I have this one petite friend—she’s probably a size zero—who is very into health and fitness. Jess is in her early 20s, lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, works in PR, and, like me, exercises most days of the week. Unlike me, however, Jess goes to the gym and lifts 200-pound weights—and her body is amazing because of it. Case in point:
Before I met Jess, I had some thoughts around weight lifting, none of them complimentary. I generally leave the heavy weights to the dudes at the gym for fear of bulking up, and I’ve always associated lifting with getting bigger, which is literally the opposite of my fitness goals. So instead, my own routine mostly involves body-weight training or cardio-based classes using the embarrassingly pink small dumbbells or an occasional 10- or 15-pound weight. Lately, though, I’ve started thinking that working out like a dude could be the key to a more toned, defined body.
Like me, Jess wasn’t always into lifting, and her weekly schedule used to include three long runs and two yoga classes. She describes her figure during that time as “skinny fat,” a term used for someone who is visibly slim but has a high body-fat percentage and low muscle mass. Now, after four years of heavy lifting, Jess says she’s visibly more toned and physically in the best shape of her life. “My body has definitely adapted to be stronger in order to be able to lift weights,” she told me. “I’ve gained a bunch of muscle mass.” Before, she couldn’t do a push-up or a pull-up, but now can deadlift a staggering 210 pounds. And, just so we’re clear, this is what a petite woman lifting 210 pounds actually looks like.
Keen to try it out myself, I asked celebrity trainer Joey Thurman for some pointers—and to help ease my concerns. “Lifting weights as a female will not cause you to become big and bulky [because] women simply do not have enough testosterone, one of the main hormones responsible for muscle growth, as their male counterparts do,” Thurman explained.
He explained that, yes, this method is the best way to get a firm and fit, cellulite-free-looking body, and unlike my current cardio-filled routine, can actually change your shape. “If you look like a large pear and you only do cardio, your body will get smaller, but in the end you will only look like a smaller pear. If you do not provide enough stimulus for your muscle tissue to develop, you will have a hard time developing the lean feminine physique with those nice tight arms, abs, and ass.”
To become familiar with this style of working out, he recommends picking a weight where you can perform 15 to 20 reps for several sets, and do this over a few weeks to gain “muscular endurance.” Then, choose a heavier dumbbell with which you can only manage to complete six to 12 reps, failing on the last repetition. “Failure simply means where you can’t complete one more repetition of a certain exercise,” he said. If you’re not failing on the last rep, go heavier. After this becomes easier, increase your weight and try for two to four sets per body part and one to two exercises per part.