Conquer Weight-Lifting Fears: Seriously, Your Health Might Depend On It

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Brace yourselves: We’re taking a trip back to Vegas. Mentally, anyway.

Prior to my two-week visit this last April, I researched a handful of gyms to see which could offer a trial membership or a weekly pass for a reasonable rate, or if any allowed existing members—i.e., my girlfriend Kat, with whom I stayed for my entire trip—to bring along a buddy. The results of my research proved to be less than pleasing. The lowest price for a weekly membership still clocked in at $40—more than I pay for my current gym dues for the entire month. It’s kind of hard to justify spending that much for temporary gym access when my girlfriend’s neighborhood offers an abundance of free pavement and hills. Not to mention the natural resistance factors: wind, heat, other people. Have you ever exercised in the dessert? It’s basically like running into a blow-dryer. One that only blows dust.

However, there was no way I was willing to sacrifice my workouts for two weeks—not only because I’m a bit of a fitness freak, but also because I was about to be in the company of Kat and all my other super-fit, bikini-wearing, poolside-cocktail-serving friends. And also because I was planning on eating meals the size of my face on the regular. If you are wondering how many times a variation of the phrase, “It’s OK, you’re on vacation!” can be used whilst on said vacation, the answer is, like, so many times. So, I opted for the next best thing: a free three-day pass to Kat’s gym (courtesy of my continued use of a Nevada driver’s license, I was able to pose as a local, which enabled me to obtain said three-day pass), outdoor runs for the remainder of my stay, and some creative weight-lifting activities using the barbell I found in Kat’s room.

One of the personal trainers approached me during the first of my three days, said she had a no-show for her next session, and offered to work me out for free. After I agreed, a devilish grin spread across her face. She said something to the effect of, “I’m known for high-intensity butt-kicking.” Suddenly I found myself wishing I’d eaten more than a scoop of almond butter for breakfast.

We went over my usual cardio and weight-lifting routine, then discussed my height, weight, and general lifestyle.

My trainer said simply, “You’re skinny-fat.” Then she sort of giggled. “First, let me see how you run.”

At the time, her comment didn’t mean much to me—I’ve always thought of my body as somewhat in the in-between. “Skinny” seems to refer to people who starve themselves until they’re void of curves and muscles—mine might be small, but I certainly have both—yet I’m definitely not in the “fat” category. Slender, lean, or athletic might be words that describe me. But skinny, fat, or skinny-fat? Nah. So I mimicked her sort of giggle, got up on the treadmill, ran at my usual pace, and, wouldn’t you know it?

I was doing everything wrong.

As I watched my trainer watch me, I tried very hard to make running look easy. The truth is, I run almost every day—but no one ever monitors me or critiques my form. My gym doesn’t even have mirrors in front of the cardio equipment (the wall is all windows), so the only way I can watch myself is if the natural light provides some sort of reflected glare of my silhouette.

During my running assessment, I learned how to target two important body parts—arms and legs—to improve my overall running capability and reduce the risk for injury.

>>Arms: How your arms swing when you run impacts your joints—and if you swing improperly, it could lead to pain that causes you to stop exercising, either by choice or by force. If you have shoulder pain when you run, it’s likely a result of how your arms swing during the exercise. Swinging too vigorously can cause torso and shoulder rotation, which strains the shoulders and neck. (This pain can be further exacerbated by an incorrectly fitted bra, so make sure you wear a supportive sports bra every time you work out.) Run with your arms slightly bent, but keep them swinging parallel to your legs at all times—your arms shouldn’t cross over your midsection. I have been monitoring my arm swings for the last few months and have noticed a dramatic improvement in muscle strain and subsequent shoulder pain.

>>Legs: Sure, they do a great job of propelling you forward—but are your legs really pumping out proper form? “Act like you’re kicking a soccer ball every time the opposite leg comes forward,” my trainer explained. This technique is a little trickier, but helpful nonetheless. It prevents the knees and lower legs from wanting to turn inward, which can cause problems down the road. Years of running improperly actually caused my trainer to undergo multiple surgeries on her legs and hips, accompanied by lengthy physical therapy sessions to address the problems. Thus, she said she tries to stress to her clients the importance of proper cardio form—in addition to proper weight-lifting form.

After I got off the treadmill, my trainer threw me into that high-intensity, butt-kicking workout she had boasted about. I’m talking full-body circuit training that made it difficult to walk for the next few days. Somewhere near the halfway point of our workout, that phrase surfaced again:

“You really are so skinny-fat, though.”

OK, lady—you win. Now I’m going to start asking questions. Such as, you know, what does that mean?

“You do a lot of cardio, but not a lot of lifting,” she said. “You neglect core work. And because you’re naturally thin, you probably don’t pay much attention to your diet.”

Well… yes and no. Concerning my body in particular, her assessment was a bit off—especially considering that just a half hour before I had given her a summary of my lifestyle, which included a discussion of my weight-lifting routines and generally healthy nutrition habits. But, I didn’t push the issue, mainly because I was focusing on not dying via burpee-plank-pushup circuit. But now that I’ve researched this skinny-fat term? Well, now I have something to say. And I will start by saying that my trainer had a point when she mentioned weight-lifting in her well-intentioned (albeit, misaligned) assessment of my fitness regimen.

The body has two main types of fat: One you see, and one you don’t. The one you see is the one most people are usually more concerned about. It’s the kind of fat that builds up around our hips, abs, and thighs. It’s the fat that makes our arms jiggle a little more than we’d like, and the flabby evidence we women wear special undergarments to conceal.

But what if I told you that the other kind of fat—the invisible kind—is actually equally, if not more, dangerous than your love handles? This invisible fat—called visceral fat—builds up around organs such as the liver, heart, and lungs; and it produces inflammatory compounds that contribute to the development of so many diseases. This invisible fat is so dangerous precisely because it is invisible—the skinny-fat population may not even know they have excess visceral fat, yet they run the risk of contracting some of the same chronic diseases as obese folks—such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

In his book Get Serious: A Neurosurgeon’s Guide to Optimal Health and Fitness, Brett Osborn, DO, FAANS, CSCS, asserts that the risk of developing many health problems can be greatly reduced simply by adding strength-training to our workouts. That’s right, people: Hit the weights, and you’ll improve not just your appearance but your internal health, too.

How? For starters, muscle cells contain proteins that work to power the body; gaining more muscle increases our metabolism and helps the body function more efficiently. Fat, by contrast, is an endocrine organ—it releases hormones and other chemicals that create loads of problems associated with risk factors for all those chronic diseases. Fill your body with muscle, and the fat won’t be able to creep in.

Back to my trainer’s assessment of my skinny-fatness: She may have (slightly) incorrectly evaluated my body, but I can’t fault her too much, considering that was the first time we had ever met. The thing is, I do lift weights. Daily. Sometimes I target muscle groups when I lift; other times I do hybrid moves that simultaneously work multiple muscles. I try to exhibit proper form with all lifts and can actually work out with confidence in the male-dominated weight room. I also do cardio, usually in the form of running. Daily. I do core exercises—and since my training session, I have tried to incorporate more of these exercises into my routines.  I eat relatively healthy; there’s fruit in my fridge and whole grain bread on my counter and peanut butter in my cupboard. I don’t crave sweets or drink soda, nor am I a huge fan of processed foods.

This wasn’t always the case, though. When I look back five years ago, I realize I’m basically the hipster of skinny-fat people—as in, I was skinny-fat before that was even a recognizable term, back in my pizza-for-every-meal, just-sleep-and-you’ll-be-skinny-in-the-morning days. Now, I’ve reformed my habits, but I’m far from perfect. Should I drink more water? Yes. Could I embrace kale a little more? Maybe. Should I take more vitamins and supplements? Probably. But overall, I’m a lot healthier than the average 20-something.

It’s troubling that my trainer labeled me as skinny-fat without first gathering all her facts—not because I’m personally insulted, but because clearly she comes across a lot of people who fit my general description and do fall into that skinny-fat category. With two-thirds of America overweight as it is, it’s a little unsettling to wonder just how much invisible fat is hiding somewhere in the rest of the population.

So, what’s the bottom line? Regardless of size, shape, or the number on the scale, everyone should add strength-training to their workouts to begin the fight against fat. It’s not an issue of appearance—although regular exercise can help in that department, too—but rather, it’s about being healthy on the inside. It’s about taking care of your body so it doesn't become a target for disease later in life. While we’re busy labeling ourselves as skinny, fat, or skinny-fat, these labels accomplish nothing. I do believe my trainer meant well when she called me skinny-fat, and perhaps if I had worked with her again she would have taken that one step further and actually shown me specific lifts to combat visceral fat.

Not everyone has the luxury of working with a trainer, though; outside of a free session or a special occasion, I certainly don’t. As suggested by Dr. Osborn (the author/neurosurgeon/bodybuilder I mentioned earlier who is a strong proponent of strength-training), the following five exercises can easily be added to your workout routine for a total-body, muscle-building workout. Worried about bulking up? Don’t be—and stop using that as an excuse not to hit the weights! Use 10 to 15 pounders, and keep your reps between 10 and 20. Soon, you’ll be on your way to building lean muscle and blasting away that skinny-fat.

1. Squats: This exercise is a basic movement around which you can center all training. Though usually categorized as a lower-body lift, squats work many different muscles—from your hamstrings to your core to your biceps. Plus, the repeated act forces the body to grow more muscle to support the squatted weight. Although you may want to add extra poundage with dumbbells, a barbell, or the use of a squat machine, it’s possible to do squats sans equipment—making this a great full-body exercise you can do anytime, anywhere.
>>How to: Start with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent—but make sure they don’t extend past the toes. Put the pressure on your heels (not your knees), keep your head straight, and keep your back in a neutral position (flat to a slight arch). Breathe in as you squat to a 90-degree angle—check to see that your legs stay turned out and knees don’t cave in—then exhale as you return to start.

2. Overhead Press: Targeted muscles of this lift are the shoulders, arms, and chest, but other muscles—most importantly, the lower back—stabilize the force that is transmitted from feet to hands. Lower body muscles must also work to counter the downward force of the weight. Pay special attention to your form during this exercise; your core will strengthen over time, contributing to better posture. Use two dumbbells or a barbell and an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width.
>>How to: Stand with feet together or just narrower than shoulder width. Rest the weight on the top of your chest and retain a slight arch to the back (but be sure not to overextend). As you lift, your torso will naturally move forward until you are standing straight—the goal is to get your both your arms and torso straight, elbows locked, then return to start with slow, controlled movements. Be careful not to hit your chin!

3. Deadlift: The large backside muscles—hamstrings, buttocks, and lumbar extensors—and quadriceps are the center of this exercise. Some people actually consider deadlifts to be the most complete training exercise—and it’s great for a quick booty lift! As power is transferred from the lower body into the bar through the upper body, upper back muscles are also stressed (different from squats, which are supported by the hands). Most people use a barbell for this exercise, but as you advance you may want to experiment with dumbbells. Always use an overhand grip.
>>How to: Proper form is essential for all exercises, but it is especially pertinent to deadlifts in order to avoid serious injury. Start with legs a bit wider than shoulder width, shins close to the barbell. Bend with your knees but focus pressure on your large leg muscles and heels. Keep your back straight, head aligned with your back, and face forward. Avoid going into a squat—keep those hips high! Maintain straight arms up through the lift until you reach a full standing position, then lower down to the starting position keeping the same form you used to first grab the barbell.

4. Bench Press: This simple exercise mostly targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps. It’s a favorite among weightlifters—and women can especially benefit from the bench press because it tightens chest muscles, creating a natural lift. The entire upper body is stressed during this exercise, but the lower body also must function as a stabilizer. Perform this lift with a barbell or dumbbells, and use an overhand grip.
>>How to: Choose your grip width—narrow, shoulder width, or wide—then lie back on the bench and hold the weight above your lower chest. Keep your wrists straight! The weight should rest in the space between your thumb and index finger; resist the urge to let your wrists roll back. Invest in workout gloves with adjustable wrist straps to help with this. Slowly push the weight off your chest until your arms are straight. Use your core to keep your lower back flat against the bench. Lower the weight back to start.

5. Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups: A pull-up is done when hands grip over the bar; a chin-up, when hands grip under. Ninety percent of people can’t do these exercises purely because they haven’t put in the effort, says Dr. Osborn. And don’t think it’s a “man’s exercise”—there are no gender-specific exercises! Pull-ups and chin-ups are remarkably helpful in working biceps and sculpting a super-sexy back. Most gyms have protruding bars all over the place to perform these lifts, but as long as you find a structure that will support your weight—a doorway, the empty space below your deck, the monkey bars at your neighborhood park—you’re all set. Many gyms also offer an assisted pull-up/chin-up machine.
>>How to: Choose the space or machine that best suits your skill level, experience, and comfort. An assisted machine is great for beginners because it allows users to essentially “remove” part of their body weight—if the user weighs 140 pounds but can only do a 100-pound pull-up, he or she can set the machine to assist with the remaining 40 pounds. Grip the bar appropriately, pull yourself up—get that chin over the bar!—then lower yourself back down, straightening your arms. Pull-ups and chin-ups are two of the most difficult exercises, so don’t get frustrated if you can only do 1 or 2 at a time, or if you need to use the assisted machine. Keep at it and track your progress. A helpful hint: incorporating back-strengthening exercises into your workouts will help you develop the ability to do pull-ups and chin-ups by working related muscles.

Erica Tasto is the author of The Natural Suite blog and an editor for Natural Solutions and Alternative Medicine magazines. Follow her on twitter @editorerica.