Your view on the ‘Curves For Women’ program?

I was wondering if you had any views on “Curves” and their system of 30 minutes of cardio and hydraulic weight machines, having read your ebook Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle, I just wanted to know if their workouts are enough or if I should add on more weight training.

I’ve never done the Curves workout (they don’t let guys in there – especially us muscle heads, LOL! and it wouldn’t be my type of place anyway), so I can’t can’t speak from experience. I can only report on what I’ve heard from Curves advertising and from other people. I’ll pass on what I know as best as I can, but my knowledge of Curves is 2nd hand info, so if any readers with first hand experience at Curves think I have missed anything, or if anything has changed recently in their program design, I welcome any emails telling me so.

Here’s the basic concept behind Curves. “Curves for women” are small, franchised fitness clubs with hydraulic resistance machines that are set up in a circuit where you move from machine to machine on a timed interval. There are usually 8-12 pieces of equipment in the circuit that work specific body parts. There are also stations such as mini trampolines and steps in between the machines. The circuit moves you from station to station and is guided by music and taped instruction and sometimes personal instructors. The pace is fairly quick to keep your heart rate up and make it a cardio workout and strength training workout at the same time. The whole circuit is designed to be completed in just 30 minutes.

In the social circles I travel in (serious bodybuilding),”Curves for Women” is little more than the brunt of jokes. I do have some constructive criticisms, but in defense of Curves, let me say that first, all exercise is good exercise (especially structured exercise in a club which includes resistance training), and second, that Curves is a great start for many women who have never belonged to health clubs before.

With all due respect and acknowledgement to people who train effectively at home for privacy and convenience, home workouts just dont cut it for me – too many distractions, not enough equipment and zero atmosphere. I love the energy in gyms and health clubs, you can’t match the selection of equipment in a good gym, and I think almost everyone would benefit from joining a club… eventually.

The trouble is, many beginners, especially women, and especially especially overweight women, are intimidated by the commercial “gym” atmosphere. Over the 16 years Ive been involved in the health club industry both as a trainer and manager, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people (women and men) say, “I have to get in shape before I join a gym.” It sounds funny, ironic, and completely backwards, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate.

Where Curves has definitely succeeded – very well, judging by the fact that they set a record for becoming one of the fastest growing franchise businesses in the world – is by creating an environment where women can feel comfortable working out, even if they are overweight, rank beginners or totally intimidated by the whole “gym thing.”

Now let me offer some constructive criticisms based on an exercsie science and program design perspective.

First let’s look at the circuit training concept in general. The goal is to perform a series of 8-12 exercises in a row virtually nonstop in an attempt to combine weight training and cardio into one brief workout. While this type of exercise may be time efficient and it is sufficient stimulus for a beginner, the attempt at combining weights with cardio tends to compromise the effects you could achieve by doing conventional strength training and cardio independently. A more effective method of weight training which is also time efficient, is to set up workouts consisting mainly of supersets (pairs of exercises).

Second, compared to the larger commercial health clubs, Curves hours of operation tend to vary and may be more restrictive (something to think about if convenience and time saving are the reason you’re considering a 30 minute workout in the first place). The clubs are very small and Overcrowding is definitely possible, although I have been told that for this reason, Curves limits its membership (I don’t know whether that is true and if so, whether it is enforced).

Third, lets look at the equipment used in Curves. What most exercise scientists will tell you about hydraulic machines (which are used in the curves circuit) is that because there is no eccentric resistance (the resistance on the muscle when you lower the weight), hydraulic machines are an inferior form of strength training.

Full range exercise through the concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) movements is important for maximum strength and muscular development. The eccentric component of the exercise is actually even more important than the concentric, as eccentric emphasis has been shown to improve strength and muscle gains.

Hydraulic machines are better than no exercise, and it’s a start, but as time goes on and you become more and more fit, I recommend you seek out more advanced workouts to match your rising level of fitness. Fans of Curves have told me that “you CAN make it harder- just push harder and the hydraulic machines give more resistance.” True, but that can also be a drawback, because you can just as easily NOT push harder. When you have 100 pounds on a barbell, you MUST lift 100 pounds and lower 100 pounds. With hydraulics, the resistance matches your effort, but how do you quantify that? How do you keep records of your exact workload and chart your improvement from one workout to the next?
Fourth, consider your body’s ability to adapt to the stress of working out and the need for the “progressive overload” and “muscle confusion” principles. It’s a strength training axiom that “all workouts work, but none work for long.” This means that when you do a new workout for the first time – any workout – it’s a “shock” to your body and your body’s response is to get stronger and more muscular. But your body will quickly adapt to that workout, and eventually, repeating the same workout over and over again will cease to be effective. In order to make continued progress, you must use the progressive overload principle and muscle confusion principle.

Having a wide variety of free weights, cable-pulley and weight stack machines allows you the requisite variety you need to continue making progress (while avoiding boredom at the same time). Did you know that there are literally thousands of exercises you can do with dumbbells alone? How many times could you repeat the same workout circuit and continue getting results? (hint: not long. Personally, I change my routines every month). If you repeat the same workout circuit month after month, eventually your body adapts and progress plateaus.

Fifth, another drawback of machines in general, even the ones with weight stacks which have an eccentric component, is that they’re non functional – which means that they do not train the muscles in a way that you would use them in real life. If the only resistance exercise you do for your legs are the hydraulic leg extension and leg curl machines, and you never move up to more challenging and effective exercises such as lunges, squats, step ups and so on, you are seriously limiting your results.

By contrast, doing free weight exercises and even body weight resistance exercises, can train the muscles in a functional manner, improve strength to a greater degree than machines and even contribute to fat loss in a greater way because it increases lean mass more effectively and involves multiple joints rather than a program such as curves which is primarily based on machine isolation exercises.

I recently read a review of Curves (written by someone who is not a fitness expert), which said that the equipment is easy to use and because the equipment is hydraulic and designed to be pushed, then pulled, that this seems like a safer way to workout. Well, the “easy to use” part may be true, but seeking the path of least resistance is typical human nature, typical in corporate advertising and is usually a road that leads straight to mediocrity. The most effective workouts are NEVER the easiest. Yes, squats with barbells or dumbbells require technique, strict attention to form and are much more difficult. That’s why they’re so effective.

As for machine safety, that is not entirely true. Hydraulic machines may be safer in one regard because you won’t drop a dumbbell on your head or you wont get injured due to using poor form on a complex form-intense exercise, but it doesnt mean you are injury proofing your body for the long haul. Relying 100% on machines is actually a good way to allow your stabilizing muscles to get weaker because the machine is doing the stabilizing for you. Therefore, you may actually be at greater risk of injury in the long run, both inside and outside the gym.

With a real short list of pros and a long list of cons, it may sound like I’m beating up on Curves like the rest of my bodybuilder friends, but again let me say that Curves has it’s place in the scheme of things. Because it is simple and structured, it can be a great start for some women and an excellent introduction to the world of health club workouts.

Curves have brought women into health clubs who otherwise would have never even considered joining a gym. That is good. For someone who was previously sedentary or who had never lifted weights before, Curves is a step in the right direction. However, the very same benefits that make Curves appeal to women and beginners are the features that can actually limit Curves effectiveness over the long haul and make it inappropriate for the advanced trainee.

As you make more and more progress and get more and more experience with exercise, ask yourself whether hydraulic machine circuit training is still the most appropriate workout for you and search for ways to optimize your training (such as adding free weights and changing routines on a regular basis).

Most important of all, pay attention to your results because that answers the question, “Is this the ideal workout for me?” Judge all your workouts based on actual progress. If you’re getting great results from the Curves workout, then you can ignore any critics and just laugh your way to the beach in a bikini. Always keep doing more of what’s working… but if it’s not working anymore, then it’s time for a change or an upgrade.

NOTE: If you’re doing the curves workout and you want to increase your results dramatically, The Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle nutrition program for fat loss can be used in conjunction with the Curves workout. No workout program is effective without the proper nutritional support.

Burn The Fat is the most detailed, “one-stop” guide to fat burning nutrition you’ll ever find.That’s why so many people call it “the fat loss bible.”