Want to see my six-pack, lads?

There are so many women using weights now, they're getting their own magazine. Hup hup, says HESTER LACEY

Next month, Muscle & Fitness, the 60-year-old American title that is the great-granddaddy of all other muscly mags, is launching a brand new sister publication. With a cover prettily accented in pink and features such as "Illegal Legs: Look So Good It's A Crime", Muscle & Fitness Hers is aimed at women who weight-lift; and it seems that there are plenty of them out. Four years ago, women made up around 20 per cent of Muscle & Fitness's 7.4 million readers; now nearly a third of its readers are female, which adds up to around 2.3 million women. The days when the men headed for the weights room while the girlies pranced around in their aerobics classes are over.

According to figures published by the American Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the number of American women who use weights in their workouts has nearly doubled since 1987, from around 12.5 million to around 21 million. Vincent Scalisi, editorial director at Muscle & Fitness Hers, says that these hardbodies are more than ready for their own publication. "Other magazines have a softer approach. But 53 per cent of the people who attend health clubs here are women, and they are looking for really sound advice on how to maximise the benefits of the time they spend in the gym."

Mr Scalisi says that he does not care for the term "bodybuilding" because it implies a touch too much muscle. "The fashionable look at the moment is a strong body - with a strong mind and a strong spirit too," he says. "The best way to describe it is athletic and empowered."

All of which may sound a little daunting for anyone who is, frankly, more blob than babe. But, says Mr Scalisi, the team at Muscle & Fitness Hers will be taking pains to include the beginners. "There will be inspirational and aspirational aspects," he explains. "We want to communicate to the readers the message that the changes you can make to your body are real, they are not gimmicky, but they are not instant either. So we also want to keep people inspired."

He believes that many readers will have been enthused by role models such as Demi Moore and Jean Claude van Damme. The first issue will include a workout devised by the current Miss Fitness Olympia, low-fat recipe makeovers, the intriguing "gymless workout" and a special five-minute workout for the abdominals. "The first thing anyone looks at round the pool is that mid-section," says Mr Scalisi, which is depressing but probably true. (Any readers who are exhausted by this lot could turn to the feature on home spas for light relief.)

In this country too, women are discovering the benefits of resistance training. "Women, like men, want results, and they are realising they can't get them from skippy aerobics classes," says Sharon Walker, editor of Shape magazine. "If you want a good-looking, well-shaped, well-defined body, you can't do it with aerobics alone." Gyms, she says, have changed to accommodate women. "Ten years ago, the classes were for the girls and the gym was for the boys. Gyms used to be full of men grunting away and they could be quite intimidating. That has changed now."

Weight training, she says, does not mean becoming muscle-bound; it's about toning, firming and shaping. She points to role models such as Jennifer Lopez, the actress and singer. "Jennifer works out seriously and she is part of a trend towards firm curves and well-covered bones as opposed to an emaciated look."

Clare Markham, 32, was converted to weights by her personal trainer, and now fits in half an hour of training on free weights and machine weights four times a week as part of her regular workout. "I've been doing this now for six months or so and the difference is great," she says. "I haven't got a six-pack yet but by next summer I'll be ready to bare my midriff and upper arms for the first time in about five years. After you've been working with weights for a while you start to notice you're really getting stronger and fitter. The other day I had a suitcase to carry and I walked all the way from my home to the station without having to stop and put it down - things like that mean you feel you're progressing and achieving something."

Clare dragged her friend Alison James along with her to the gym, and Alison became another fervent fan. "It's not as hard work as you might think," she says. "You are working the muscles but you don't get all sweaty and red-faced."

Gina Stavrou is a fitness instructor and personal trainer at the Fitness First gym in Chalk Farm, north London, and she has seen her clients become much more interested in body-shaping - and the health benefits that go along with it. "Exercises like these are very good for posture," she says. "If you're sitting at a desk using a computer all day, weight training will push your shoulders and chest back and get you to use your stomach muscles so you don't slouch. It also lowers your blood pressure and reduces stress."

Gina says that dieting is out. "It's much more important to have a healthy lifestyle. Weight training is about getting away from the skinny look and towards muscle definition and tone." Women are also encouraged by weight training because the benefits show up fast, she adds. "You see a difference very quickly if you keep it up regularly. A good regime is half an hour of aerobic exercise for the heart, then half an hour or so of weights, three or four times a week."

Gina says she expects more and more women to convert to weight training. "Women think they don't want to build up too much muscle but it's more about tone. It will become increasingly popular as women become more educated about the benefits they can gain."

Mary Comber, the editor of Health and Fitness magazine (which this month tells readers how to get a "Bond-girl body" - no weeds or drips here) has also noted the growing popularity of weights for women. "Before, a lot of women used to stick to step classes, aerobics, bums-and-tums classes. Now it's body conditioning and body pump classes, with a lot more women using weights."

Women have tended to avoid muscle-building exercises in the past, she says, because too much muscle has traditionally been seen as unfeminine - but defined muscle tone is the look of the moment. "You see it on actresses and models - look at Madonna and the girls from Friends. It's a very positive look compared to that victim-waif image that was so big a few years ago. Feeling stronger can increase your confidence and it's good to see women looking vital and empowered."

Developing some muscle, adds Mary Comber, is the best way to control body-weight - muscle takes more calories than fat to maintain, so the more muscle you have the more calories you burn. And, aesthetics aside, she points out that there is a very specific woman-friendly health benefit to weight-bearing exercise: it is good for the bones and can stave off osteoporosis. "Weight training is fantastic for bone health," she says.

Weight-lifting can become a major hobby. Andrulla Blanchette runs a training gym, Dowe Dynamics in north London, and has built herself up to competition standard (to see how far you can take it, check out her website, www.andrulla.com). "Going to a usual gym is a social thing, people spend a lot of time chatting, but the women here are dedicated to getting in shape," she says.

Andrulla has been working out for 14 years. "I used to do judo and I started to use weights to supplement my training," she says. "All the top athletes use weights as part of their training programmes." Now she spends 45 minutes to an hour, four or five times a week, on weight training, working on a different body part in each session; legs one day, back one day, shoulders one day. "It's a myth that you have to spend hours and hours in the gym," she explains. "In fact it's important to have rest days because your body only grows muscle when it's resting, not when you're actually working out." For beginners especially, she advises finding a reputable instructor who can explain how to use weights safely.

Andrulla believes that weight training is one of the healthiest forms of exercise. "Swimming, cycling, jumping-up-and-down classes will help you get fit to a certain extent, but by doing resistance exercises you lose fat quickly and become very healthy. And weights are actually less stressful on the cardiovascular system than things like running." Andrulla has even persuaded her 70-year-old mother of the benefits of weights. "She was having health problems and I said `Come into the gym'. And she did. And she really enjoys it!"

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