I was reading an article this week entitled “Girl Power: Why Lifting Heavier Can Be a Life Changer.” Dan Trink does a good job of succinctly stating what I already knew, which is that overly sexualized fitspo is not what woman need as motivation to lift. Coincidentally, I also happened to read a blog post of another female lifter who talked about how difficult it is to be a woman who wants to lift heavy and lose weight. I can relate to her experience that a lot of information about lifting is aimed at women who are already a “normal” weight and will benefit from putting on weight in the form of muscle mass. As much as I’m happy with the changes I’ve seen in the past few years, I don’t think anyone would argue that I just need to recomp; I need to lose some more weight if I’m ever going to be less than chubby. Lifting is great and I totally love it, of course, but often I feel like I’m walking a tightrope, trying to keep my lifting and diet goals in sync.
I’ve wanted to talk about Lou Schuler’s The New Rules of Lifting for Women, which is the first “serious” weight training program that I ever did. You know what they say about your first: they will always have a special place in your heart, even if it kind sucked. And as my first experience with “lifting heavy”, NRL4W also set a lot of my expectations for my future training. Part of the reason that this program is so near and dear to me is because it was the thing that really motivated me to get off my ass and empower myself, so now is the perfect opportunity to talk about my experience with this program. Dan Trink says that the experts are missing their target when it comes to convincing women to lift, but Lou Schuler did it for me.
I picked up this program after doing zumba for 8 months. I had literally no other athletic experience, save the nightmare that is high school phys ed. On the recommendation of a friend, I read the whole book cover to cover and then I contemplated starting for a like a month before I actually worked up the metaphorical balls to begin. But it worked and I found my way into the weight section and with the help of a friend, fumbled our way through the program. I still think of Schuler’s chapter on motivation when I’m struggling to push myself. I can choose to be an athelete or I can choose fail for any number of reasons, and nothing anybody else says really matters. It seems like the most self-evident advice now that I’ve been lifting for almost a year, but someone needed to lay it out for me.
The first part of Schuler’s book presents the “new rules” or what I would refer to as “the science of lifting”. In a sense the first part of the book is the justification for the program that makes up the back-end, and that was motivation for me, too. Women are not dumb, and they do not need a training program that’s dumbed down. I needed a program that was suitable for a beginner, but I appreciated and responded to being treated like an equal in the gym. Obviously not all women are the same, but I wouldn’t consider myself exceptional in that regard, either. And regardless of weight goals, I frequently see posts from women online who are fairly new (and enthusiastic) when it comes to lifting and then find out that they’re working their way through NRL4W. I’m of the opinion that the the accessible, smart and inclusive introduction is what convinces women to pick up the weights and ultimately the reason that this program has gained so much popularity.
The middle section of the book is focused on nutrition, as outlined by Cassandra Forsythe. Interestingly, she was not invited back to contribute to any of the follow-up books in Schuler and Cosgrove’s series. Obviously, I don’t know why. But I can say that every single review or mention of this program that I’ve seen included the caveat “I’m following the diet.” In principle, the diet gets a lot of things right: stop starving yourself on 1200 calories and eat lots of protein. But the recipes and advice rely heavily on protein supplements, which I’m not crazy about. I’d rather eat whole food – and I’m not even an advocate of clean eating or paleo. Even though I didn’t follow the diet, I still saw results with the lifting portion of the program.
The program itself consists of 7 stages. The first stage is supposed to be a “beginner” or “introduction” stage. Stages 2 and 4 are the same, as are stages 3 and 5. I bailed near the end of stage 5. Those stages all consist of one main compound lift followed by 2 alternating sets for upper and lower body and then some ab work and/or bodyweight stuff. There is also some interval work thrown in for cardio and carditioning. The 6th stage is focused on doing a chin-up and the 7th stage is a bunch of circuit workouts. Obviously I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of either of those stages, since I never completed them.
Even still, I have mixed thoughts on New Rules. On the one hand, I want to say that it’s a great program, but there were a few aspects that always annoyed me. While I saw results, I also had no desire to stick with it until the end of the final stage. My main pet peeve was the schizophrenic nature of the rep ranges. It seems like they’re trying to get the best of both worlds, with some stages focusing on endurance or hypertrophy and others focusing on strength gains. The end result is unsuccessful because I never really seemed to succeed in either areas and just felt unfocused.
Then I’m faced with another issue, because while it makes sense to do a program such as Starting Strength or Strong Lifts to build a base of strength first and then focus on using that base to achieve aesthetic goals. But I had no interest in either of those programs off the bat. Of course, when I started SS and saw much better results in a shorter time frame, I wondered why I hadn’t jumped ship sooner. But again, I quickly grew bored of SS and missed the variety of NRL4W, and I seriously doubt I would have stuck with lifting if I’d tried another program first.
NRL4W might not be the best program overall, but it was the introduction that I needed. Even Schuler and Cosgrove have acknowledged that that they tend to recommend some of their more recent programs over their earlier works. So, like my first boyfriend, I would never go back to doing New Rules, but on the whole, it gave me a solid foundation to continue achieving my lifting goals later on. And despite the gimmicky promise to “Lift like a man and look like a goddess” that is displayed so prominently on the cover, acknowledge women’s differences but treating them as equals is actually what women need to get them into the weight room – and on that front, the program delivered.