again, carry pet food from your trunk to inside the house, hoist a child up onto your shoulders — movements that should be not only be manageable, but performed comfortably and safely. Because machines stabilize the weight for you, keeping it on a set track or bar path, they also end up doing a lot of the work for you. In other words, if you train on weight machines, you’ll get stronger on weight machines; if you train with free weights — dumbbells, barbells, and kettle bells–you’ll get stronger everywhere.
Some advantages of choosing free weights over machines:
*Free weights force you to use more muscles, big and small. Every time you lift a weight, you–not the machine–are forced to stabilize it. More work means stronger bones, stronger muscles, and more calories burned (but who’s counting?).
*Free weights work with YOUR body, whereas machines are built for for the “average” person, where average is code for male. Because of my short arms and narrow shoulders, I find machines really awkward to use.
*Free weights train functional movements, which, besides making daily activities easier, also carry over into other sports.
*Free weights recruit more stabilize muscles, which helps keep your joints healthy.
So, what’s the catch?
If you’re just starting out and are used to machines, free weights can seem disproportionally heavy to what you’d expect. Additionally, the main compound lifts — the back squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press — take a little time to learn with good technique.
You don’t necessarily need to hire a trainer, however.
Instead, I started off by reading this book, which explains the lifts in detail, including photos of the stages of each lift. There are also fitness groups on Facebook and Reddit, including ones geared toward women, where you can post videos and receive a form critique.
If you’re just beginning, then you’ll probably want to choose a basic, well established program, like Starting Strength or Strong Lifts. These have you doing three sets of five reps, a few times a week. They’re beginners programs because you progress linearly, increasing the weights every workout. This fast progression, dubbed “newbie gains,” is a period where you build muscle, and quickly learn and adapt to recruiting your muscles more efficiently.
Before embarking on a beginner’s program, I would highly recommend that women borrow or purchase fractional or micro-plates (here and here — I paid around $40 for mine), plates that weigh in the 0.25lb–1.25lb range, unless your gym already has them.
At most gyms, the lowest weight plate is 2.5lbs, which means that whenever you increase the weight of a lift, you’re increasing it by a minimum of 5lbs — one plate for each end of the barbell. For beginner men, jumping 5lb is manageable, at least for the first few months. For beginner women, however, a 5lb increase in the overhead press — and to a lesser extent, the bench press — is huge, even at the beginning. Consequently, it’s common for women to encounter a stall early on in these beginner programs. You might think that the program is not right for you, when really, what you need isn’t a different program, but smaller progressions. Had I known this when I started lifting, it would have saved me a lot of frustration over the first two years. But, like gym machines, lifting advice tends to be designed for the typical male lifter, which has ramifications for how women should train.