Weight and Resistance Training - How much weight can you do? Need advice on upper body moves

11-27-2010, 09:18 AM
Hi everybody,

I could use some counseling from you experienced ladies on upper body work with heavier hand weights. Since reaching goal with my weight I have been concentrating on upper body resistance exercises in addition to my cardio. (My legs are already rather tree-trunk-like from hiking so I don't worry about those so much.) I am interested both in functional fitness and combatting an emerging combination of middle-aged flabbiness-boniness: prominent collarbones, shoulder bones, and ribs combined with batwings.

The gym I go to is not very big. It is actually the gym of the local expatriate rugby league, but they also sell memberships to non-players. It is well equipped with cardio machines, a very full set of hand weights (going up to 100 in 5lb stages), a few resistance machines and some mysterious cages with bars that no one ever seems to use. One is labelled "Smith machine". I kind of would like to try them but I don't know how to work them, and I'm a bit scared of injuring myself (I can't even figure out what mechanism fixes the weights to the bars).

So I use the handweights and the lat pulldown machine mostly. I would really like to hear from others here about how much they are lifting in terms of hand weights, because I don't have any comparison and don't know what to shoot for. The other women members only use the cardio machines and the pink weights, and do some pilates type moves, so I am starting to feel a bit freakish. Do you do any of these? Can you tell me what you lift? Any advice?

This is what I'm on right now:

1) lat-pulldown machine (8 -10 reps, 3 sets): I am kind of stuck at 35lb, and the next one is 47lb, which I have not managed more than partially so far.
2) bent-over rows (I do them with hand and knee on a bench, is this right?) 30lb hand weight each arm. 8 -10 reps, 3 sets)
3) tricep extensions (over the head, both hands) 25 lb, 8 -10 reps, 3 sets.
4) bicep curls 25lb each hand (5-8 reps, 2 sets). My biceps are already kind of prominent in a way which is not fashionable locally, so I'm not focusing on those very much.

I do some others at high-rep, lower weight (5-10lbs) at home with my Jillian Michaels video: front raises, presses, chest fly. Are there any exercises that develop the muscles over the sternum to do something about my ribs? Do women have pecs there, or is it just men?

11-27-2010, 10:36 AM
bronzeager: you're not missing much by avoiding the Smith machine. It's useful as a pullup bar, in a pinch, but otherwise it's not good for much except giving people knee injuries on squats and shoulder injuries on bench.

To answer your questions more directly, the most effective exercises for upper body are the compound movements:
- for chest (and, yes, women have pectoral muscles): bench press, pushups, and dips
- for triceps and chest: dips
- for back: pullups / chinups and deadlifts
- for shoulders: overhead press, handstand pushups or easier variants

You'll notice that tricep kickbacks, bicep curls, and one-armed rows are absent from this list. The first two are isolation exercises and, IMO, a waste of time, especially if you're not trying to increase your bicep strength. One-armed rows are kind of on the border between isolation and compound, but I'm not a big fan: I see very few people in the gym doing them correctly, and doing them incorrectly is both a waste of time and a potential lower back injury.

Back to what's on the list. Dips, pullups, and pushups are body weight exercises, though you can add weight as you get stronger. Maybe one of the "mysterious cages" has a pullup bar, or there's always the Smith machine. It's harder to cobble together a dip station, but you can always do bench dips with plates on your lap. (Google for endless videos & demos).

In terms of weights to use on the other exercises, you should do enough weight to push yourself, but not so much that you lose good form. The amount of weight that you do should increase over time, too, so there's no "one" correct answer.

But, to give you a sense of working weights, here are mine. Note that I've been lifting a long, long time.
- bench press: 145lbs (PR is 155)
- overhead press w/ barbell: 80 lbs
- deadlift: 185 lbs (PR is 215).
- dips: 25 lbs added weight
- pullups: 8-10 reps

If you don't have access to a barbell with plates, presses and deadlifts can e done with dumbbells instead. I lift less with dumbbells than with barbells, which I think is pretty common.

Good luck, and good for you for moving out of the pink-weight & cardio area. That's half the battle.

b. strong,

PS. My go-to link for all things weightlifting for women is www.stumptuous.com. Krista does a great job of debunking gym myths, explaining exercises, and convincing women to lift.

11-27-2010, 10:54 AM
Uh, wow...feeling weak. LOL! I lift more than any other woman I've seen in my gym and I'm nowhere near what you guys are doing.

For bicep curls I'm proudly up to 15 pounds. :D I do three sets of 20. I also use 15 pounds for pec fly, overhead press, tricep kickbacks, tricep overhead and dead lifts with one in each hand, so I guess that's 30. I do three sets of 20 reps. When I increase the weights I do three sets of 12-15 reps.

For a bench press, man, the 45 pound bar is enough! LOL! But I can add 15 pounds total if someone is spotting me. I like to lift to the point of fatigue which I can't do without a spotter on the bench press.

In my body plus abs class, the weights only go up to 7.5 pounds and the women all struggle. I am the only one who will lift the 7.5 pound weight plus the 3 pound weight at the same time. One of these days I'm going to drag in the 12 pounders so I can challenge myself. There are more weights outside this isolated room I have access to, but all the women only use up to the 7.5 pound weights.

11-28-2010, 11:31 AM
Thanks for the feedback. I do pushups and dips but not as regularly as I should. I have added an alert to my iPod to make sure I do them every day. I had to think back why I did the biceps curls and triceps, because I started them originally for a particular reason. I had noticed that I was straining to move around heavy pots in the kitchen, between the countertop and stove, so I tried to think of what exercises would help with that. And of course the floppy upper arms.

There is a bar that the men use for pullups, part of a rack the cable flys are on. I'll have to see if I can reach it. There is also a captain's chair which I have worked up to leg lifts on, but I am very far from doing full body weight on dips and pullups. I may be able to hang pathetically for a bit. I was hoping the lat pulldowns would develop some of those muscles, although I know they are not exactly the right ones.

I read through a lot of articles in Stumptuous a while ago, I should go back again. They had really good tips but I found them a little intimidating as they're so enthusiastic. I am not really fond of exercise, I really mostly started thinking about doing the heavy weights because doing 20 minutes in the gym a few times a week sounded like a better deal than eight million reps with a 3lb weight. The crankyfitness website (http://www.crankyfitness.com/) is more my personality. :)

11-28-2010, 12:14 PM
kaw said it pretty well. I don't use dumbbells right now in my routine, body weight or barbells but I also go to a gym geared for that.

If you can't do tricep dips, you can do them from a bench. You'd just adjust your legs to create difficulty. Leg in is easier, leg out is harder, 1 leg up is harder.

Pushups are excellent, I don't do bench presses myself so I don't know what I could do.

For pullups, I use a band to help me get up to the bar but lat pulldowns are a good substitute.

Deadlifts, squats and lunges are the exercises I'd recommend for the legs.

I would also say that I'd avoid the smith machine but a barbell/cage can be useful in the future. I'd just avoid anything that has static movement like the smith machines.

11-28-2010, 12:20 PM
I use the Smith machine for squats, but with my body at an angle, NOT straight up and down. My PT says that's better for the knees. I stand so that the bar is supporting my weight.

It's also good for the bench press if you don't have a spotter, but the free weights are better if you have someone to help. There's a lot more balancing to be done with the free weights, thereby working more muscles in a different way.

11-28-2010, 12:31 PM
I used to use the smith machine but they do force your body into a position that may cause injury. Squatting so the bar supports your weight is a bit... odd. I personally think a barbell or dumbbells would be a better choice.

Oh and I do have bad knees, osteoarthritis but since I've started doing my current program, they haven't bothered me, even while doing 100+ lbs. Although it is best to follow doctors orders because not everyone is the same. My doctor personally liked full depth squats.

11-29-2010, 10:52 PM
It's a very personal thing, how much you lift. I heard something years ago that always kind of stuck in the back of my mind when I was doing free weights...

If you're working the muscle to failure your last 3 reps should feel kind if impossible, but something you can still manage to do (if only barely). When you're done the reps it should be because to do any more reps your form would be compromised. From that, scale down from that accordingly. I was told you should only work to your max once a week really. Most times you'll be lifting around 80-85% of your max.

You're lifting a good bit of weight, don't get discouraged! Most women don't go into the gym conscientiously trying to bench x-number of pounds. If that's your goal, great, but it will take time to achieve. Keep a journal and keep progressing. It's easy to fall into a rut and keep lifting the same weights, but you have to make an effort to challenge yourself if you really want to see your strength improve.

And I agree with some of the other ladies that bodyweight training (with some dumbells thrown is) is the way to go. You'll drastically see your strength improve if you start doing things like dips and pushups and pullups. I was amazed at the results I got from that in so short a time.

And I also agree that isolation exercises won't strengthen you the same way dynamic, functional exercises are. Trying doing lunges with a bicep curl, rows from a squat position. Try experimenting with the bosu to give yourself some core work. Anything that isolates a muscle will strength that one specific muscle in that one specific way. The more movement you can incorporate into your routines the more strength you'll gain (overall) and the better calorie burn you'll get.

12-05-2010, 01:01 AM
OK, followup question (if anyone is still reading this). One reason I lift the "numbered" weights instead of just doing body weight is because I like to see my progress that way. But why are pushups so much easier than bench presses? If I can do 20 pushups and my arms are holding up a large part of my own body weight, why can I only lift a tiny fraction of my body weight in presses with weights or the machine?

12-05-2010, 03:11 AM
The nice thing about body weight training (whether on it's own or combined with the type of training you're doing) is that it's functional training. That's how you see results faster and that's how you maximize your calorie burn. Isolated movements work one specific muscle (like a bench press) where as pushups would work your shoulders, your back, your biceps and your core. It's a more all-over exercise. Even if you incorporated some combined isolated movements (like a squat and a row or lunges and bicep curls) you'd probably see faster results.

As for your question...think about the exercise itself. In a bench press you're pushing against gravity using basically just your chest. In a pushup you're lowering your body with gravity and you have multiple muscle groups to stabilize you. Most people fail in a pushup during the second half of the movement because you're working against gravity...but your chest still isn't lifting your entire body weight on its own. That's part of what makes those exercises preferable to isolated movements. Multiple muscles are working together (like they would in every day life), that's why it's called a "functional" movement.

I dunno if I was rambling. Haha. Does that kind of make sense?

12-05-2010, 10:22 AM
Hmm. Maybe I'm doing the bench presses funny, because I don't just feel them in my chest but also in my shoulders and triceps, pretty much like a pushup, but "stronger", if that makes sense. But then I also feel triceps dips more as a biceps exercise so maybe I need some work on my form ...

Thanks for all the help. It may not have been clear in my original post, but I do do quite a lot of body weight stuff (I had to have things I could do at home, before I found a gym). But it's also fun to pick up weights as big as my head once in a while too.

12-05-2010, 01:41 PM
Definitely! A mix of both is great, I just wouldn't stick entirely to isolated movements.

I found personally that I got significantly stronger a lot faster when I was using body weight exercises versus other kinds, but that's just me :)

katy trail
12-05-2010, 01:54 PM
cathe friedrich is the best for giving me ideas and making me feel confident with weights. she is the best! i used to do some of her workouts with fit tv channel, but now we don't get than channel anymore. i also watch clips of her dvd's and write down some of the exercises. they are all available on her website and utube. someday...i'll actually afford to buy some of them. for now, that will work.

12-05-2010, 02:26 PM
Hmm. Maybe I'm doing the bench presses funny, because I don't just feel them in my chest but also in my shoulders and triceps, pretty much like a pushup, but "stronger", if that makes sense. But then I also feel triceps dips more as a biceps exercise so maybe I need some work on my form ...

Thanks for all the help. It may not have been clear in my original post, but I do do quite a lot of body weight stuff (I had to have things I could do at home, before I found a gym). But it's also fun to pick up weights as big as my head once in a while too.

Bench press is a compound movement - you absolutely use your shoulders and triceps in it!