I’ve authored many articles throughout my years in the fitness industry. Some are informative, some personal, some funny, and some inspirational. Some, like this one, are tough. While I’m not the kind of “bootcamp” trainer who gets down on all fours and barks orders at her clients, I AM the kind of trainer who is more than ok with dishing out a little tough love every now and again. So have a seat and get ready.
I train a myriad of clients, all age ranges, both male and female, but by in large I work with women. I love training women, truly, I do, mostly because I’m aware of the power fitness has to change a woman’s life, as it changed mine, and I cherish the chance to be able to share that with others. However, I work with a lot of women who, at some point or another during the process of being a client of mine have made statements to me that echo the following (no particular order)
- I don’t want to lift, the gym scares me.
- I want to tone up.
- I don’t want to lift because I don’t want to be bulky.
- I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder.
I struggle with these statements. I truly do. As a girl who is loyal to her barbell and to the amazing things it has done for my physique I can honestly say that, as a woman, avoiding weight- good intense heavy weight in favor of running face first into aerobics class is probably one of the biggest fitness faux pas you can make. Stay seated, keep reading, I’ll tell you why.
First off, let me state that the core movements in ANY program of mine, or those of my clients are full body, functional, NATURAL movement. Squats, deadlifts, rows, pull ups, presses, dips…. Not “tricep kickbacks” or “pectoral flys” or “hammer curls”. While those isometric movements may manage to find their way into the program of someone whose muscle requires some sculpting work, the crux of any program I write is always some form of movement which will elicit a high neuroendocrine response. Training in a way which produces a high neuroendocrine response increases the amount of growth hormone the body releases. Among the hormonal responses vital to athletic development are substantial increases in testosterone, insulin like growth factor, and increased muscle mass and bone density- ALL effects that result from inducing a high neuroendocrine response. This elevates the hormones and mimics that hormonal changes sought after in exogenous hormonal therapy (aka roids), without the negative side effects. Heavy load training, short rest between sets, high heart rate, high intensity training, short rest intervals, and the inclusion of compound multi joint, total body functional movements are all ways in which you can elicit that response- isolation movements don’t cut it. Training with a barbell, dumbbells, incorporating high intensity movement and plyometrics, mastering control of your own bodyweight through gymnastics and calisthenics- these are all ways which set you up to get leaner without sending the body into a catabolic (muscle wasting state). This results in a dense, lean, trim and muscular physique, the GOAL body desired by most women I speak to.
I DON’T WANT TO LIFT WEIGHTS, THE GYM SCARES ME:
There is no law that says in order to lift weights you NEED to belong to a gym. I’m well aware of the problems a conventional gym atmosphere can present- one of which includes the fear of being judged, especially if you’re new to strength training. But you do not need a gym to lift. In fact I encourage my clients to think of their fitness as being something that takes place each and every moment in every arena of their lives, not just within the confines of a gym. Through very little financial investment you can set up dumbbells or kettlebells, medicine balls, some bands or a barbell in your home. I can come up with countless workouts involving those few implements that will induct you into the realm of strength training without you EVER having to set foot in a gym. Use your own bodyweight, perhaps the best strength training tool of all through movements like push ups, burpees, or bodyweight squats.
Don’t use a fear of the gym as a reason to avoid good weight training. Find ways to create an environment at home which enables you to gain comfort with strength training and then contemplate hitting a gym. When you do- be picky, look for a facility that encourages, inspires, and welcomes you. The last thing you want to do is invest in a membership somewhere that you never ever use because you don’t like the atmosphere, the clientele, equipment and so on.
Related: Best Fat Burners For Women
I WANT TO TONE UP:
The idea of “toning your muscles” is one of the biggest lies cemented in conventional wisdom. If I had a nickel for every woman who told me she wanted to “tone” her muscle I could’ve retired and moved to the Bahamas years ago. Maybe not quite, but you get my drift.
The truth is there is no such thing as “toning your muscles.”Sorry, it doesn’t exist. The concept of “toning” (or what people THINK of when they think of toning) is a combination of two very real things: gaining muscle mass and reducing excess body fat. Mainstream thought about “muscle tone” doesn’t reflect the reality of achieving it. Most people think if you use light weight at high reps then you will tone your muscles. This results in a trim, lean body that’s not too bulky and has good muscle definition.
This is a load of bull. It actually PAINED me to type it.
Here’s the first half of the truth: Muscles are fixed at all ends by tendons and bone. They do not magically assume different shapes. Sets of 2-3 reps do not produce the shape of a triangle while 10-12 reps produce the shape of a square. Muscles just don’t have that much artistic freedom. However, muscles do change by growing in response to exercise. That’s the first half of the equation in achieving what most people want when they refer to muscle tone: larger muscles. Oh yes. You read me right ladies- when you talk about getting “toned” what you’re REALLY saying is two things- 1) I want to lose fat and 2) I WANT BIGGER MUSCLES.
That doesn’t have to mean Conan large but if you’ll honestly analyze what you’re thinking about when the fallacy of muscle tone comes to mind, you’ll find that growing your muscles to some degree is certainly a part of it. The good news is that mainstream thought on toning has a tiny element of truth to it: High rep schemes with low weight do stimulate muscle growth. However,low rep schemes with heavier weight stimulate it much more. I’m not advocating one rep scheme at the expense of the other, my advice is a balanced program that mixes time with heavy weight and time with higher reps, like CrossFit! But if you want larger muscles (part of the elusive muscle tone) then you can’t be hesitant to lift heavy. Most people think lifting heavy is not part of “toning,” but I personally think that’s probably because lifting heavy is tough and requires a backbone. You need commitment, motivation and determination. Tossing around a 200+ lb deadlift is a far different battle then playing with 5lb dumbbells, and let’s face it, people like to find reasons not to do things that are difficult. We like easy. Easy is good. But easy doesn’t get you results.
The second half of the truth: body fat is all that really determines how well your muscles can be seen. And the VISUAL of a lean, sculpted, MUSCULAR body is what most women WANT when they say that stupid word “toned”. While some form of physical exercise will undoubtedly make you leaner, the unfortunate truth is that diet is the dominant factor controlling your body fat. Abs are made in the kitchen—not on an Abmat, a GHD machine, and certainly not on some contraption with cables. Yeah, that kind of sucks, but it’s true. And I promise you this, lfiting heavy will NOT make you gain size, but eating anything and everything in sight surely WILL.
Strength training and pristine nutrition is how you get the look you want. The “toned” look so to speak. And by strength training I mean a good mix of heavy lifting, barbell play, dumbbell work, and lighter high rep exercises in functional movements. That will translate to larger muscles. Larger muscles is half the battle in creating a “toned” look. The second part of the battle is achieving pristine nutrition.
I DON’T WANT TO LIFT BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO BE BULKY & I DON’T WANT TO LOOK LIKE A BODYBUILDER:
Women simply do not possess the hormonal profile needed to mass up under heavy weight. We don’t possess enough testosterone. SO, if you are a woman and you are lifting heavy AND gaining “size” or “mass” then you’re either a) eating sub par when it comes to nutrition or b) taking “stuff” and not fessing up to it.
If you WANT to just “lose weight” and be skinny, that’s fine, go hit up the elliptical or the recumbent bike for three hours a day and don’t eat anything. That being said, I’ve worked with women who start with this mentality and adopt a new one when they start to FEEL what REAL fitness (Not step class, Les Mills, or leisurely strolls on the treadmill.) can do for you physically, mentally, and spiritually. They feel empowered by lifting, they gain confidence through an increase in strength and they learn daily what they’re capable of doing, physically, which is a very freeing and beautiful feeling.
Looking like a 12 year old girl is for 12 year old girls. And if you think you already have too much muscle I hate to break it to you but you don’t. If you’re glaring at your screen right now saying, “Alli doesn’t know what she’s talking about I’m just genetically bulky.” or, “I’m an exception to what she is talking about.” You’re lying to yourself. I’ve broken down the body composition of countless females and EVERY SINGLE WOMAN who thought that they were already bulky simply had a very high body-fat percentage. Period.
As for the female bodybuilding comment- I have to say that those women look that way BY INTENT. Their body is a very deliberate look achieved through very extreme measures, usually including hormone therapy (steroids) along with a strength and conditioning program designed to make you look as muscular as possible with no real desire to actually improve physical performance. The majority of bodybuilders are NOT weightlifters. They are not worried about becoming stronger, or better conditioned, or even remaining healthy. In essence they’re the opposite of CrossFit or training for athletic performance and function. I compete in figure so I am in NO WAY SHAPE OR FORM bashing female bodybuilders, they are among the most dedicated and hardest working athletes in the world. That being said, their entire sport is basically built upon the idea of LOOKING good. The judges in bodybuilding don’t award points for anything else, and therefore the way their body looks is INTENTIONAL. They didn’t start lifting and get that way by accident. IT was by design. So unless you set foot into the gym with that same design in mind- I can almost guarantee you that you will not one day, miraculously wake up looking like a pro female bodybuilder from picking up heavy weight here and there.
All that being said, this article would be a waste if I didn’t at least offer some general tips towards getting into that lean, chiseled, muscular body you’re craving. But for starters, in order to be open to changing your body you need to be willing to let go of what you THINK you know about what it means to have a fitness physique.
- You do not need to do 3 hours of cardio a day and in fact doing so can be VERY unhealthy and metabolically damaging.
- You do not need to live off of tilapia and asparagus
- There are no aerobics classes
- You do not need to avoid dietary fat
- You do not need to opt for the “low cal”, “low fat”, “no fat” or “sugar free” versions of things.
- You do not need the colored weights. You do NOT need to lift light!
- Special K is not a breakfast
- Diet Coke does not count for hyrdration
- You do not need to live off lettuce
- You do not need to under eat all the time
- You do not need to “no carb”, “low carb” or “carb free” it
- You do not need expensive gadgets, heart rate monitors, fancy computer programs or the latest Dr Oz detox to get the body you want
INSTEAD, you need to
- Eat at levels to support your activity but not promote bodyfat
- Eat carbs (the RIGHT kinds)
- Eat fat (the RIGHT kinds)
- Eat lean proteins
- Hydrate with water
- Pick up a barbell. A kettlebell. A sandbag. A tire. A dumbbell. I don’t care, but PICK UP HEAVY WEIGHT
- Master the basics. The pushup. The pullup. The squat. The deadlift.
- Don’t think of “cardio” as being confined to the elliptical. Think of plyometrics, sprint drills, hill runs, prowler pushes, sled drags, tire flips
- Get intense. IF you’re training heavy GO HEAVY. If you’re doing sprints pound them out!
- Abandon long duration cardio and try to rely mostly on plyometrics and HIIT for the “cardio” component of your training. Or use a barbell. Clean a barbell 50x. You’ll sweat trust me.
- Do burpees.
- Reduce or eliminate refined sugars completely (not fruit but doughnuts and the like)
- Rely on whole natural foods for your primary source of fuel (no bars, pre packaged items etc)
- Stick to the outer isles of the grocery store
- Think lean meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc
- EAT! Resist the urge to reduce calories, cut macronutrients from your diet or resort to other drastic measures.
- Until you master solid nutrition and proper training don’t waste your hard earned money on a bazillion different supplements or other “get fit quick” fixes
- Train for YOU, at YOUR level, for YOUR goals. What works for your neighbor works for them, great. You need to do what works for you.
Eat real food. Lift real weight. Get real results. That’s the bottom line. No gimmicks. No pills, powders, or potions. Eating lean, nutrient dense natural foods and lifting real weight WILL put you in the feminine, muscular, tight body you’re craving ladies.
Now grab a barbell, and get to work.