The bench press has a reputation as a macho exercise, but women shouldn’t shy away from it. Benching strengthens the chest, shoulders and triceps in one simple, effective move. Don’t avoid the bench because you fear the bulk. Your body isn’t biologically engineered to gain that much mass. With the right routine, you can tighten and tone without fear. To start your bench press routine, you need to pick a weight you can handle.
The best weight to start with is almost to no weight at all. To get the most from the move, learn proper form first. Start with getting into position, which will become important when you lift heavier weights. With 2- or 3-pound dumbbells in hand, sit on a bench resting the weights on your thighs. Lie back. Lift your arms until the weights are above your shoulders then lower them until your upper arms are at right angle to your sides and parallel to the floor. Push the weights up over your chest. Pause, then lower down.
Experienced weightlifters calculate their one-rep max -- the heaviest weight they can lift just one time -- then try to work with in 75 to 90 percent of that number. It will get you using an effective weight for building muscle quickly. But for women new to lifting, all that math isn't necessary. If you are new to a weightlifting program, you probably don’t have tremendous upper-body strength. Starting with more comfortable weights and building up to heavy weight may be a better way to go. Begin with 5-pound weights and progress from there.
Weights and Reps
Let your goals by your guide to picking the right weights. If you want to build strength and add lean muscle, you need to work with a weight that is heavy enough that your muscles feel fatigued after six to eight repetitions. To tone muscles and build endurance, work out with a weight that produces fatigue after 10 or 12 reps. The highest number of reps you should perform is 15. Beyond that, the weight won’t be heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth.
To grow and stronger and to become more sculpted, you need to challenge your muscles. That means no matter what weight you start benching with, you must always work to move upward. Once a weight becomes too easy, it’s no longer useful for the exercise. You should feel some sense of fatigue, or even approach failure, at the end of the exercise. Weights are available in 2- to 3-pound increments. If you start at 5 pounds, move to 8-, 10- and then 12-pound dumbbells. In time, you will hit plateaus and eventually you will find a ceiling weight where your strength will top out.
David Raudenbush has more than 20 years of experience as a literacy teacher, staff developer and literacy coach. He has written for newspapers, magazines and online publications, and served as the editor of "Golfstyles New Jersey Magazine." Raudenbush holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education.