What Women Should Never do (but often do) While Trying to Get in Shape; Part 1 of 6

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This was originally intended to be a single article. I realized several pages deep that it was impossible to give you enough to help yourself or the important people in your life in one article. With the best intentions, I’ll give it to you straight. Over empathizing or hand-holding never helped, motivated or aspired anyone to change.

Mistake Number 1: Deciding to lose weight FIRST before beginning to weight train.

This thought process is 90% personal theory to avoid “bulking up” and 10% excuses to not step outside a comfort zone. Ask anyone with this mindset enough of the right questions and I guarantee it will boil down to the fear of bulking up or getting too big. I’ll get into some of the 10-percenters, but let’s tackle the majority first.

Many women (and even men these days) feel that shedding weight through cardio and diet before resistance training will lead to a leaner looking body in a faster time. The thought is to lose all the excess pounds on the scale and then “tone up” the leftovers for a sleeker, sexier, firm body.

Is it possible to lose fat exclusively through diet and conditioning? Yes – but it’s not faster, nor is it more efficient in the long run. Weight training in conjunction with improved eating habits and conditioning has major advantages over cardio and diet alone. But this information and the list of supporting facts are worthless until a woman actually believes that she is NOT an exception to the bulk factor.

It’s one thing to acknowledge information and another thing entirely to accept that it applies to you.  Many women will give excuses.

“But I’m different.”

“It’s my genetics.”

“I put on muscle and size overnight!”

Though most of us know there’s a lot more to it- the concern needs to be addressed. So before you sigh, roll your eyes and begin futilely to convert skeptics to the iron side, I recommend you do the following;

  • Acknowledge the concern. Nobody cares or wants to listen to a word you have to say if they don’t first believe you are listening and understanding their situation.
  • Listen. Or should I say listen to their answers to the right questions. Collect diet and training history about the program(s) they did (or lack there of) that turned them off or had a negative result.
  • Drop the bomb. Every body type and genetic background has the ability to have a beautiful, fit shape. There is a proven way to achieve it if they are willing. I emphasize – if they are willing. The ball is in their court.

So you listened or have been listened to, but you are still wondering if you have an exceptional situation. Perhaps you still just don’t know where or how things went wrong in the past. Why do women have this fear of muscle and bulk?

It’s actually the body fat over the muscle that’s making you look big. It’s not all muscle on a female body. It rarely ever is. Even if you have an athletic background or a naturally more muscular build, if you can pinch an inch on your quad or calves while standing – don’t blame it all on leg day. You just have more work to do. Now if you’re a cheap pincher or you flexed the whole time and still think you’re super lean, get naked and shake or jump up and down in front of the mirror. If it’s still jiggling when you stop wiggling, it’s body fat.

*Personal Side Note: Ladies, every time I’ve ever done a figure show or dieted down for one reason or another, I have been surprised by how much muscle I DIDN’T have – regardless of my perceived reflection at a higher weight (pictures help). Fat hides and fills in everywhere and the arms and back are a good example. You may get freaked out when you see a bicep curve in your arm as it starts to take shape because you think your arm looks too big and hate the way it looks in pictures. It’s likely the fat over the bicep and the notorious fat holding triceps that make the arm as a whole look bigger. Unless that arm is carved and lean with muscles that flicker when you move, you’re not jacked.

To also support this point, in the picture below some might say I’m TOO big. I’ll note that being very lean creates an illusion of size. This happens to work great in competition. But in all actuality, I wore a size extra small in clothes once I got that lean…that’s how much muscle I didn’t have under my usual medium tops and small bottom sizes. Don’t want to get so lean that you look bigger? Believe me, it doesn’t happen by accident and it’s quite easy to soften your look if need be – let me know if you get there.

The point is that it’s possible you are not over muscularly developed. You may just need to shed a bit more fat. No biggie.

Moving on…

  • Crappy nutrition. Hand in hand with number one, if you’re not doing your part at the dinner table, you have yourself to blame. Not seeing inches come off? If you feel that you are staying the same or getting bulkier, this is an area you should take a second look.

Women have less muscle mass and more fat-storing hormones than men-period. So, we have to put a little more effort into our nutritional planning just to keep up with the results that men can get through training alone.

That might upset a lot of people but I’ll boldly walk out on that limb. I’ve seen men get great fitness and fat loss results with minimal to basic health changes to their diet. Not the same for females. In fact, I’ve seen women bust their ass three to four times a week and only make improvements in strength, mobility, balance etc…rather than jean size. They were not ready or willing to make any changes nutritionally. There are always exceptions, but the sooner you accept this fact and stop sulking, the quicker you can move forward.

*Another side note: If your man is losing fat and kicking butt in the gym, don’t rain on his parade. His 12-pound loss to your 3 is not his fault. It can be frustrating but be as supportive to him as you would like him to be for you. You’ll both be much happier.

So where should you start? Simple. I mean, actually start simple and small. Nutritionally speaking, consistency of your commitment trumps the intensity of your commitment hands down. Making gradual changes gets better results with less stress than crash dieting, always re-gaining, and feeling bulky and miserable.

I suggest you eat out less. Pack healthy snacks to prevent overeating later. Increase your fruit and veggie intake. Choose a lean protein at every meal unless you’re a victim of that awful Skinny Bitch book (in which case find vegetarian sources.) You might be saying “yeah, yeah, yeah…I heard that,” but have you ever actually committed to changes like this for a significant period of time and made it more of a lifestyle as opposed to a phase?

Diet Summary

  • If you consistently eat like crap you will consistently look like crap.
  • If you make a so-so effort you will get so-so results.
  • If you crash diet half the time and overeat the other half of the time you will look be miserable ALL of the time.
  • If you want to look exceptional you will need to do what most others are not willing to do.

There will be more in the future on this topic but for now, on to the next…

  • Poor program design. Walking into the gym and doing whatever machines are open or copying what you see a trainer or other member doing is not a good idea. If you don’t know what to do, find out. Read, research, or hire a qualified trainer preferably by referral. If you don’t have a plan, you cannot predict quality results. That’s like getting in a car to drive cross-country without a map. It’s a commitment and a journey that you just can’t wing if you ever hope to get there and have a positive experience along the way.

Not only does poor or no programming make results unpredictable, it opens the door for even bigger issues. You can too easily avoid or forget to train certain areas while overtraining others simply because you know more of those exercises or enjoy them. The finished product can be an overall disproportionate look that can make one area look bulky compared to others. This is a bummer, but don’t worry it’s fixable and guess what? You’re not a genetic freak that is destined to be bulky.

More on training but lastly…

  • Not enough training and healthy eating history. Obvious results in what you might consider “genetic trouble areas” take time. You might see change and definition in areas you hadn’t but are beginning to think those areas will never go away. You’re body type might prefer to hold fat in a particular area making you feel that it’s bulky or gaining MORE muscle as the rest of you gets leaner. I hate to break it to you but that area will always feel like the last to go and quite possibly the first to gain. Many women can relate so you aren’t alone in this frustration. You just need to be consistent and stay the course. In the meantime, showcase and enjoy the areas of your body that you like the most and don’t dwell on the areas that simply need more time.
  • Be Consistent. Flip-flopping from one type of diet to the next- South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, the Grapefruit Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, that awful diet where you massage the beads behind your ear… it’s a set up for metabolic and emotional disaster. This is also notoriously referred to as Yo-Yo dieting; a sure fire way to always feel like you’re deprived, never getting results, and always gaining back lost pounds and more. There’s no quicker way to feel you are a “bulker” than to actually gain weight while you’re trying to lose it.

The same concept can be applied to your training. It does you no good to do a random workout every time you go to the gym and get frustrated that you don’t see results. You need to give a progressive program real effort for several months to let it work for you. Patience and consistency can be tough disciplines to acquire. In an age of convenience and immediate gratification it’s no wonder so many people are still out of shape with a gym and a grocery store on every corner. We actually live in a society where they put the peanut butter AND the jelly in the same jar to save a whopping 10 seconds. Really?

To wrap it up…

Patience and consistency are muscles you will need to strengthen if you ever want to break the mold and move forward with your goals (training or otherwise).

About the other 10%

Here are a few other reasons that a woman might want to lose weight first before beginning to weight train.

  • Fear - intimidation of trying something new, not knowing what to do, how to do it, how much is too much or how little is too little.
  • Self-Consciousness - not wanting to be looked at while performing exercises, embarrassed about current weight.
  • Aching Joints and Muscles – thinking that getting all the weight off first will alleviate aching joints and muscles.
  • Unwillingness - just plain unwilling to step outside a comfort zone or put forth a real effort.

The solutions for all of the above are to get educated, get support, hire a trainer if you need to, learn more about exercises for your fitness level and find out when the gym is at its slowest. You are capable and there are tons of resources to support your cause. Just be willing and make the move.

So there’s the good news! There are so many more reasons on why you might think you’re a natural bulker, but likely are not. This is a great thing!  There’s not only hope for you yet, but a whole slew of reasons on why you can be totally excited to start a basic weight training program.

Benefits of Resistance Training for Women

  • Fat loss and improved body composition – Muscle burns fat. Excess fat is useless and makes you feel like crap. One pound of muscle burns 35-75 calories a day where one pound of fat burns a measly 8 calories per day. More muscle and less fat equals a smaller, tighter body that can eat more without gaining as easily.
  • Get stronger (and no bulk!) - Women have 10-30 times less of the hormones that affect muscle-building. If it were that easy to get huge every guy on the beach would have massive biceps. But you don’t see that. You see skinny dudes, fat guys and the men that you can tell lift hard, eat well and put in the years of hard work that goes into getting and maintaining a built physique. Getting stronger will make your life easier; picking up your children, putting heavy boxes in the attic, carrying your luggage, and even lugging laundry baskets up and down stairs. Life just gets easier when you’re stronger. Start opening pickle jars for him.

  • Improved performance - You can use your imagination here. You are more ready willing and able for everything when you are stronger and in better overall shape. Whether you love to run with your dog, ski, surf, hike, golf, swim or have rowdy sex…performance increases relative with your strength and fitness.

Side note: Yes this means yoga too! I’m telling you this just for the sake of making a point that being stronger opens up doors to so many different areas of interest. I randomly did a trial membership at an “intense” yoga studio where they taught hot yoga, power yoga, etc. I did one of everything they offered and had the same or better strength, mobility and balance as those geeky front row students. It didn’t de-stress me at ALL to know that I could get the same results and more in less time and without gagging on lavender. If you like yoga- great. Strength training will improve your performance in that as well.

  • Decreased risk of being a “Skinny Fat” victim - Did you know that anorexics and bulimics can, and many times are clinically obese?  This is an extreme example of skinny fat but it just goes to show you. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the scale says, or what size jeans you wear. You still could be very unhappy with the way you look because you don’t have muscle and your whole body looks soft and flabby. Cardio and extreme calorie cuts can cause you to burn up your muscle. Wasting your muscle away equals skinny fat and faster weight-gain next time around since you’ll have less metabolic tissue (as mentioned in reason 1). Don’t burn it, build it.
  • Decreased risk of Osteoporosis - This bone disease increases your risk of fractures. Though it is no longer considered gender or age specific, women experience a more rapid decline in bone density in the years following menopause. This puts females at even higher risk for fractures. Prevention starts early and resistance training has shown to not only slow the disease but to rebuild density.
  • Increased self-esteem and decreased depression - Studies show that women who engage in a regular resistance training program report feeling confident and capable as a result of their training. Additionally, a Harvard study found that 10 weeks of strength training reduced clinical depression symptoms more successfully than standard counseling.
  • Decreased risk of…dying - Ok so now you think I’m a fanatic, but check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me and Google the CDC’s leading causes of death in females. It’s not morbid, just educational. Heart disease is #1 and diabetes is #7. Strength training is great exercise for your heart and has the added bonus of helping your body process sugars better. If you want fancy studies, there are a million out there but I’m moving on.
  • Decreased risk of injury and chronic muscle aches - The best treatment for injury is prevention. Strength training not only builds lean muscle but also develops stronger connective tissue and increased joint stability. Get stronger throughout your whole body and enjoy the energy, balance and coordination that come with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with women and men that described themselves as having bad backs, knees, shoulders etc…and chalked it up to old injuries, pregnancy, and new strains that just won’t go away.  The differences were always dramatic and even life changing. Get mobile, get stronger and get back to me.
  • Tight body tight mind - Don’t think for a second that the discipline, consistency, goal setting and the goal-achieving attitude doesn’t transfer into your everyday life. You will be a stronger person physically and mentally.

I’m hoping that I’ve stated a strong case for all the reasons strength training is worth stepping out of your comfort zone. It’d be a proud day for me if even I can inspire a life change in one of you.

How to Start Small

Any resistance training is better for your body than none. Two days a week with only four main exercises isn’t too much to ask of yourself. Just because it’s basic doesn’t mean it’s easy or you won’t see improvements.

Beginning strength training for women is big topic on its own. I’ll get more in depth another time but for now, check out the chart below and get started with minimal hassle and commitment.

Day 1 Day 2
Warm Up: 2-3 Rounds

A1. Facing the Wall Squat x 15

A2. Jumping Jacks x 30 seconds

A3. Prisoner Goodmorning x 15

A4. Plank Hold x 30 seconds

Warm Up: 2-3 Rounds

A1. Prisoner Squat x 15

A2. Mountain Climbers x 30 seconds

A3. Standing Stiff Kicks x 15 each

A4. Hip Circles x 10 each way/each side

Main Lifts: 3-4 Rounds /10-15 reps

B1. Barbell Squat

B2. Incline Push Up

C1. Hamstring Curl on a ball

C2. Bent Over Row

Main Lifts: 3-4 Rounds/10-15 reps

B1. Deadlift

B2. Military Press

C1. Split Squat

C2. Pull Downs or Chin Ups

Conditioning:

Sprint or interval variety

Conditioning:

Sprint or interval variety

© Juliet Deane, 2011

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About the Author

Juliet, a graduate in Phys Ed & Health Teacher’s Education is now a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Co Owner of The Training Studio in Morganville, NJ. Also certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor and Olympic Lifting Coach, Juliet works with a wide range of clients both men and women, from young teens, to figure competitors. She has competed in figure successfully on a National and World level in the INBF as well as competed in raw powerlifting in both AAU and WNPF in 123 & 132 weight class’ with best lifts: 205 Squat, 175 Bench and 300 Deadlift.