Should women pump iron?
But curious looks are nothing new to Murphy. As soon as she decided to add strength training to her exercise regimen two years ago, the warnings from her girlfriends began: "You'll look like a man. You'll lose too much weight. Guys will be intimidated to ask you out." Those comments made the former secretary think twice about pumping iron. But the more she read and talked to both her personal trainer and her father--who encouraged her to give it a try--the more she felt at ease.
"I decided I would see how it went," says Murphy, who wanted to tone more than develop rippling muscles. "I said, `If I start to get any definition, I'll stop then and there.'"
The strain of the first few weeks was hard. Men cast doubtful glances when she picked up barbells at the gym. After a workout, she had to soak her tired muscles in a hot bath of Epsom salts. Just stretching out her arm, still tight from lifting weights, was a painful chore.
But after a month of regular training, the soreness became bearable and the affirming nods and smiles from the naysayers made it even more worthwhile.
"Men who I didn't even know told me I looked good," says the 27-year-old Chicago woman.
Today, Murphy herself is a personal trainer at Bally's Total Fitness. And women--and men--come to her for help to tone and sculpt their bodies. But where men jump into weight training with eager anticipation, most women still take some convincing about its merits, she says. Even in the '90s--with celebrities like Angela Bassett and Vivica A. Fox showing they can be buff and beautiful--the image of women pumping iron can summon fears about losing femininity and sex appeal.
"You hear these myths like, `I'm going to pick up weight or `I'll look like Arnold,' and that's so untrue," says fitness expert Donna Richardson, whose videotapes and ESPN shows have motivated audiences for years. "The bottom line for women and men is that to lose weight effectively, you must combine aerobic activities with strength and flexibility training."
The No. 1 concern most Black women have about pumping iron, experts say, is looking masculine. The worries range from going down in bra size to developing muscular arms and legs. Picture Vera de Milo--the pig-tailed, flat-chested, whinnying character Jim Carrey made famous on In Living Color--and you have just conjured up the worst of Black women's fears.
But most Sisters will never look that rough or have the masculine look of male bodybuilders, Richardson says. Even women who lift weights competitively like former six-time Ms. Olympia champion Lenda Murray have shown that you can blend muscle definition with womanly charm.
Some women's inhibitions come from a fear of breaking the traditional standards of female beauty. Personal trainers say they hear the following excuses from reluctant Sisters all the time: "My hair will look bad. I look ugly when I sweat. I'm too fat."
But Richardson says Black women have to keep their eyes on the prize.
"You can't look cute doing everything," says Richardson, whose new book Let's Get Real gives step-by-step guidelines for better health and fitness. "And child, you will look even cuter once that body is in shape."
After beginning to lift weights, Kim Murphy says her complexion improved, she felt more energetic and the jiggly parts of her body firmed into solid muscle. She doesn't have an abdominal "six-pack" or "cuts" (and she doesn't want them), but she's more pleased with her lean body.
Most women who incorporate strength training into an exercise regimen feel a boost in self-esteem and gain renewed physical and mental strength along with their new sexy shape, fitness experts say. A regular exercise routine that includes lifting weights can even help fight health threats like osteoporosis and heart disease. Exercise also can lengthen the life span of Black women who experts say are most susceptible to some of the most deadly threats to health.
"When we look at the statistics based on Black women having strokes and heart attacks, we are in the worst health," says Richardson, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. "Unless we make fitness part of our lifestyle, we won't be around."
Probably the hardest part of any workout is starting. During the early days, when it seems like every muscle in your body aches, giving up can look--and feel--real good. The time factor can also be frustrating. It can take a month of regular exercise before you notice any change. But visualization helps. Imagine yourself as you want to look a year from now or hang up that dress you used to fit in front of you while you exercise and work toward that goal.
"It was frustrating at first because I was very weak," Murphy says about lifting weights. "I couldn't lift anything, and I would reach muscle failure real quick. But my trainer helped me realize that if I kept going, I would get better."
Before beginning a workout, experts say, you should consult a doctor. The physician can inform you about any health conditions that could limit the type and duration of workout you do. Then schedule a few sessions with a personal trainer to develop an exercise routine. Exercise books and videos are good tools after you start, but a trainer can talk to you about your fitness goals and show you the correct way to perform exercises. Without the advice of an expert, you may think you're doing an exercise correctly, but you could risk getting injured.
If you want the health benefits of weight training without building the bulk, keep these tips in mind, Richardson says. There are two main types of strength exercises--muscle-endurance exercises (several repetitions of exercises using lighter weights) or exercises that build muscle mass through lifting heavier weights in fewer repetitions. If you just want to tone up, muscle-endurance exercises, experts say, are the way to go.
After meeting with a trainer for tips on posture, proper breathing and a compatible workout regimen for your lifestyle, you're ready to begin. Pick a regular time each day to lift weights. Experts say you should perform strength-training exercises between two to four times a week. You don't have to attend a gym to get the benefits of weight training. You can create your own routine at home.
Full water bottles make great free-weights, Richardson says, and you can do an overhead press with canned goods. Just make sure you lift them in slow, controlled movements and that the products are of equal weight. But remember, pumping iron is only part of it. Along with a balanced diet, you need a balanced workout that includes aerobic and flexibility moves.
The amount of weight you lift depends on you. Most experts say you should start small, with maybe three to five pounds, then work your way up to more challenging weights. You should also remember to wear weight-training gloves for a better grip, and exercise your whole body--even if you have a "problem area" you hope to reduce. An overall workout builds good posture and form, Richardson says.
The hardest part, most women agree, is getting rid of their negative perceptions about pumping iron and giving it a try. Murphy says it usually takes her female clients about two weeks to feel comfortable enough to use a weight machine and about a month to move onto lifting free-weights.
"I explain each exercise," she says. "And then I use myself as an example of someone who was scared for the same reasons. Then they feel better."
And then the fun begins.
Regular exercise gives women control, experts say, over their spirit, their body and their mood. Like an artist, you can use weight training to sculpt your body into your dream shape. If you have a pear-shaped torso--a skinny upper body with a bigger bottom--you can use weights to create an hour-glass figure, Richardson says. Or you can create curves that would make men drool.
Kim Murphy says she enjoys the physical and mental perks of exercise, but perhaps it's the shock factor she loves the best. "Men see me coming in and they think I'm there to look cute or don't know what I'm doing," she says. "Then they see how serious I am and just stare in amazement."