Written by Rachel Debling
“If you’re never getting sore or fully fatigued, you should probably progress.” That’s Rachel Balkovec, the first female strength coach ever hired by a professional baseball franchise; and she’s dealing out advice to women who want to adopt a heavier lifting routine but aren’t entirely sure where to start. Balkovec says if you’re wondering whether or not you should put down those 20s and reach for the 30s, the answer is almost always yes. And if you’re at all concerned that lifting heavy will make you look like Arnold, you can forget it — hundreds of fitspo Instagram accounts that prove otherwise, including Balkovec’s. “I’ve maintained my femininity,” she declares proudly. (Follow her on Instagram at @damselinthedugout, and we think you’ll agree.)
This is the type of no-nonsense advice that Balkovec, who was hired by the Houston Astro’s Latin American team to take their athletes through some serious rep sessions, dishes out off-the-hip about lifting heavy. If you’re wondering if a workout evolution – that is, more weight and less reps – is right for you, look no further than her eight-step guide.
1) Commit to an inverse relationship. There’s no way you can (or should) go from three sets of 20 on a bench press with 20 lbs to five sets of two reps with 80. Week over week, incrementally increase your weight for a specific move while you lower the amount of reps – so if you’re currently repping out 20 with 20 lbs in a typical set, next week try a weight of 22.5 for 18 reps, the next 25 with 16, and so on and so forth. “It’s a slope, explains Balkovec, “an inverse relationship,”.
2) Use progressions. For the heavy technical lifts that Balkovec swears by, you need to work up to the full move, no matter how much weight you think you can handle. So before you go straight for a big clean and jerk, shift your mindset by recognizing that weightlifting is a sport. “People spend their entire lives developing those skills,” she notes, and even the most steadfast recreational exerciser needs work to master the complex joint patterns that every squat, deadlift, and bench press are made of.
Take incremental steps as you build up to the full move. To get to a full back squat, start with the goblet squat, where the weight is held in front to help maintain your center of gravity; after a few weeks, move on to a barbell back squat with a box, to help you drop deeper and explode out of the bottom of the move; and soon enough you’ll be able to tackle a full, deep back squat, because you’ve gradually added in aspects of the move. Want to deadlift like a champ? Start with dumbbells to get the motion down, then do a barbell version off of boxes to help your hamstrings stretch deeper, and finish with full, from-the-floor barbell deadlifts. Your badass quotient will multiply in a matter of a couple months.
3) Lean on an expert. A single session with a qualified personal trainer can go far in getting you to lifting like a beast. And, if you can’t afford it, Balkovec’s offers this pearl of wisdom: “Google that shit!” Translation: The amount of quality Instagram and YouTube pros that can show you exactly how to drop it like it’s hot is growing by the day. And best of all – sorry PTs out there – it’s free.
4) Pledge allegiance to the barbell. Though she loves the fact that women are embracing free weights at a seemingly faster rate than ever, Balkovec says that for those who want to heave hefty iron, dumbbells aren’t her favourite choice. Your grip can give out much sooner when using dumbbells than barbells – think about how many reps you can eke out with 25s in either hand compared to a 50-pound barbell. Less grip fatigue equals more reps with more weight, equals muscles you’ll be proud of – a time-tested equation.
5) Don’t misinterpret your aches for progression. That dull ache in your muscles the day after a workout may cause you to think that you’re making gains, but Balkovec says that’s not always the case. Feeling sore doesn’t mean your workout is, well, working. “It’s a neurological response to something new,” she points out. Doing a sport or exercise you haven’t done in a while might result in muscular pain that could cause you to think you’re getting stronger (and therefore you might believe you don’t need more weight), when in reality you just aren’t used to the specific motion. The bottom line: if you’re looking to gain muscle, you need to put your body under real stress (a.k.a. that hefty barbell or kettlebell you’ve been eyeing).
6) Use mind over muscle. A huge, not-oft-advertised benefit of technical lifts is the mental boost you get from accomplishing something that’s – let’s be completely honest – pretty damn tough. Even if you aren’t progressing as quickly as you’d like, physically, as you add more and more weight, keep in mind that your gains won’t always be measurable.
7) Recognize what exercises don’t hold up. Okay so not every exercise necessarily needs to be accompanied by weight plates. For instance, Balkovec doesn’t believe in working her core with resistance, and her reasoning is pretty darn sound. “If you’re squatting, deadlifting, or lunging, you’re doing a core workout,” she politely schools. Plus, add to that the fact doing heavily weighted core exercises can put your lower-back in serious jeopardy, and we’d agree that it’s sometimes best to stick to bodyweight only.
8) Live by the mantra “Ladies Love to Lift.” There is some truth to the rumor that women need to lift differently than men in certain situations, but that doesn’t mean that anything is off-limits. A woman’s Q-angle – that would be the wider angle women have in the quadriceps – can make squatting more difficult because their knees tend to buckle in, explains Balkovec. But fear not: it’s a disadvantage that can be overcome with some of that aforementioned progressive training and a bit of mindfulness.