Tone up with a strength-training program that works

Abdominal crunches are a great upper- and lower-body exercise
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Besides sharing the same first name, Lisa Halbower and Lisa Dupee share the same fitness dilemma of trying to fit exercise into their lives.

For Halbower, who is married with two children and a job, it's a brisk walk with the baby stroller. For Dupee, who is single and on an upward career path, it's a bike ride or step class.

Despite good intentions, both found their bodies changing, and not for the better, as other demands cut into their formal workout time.

"The slip started five years ago when I started having kids," says Halbower, 41, who had always been active before her pregnancies. "I walked after each baby, so my weight didn't budge, but my body looked and felt different. I was not toned, and I'd see myself in a bathing suit and find creases that weren't there before."

Though she had little personal time to "devote to vanity," as she puts it, Halbower knew fitness was something she wanted to have back, and soon.

"At 41, I saw a slippery slope ahead," she said. "I told myself I'd better get moving before I just gave up."

For Dupee, 26, a few years away from college sports left her missing all the energy and muscle tone she once had.

"Living in New York, I walked everywhere and never worried about my weight," she said. But after moving to Boston, I gained 15 pounds in a year."

A former rower, Dupee knew strength training was key to toning and shaping her body. But with a new job and hectic personal schedule, she didn't have time for intense training on top of the aerobic workouts she felt took priority.

Judging from reader mail, many of you share the Lisas' dilemma: You want to tone up, but you don't want it to cut into your walking time. For many, the very word "weightlifting" still sounds intimidating.

For help, we asked our own Mark Fenton, WALKING's authority on exercise, to develop a resistance training program with some input from Donna Richardson, fitness expert on NBC's "Later Today" show. The program is designed to build lean muscle, burn fat, and most importantly, fit into a real-life schedule.

The result? A time-efficient plan that's so flexible that our two women could find no excuses to skip workouts.

"The exercises were effective without being burdensome," says Dupee, who appreciated that she could do them at home or while traveling. "Even on days that I couldn't devote much time, I could get in a 20-minute walk and 15 minutes for the routine."

After eight weeks, the two Lisas share something else a routine that's working. Once they mastered fitting in workouts, they felt fitter, too.

"At first," Halbower says, "just keeping the commitment felt good. But once I saw changes, I did it for the results."

After eight weeks, she feels leaner and more defined. For the second part, Dupee hopes to shape her lower body more.

"Those parts take the longest to tone up and drop pounds from," she said. "I've still got those nagging 10 pounds. But I'm on my way."

WALKING's Firm Promise Program

Our program is designed for active women who already get regular aerobic activity but who don't incorporate strength training. Here you'll build basic muscular fitness, control and confidence, and make strength training a habit.

Building the basics
For these introductory movements, all you need is 15 minutes, four days a week. Do all of the upper-body exercises in one workout and the lower-body ones the next, alternating through the week. (For example, upper body on Monday and Thursday, lower on Tuesday and Saturday.)

For the best results:

  • Do two sets of 12 repetitions with a short break in between.

  • Use weights with which you can finish all of the suggested repetitions, but just barely.

  • Do the exercises in the order in which they are numbered.

    What do I need?
    Our program uses your own body weight, a floor mat, free weights and a simple bench. With a set of 3- to 15-pound dumbbells, almost anyone can do the program just about anywhere.

    What about the gym?
    If you go to a club or gym and prefer to use machines, you can simply replicate the moves we describe here.

    Upper-body routine

    1. Chest press: Lie on your back on a bench, with weights in your hands at your shoulders. Slowly press arms out until fully extended, then lower.

    2. Bent-over row: Begin with your right hand and knee on a bench, left foot on the floor, left arm hanging down with the weight, keeping back flat and parallel to ground. Slowly pull the weight up to your shoulder, squeezing the shoulder blades to finish, then slowly return to start. Repeat set on other side.

    3. Abdominal crunch: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the ground, arms crossed, and hands on opposite shoulders. Look at the ceiling and keep your neck relaxed. Slowly contract your abdominal muscles to lift shoulders off the floor. Hold crunch for two counts, then relax back to floor. Do 20 repetitions. To increase resistance, first move hands just behind the ears, with elbows out to sides. When you want more challenge, try placing feet up on a bench or sofa.

    4. Triceps extension: Point the elbow of your right arm toward the ceiling with the elbow bent, forearm down and hand holding a weight behind your right shoulder. Steady the right elbow with your left hand. Slowly straighten the right arm (fully extend but don't lock the elbow), then return to start position.

    5. Biceps curl: Seated on a bench with legs shoulder-width apart, place your right elbow inside the right knee, braced with the left hand. Holding a weight in your right hand, start with arm straight and slowly bend arm until the weight is up at the shoulder. Return to start position.

    Lower-body routine

    1. Lunge: Start with both feet together. Lunge forward with your right foot until your thigh is parallel to the floor, and your bending knee is over the ankle. Then push forcefully off your front foot to return to starting position. Alternate 12 reps on each leg. To increase resistance, hold a pair of light dumbbells.

    2. Side crunch: Start like abdominal crunches: lying on your back with knees bent, feet on the ground, arms crossed, and hands on opposite shoulders. Look at the ceiling to keep your neck relaxed; slowly contract your abdominal muscles to lift your right shoulder off the floor, rotating so the right shoulder goes toward the left knee. Pause at the top, then lower. Do 15 reps in each direction, working up to 20. To increase resistance, first move hands just behind the ears, elbows out to the sides. Second, place feet up on a bench or sofa.

    3. Squat: Stand tall, with feet hip-width apart, hands at your sides. Using a chair or partner so you don't dip too low, bend your legs and lower your tailbone to a half-sitting position, keeping upper body as erect as possible, then straighten your legs. Do 12 reps; if not tiring, hold light dumbbells.

    4. Alternate arm/leg extension: Begin on your hands and knees on the floor, with your head level and back flat. Extend your right arm straight forward and left leg straight back, parallel to ground. Hold for five seconds, then lower; repeat on other side. Begin with six reps on each side, and build to 12 on each side.

    5. Abdominal crunch: Same as in upper-body routine.

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