Weightlifting Secrets Revealed, or Curls Gone Wildly Wrong

A heavily-muscled man in my department told me his birthday is this Friday, and that he asked for "something heavy." For my birthday, I had asked for Muscle and Fitness magazine, which tells you how to lift something heavy, and apparently I added "not the women's version." Now, each month, I receive a magazine so teeming with testosterone, it's all I can do not to throw it down and beat my chest.

But today, I was again reminded that not everyone feels as I do, especially not women. The usual scenario presented itself at the gym: I'm loading 160 onto a 45-pound bar, and a pair of chattering women are doing chest presses, curls and tricep extensions with five-pound dumbbells. They will leave this room and head to childcare, where they will lift their 30-pound children with one arm, balancing an overstuffed totebag in the other. Never does it cross their mind that they need to pick up more than they're used to carrying in order to get that body they're after. No: women don't pick up heavy weights, unless it's in the form of children, who actually are so squirmy that the weight distribution makes the lifting of them, as opposed to a barbell, heavier.

Now the men, they walk in and do curls, too, albeit heavier, and I've got something to say about that, as well. Both you and the perfumed women are going about this in all the wrong ways.

One of the first things we learn in exercise planning is to work the multi-joint exercises first, but I'd like to take that idea a step further. The theory goes that you do the big stuff first--back squat, bench press, deadlift--before isolating smaller, individual muscles in a curl, extension, or even a crunch.

I'd like to argue that no one should be doing these isolation exercises until they have advanced to a moderately high fitness level.

Thanks to my certification and study in Functional Movement Systems, plus lots of reading up on Dan John, I now look at the body in terms of patterns, not parts. Can you squat? How's your hip hinge? Push and pull strong? Once you've solidified your form in these bigger moves, training your body to move athletically and as a unit, then you may isolate. You don't clean your car by polishing the bumper over and over, do you? In the same way, please don't highlight little muscles. Your body is a machine that needs all the parts working together, and those little parts are already called on with the bigger moves.

I have backup on this: in a profile on Arnold Schwarzenegger in my birthday magazine, he said that the first gym he went to insisted on powerlifting before bodybuilding. Do heavy big moves, and then you're allowed to sculpt those tris and bis into gorgeous peaks that earn you the right to use a "The" before your name.

There is a place for a good barbell curl or weighted dip, but in a personal training session, an hour goes quickly, and without any bodybuilders as clients, I tend to spend the time shoring up the foundation for bigger and better things. I work bilaterally, for sure, but not too much isolation, unless you're with me a while. I do have a client who came to me post-rehab, and curls were one of the few things he could do back when he started. But now? I've got him deadlifting, benching, at the barbell back squat, and on landmine rows. He's getting stronger, which was the whole point; everyday activities no longer cause him pain, and a few curls now and then are just the ticket.

And if getting stronger is not the intent for the women above? It should be. They don't need to be going as heavy as I do, but they must challenge their bodies, no matter the goal, which is most likely something they call "toning," which isn't even a real thing. Too many unfit women are doing light curls without any back muscles to call on; too many men are doing curls when they should strengthen their deadlift. Double abomination.

TRX, kettlebells and Olympic lifts are additional ways to train kinesthetic awareness of the body while continuing to build strength; each requires pretty near perfect technique, or you'll fall on your face/drop a kettlebell on your head/fall under a barbell. But there's nothing like any of these three for making you feel like one giant muscle. I like to spend a season in strength, followed by a season of what I think of as "movement"--swinging a bell or a barbell over the head and figuring out how the rest of the body should behave.

But either way, back to the basics, please, everybody, or I'll swat you with the supplement ads, which, given their sheer number, are about as heavy as the dumbbell in your hand.


  1. great article Amy! just the other day my trainer yelled at me for doing single arm tricep extensions on the cable machine and told me I could resume that exercise when I have 18 inch arms haha. A lot of people could benefit from using compound functional lifts and it is too bad that we don't see more people at our facility dead lifting and squatting properly. I think one of our toughest jobs as wellness coaches is to dispel the myth of becoming "big and bulky," so that women can enjoy the benefits of strength training! looks like you are doing a great job though.Keep up the good work!

  2. I think I'd like your trainer, Drew! And when women bring out the "big and bulky" phrase, I always start rolling up my sleeve. "Is this too bulky for you? Because I lift the heaviest weights I can pick up." They always shrink away after that...


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