America’s freestyle diva can help with the first part. The rest is your business.


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Women Outside, Fall 1998

Armed and Dangerous?
America’s freestyle diva can help with the first part. The rest is your business.
By Gretchen Reynolds (with Lea Aschkenas)


FITNESS: Longevity | Strategies | REGIMENS

Amy Van Dyken, four-time olympic gold medalist, has a relief map of a shoulder saddle, all powerfully rounded muscles and jutting bones. She’s earned this upper-body topography the old-fashioned way, through daily five-hour sessions of freestyle and butterfly. But she magnanimously believes that even the chlorine-phobic among us can develop a
striking above-waist profile with just two sessions of weight work per week. “There are only a few exercises you absolutely have to do,” she says. Four to be precise. Then it’s out of the gym and on to strong-arming your boss, landlord, and cable repairman

1. Basic Bench Press. The granddaddy of all chest exercises, the press strengthens the pectoralis major, more familiarly known as the pecs. Lie on a bench with weights in each hand, knees bent, feet flat on the bench. Lift both weights slowly over a count of three. Hold for a beat. Return on a count of six to the resting position, keeping your
lower back pressed to the bench. Van Dyken does sets of 10, eight, six, four, two … muscle failure, with 30 seconds between sets. Begin your sessions with about 30 pounds. Increase by five pounds every two weeks or whenever the final set seems easy. Added weight builds muscle mass; to increase endurance without bulk, keep the weights the same but increase the duration of the
sets (i.e., 12, 10, eight …

2. Seated Rows. Grasp the bar at about chest height, keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle to your sides. Lean forward, with your back straight, and slowly pull for a count of four, bringing the bars toward your waist — as if, duh, you were rowing. Do sets of 10, eight, six, four, and two at a preliminary weight of 40 or 50 pounds; rest
for about 30 seconds between sets. You should feel this along your upper spine. These are the infraspinous muscles, which help stabilize the shoulder and also give you lovely, canal-like upper-back definition.

3. The Fly. The most evocatively named of upper-body exercises. Holding barbells in each hand, sit on a weight bench and lean forward so that your chest touches your thighs. Lift your head so you’re looking at the far wall. Then
slowly raise your arms straight out to the sides until they reach chest level. Hold. You’ll resemble Jeff Goldblum in one of his ungainlier moments as a bug. But you’ll also be isolating the important latissimus dorsi and supraspinous muscles of your upper back. Do two sets of 10 reps each, beginning with five pounds; rest for 30 seconds between sets. As always, increase weight
gradually to add to muscle size; increase reps to build endurance.

4. External Rotations. A set of four spindly muscles set deep within the shoulder, the rotator cuff controls all overhand motions but is also distressingly fragile, in part because it’s seldom isolated and strengthened by weight work. (Van Dyken herself recently underwent rotator-cuff surgery.) External rotations, done biweekly, can build RC
strength dramatically. Holding no weights or 2.5-pound dumbbells, stand with your arms at your sides, palms facing your legs. Keeping your elbow straight, move your left arm across your chest with the wrist just below your waist. From there, rotate up and back to the left in a slow arc. Your arm should reach a 45 degree angle to your body, palm to the heavens. Hold for a count of
two and repeat ten times. Then use the right arm, crossing to the left and rotating back to the right. Increase the weight held after a few weeks, but never exceed ten pounds.

Photograph by Eric Swanson