"Cardio, cardio, cardio."
Sound advice from my favorite gynecologist. I believe in the many healthful benefits of cardiovascular workouts, perform them faithfully and tout their many benefits to others. But I have noticed that many women -- almost 80 percent of them, according to one study -- rely only on cardio-based exercise and ignore the all-important strength-conditioning component of fitness.
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It's often because they're afraid of developing oversized muscles as typically seen in males. That would require a special type of training and the significantly higher levels of testosterone that men have. The average woman who works out three or four times a week need not be concerned about bulking up.
When women, particularly over age 40, avoid strengthening their muscles, they risk a lower resting metabolism. That leads to fewer calories being burned and more stored as fat; losing a good defense against softening or brittle bones; and slowly losing strength to perform daily chores or any sports they may enjoy. Women can lose 4 percent of muscle each decade between ages 25 and 50 -- even more during their senior years -- if they don't participate in any resistance training.
Another motivating reason for women to strength train: It helps reshape the body.
Studies performed by Wayne Westcott, a strength-training consultant for the American Council on Exercise and the fitness-research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., found that the average woman who strength trains two or three times a week for two months will gain nearly 2 pounds of muscle and lose 3.5 pounds of fat.
Improvements are possible at any age: Women in their 70s and 80s have built up significant strength through weight training.
And a study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine tells us that people who combine aerobic and resistance training consume significantly fewer daily calories a day than those who do only cardio.
Weightlifting tips for women
Learn proper form: If you have never used weights, find a qualified personal trainer to teach you proper alignment and safety tips.
Select the exercise: Isolated movements will work specific areas, such as on a leg extension machine that targets quadriceps. Alternate these with a mix of strength exercises that are multijoint exercises, targeting multiple muscles. An example would be squats, which strengthen all muscles of the thighs, calves, hips and buttocks. They simulate real-life movements.
Use enough weight: Some women tend to use weights that are too light. Unless you have health issues, the weight should be heavy enough so your muscles are fatigued by the last repetition while you maintain good form.
Vary exercise pattern: If you constantly repeat the same exercise, your body will adapt and you can become stuck in a plateau. Try mixing up the exercise program with free weights, exercise machines, body-weight exercises, kettle bells, medicine balls, stability balls or resistance bands.
Balance challenge: Stand on one leg while performing bicep curls or lateral and frontal raises or while blow-drying your hair or talking on the phone. And don't forget the old balance-and-posture advice to practice walking with a book on your head. Just don't use too heavy a book.
Ignore the scale: In the beginning, you might not notice much change in your weight, however, you will lose inches and wear smaller jeans.
Multijoint exercises: Contract abdominals with all movements. Women using weights should choose lighter ones (2 to 5 pounds) when extending arms away from the body as in lateral and frontal raises. Repeat exercises 8 to 12 times.
Exercises to try
Stability ball with lateral raise: Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks and shoulders. Place a stability ball against a wall and middle back, with feet shoulder-width apart, several feet from wall. Holding weights, lower hips into a squat position. Never let knees extend beyond toes. As you squat, raise arms shoulder-height, palms facing downward. Keep elbows aligned with wrists and keep elbows slightly bent. Pause. Then, while slowly returning to standing position, lower arms on the return.
Stability ball with frontal raise: Same as lateral raise, except raise arms shoulder-height into a forward position, palms facing inward.
Chop wood with knee lift: This balance exercise targets ab muscles, emphasizing obliques. Standing, hold a weight with both hands over one shoulder while lifting opposite knee to the front, hip height. Bring weight across your body toward outside hip. Return to original position without touching foot to the floor.
Alternating lunge with elbow/knee: Targets quads, hamstrings, buttocks, core and calves. Begin in a standing position, feet shoulder-width apart. Placing fingers lightly behind ears, step forward into a lunge position, bringing opposite elbow toward knee. Push off to a standing position.