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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I started going to the gym after having a baby. My husband says I need to lift less weight and do more reps, but my personal trainer has me doing one set of 12 for each exercise and is slowly increasing the weight about every other session. I'm afraid this will bulk me up if my husband's right.

(Article continued below.)

Listen to your trainer - this is her specialty, not your husband's. What your other half probably doesn't realize is that men and women develop differently when it comes to weight training. It's a hormone thing - the guys, with all their testosterone, have an easier time increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy) with heavy weights. Women, with all their estrogen, do not bulk up on the same level, even if they lift heavier. In addition, you are not lifting anywhere near the weight your husband would if he were to do the exact same exercises, so you won't be getting anywhere near the results he would if he were doing the same routine. For most women, bulking up is just not an option. Those female bodybuilders you (and your husband) may have seen are in the gym for hours and hours daily, lifting very heavy weights for very few reps (several sets of 5 or 6, not one set of 12) - and they may also be taking steroids (something that is never recommended because it could really cause hormonal and health problems). If you recently had a baby, it's doubtful you're inclined to spend more than an hour a few times a week to work out - you've got a full plate with your new little one and your other responsibilities!

If you're doing 12 reps of each exercise and you're struggling to complete the last couple of reps with good form, that's an ideal range for you. Your trainer probably has you doing only one set because you're just starting to get in shape after giving birth. It wouldn't be surprising if down the line, she had you do two sets instead of one - studies have shown that two sets is good for most people. A lot of exercisers do three sets, but the extra effort doesn't always give significantly more results. You shouldn't be able to do more than 12 or so reps at a time - if you are able to do more than 15 reps per set, the weight isn't challenging your muscles enough to tone you properly. Doing less than 10 (say, 8 reps) is actually okay too, as long as you're using a heavy enough weight for your muscles to fatigue by the last rep or two. For women, less reps and heavier weights can help shape your muscles more quickly, after which you can ease up and go back to 12 for maintenance and fine tuning. Everyone should go heavy occasionally, or change up their weight routine in other ways - do different exercises, do supersets, change the pattern of the exercise (slower up, faster down or vice versa). This keeps your muscles challenged. If your muscles get used to doing the same exercises, they'll stop responding and you may start losing that hard-won tone.

It sounds like your exercise program is fine. But what happens if, god forbid, you do start bulking up? That will probably not happen with your current routine, but occasionally a woman (usually one who has a bit more testosterone than normal) will start getting a little bulkier than she'd like. In that case, the solution is easy - keep exercising, but lighten up on the weights and back down to doing 12 to 15 reps per set. Your muscles will decrease accordingly. It's that simple. Believe me, it's far easier to lose muscle than it is to build it.

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