Women are muscling their way into the weight room

07/28/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

Gary Fiebach is a former bodybuilder whose wife confidently curls dumbbells and bench presses 55 pounds as she goes about her fitness routine three days a week at the gym.

But Fiebach and his wife, Marie, still call the area with the free weights “the scary part of the weight room.”

“You’re the only woman in there,” Marie Fiebach, a Wichita mother in her late 30s, said. “It’s definitely the more male-centric part. You get into the machine part and there are more women.”

The discomfort of being looked at as you lie down to do a chest press or lift a bar off the rack to do a squat or face the mirror to check your form is familiar to women who have ventured into the free-weight room. Even trainers understand.

“There’s big guys walking around and they’re grunting and they’re throwing a lot of weight around. It can be intimidating for anybody,” said Ashley Lentz, metro wellness and personal training director for the Wichita YMCA.

But there are reasons that women should lift free weights in addition to whatever other exercise they do. Free weights build bone and burn calories in ways that no other gym equipment or workout – not even weight machines – can match. And the change that the weights produce in muscles results not in bulk – as some women fear – but in improved tone.

Lacking women-only weight rooms (women-only Curves does not have free weights), here are some ways women can be more comfortable lifting weights in the gym.

Gain confidence

Fiebach learned the proper way to lift weights from her husband. Using the right form ensures that people don’t hurt themselves – something that’s easier to do with free weights than with machines – and it maximizes effectiveness.

Many people can’t afford to hire a trainer to go with them every time they go into the weight room, but at least some introductory instruction from a trainer is recommended before lifting weights. People also can band together for a group session with a trainer for less cost.

Learning how to lift properly gives you “the confidence that you know you’re doing it right,” Fiebach said. “I don’t care if someone is looking me.”

After hitting a plateau with her exercise in 2012, Fiebach decided to try the Y’s MobileFit app to move forward. She met with a trainer a couple of times to get it set up. The customized app gives her specific exercises to do with weights each time she works out, changing up her routine and working all of her muscles over three sessions a week.

“It’s like having a mini trainer,” Fiebach said. “It keeps me moving; it pushes me harder.”

Strength in numbers

“The main thing is work out with a friend,” Ben Heithoff, personal training coordinator of the Genesis Health Club on Rock Road, said. He says the big gym on Rock Road is divided so that men tend to use one part, while the other part is a mix of men and women.

The Y has “functional training areas” that are nooks with some free weights and other workout equipment where both men and women can work out apart from the big weight room. “Women tend to gravitate to those,” Lentz said. The Y is in the planning phase of piloting women-only areas at a couple of its branches, she said.

Take a class

While hand weights can be toted around the gym or purchased for use at home, larger equipment is not as portable or home-friendly.

But some gyms offer strength-building classes that teach the basics of weightlifting.

“I think a lot of women are intimidated to go in what I call the big-boy area, so I think a lot of them use our classes for that,” said Shalen Scheltgen, metro group exercise coordinator for the Wichita YMCA. “It’s a great way to learn your form, and everybody is doing the same thing.”

At Muscle Pump classes at the Y, for example, an aerobic step is used in place of a bench for bench presses. The only thing that can’t be duplicated is the machine that has a bar that is pulled down with a wide grip, Scheltgen said.

Smaller gyms

Shop around for a gym where you are comfortable. Try it out at different times of day. Older people who don’t have jobs tend to come in the mornings, while the working set comes early in the morning before work or in the evening after work, said Eric Wilson, owner of Fit Physique Fitness Center at 2111 N. Maize Road.

“Ours is quite a bit smaller than most gyms, so people fearful of a lot of people watching and not wanting to be embarrassed in any way, I think we do a great job with that,” Wilson said.

One of the gym’s members who lifts weights, E. Rogene Glenn, agrees.

“I love the people at the gym,” Glenn said. “But I think you need to have a trainer so you’re doing things properly.”

Seeing the results

Glenn, 73, started going to the gym 15 years ago after she was diagnosed with osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis, a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle. She started doing weight-bearing exercises and lifting weights, using both free weights and machines.

“I was at the time on Fosamax and did not like the side effects, so I quit 10 years ago, and now have increased my bone density to above the charts, and I take no medication,” Glenn said.

Glenn is indicative of an increasing number of older women who are lifting weights, said Scheltgen of the Y.

“I think there’s been a slow and steady increase especially in women who are 40-plus,” she said.

Weights offer strength and support to people who have osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and they are a good way to help prevent osteoporosis, a condition that more women than men get, said Nadia Gibson, a rheumatologist at Via Christi Clinic.

“Especially as they’re getting older, it’s good to prevent this,” Gibson said of women.

And free weights build bone more effectively than machines do, Gibson said. “They’re more bang for your buck. The only thing is to be careful to make sure you’re using the weights properly so you’re not injuring yourself in the process.”

Free weights also are good for general health, the doctor said. For example, as you build muscle you burn more calories, so weight-lifting encourages weight loss. “Weight is tied to a number of problems,” Gibson said.

And weightlifting works differently from aerobic exercise in weight loss, she said. When you’re doing aerobics, you’re burning calories at that time. But when you lift weights, you burn calories throughout the day.

A ‘time machine’

“I’m now much stronger,” said Mary Wehrheim, 61, who started working out a few years ago after her mother died and she put on a lot of weight. Free weights are part of a routine that helped her go from a size 20 to a size 4 or 6. “I can pick up heavier boxes. If I fall, I manage not to hurt myself.”

In addition, “at my age you get those bat wings,” she said. Working with weights “firms up my arms. … I have a nice muscle tone. It firmed up my chin.”

Wehrheim works out twice a week with a trainer.

“We do all kinds of things. … I’m 61 but I feel like I’m 21. … It’s sort of like being on some sort of time machine.”

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