BU Today

Health & Wellness

Winning the Losing Game

Part six: Shape-shifting — how weight training can modernize a Botticelli body

Several weeks ago, I was stopped at the corner of Soldiers Field Road and River Street, when I turned to see a cabdriver pumping a large dumbbell as he waited for the light to change.

I couldn’t help but stare; the dumbbell weighed at least 25 or 30 pounds. When the light turned green, I went left into Cambridge, and he — never ceasing his bicep curls — continued onto the Mass Pike.

I imagined the next day’s headlines: Eight-car pileup linked to iron-pumping cabbie.

Although I don’t recommend lifting weights while driving, I couldn’t help admiring the driver’s bulging muscles. I myself do not have much definition in my arms — or anywhere else for that matter. Instead, I have the soft, curvy body once glorified by Renaissance-era artists: wide hips, generous thighs, and a round stomach.     

But gradually, I’m changing that, aiming in the general direction of the body glorified by early-21st-century film directors: firm hips, narrow waist, flat stomach. In January, I enrolled in a physical training program at the Fitness and Recreation Center, and with the help of personal trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07), I am building strength in my legs, arms, and core. Of course, I’ll never change my basic body type — I’ll always have short legs and an hourglass figure — but that doesn’t mean I can’t look toned and sleek.

The paradox of strength training
When I began writing this series, exercise and weight loss seemed like relatively simple concepts. I understood that to lose weight, it was necessary to exercise more and eat less. Cardio training burns fat, while strength training adds muscle. Cardio workouts weren’t a problem — I enjoy running, biking, and using the elliptical trainer — but I was more than a little intimidated by the big weight machines in the next room. And while I didn’t object to increasing my muscle mass, I was more interested in dropping pounds as quickly as possible.

So when Stephanie handed me a 20-pound barbell during our second training session, I raised a skeptical eyebrow. I’d always associated free weights — even 20-pound ones — with hulking men. And even I knew that strength training makes you gain weight. I was trying to lose 19 pounds — not add more!   

“Hey, Stephanie,” I asked, “shouldn’t I be concentrating more on cardiovascular exercises? That’s what burns fat, right?”

She grinned. “You’re partially right,” she replied. “But the best fitness plans are comprehensive. For maximum results, you want to combine cardio, flexibility, and strength training.”

Stephanie believes that everyone — regardless of age, gender, or health goals — should incorporate strength training into their fitness programs. “It improves circulation,” she told me. “It also improves joint function, coordination, balance, and bone, tendon, and ligament strength.”

Nodding, I tentatively accepted the barbell. Perhaps there was something to this theory after all.

Simply put, strength training (also known as resistance training and weight training) is a specialized method of conditioning that increases muscle strength, muscle endurance, and muscle power. The goal, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute, is to gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system, because when it is overloaded, it will become stronger.  

“Think of your muscles as bridge cables that make the overall structure stronger,” says physical therapist Chris Cesario (SMG’08), who works at the Ryan Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. “The stronger your muscles are, the better they can resist muscle strains and joint injuries.”

Strength training is also crucial for maintaining bone mineral density, Cesario says, because the applied forces trigger specialized cells to build additional bone. “Resistance training is especially important for women, who naturally lose bone density as they age,” he explains. “Unchecked, bones soften and become more susceptible to fracture. But by building bone mass, you can fight the effects of osteoporosis.”    

Both my grandmother and my aunt have osteoporosis, and in the past two years, I’ve injured myself three times. I contemplated these facts for a few brief seconds. If I can prevent injuries and illnesses with a few weights, I thought, sign me up!

Form over function

Because my only previous exposure to strength training involved lifting a spoon of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to my mouth, I asked Stephanie to draw up a relatively easy plan for me. For the first few weeks, I focused most of my energy on my cardio workouts and set aside 20 minutes for strength training. My routine consisted of two sets of bicep curls with 8-pound dumbbells (I now use a 20-pound barbell — see Diagram 1) and two sets of triceps extensions with 5-pound dumbbells (I now use 8-pound dumbbells — see Diagram 2). Each set consisted of 12 repetitions (today I do three sets of 15 repetitions).

Diagram 1: Waltz uses a 20-pound barbell while doing a set of bicep curls. Photos by Fred Sway

 

Over the following weeks, Stephanie introduced exercises that targeted the major muscles most responsible for fat burning and injury prevention: the thighs, chest, back, and abdominals. The result? In only three months, my waist circumference has dropped from 35 to 33 inches, and I can now wear jeans that were too tight in December.

Diagram 2: Waltz uses an eight-pound dumbbell for a set of triceps extensions while McNamara watches.

 

Some of the exercises that Stephanie assigns me, such as the bench press and the seated row, involve weights and machines, while others use the stability ball and the balance trainer. On days that I can’t get to the gym, I settle for exercises that need no equipment: lunges, squats, pushups, and crunches requiring nothing but my own body weight.

Stephanie emphasizes form particularly. “Too many people become concerned with how fast an exercise is performed or how heavy a weight is being used,” she told me, “which leads to the exercise being done incorrectly. This in turn causes injury, or, at the very least, results in resistance training without benefit or results.”

Gradually, I’ve increased the intensity of my workouts in terms of weight, repetition, and exercises, and today I spend as much time in strength training as I do in cardio. My most recent accomplishment is bench-pressing 50 pounds (I started out at only 30). I am particularly proud of this success because it entailed graduating from the three-foot barbell to the six-foot one. Who’s the weakling now?

 

Diagram 3: Waltz does squats — one with a 10-pound medicine ball and one without — on an upside down balance trainer.

 

Surprisingly, the exercises I once dreaded are now the ones I enjoy. One involves squatting on an upside down balance trainer while lifting a 10-pound medicine ball above my head (see Diagram 3). Another requires lying on my back and passing a stability ball from my ankles to my arms (see Diagram 4).

Diagram 4: To strengthen her leg and abdominal muscles, Waltz passes a stability ball from her ankles to her arms.

 

While the pounds are not dropping as quickly as I’d like, my improving muscles encourage me — and I’m more than happy to express my enthusiasm. “Feel my arm!” I tell my partner, who good-naturedly complies. “Now feel my quad! Now feel my arm when I flex this way!”

One more month will find me in the White Mountains, hiking in preparation for a summer backpacking trip — there my newfound strength will truly be put to the test. I’m confident, though, that all the work I’ve done these past three months will pay off as I summit my first mountain.

And I think I’ll celebrate by eating some Ben and Jerry’s.   

Note: Thank you to everyone who has sent words of encouragement and advice. Edward, my 18-pound cat, thanks everyone for his fan mail.

Look for Vicky’s next installment on April 30, 2007.

Ten weeks ago, BU Today writer Vicky Waltz began chronicling her four-month quest for fitness. Click here to read the first installment, “One woman’s four-month fitness challenge.” Click here to read the second installment, “After an injury, changing the game.” Click here to read the third installment, “Calories in vs. calories out.” Click here to read the fourth installment, “Glimpsing the gain.” Click here to read the fifth installment, “When seeing is not believing.”  

Anyone wishing to arm wrestle with Vicky may contact her at vwaltz@bu.edu.