BY MARIYA GREELEY | March 12, 2019
Riley Bellao, 34, joined her local gym with modest ambitions. “I’d really like to walk up my stairs without huffing and puffing,” she told her personal trainer during their first session.
Fast forward several years, Bellao has found her passion and goes to the gym at least four times a week at Healthworks, an all-women’s gym with four locations in the Boston area. Her focus: boxing classes and strength training—a form of exercise that uses resistance, whether in the form of dumbbells, barbells, machines, or your own body weight, to build muscle.
Bellao’s personal trainer focuses much of their time together on strength training to help her build the muscle she needs in daily life to reach her goals, feel confident in her own skin, and stay active and healthy long into the future. More and more, science points to this kind of strength-based exercise as a “must” for younger women with similar objectives.
Strong for life
“Strength training is the fountain of youth,” says Artemis Scantalides, the founder of I Am Not Afraid To Lift®, a women’s strength workshop that she leads around the country.
Women can maintain or build muscle mass and bone density throughout their lives with the right program, agrees Travis Triplett, president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and professor of exercise science at Appalachian State University. Without using exercise to challenge different muscle and bone groups, they begin to gradually get weaker starting as early as age 30.
New research shows strength training can provide some of the benefits aerobic exercise is known for, too, including improved heart health and mental health. “If I get to the gym stressed out for whatever reason, as soon as I start weight training my stress melts away,” Bellao says. “I walk out a happier person.”
Until recently, encouragement and education around the value of strength training for women was lacking. Now, with more research and media attention on its benefits, a cultural shift is taking place in how women choose to work out and reach their health and fitness goals. “There is less fear of lifting and appearing strong, versus the traditional goal of skinny,” says Lindsey Cambridge, fitness director at Boston-based Healthworks Group. “It is wonderful to watch their growth and progress and see the mental and emotional change that happens with the physical changes.”
“Where to start” paralysis
Like many women, Bellao initially stayed away from weight training at the gym because she was intimidated by the seasoned lifting crowd. “It’s pretty easy to get complacent and jump on an elliptical or treadmill instead,” Bellao notes.
The first step to overcoming this mental barrier is finding a gym where you feel comfortable trying new things and pushing yourself. “Look at a few different gyms,” Cambridge advises. “Look for a place with a really encouraging and welcoming staff, somewhere you’re not going to feel stupid going up to a trainer and asking a question about something.”
Bellao found such an environment at the Coolidge Corner based Healthworks. “They’re just so welcoming,” Bellao says. “My first time there I remember feeling like, ‘okay, I can do this.’”
Knowledge is an essential component for strength training, so take advantage of complimentary training sessions at a gym to ask fundamental questions, Cambridge suggests. Try asking: How much weight should I be using? What are the best moves to target my abs, legs, or glutes? What ratio of weights to cardio should I do to meet my goals?
From there, consider personal training long-term so your trainer can help you adjust your routine as you progress. “It’s an investment in your health,” Scantalides says, and it means you’ll be held accountable to someone with a plan. “You won’t even think about what you have to do. All you have do is show up. You just have to keep that appointment.”
If one-on-one training isn’t in your budget, gather a group of friends for semi-private training, which costs less per-person. “You’re going to get the same personal coaching out of that, and you’re going to have a small community,” Scantalides says.
Although more women are aware of this myth today, some still worry that strength training will make them look bigger and bulkier. “It’s kind of an unrealistic fear,” Triplett says.
Exactly how weight lifting changes your body depends on your body type, Cambridge says, but “selecting the proper programs for your body and proper rep schemes and loads can help you tailor your end results in the way that you want.”
One thing that’s clear is it’s unlikely you can reach the result you want without strength training. While cardio exercises burn fat, strength-based workouts build the muscles underneath the fat that are crucial to achieving the sculpted look, with muscle definition from head to toe, that’s often the goal today.
After about a year dedicated to her training, Bellao says she’s much more confident about her appearance. “I see the difference, and I don’t look like a muscle girl,” she says. “I’m going to Florida and I’m looking forward to wearing a bikini.”
No consistency, no gain
Another reason to make strength training a priority as soon as possible: “A big part of starting young is getting into habits that will carry you through the different ebbs and flows of your life,” Cambridge says.
When women jump into fitness and push themselves too hard for a few weeks (Who hasn’t set after that New Years resolution or tried to stretch themselves to complete that one-size-fits-all fitness app?) they often end up skipping the gym for weeks or months afterwards, Cambridge says. Instead, she recommends her beginning clients come in just two days a week. Then, after a few successful weeks, she recommends a third day. “Introducing things slowly can help people with longer-term commitment to fitness as a part of their life,” she says.
To stay motivated, observe the little ways that being stronger makes life better. “The feelings of empowerment and confidence that you build in your training sessions translate into your everyday life,” Scantalides says. You start to notice it’s easier to move furniture into a new apartment. You find you get less fatigued while carrying your 20-pound niece or nephew around. You feel confident that you can easily lift your suitcase into the overhead compartment on a plane and sit comfortably in the emergency exit row, knowing you’re strong enough to be a hero.
Bellao not only can walk up stairs without huffing and puffing now, she can run 5ks and do 30 push-ups at a time. Her next goals? Mastering the handstand and the unassisted pull-up.