Who has patience for endless reps on the Cybex machine? Not Patricia Marx, who picks up an Olympic-size barbell and discovers a speedy new routine for the time-crunched.
There are two types of people: those who love exercising (they talk about “endorphins kicking in” and “working up a good sweat”) and those who love to have finished exercising (during a workout, their eyes are focused on the clock and afterward they promptly weigh themselves in the locker room). Oh, and there is a third type, too – those who detest physical exertion of any sort, who live by the motto “Too far to walk” and use the stationary bicycle (a gift, perhaps, from a concerned relative) as a clothes rack. Put me somewhere between the second and the third type: I am a big fan of sitting, but I want to look as if I do more than that. That’s why, after a lifetime of never regularly lifting anything other than pocketbooks and grocery bags (don’t underestimate the heaviness of a few litres of diet Coke), I have spent the last six weeks lifting a barbell.
Weight training, also called strength training and – my favorite – “resistance training” (which sounds like a class a teenager takes to deal with their parents), is, as we all have heard by now, supposedly the fastest and most efficient way to boost your metabolism, gain strength, and change the shape of your body. Fitness experts promise that if you do it, your old clothes will swim on your new physique in anywhere from four to six months.
I’d always assumed that dramatic results required at least one painful hour in the gym, bounding from one Cybex machine to another, performing an excruciating number of reps on each. But a few months ago, I discovered Olympic wight lifting. By this, I mean heaving barbells – large dumbbells consisting of bars a couple of feet in length and weights the circumference of mountain-bike wheels. This is the stuff of Olympic weight-lifting competitions, rigorous but far less time consuming than standard resistance training. Of course, Olympians do plenty of other grueling exercise to get into shape, but I planned to skip that and go straight to the clean-and-jerk. This is one of the two lifts performed by the weight lifters in actual competitions (the other lift is the snatch, and, trust me, you do not want to be on the bad side of anyone who is able to do one of those.) The clean-and-jerk involves bringing the barbell from the floor to your shoulders (the clean), then raising it overhead (the jerk), and finally returning it to the floor along the same route (the “phew”). Because each move involves using muscles all over the body, unlike the moves done on the usual strength-training machine, it is a very efficient way to work out. My routine, at Lift Gym in Manhattan, would consist of 20 minutes of agony, three times a week.
At the entrance to the women’s locker room is a poster of Marilyn Monroe, who was an ardent weight lifter, as are Madonna and Oprah Winfrey. Actress Mira Sorvino, singer Mary J. Blige, and model Carolyn Murphy work out at Lift, but so far, I have not seen them. Mostly, I have seen fantastically fit trainers and their clients , who do not always look as fantastically fit.
My trainer is 35-year-old Ken Fitzgerald, the gyms owner. Ken is boyishly good looking: if he had told me that he stared in a Disney production of The Adventures of Huck Finn as a kid, I wouldn’t have been surprised. (It is ironic how cute most trainers are when you consider that they are in the business of inflicting torture) For the sake of the before and after comparison, Ken assessed my physical fitness on Day One. Meanwhile I tried to bait him into complimenting me.
“I guess you’ve never seen anyone so out of shape, huh?” I said, fully expecting Ken to deny such an assumption and to insist I am in incredible shape. Instead, he responded by saying that he has a client who is 72.
I also informed Ken that I did not want to become a she-male of rippling muscle’s. He replied that this would be almost impossible. As Valerie Lyon, M.D., a Manhattan physician specializing in women’s health, explained to me, “Becoming huge requires testosterone- which women don’t have too much of-hours and hours and hours of training and absurd amounts of steroids.” The regimen Ken selected consisted of alternating stints of cardiovascular exercise (for strengthening the heart and lungs) and lifting weights. It is too exhausting to rest, I was forced to fill my breaks with stationary-bike-riding (some break!). Specifically, I do four minutes of pedaling followed by ten clean-and-jerk lifts, a cycle I repeat four times.
While I lift the barbell, I stand on an Olympic platform. It is roughly the square footage of a king size bed and a few inches from the ground. It is made of wood , just like the surface Olympic weights lifters stand on, with a wide rubber border, the better to drop a weight on. In case you are too impressed, please know that I am doing a modified clean-and-jerk, which means I lift the weights from the floor to my waist before I lift it to shoulder height and then upward. I also complain and groan all the way, ever disputing the accuracy of Ken’s counts (“No, that can’t be four! I have done eight at least!”). Olympic weight lifters do not groan; they grunt. They also do an imposing scissors kick as the weight is thrust over the shoulders. I omit the kick, satisfied to have completed my workout without dropping the barbell on my foot. One more difference: I started out with a barbell weighing five pounds, and though I would have preferred to work my way down, I worked my way up and can now lift 40 pounds. (Cheryl Haworth, the 300-plus pound nineteen-year-old- from Savannah who is favored to win the 2004 Olympics in Women’s weight lifting, can lift more than 300 pounds.)
The day after my first session I could not sit down or stand up without wishing I had a walker. Because of my major form of exercise has been in-line skating (I skate nearly every day), I was surprised that my legs were much sorer than my arms. Ken explained that this was because I was now also using the stationary bicycle, thus taxing my legs twice. (if I had used the rowing machine for cardiovascular exercise, then my arms would have hurt more than my legs.) By the third day of training, my stiffness disappeared.
During my sessions, ken tried to motivate me by telling me about the health benefits of strength training. Like the conventional lift-and-lower Cybex routine, barbell-lifting not only reduces your body fat by building muscle, it also increases your metabolism for many hours after you have finished your workout. This happens because your body requires more energy to build and maintain this new muscle, which involves repairing the microscopic tears caused by the strain of lifting. According to Lyon, weight lifting has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, elevate “good” cholesterol, prevent joint problems, promote better balance, improve circulation and posture, reduce the risk of diabetes, increase energy, raise self confidence, and lessen the chances of developing osteoporosis. “It does everything but your laundry” said Lyon. The health bonus with my new routine is that, without depending on a machine as a crutch, I’m forced to stabilize my entire body as I lift, thus improving my posture and balance even more.
Twenty minutes may seem shorter than eternity, but not when your lifting weights. In order to get through it, I play psychological tricks on myself (“You only have to lift five. Did I say five? I meant seven; OK, those seven don’t count. Now do three. What you can’t do three measly lifts?”). Or I look in the mirror at Ken, who squints his eyes and studies me as if he were looking at a used car, trying to decide whether it’s worth buying. From time to time, he will say one of the following: “Keep it tight,” “Press up,” “Chest out,” “Knees apart,” “Head up,” “Lower slowly.” At the end of each session, after struggling with the last of my 40 reps, I mentally congratulate myself for managing to handle such a heavy, heavy weight. But then as I catch my breath, I watch Ken pick up the barbell as if it were a toothpick and toss it back onto the weight stand. This somehow diminishes my sense of accomplishment.
And how diminished is my body? After six weeks, here is how I’ve changed:
- Body fat: decreased 5 percent (4.5 pounds)
- Muscle mass: increased 3.5 pounds.
- Total weight: decreased one pound.
- Waist: decreased one inch.
- Hips: decreased two inches.
- Thighs: decreased 1/2 inch.
- Upper arms: decreased 1/4 inch.
- Strength: Increased 60 percent.
- Ability to open jars and carry liters of diet Coke: noticeably improved.
I am pleased with these results – after all, I did spend a mere hour a week at the gym – and I plan to continue weight lifting, as well as complaining about it.
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