Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

How to Play With Dumbells

Written by Sarah Ann Corkum
Illustration (lower) by Hannah Hooper
We all know exercise is good for you. It keeps you healthy, helps you live longer, stronger, and probably a lot better. If you have ever been in a gym, you have probably noticed how women typically dominate the cardio equipment while men rule the weight floor. However, according to The American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine, females need weight-bearing exercise in addition to cardiovascular training. 
Among other benefits, weight training increases metabolism, bone density, and strength and reduces menstrual pains (particularly cramps). So why do women shy away from weight training?

For more information, I sought the expertise of “coach" Meg Stolt, a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Her certifications include: aquatic, spin, and performance training, among many others. The most common fears Stolt sees in females are the risk of injury, "getting big,” and simply not knowing what to do on the gym floor. Her response: "Pick up a damn weight; women need to be strong! Women simply don't have the testosterone or genetic makeup to gain considerable mass. As far as fear or confusion, seek professional advice."

Most gyms will offer complimentary consultations with a personal trainer upon initiation. Trainers will help design a program based on a person’s needs and fitness goals. Those who cannot make it to a complimentary consultation—or simply want some extra advice—should consider these basic exercises and tips to help them work out safely.


Often referred to as "triple extension" as your calves, glutes, and thighs extend during the “working phase" (most difficult part) of the exercise, squats are great for your whole lower body and are the benchmark for lower body movements.


1.Begin with your feet hip-distance apart.
2.Sit back as if you're about to sit over a dirty toilet seat. (You're aiming for a 90-degree angle in the knees... which should never go over your toes). Your chest should be up throughout the exercise and your gaze should be about 3 feet ahead. Feel free to hold dumbbells by your side, a barbell on your back, or add any type of resistance once you have mastered the movement pattern with your own body weight.


This is the same movement as a squat, but with one leg.


1.Put one foot about 3 feet in front of the other and make sure you are creating a 90-degree angle while lowering your back leg 2 inches off the floor. (Your front knee should never be over your toes.)
2.Focusing your energy above your kneecap on your front leg, push your heel into the ground and come up to the starting position.
3.Start with your body weight until you have the movement correct, then grab a dumbbell in each hand to gain more strength.


A yogi favorite, plank engages the core and results in activation of the whole body.

1.Start off on your knees with your palms planted on the floor (fingers pointed forward, not to the side). Your hands should be directly aligned under your shoulders (to provide stabilization for your elbow and wrists). Your head should be focused about 3 feet ahead of you, so you aren’t straining your neck.
2.To begin, push off your knees onto your toes and squeeze your navel in towards your spine. After about 10 seconds you should start to feel this everywhere, but predominantly in your abs.
3.To safely release yourself from the position, start by lowering your knees down first and push yourself off of your fingertips (not wrists) and bring yourself to a kneeling position.

Works arms, chest, abs.


1.Start in plank position with your hands under your shoulders (or slightly farther apart). You can do this on your knees or toes, whichever you prefer.
2.Keeping your abs engaged (tightened), slowly lower yourself to about 2 inches off the ground and, um, push up. You got the idea? The common error is the same found in plank, straining your head or doing “worm-like” movements as you push up as a result of not keeping your abs engaged.

There are several variations to this's the basics. Basically, the goal is to pick an object (kettlebell, barbell, dumbbell, grocery bags, etc) off the ground by using your whole lower body (glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves). Essentially, you shouldn't feel any pain in your low back (big no-no for most exercises) or arms. You will feel something in your core. This is a great exercise in the sense that you probably will pick stuff up at some point in your life.


1.Start with the object on the ground in front of you.
2.With your knees slightly bent, bend forward from the hip while keeping your chest up and back straight. Grab the object and engage your core and legs before you pick it up. The more you keep your chest up and core engaged, the safer the exercise is.
3.Slowly pick up the object using your legs and squeeze your glutes and drive your hips forward as you stand up straight...again, slightly bending at the knee so you're not locking the joint. Variations include bent or straight leg, wide stance or toes pointed forward.

A classic.


1.Lie on the floor with your knees bent (or in the air, or placed on a chair, however you like).
2.Put your hands behind your head without locking your fingers. Engage your stomach and lift yourself off the ground until your shoulder blades come off the ground. (You should be coming off the ground with your chest first.)

Rotational Ab Exercises

There are several variations of core work that involve rotation. These are all great for the spine, hips, and abs. Pairing rotations with a glute and lower body exercise will work even better to develop stability and strength. Whether standing, sitting with your knees bent and feet on the floor, or on one leg, the focus should be keeping your abs in tight and your back straight (chest up, chin up).


1.Try this exercise with just your arms extended in front of you and try not to let them bend so you have an idea of the movement.
2.Rotate to one side; come to the front, and reverse.
3.When you are ready, grab a medicine ball, dumbbell, or textbook. To progress the exercise, try this standing, on one leg, or increase your repetitions (reps) in one set.

Military Press

Works shoulders, arms, back, and core.


1.Sit with a weight that you are comfortable holding above your head (dumbbells, barbells, or a small child).
2.Sit with your feet planted on the floor and hold your stomach in to protect your lower back.
3.Hold the weights to your shoulder (higher up if it's a barbell or in front of your chest if it’s a round object) and press up overhead. Extend your arms all the way up, but don't lock your elbows. Make sure your stomach is in tight, so you aren't rounding or curving your spine in any way. (That's cheating... and just plain ugly looking.)

The Bicep Curl

You have probably seen this one, but here's how to do it correctly. It works, um, biceps.


1.Grab a barbell, soup cans, or grocery bags in each arm. Keep your back straight and core in tightly.
2.Start the movement with your arms extended by your side and curl all the way up with your elbows. Watch as you curl the weights up to make sure that you aren't rounding your back. (You will see this often on the gym floor. It's a great way to cheat, and perfectly acceptable to laugh at.) Try to use the full range of motion of your elbow.

Triceps Extension

Fortunately, anytime you extend your arm, you are using your triceps. (Yup, that includes push-ups.) One thing to watch is the angle of your elbow.


1.Try lying down on a bench or flat surface with a weight in each hand.
2.Hold your weights directly over your shoulders with your arms extended, making a straight line, and thumbs pointed towards your head.
3.Slowly lower your hands to your head.
4.Focus on maintaining the same alignment in your elbow while bringing the weights back to the starting position. (This movement pattern is also fondly known as the "skullcrusher.”)

Most importantly, with all of these exercises, make sure you are breathing! Specifically, breathing in while you begin the exercise and out during the working phase. (Example: breathe in while you come down for the deadlift/push-up and breathe out while coming up.) Try doing each exercise ten times (reps) with a minute break and repeating each three times (sets). The weight should be heavy enough that you are tired by the last rep. Feel free to play with recovery times (30-90 seconds) and repetitions (8-20).

The benefits of strength training for women are too long for this article. Make sure to incorporate some form of resistance (whether weights, cables, or household objects) into your current fitness routine. And don't hesitate to seek the professional advice of a personal trainer if you are serious about improving your health and strength. This is what they do for a living! It's their job!

Fortunately, we no longer live in an era where women shy away from heavy weights and exercise. If anything, we need it more than ever. As Coach Meg adds, "We have this perception that women are supposed to be frail—but when you add physical strength, it encompasses the mental and emotional strength we need for life."

Illustration (lower) by Hannah Hooper 

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