Gym Rats: Help me build some upper-body strength

I’m going to start going to the gym, and I want to work on building some upper-body strength. I’m female, and 41, and I don’t want to get all hard and muscle-y, I just want to burn some fat and get stronger.

One thing: This is a free gym, for county firefighters (I’m an EMT), so there aren’t any helpful employees or personal trainers around to help or tell me what to do.

I need to know what machines to use to accomplish this without hurting myself. I haven’t set foot inside a gym in years. I’ve been walking, and bikeriding (both an exercise bike and outside on trails), but when it comes to using the weight-training stuff, I’m lost.
Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I’m no gym rat, but I had a short-lived membership in a nice gym recently (moved out of town, otherwise I’d still be going) and one of the things they said is that it’s kind of difficult for a woman to get all muscle-y.

The guys who go there are about as good a source as many people here. Try talking with them. They’re more familiar with the specific machinery, too.

Machinery is supposed to have stickers explaining how to use it.

Remember that even though your target is upper body strength, that doesn’t mean your biceps exclusively*. You need to kind of work everything. Spanish stonelifters claim that most of their lifting is actually lower back and thighs.

  • I feel kind of silly telling this to an EMT, since you know more about anatomy than I do.

The normal range of testosterone levels for a man is 200-1100 ng/dL, and guys at the lower end of that aren’t gonna be bodybuilders any time soon, or ever, really. The range for women, on the other hand, is 15-70 ng/dL. If the guys who can’t build muscle most likely have three times as much testosterone as you, you’re probably not going to have to worry about bulking up unless you’re planning on taking drugs. Don’t do drugs.

Now, if you want actual out-of-gym strength gains, you’d do best to leave the machines behind and stick to free weights. Briefly, there are two groups of muscles in the human body: big ones, to move you around; and small ones, to stabilize your movements. Machines train the first but not the second, and so they’re not going to help that much when you’re trying to move something that’s not attached to a pulley. Stick with the machines too long, and you can actually detrain your stabilizer muscles and end up weaker.

So, upper body strength. In most cases where you want to be stronger, you’re going to want torso and leg strength to either assist or stabilize yourself. You also want a strong posterior chain (everything on the back of your body) because that’s where strength comes from. The six core lifts are the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press, the chinup/pulldown, the row, and the bench press, and they all address at least one of those concerns. Focus on them, add some assistance exercises as needed, and you’ll make gains quickly.

Your first goal is to learn to do the exercises properly so that you don’t hurt yourself. ExRx has good animations to show you the proper form. Krista’s site has a lot of really excellent information for women who are starting out a weight-training program, and I highly recommend it.

Just in case you’re curious, here’s my current strength-training program:

Day 1 (Tuesday)
Military Press

Day 2 (Thursday)
Seated Row
Bent-over Shrugs

Day 3 (Saturday)
Bench Press
Biceps Curls (pure vanity)

Despite the low number of exercises, days 1 and 3 are challenging full-body workouts. Day 2 is sort of a catch-all for other important stuff and a lighter day between the two big ones.

Thanks for the two sites, ultrafilter; I’ve bookmarked both of them. I know I’m never going to get “ripped” and I know enough not to take drugs.
I’m basically a weakling… well, not really, I can hold my own, but I just need to build up some strength.

I ride my bike every day, either the exercise one or the real one, and I can tell the difference between the two, but I need something for the upper half of my body.
The bike riding feels great on my legs and butt, but I need some strength in my arms and shoulders.