By Dr. Tyeese Gaines
In nine months of pregnancy, I gained 70 pounds. And nine months postpartum, I was still wearing my maternity clothes -- too big to fit into any of my old clothes, despite hours of cardio and cutting back on carbs.
Not long after a desperate, late-night stroll through the diet pill aisle (where I came to my senses and chickened out), I noticed a weightlifting class ending just before my usual cardio class. Men and women of different sizes used barbells and dumbbells, lifting to current pop music. They were led by a muscle-clad middle-aged woman instructing them through a clip-on microphone, with none of the typical aerobic exercises or bouncing about. Just lifting.
One evening, intrigued, I showed up an hour early to try the class. First, it was once a week. Then, it was twice a week. Soon, I cut back on cardio classes until I was predominately lifting. My weight went up, numerically, at first, as muscle formed. But, then inches and pounds fell off quickly, and I could recognize myself again.
In fact, I was able to weightlift for less time than I had been doing cardio -- with better results.
Reggie Chambers, a New York City personal trainer who works with clientele ranging from new moms to celebrities to first-time exercisers, says my experience is not unique. “When you lift weights, you actually increase your metabolism,” he says, and you continue to burn more even after you finish the workout.
Chambers says that just a short period of weightlifting can burn calories for hours afterwards. (One study even found that people who weightlifted were still burning calories the next morning!)
The benefits can go even longer than that. Having more muscle mass increases your overall metabolism, which means you burn more calories, even in your sleep, than someone at the same weight without that mass. “Your body has to actually work to keep that muscle,” Chambers explains.
This is a shift from how many women view working out, says Diane Williams, also a New York City certified personal trainer.
“Women think that cardio is everything and that it makes you really skinny,” she says. “[But] if your goal is to lose weight, it’s always been weight training for me.”
Williams adds: “The best women’s bodies I’ve seen, lift weights. [With cardio], you don’t have that firmness that you can get with weight training.”
Yet, women often shy away from weightlifting because they don’t want to get too bulky.
“They bypass weightlifting because of this fear, which is misinformed,” Williams says. “Traditional lifting won’t bulk you up. It’s hard for women to get bulky. Ninety-nine percent of us don’t have the testosterone needed for that.”
Weightlifting can also burn more body fat more than cardio exercises, says Christopher B. Scott, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Exercise, Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Southern Maine.
“The amount of calories being ‘burned’ may not differ between cardio and resistance training, but the type of calories likely differs,” he says.
So, here’s the big question. If you have only an hour or two each week to work out, and you want to shed pounds and inches fast, which one’s better -- weight training or cardio?
Both trainers agree: weight training.
Are you convinced yet? If so, here are some simple tips to get you started.
One of my favorite instructors said the best way to do a perfect squat is to bend at the knees like you’re trying to pee without touching the toilet seat. Be careful that your knees aren’t bending past your toes.
“It’s anaerobic and aerobic together,” Chambers says. It gets your heart rate going. Add weights on your shoulders or in your hands.”
“[Women say,] ‘I don’t want to go too heavy because I don’t want to be too big.’ They go for the 5-pound weight and that’s not enough,” says Williams.
Select a weight that you can do at least ten repetitions with -- without straining or losing form, she says.
Work those arms
To tone arms, focus on the biceps and triceps using hand weights.
For biceps: “Take three different sets of weights,” he says. “Take the highest one you can easily hold and do ten curls.”
He suggests doing ten curls with a 10-pound weight, then ten curls with the 8-pound and another ten with the 5-pound.
The point is to lower the amount of weight right at the point where you would normally tire and stop. With this technique, you get more curls in and more of a workout.
For triceps: Do the same technique while doing overhead tricep exercises or tricep kickbacks.
Chambers says not to forget about the basic pushup. Using your body weight for exercise is just as effective.
Women can do a regular pushup on their hands and toes, he says, or modified pushups on their knees.
“There is no such thing as ‘girly pushups’ anymore,” says Chambers. “They’re ‘modified.’”
“You can get into that trap of traditional lifting and resting for three to four minutes in between each set,” Williams says. “You don’t want to do that. You want to be efficient with your time, so keep the pace up.”
Chambers is also a fan. “Go from one body part to the next with no break or a minimal break in between,” he says. “And try circuit training, which involves working the whole body at once.”
Lastly, watch your form.
Practice how to do each exercise properly to avoid injuries.
“When I train my clients, I don’t even give them weights at first,” Williams says. “It’s always form first.”
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com (NBC News). Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty or on Facebook.
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