NORTH PALM BEACH, FL — Pumping iron is no longer exclusive to body builders and football players, according to anecdotal accounts and new findings from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).

Last year, according to the SGMA International's report, “Free Weight Training,” produced by American Sports Data Inc., there were more than 45 million Americans (over the age of six) who trained with some form of free weights — barbells, dumbbells or hand weights. That number represents a 101 percent increase in participation since 1987 and ranks free weight use first among 20 selected fitness activities.

Additionally, the report stated that the total adult participation in free weight use — those over the age of 18 — has risen an astounding 119 percent since 1987. Also, among all exercisers, strength-training activities have the highest participation frequency, showing that those that train regularly with weights are more serious, see results and keep up with training.

Women are leading the free-weight charge, according to the SGMA. In 2001, women comprised 45 percent of all people who exercised with free weights. The spectacular rise of weight training among women (up 203 percent from 1987) is one of the most dramatic fitness trends of the late 20th century, according to the association.

Overall, free weight training seems to be well dispersed along the age spectrum, according to the findings. Thirty-six percent are under the age of 25; 39 percent are between 25-44; and 25 percent are over the age of 45. However, the most dramatic increase in free weight training since 1987 has been with those 55 and over, mirroring the overall impact of the 55-plus segment on the fitness industry. Older free weight users have risen from just a little more than 750,000 people in 1987 to more than six million participants in 2001 — nearly a 700 percent increase.