About six years ago, I joined the gym with the usual goal: to lose fat and get abs. The weight-training area looked so daunting (what are all those machines and why are there only guys over there?!). Plus, I thought lifting would make me bulky and manly. So I headed straight for the cardio area and stayed there.
I started going to the gym two or three times a week, doing continuous cardio (mainly running) with a few abdominal exercises here and there. And the cardio worked! I started losing weight. I spent the next two years sweating it out on the treadmill before one day realising that even though I had lost some fat, there wasn’t an inch of muscle on my body. There was no part of me that was toned. I felt weak. I wanted to not just look better, but also feel better. And I knew the only way that was going to happen was to start lifting weights.
I used to call the weight area the “men’s section.” It was so intimidating how it was only full of guys, and I felt like they would all be watching me. But with my new goal of building muscle and sculpting my body, I knew I had to get past that.
Because my gym got really busy during the evenings, I started going in the mornings. At first, I stuck with the machines—leg extension, seated hamstring curl, lat pull down, chest press—and practiced bodyweight exercises at home, like lunges, squats, and curtsy lunges. Because I had never done this before, I started researching proper form on my own at home and made sure to read those instructional cards on each machine that explained how it was used.
After my first few workouts, the soreness was real. Even though I was using light weights, my muscles would ache for days and days. Sometimes it would even hurt to sit down on a seat. But I started to notice a huge difference in my strength almost immediately, and that feeling got me hooked.
My muscles adapted quickly and the extreme soreness dissipated. I started to see changes in my body physically and mentally, and noticed I had way more energy.
I became friends with a personal trainer who used the same gym, and we started to train together every so often, which exposed me to all new exercises as well as good form and skills. I started incorporating free weights and the barbell. I learned how to deadlift. At first I was scared to lift heavy on squats and deadlifts, but training with someone else who knew what they were doing really helped me overcome this.
And the more I went, the stronger I got and the more weight I found I could pull. Plus, I realised, since I had to engage my core to support every weight-training move, I was actually strengthening and sculpting my abs like never before.
I still go for runs outside now and then, since I enjoy the fresh air and clear mind, but I don’t spend hours on end doing cardio like I used to. Now, I train five to six times a week depending on my work schedule, almost exclusively lifting, with intervals of cardio for 10 to 15 minutes before or after.
I follow a hypertrophy training program, which involves high and low reps with resistance bands and weights. Recently, I’ve been dedicating three days to lower body—legs, glute isolation, and lower-body strength—and three days to upper body—chest/back, shoulders and biceps, and triceps.
Leg and glute day are my favourite and I really love squats for building my quads, hip thrusts for glutes, and deadlifts for an overall, full-body compound move.
I eat about five times a day, including my post-workout protein shake. I see food as fuel now, necessary for seeing progression and results. I find it really important to eat in balance without eliminating foods or depriving myself of anything because that’s most sustainable for the future. I just try to limit the amount of sugary foods I eat and opt for healthier sources of carbohydrates in my diet such as whole grains, sweet potato, vegetables, fruits, and lower-fat dairy products.
My goals six years ago was to “get abs” and I used to think cardio and crunches would get me there. But it wasn’t until I started lifting weights and varying my abdominal exercises that I started to see a major change. You don’t realise how much you use your core muscles in order to perform powerful rapid movements like deadlifts!
Fitness started out as a way to lose weight, but now it’s something I use to push myself out of my comfort zone to become stronger every day, mentally and physically.
SHANTE’S NUMBER-ONE TIP
Don’t be afraid to add resistance training to your workouts. Once you know how to use machines, they aren't nearly as scary as they seem. Each machine has a picture demonstrating how to use it with teaching points—read it! The best way to conquer something that intimidates you is to learn about it. Gaining knowledge and skills will help you gain the confidence.
Follow Shante’s fitness journey @shantefranca.
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This article originally appeared on Women's Health US