What You Need To Know About Strength Training

Pump up your muscles

by Molly Hurford

Was your New Year’s Resolution to get into baller shape this year? Or at least to get healthier, feel more confident, or have better posture? Whatever your health and fitness goal, there’s one simple way to hit your target in the next 11 months: strength training. And not so fast, it’s not as intimidating as it might seem.

As an awkward, tattooed 19-year-old with low-self-esteem, I found the heavy lifting gym where the football team did their grungiest workouts to be a weird place at first to, you know, find myself—and my confidence. But as I sprinted away on the treadmill in an effort to drop those pounds I'd packed on courtesy of dining hall food my freshman year, I was intrigued by the clang of weights in the background. Finally, a friend of a friend—noticing that I had a lot of natural strength (thanks, Eastern European body type!)—dared me to enter a weight-based bench press competition. And with no training at all and armed only with the kind of attitude that means a dare will never go unanswered, I won third place. 

This win kicked off a decade-long love affair with lifting weights; and no, I never bulked up or Hulked out. In fact, if you're worried about that, don't be: Studies have shown that women tend to have too much estrogen to truly get jacked from lifting a few times a week.   

What's kept me coming back to weights is the endorphin rush, the enhanced back muscles that make a low-backed wedding dress a necessity (shake it while you got it!), and the confident way that I walked (strutted) after a gym session. All of this made dealing with the football team being underfoot totally worth it. And it's not just me who feels this way; in 2015, a study came out that showed women who strength train actually improved their self-esteem. And the best part about strength training is that once you master a few key movements, you’re set.  

To get the expert-level wisdom, I turned to Clance Laylor (Coach Clance, as he’s known in the Olympic lifting world). Not only does he own a renowned gym in Toronto, he’s trained his four daughters to be weight-lifting badasses (seriously, check out his Instagram). His reason for pushing his girls into weight training? It’s all about confidence. 

"I believe it’s great for general health and confidence,” he says. "Having four daughters, I see the difference when they started to lift weights. One daughter of mine was very shy, very quiet, very afraid to talk in school. Her getting stronger made a huge difference for her confidence.” 

Now, that daughter is one of the top lifters in Canada.  

But if you’re not goaling for Olympic greatness, you can still have buns—and biceps—of steel. How? Coach Clance has some advice. 

Find the Right Training Ground and Get Schooled 

"Find a gym where the people make you feel comfortable, and work to figure out what your wants and needs are,” says Coach Clance. You want to find a coach or trainer who will work within your limitations, but will also push you. He adds that the biggest mistake people make is deciding to "get in shape” before seeking professional help. So a new-to-lifting person will hit the gym with no real idea of proper lifting techniques, and won’t seek help until they're injured or until bad habits have already formed. The most cost-effective way to get trained is actually to seek expert help first, learn proper technique, and then work out on your own.  

Start with Body Weight 

The nice thing about using your own body weight is that it’s a lot harder to get injured—and you can practice anywhere. Planks and push-ups are easy ways to tone your whole body, as are quick sets of air squats. But Coach Clance’s favorite is getting women to do chin-ups (similar to a pull-up, but with your palms facing toward you when you grip the bar). "I love when women move their body weight, like chin-ups,” he says. "The goal in our gym is to get women to do 12 chin-ups.” And he has a high rate of success too—women are much more capable than we often believe that we are. 

Add Free Weights 

Single-sided exercises with free weights target not only the muscles that are the focus of the exercise, but your stabilizer muscles and core as well. When you’re unbalanced with the weight, you’re doing more work. When Coach Clance starts with a newbie, he says he focuses on unilateral work with dumbbells and cables—and he loves a good split squat. Using one side at a time really hones technique, and lets you lift more meaningfully, not just smash through a set.  

Skip the Machines 

It’s tempting to go into a gym and just walk from machine to machine, adjusting weight to random settings and pushing or pulling and trying to mimic the diagram that’s almost rubbed away. But machines are nowhere near as effective—or badass—as lifting free weights. "Machines lock you in a predetermined pathway and destabilize your stabilizer muscles so that they aren’t working,” Coach Clance says. “Dumbbells, on the other hand, work every plane of the body.” For example: Using a machine to help you bench press means you don’t need to work on keeping the bar from wobbling side to side, thus you’re missing out on a ton of free core work.

Choose the Right Weight 

"Technique is paramount,” Coach Clance says. Start light, and gradually add weight, assessing your technique as you go. You’re going too heavy if you can no longer lift properly! “Start with technique first, then load,” is his rule of thumb. There’s no shame in doing moves without any weight, or with the dollhouse-sized dumbbells to start with. You’ll be adding weight in no time.

Breathe as You Lift 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to focus on your breathing. “Before you take the weight, trap the air. As you do the move, you exhale,” Coach Clance says. This won’t just improve your lifting, it will work your core and strengthen your abs as you lift.  

Your Best Move: The Split Squat 

"I love the split squat,” Coach Clance says. "It works the stabilizer muscles, it burns a ton of calories, it works your legs. That’s the best bang-for-your-buck move.” Start with one foot in front, with your knee bent just past 90 degrees, while the other leg goes out straight behind you. Keep your feet wide, hips width apart, so you have more support and stability. Keep your back knee as straight as possible, and keep the back foot on your toe while front foot is flat on the ground. Now, come up slowly, so your legs are both straight. Bend the front knee again, really driving that knee as far over the toes as possible. Most people don’t drive their knees over their toes, Coach Clance says—but to do the move right, keep your torso upright, or slightly leaned back. You get a great workout, this is taxing even with no weight. "The cardiovascular demand for this is huge,” he adds. And as you get more confident with it, add dumbbells in each hand. (And, of course, always repeat on both sides!) 

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Intimidating 

“It can be intimidating for a lot of men when they see women lift heavy!” Coach Clance says. "But if a man can’t handle it, my gym isn’t the place for him.” 

That’s a good life rule, actually—now get out there and intimidate the hell out of some bros!