If you're only churning out cardio workouts, like I was, you're missing an important component of fitness—strength training. Ease in with this simple choreographed class.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Strength training, by itself, is not much fun for me. There, I said it. It can be boring, it's difficult, and frankly, the workouts seem endless. Counting each bicep curl only serves as a reminder that I have way too many reps remaining before the painful endeavor is complete.

So why do it? Here's why: Strength training is essential to a successful fitness plan. Not only does it strengthen your ligaments, tendons, even bones—basically the whole structural system of the body—but it also helps to prevent injury while increasing performance and endurance.

Then there's the pure vanity component (the one I confess I'm most interested in): As we get older, skin loses elasticity and things head south. There's only one true remedy, and it doesn't come from some $100 cream. (Besides, there isn't enough in a jar to cover even one of my thighs.) To keep weight in check, cardio is definitely where it's at—which is why I spend a lot of time logging miles on the treadmill—but the key to great results is combining strength training with cardie. As you drop fat, those muscles you've been shaping start to, well, take shape and firm up. Since muscle occupies less space than fat—that's right—strength training results in you losing inches. That could mean fewer inches on your thighs, fewer inches on your hips, and fewer inches on your arms.

Looking over the list of group classes offered at my gym, I discovered BodyPump, a group weight-training class designed by New Zealand athlete Les Mills. Lasting 45 to 60 minutes, the class uses a barbell to work your entire body to the tune of upbeat music. This meant I wouldn't be alone counting reps and deciding what move to do next—or if I'd even be doing a move next.

When I entered the exercise room, I saw muscle-inflated men, tiny, toned women, and average people like me seeking a tune-up. But they all had one thing in common: They were loaded down with workout gear.

We needed a step. I looked around to see folks stacking theirs three risers high. Since I hoped to make it through the class without falling on my face, I picked up only two risers. (Don't worry; you won't be jumping on and off the step while holding heavy weights.)

We needed a barbell. This long bar comes in weighted and nonweighted versions (our bars were nonweighted) and enables you to load each end with weight plates—from tiny 1-pounders to massive 25-pound options and higher. I opted for a pair of 2½-pound plates. Maybe I was being a bit prudent, but weight lifting for an hour was new to me. I wasn't sure if I could hang in. Here's what I did know: Good posture, technique, and form are essential to weight training. One wrong move, and I could hurt myself, so I planned to start gradually and add weight later—an approach I'd recommend to any first-time BodyPumper.

The weight plates are secured to the barbell with small clips, and although it wasn't hard, I could tell that adding and subtracting weights throughout the class, depending on the muscle(s) being worked, was going to become annoying. That's one advantage of using dumbbells; you can just pick up the size you need and go—no loading required. But barbells do have their benefits. They take up less space, and the barbell allows you to lift a heavier weight.

As we grabbed our last item, a yoga mat, it seemed our raid of the fitness equipment was complete, and we gathered in front of our loot to begin a warm-up. I wasn't sure about everyone else in the class, but I already felt warmed up from hauling and assembling all that equipment. I was ready for a water break. Which brings me to an important point: Bring a bottle of water with you to class. Dehydration results in decreased strength, which means less-than-stellar performance. Don't let small things get in the way of a good workout.

The warm-up for BodyPump involves shortened versions of exercises you'll do later in the class, so pay attention. Most moves are based on one stance: the Set Position. (Stand with feet hip-width apart, heels under, hips, knees soft and slightly bent. Hold barbell in front of your thighs with an overhand grip. Don't lock your elbows, and keep your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart, near the outside of your thighs.)

You'll also become familiar with what I like to call the 3, 2, 1 technique. Fair warning: This one's gonna hurt. Here's how it works: Slowly lift the weight up for a count of 2 or 3, then lower it to a count of 1—or vice versa. What sounds simple feels like amplified resistance on your working muscles. Lifting weight slowly means your muscles are contracting longer than normal and the isolated muscle(s) are forced to absorb all the stress.

After the warm-up, we moved to our first working section: the lower body—quadriceps, hamstrings, and butt. Since these are the largest muscle groups, the instructor suggested that we load our barbell with the heaviest amount of weight. I grabbed my tiny 2½-pound plates, loaded one on each end of my barbell, secured them in place, and got to work. The result was little challenge, but it gave me a chance to get more comfortable with the moves, which included lunges and squats, where form is essential. For lunges, never let your knees extend over your toes, and for squats, always sit back holding the weight of your body in the heels of your feet.

When we moved to arm training, I was excited: Summer weather means arm-revealing tank tops. I plowed through the triceps portion with fierce determination, envisioning the horse-shoe-shaped definition that was surely developing on the back of my arms. As we transitioned to biceps training, I got a wake-up call. Applying the 3, 2, 1 technique to a simple underhanded curl put me to shame. Feeling defeated, and with muscles fatigued, I ran to grab 1½-pound plates so I could decrease the weight on my barbell. (I know; I'm still ashamed. I should have pushed through it, but I just lost heart.) Instead of giving up, I made a goal for the next class: Finish the biceps training with the 2½-pound plates.

For chest and ab moves, we used the step like a weight bench, reclining on it to do chest presses and overhead triceps raises. We also did incline push-ups with our hands on the step, which is why some people used more risers. (I did modified push-ups with my knees on the floor, but tried to pump out one or two true push-ups for a challenge.)

The first day after class wasn't too painful. My arms and shoulders were a bit tight and my legs a little stiff, but it was nothing that stretching couldn't remedy. More importantly, I felt like I had found a way to strength train that actually worked for me. This put me on a mission for every class thereafter.

When I entered my next class, I knew what to expect. I gathered my gear and loaded my bar accordingly. When the leg portion came, I went with 5-pound plates on each end. Don't be afraid; your legs can handle more weight than you might think. I plan to keep increasing. When we moved to biceps training, I successfully finished the reps with the 2½-pound plates on each end. I had to rest a few times but didn't resort to a lesser weight.

The hour always flew by, even on groggy mornings when I showed up for the 5:30 a.m. class. It helped that BodyPump is broken into segments: back, legs, shoulders, triceps, biceps, abs, etc., which made multiple reps barely noticeable. Plus, strength training has made me stronger and even improved my posture, which has helped reduce the back discomfort associated with sitting at my computer all day.

I think I've become, to my shock, a strength-training convert. For most women, including me, plain old weight training calls up mental pictures of grunting, vein-popping meatheads or scary-ropy Madonna arms. BodyPump changed my mind. You're still not likely to find me in the free-weight area of the gym too often, but I'll definitely be adding BodyPump to my regular gym-class roster.