Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
I know everyone has to start somewhere when it comes to strength training, but I get frustrated that I can barely even do a few sit ups or lunges with proper form. I am a long distance runner and can run for miles and miles, but I don’t have any muscle tone or strength. How can I build muscle when I can only manage a few reps? - Kelly
Did you EVER come to the right place.
I used to be a runner who dabbled in those "tone long lean muscles" workouts every once in a while; you know the ones that include "shoulder raises with two pound dumbbells," "one hundred air squats," "a billion crunches," "lying facedown on the floor while holding as much of your body up in the air, for as long as you can, like you're superman (???)." They were incredibly annoying to do, tended to hurt quite a lot, and because I hated doing them I never really got better at them. Even when I managed to improve slightly, they never fully delivered on the changes in appearance they implicitly promised with the instructional photos of beautiful, muscular models performing the movements. It's important to note that at this point in my fitness journey I was only able to do a handful of pushups, and not even good ones; I thought I could do squats, but all my form achieved was moving me up and down uncomfortably in space because I had no idea how to move my muscles in concert. There was actually even less utility to doing these motions than I thought, because I wasn't even doing them right, but that's a story for another time.
What I did not know, for a very long time, was that I actually didn't need to begin with these ultra-gentle, ultra-light movements, even though I was incredibly weak. I was weak not just from never having attempted to build strength in any meaningful way while working out, but also from years and years of fairly aggressive cardio and way-overaggressive, long-term dieting that caused me to lose much of my muscle. I was small and thin, but the muscle tone that promised to appear if only I lost enough weight never materialized because of the way I was treating myself. Your body will snack away on its own muscles if you aren't eating enough, even if you're still exercising (and actually, it will snack away at them EVEN IF you're doing “muscle building” exercises; confusing, I know, but you need to eat enough no matter what you’re trying to do).
Lifting heavy weights sounds intimidating and like it's for experts, and this is only reinforced by the fact that when you go to a gym it always seems like the people in the weight room are already either incredibly strong, incredibly jacked, or both. And for the most part they are, but no one is just born jacked. As in all things, everyone starts somewhere, but we teach women in particular to be afraid of heavy weights, that lifting them will not only make us bulge with giant muscles and sweat profusely, but show a great deal of effort while we do it. People seem not to realize that human bodies can actually start off handling more weight than they might think. And the incredible tradeoff is that because it's more weight, you only have to do like five to ten reps per set, instead of falling asleep from boredom doing multiple sets of 15, 20, 30 reps at a time (there's a time and place for such things, but generally it's not the main course of your workout).
So you say you can only manage a few reps, but in fact, a few reps is all you need. The structure of a typical starter strength training program is about three days a week, three movements, three to five sets of about five reps each, and that's it. Then you go home. That's the whole workout. One free and popular starter program is GZCLP; there is also Stronglifts 5x5, which has an app for tracking yourself. (Both give you resources for learning how to do the moves.)
The key is to make sure that the weight you're lifting offers enough of a challenge for where you're at in your training without overdoing it and that may end up being "no weight at all." Although, if you’re not significantly injured or battling any serious health conditions and a doctor would otherwise clear you to work out in a gym, you may be able to handle quite a bit more than you think! If you can't manage a barbell yet, which is 45 pounds, you can start with dumbbells. This is where the other key part of strength training comes in: Not only are you probably stronger than you think, but you can get quite a bit stronger pretty quickly. You will also start to FEEL stronger and more capable, not just in the gym but in your entire life, on a time scale of weeks. Starter programs also instruct you to add weight fairly quickly, a few pounds to each movement for each session (as long as you're basically doing the movements correctly). That means even if you start off, say, squatting no weight at all, in three weeks you'll be able to squat with a barbell on your back. In 12 weeks, you might be squatting as much as 100 pounds or even what we call a "full plate," 135 pounds. This sounds insane I know, but people, including women, do it all the time.
You might have never thought you'd be able to handle that much weight in your life. You might have thought, for instance, that some people are born strong with a lot of strength potential and others are not. This is very much not how it works; human bodies are good at building muscle and getting strong, to the point that you might even argue you're not allowing your body to achieve its full potential if you don't at least give it a shot. There are definitely talented people with actual genetic gifts and much more of a strength runway than you or I might have, but just as pretty much anyone can run a 5K, I submit probably anyone can learn to squat 135 pounds. I submit further you’d probably get more out of it, and might even enjoy it more than running the race: You get to rest (like a full minute!) between sets, be in an air-conditioned room, and only worry about working out a few times a week. This is because the heavy-lifting movements, called “compound movements,” use whole systems of muscles all at once, the way your body actually works when you are standing up, bending over, pushing doors, pulling bags of laundry, carrying groceries, and so on. The contrast here would be the machines at the gym that isolate single muscles, which not only keep you from learning to use your muscles all together but are way more time consuming than working a bunch of muscles at once, like all of your legs and back, with one movement. When you're strength training, you just do your squats and deadlifts and that’s it.
There is a little more to do than just the exercises: You have to eat so your body can build that muscle, and sleep so it can repair your damaged muscles into new, stronger ones. You don’t have a problem with eating and sleeping, do you?
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com.