by TC T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• Too many women, because of poor exercise choices or practices, end up building a body that's "skinny fat," a condition where they appear thin in clothes, but actually have a higher body fat percentage than they did before they started exercising.
• Women generally need to use heavier weights. Stop with the delicate little flower thing. Your muscles won't grow – won't get curvy – if you're pressing, squatting, or curling with weights that have roughly the same heft as your iPhone.
• The one exception to working with heavy weights is the waist. The waist is comprised of muscles and muscles respond to heavy weights by getting bigger.
• It's virtually impossible – no matter what you eat – to gain any fat in the post-workout period. While gaining fat during this period is highly improbable, it's highly probable that you will build some muscle during this same timeframe, provided you give your body the protein (and calories) it requires.
For anyone knowledgeable about exercise, walking into a public gym is kind of like stumbling into a nudist camp – you quickly just want to slap on some horse blinders because there's so much that you don't want to see. In the case of the nudist camp, it's usually a lot of flabby, pasty-white guys that should never be naked, even when they're alone in a secluded cabin on a mountaintop. In the case of the gym, you want to restrict your view because people are often doing the lamest, silliest, most illogical exercises and practices imaginable and it hurts your sensibilities as a fitness expert.
Guys are probably the biggest tools in the gym because they're driven by ego instead of logic, but women make their own share of mistakes that are unique to their sex. Women are torn between what they read in Shape or on some insane aerobic queen's blog, their unqualified husband's or boyfriend's pontifications on diet and exercise, or society's conflicting and confounding expectations of what a woman should look like. It's no wonder women can't decide between lifting weights, becoming a Crossfit wind-up toy, doing aerobics until they're thin as a waif from Oliver Twist, or practicing so much yoga that their seven angry and overworked chakras pack up their things and go to Cabo for a weekend of volleyball, sun, and suds.
Too often women end up blending elements of all those practices and as often happens when you combine too many recipes, that dish won't cook. Women make little progress and often end up looking worse than when they began, sometimes developing a body that's "skinny fat," a cruel, paradoxical condition where they appear thin in clothes, but actually have a higher body fat percentage than they did before they started to exercise because they lost muscle instead of body fat.
I'm going to assume that one of the reasons women go to the gym is to look better, and looking better usually means becoming leaner and/or acquiring more curves. Bodies, at least the most aesthetically pleasing ones, are a combination of convex and concave curves instead of straight lines. You're a delectable and enticing mammal, not a tree. As such, you want to build muscle to build or accentuate convex curves. If you're already blessed with convex curves, you want to create concave curves by losing fat. You accomplish either or both by smart weight lifting. Plenty of women have accepted this wonderful reality, but I still see stuff that makes me want to wear blinders. Here are some of the regrettable practices I see women making all the time.
1. Fear of Appearing Butch
You've heard this one before, but it doesn't look like it's sinking in. You need to evolve beyond using rubber-coated dumbbells that have a clump of iron the size of a baby's fist on either side. In other words, you need to use heavier weights. Stop with the delicate little flower thing. Your muscles won't grow – won't get curvy – if you're pressing, squatting, or curling with weights that have roughly the same heft as your iPhone. Say hello to the 20 and 30-pound dumbbells, aspire to the 40 and 50-pound ones. Use weights that allow you to do between 8 and 15 repetitions.
And don't play the age-old, "I don't want to get too big" card. Unless you're the one woman in a million that has such high Testosterone levels that female horses start to whinny nervously when you walk by, you're not going to suddenly sprout muscle from your ears and everywhere else. Neither will your muscles grow beyond your aesthetic ideal unless you start feeding them a lot more. Muscles don't grow out of thin air; you've got to supply them with protein and carbs. That's why men who lift weights eat barnyards of fowl, ranches of cattle, rivers of fish, barrels of protein powder, and vats of Cocoa Puffs. If you don't eat that way, you won't get "too big." (See mistake #9 for advice on when you should eat big.)
2. Fear of Making an Ugly Face
We just discussed using heavier weights, but we didn't discuss intensity. When you're lifting weights, you shouldn't be able to maintain the same facial expression as when you're getting a mani-pedi. Too many women just don't get down and dirty. There's rarely even a grimace or a bit of semi-feminine grunting. Look, building muscle requires some discomfort; it requires some pain. You might be able to look all pretty and composed for the first few reps, even while using an appropriately heavy weight, but you're ultimately going to have to make an ugly she-wolverine face on the last few highly-productive "money" reps where you coerce muscle into growing. No ugly face, no curvy muscle. No ugly face, no increased strength. Tank your outdated views of femininity. Screw how it looks or what anyone thinks.
Absession is not a new scent from Calvin Klein. Rather, it's being obsessed with working the abs or the waistline in general. Here's a shocker: everyone has a six-pack; you just have to whittle away enough fat so that it shows. Granted, you may want to build the abdominals so they're more pronounced, but stop thinking that you need to dedicate half your workout or more to working abs. Three or four hard sets of 15 to 20 – using resistance or using more challenging angles as necessary – a few times a week is all you need. Spend the rest of the time building overall muscle and doing activities that burn fat in general.
4. Working the Abs Like a Powerlifter
I know mistake #1 said to use heavier weights, but ab work is the one exception. For some reason, a lot of women already use heavy weights when working the midsection. Oddly, they think that working the waist with heavy weights is somehow going to make it smaller. Maybe... if we all lived in the Bizarro world. The waist is comprised of muscles and muscles respond to heavy weights by getting bigger. If you want a waist that's as broad as a tree stump, then have at it. If, however, you want the mythical wasp waist, stop working your abs with heavy weights. As mentioned in the previous tip, stick with weight or resistance that allows you to do roughly 15 to 20 reps. Most importantly, don't use weights while working your "side muscles," otherwise known as the obliques. The surest way to build a blocky waist is to do side bends while hanging onto dumbbells. Instead, work your obliques by doing a few sets of side planks a couple of times a week.
5. Balancing on the BOSU
I'll grudgingly admit that the BOSU ball probably has some merit in developing balance. As such, it might be useful for Cirque du Soleil performers. It also makes for a lovely post-modernist style chair. Beyond those functions, I see little use for it.
Okay, I'm being overly snarky. Yes, the BOSU has some application for abdominal work or rehab work for people with hinky ankles and it can probably help with balance issues, but somewhere along the line, exercisers, most often women or their enabler-slash-trainers started using the BOSU as a weight-training accessory. They either put one foot on it to use with lunges or they put both feet on it while doing any number of traditional weight training exercises like dumbbell curls, lateral raises, overhead presses, or squats. Some morons have even taken this a step further by doing these same movements on a Swiss ball. (If you see someone doing the latter, feel free to hip check the ball and send them crashing to the ground.)
The thinking is that lifting weights on an unstable surface makes the muscles work harder to keep you from doing a face plant, but balancing isn't the type of muscular effort that builds muscle. And, in order to keep your balance, you have to use lighter weights than you would otherwise.
Lifting weights – even light ones – while standing on a BOSU will make your muscles fatigue much faster, forcing you to abort the set earlier than you normally would. You end up missing out on the "money reps," those reps at the end of a set where you activate the muscle fibers most responsible for growth. If all of that falls on deaf ears, consider that none of the major studies conducted on the BOSU have found it to build muscle any faster than doing the same exercises on solid ground.
6. Too Much Aerobics
I've got a question for you: Have you ever see a marathoner or even an accomplished jogger with a really good body? Probably not. They're either slightly emaciated, have a body with very few curves, or are plagued with the skinny-fat condition I talked about in the intro. They also have really ugly feet.
Without going into all the hormonal or evolutionary permutations, let's just accept the scientific fact that the body would generally, during caloric deficits, rather sacrifice muscle than fat, and what is excessive endurance exercise but an artificially induced caloric deficit? Regardless, women especially are saddled with the myth that the more aerobic exercise they do, the better they'll look.
Remember, you want muscle, and excessive aerobic exercise is death to muscle. There are far more effective ways to burn fat. Going for a brisk walk first thing in the morning is incredibly effective and it saves muscle. Similarly, brief bouts of high-intensity exercise in the form of sprinting or Tabata-style exercise-bicycling or weight training build muscle and burn fat simultaneously. In case you're not familiar with Tabata, it's a simple but brutal protocol where you do an activity as fast and hard as you can for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and then do another exercise/rest cycle of 20 and 10 seconds. You do this for 4 minutes straight and then collapse into a spent but proud heap. You can do Tabata workouts with kettlebell swings, dumbbell squats, stationary bicycle sprints, or any number of other exercises.
7. Workout Monogamy
Mating for life, as swans, wolves, turtledoves, and Catholics are wont to do, has some biological advantages. Mating to your workout for life, however, has none. Too bad so many women ignore this fact. Whether it's from a lack of imagination or a misguided belief that "exercise is exercise" or that "there's only one way to lift a weight," some women keep doing the same routine year-in and year-out. They may have torn it out of a Shape or Cosmo that was lying in the doctor's office and since they've been healthy and haven't gone back to the doc's office and read some new magazines, they're still doing the same routine a year or two later.
That's unfortunate because the body adapts to workouts whether they be weight workouts or aerobic workouts. That's why there are so many fat aerobics instructors. They've done the same routine for years and their neurological system is so accustomed to it that it costs them little in calories or effort to complete the workout. You need to cycle your workouts every four to six weeks. Emphasize legs in one cycle, shoulders or arms the next. Get new routines from articles right here on T Nation.
8. Workout Promiscuity
The opposite of the workout monogamist is of course the workout slut. While much more common among males, there are plenty of women who can't stick with a workout for very long. They try out a workout a few days, see that it hasn't yet given them an NFL cheerleader body, and then try something else. One manifestation of this is "CrossFit Fever." These women, not entirely sure of what constitutes CrossFit training, do a bastardized version where they perform non-stop, often non-sensical, semi-aerobic, semi-anaerobic conditioning work for 1 to 2 hours for no apparent reason, save to exorcise or exercise some professional or personal demons.
In either case, their workouts are chaotic and ultimately produce rotten results. Find a logical, progressive workout that addresses your particular needs, builds muscle, burns fat, and makes you the queen of curves and give it 4 to 6 weeks to work. Then and only then should you change it up, even if it worked well (see step #7).
9. Fear of Food
Ready to have your dietary beliefs shaken, Jell-O like, to their core? Okay, here goes: It's virtually impossible – no matter what you eat – to gain any fat in the post-workout period, which is roughly defined as the hour-long timeframe after you finish lifting weights. While gaining fat during this period is highly improbable, it's highly probable that you will build some muscle during this same timeframe, provided you give your body the protein (and calories) it requires.
It all has to do with insulin, the hormone that carries glucose and amino acids to muscle cells. Broadly speaking, insulin has two choices, it can either shuttle glucose and protein to storage in fatty tissue and the liver, or it can deliver those nutrients directly to muscle cells where they're used to fuel, repair, and grow muscle. The path it takes is determined by exercise – if you're lifting weights or just finished lifting weights, insulin will take the nutrients directly to muscle instead of storing it.
Muscle is particularly sensitive to insulin during this workout/post workout period, so if you want to build muscle/curves, it's imperative that you eat during what we call the "peri-workout" period, which is comprised of the period just before, during, and after a resistance workout. So temporarily forget your calorie fears. Temporarily forget your carb fears, too, because this is when you definitely need to provide your muscles with the material it needs to build those curves. In general, have a protein/carbohydrate drink about 45 minutes to an hour before a workout and a substantial amount of protein and carbohydrates after a workout. In an ideal world, you'd also sip a protein/carb drink during the workout, too, but at the very least, make sure you don't skimp on that post-workout meal.
No, not juicing as in steroids. I'm talking about the plastic cups of pulverized, Osterized, barely palatable concoctions of kale, seaweed, wheat grass, and whatever other obscure vegetables or fruits the juicer is able to buy at a discount that so many women have permanently affixed to their hands when they walk into the gym.
I know it seems contrary, even heretical, to suggest you stop or limit your consumption of these drinks, but hear me out. Vegetables and fruits contain simple sugars and more complex, harder-to-digest carbs. No problem there. However, when you blend up fruits and vegetables, you're breaking down all those normally hard-to-digest carbs into infinitesimally small pieces. Drink that stuff down and you're virtually bypassing much of the digestive process. All those sugars are presented to your bloodstream like flowers to your momma on Mother's Day. They get absorbed super quick, and your pancreas releases a surge of insulin to counteract all that sugar. It's virtually the same effect you'd get from shot-gunning a 24-ounce 7-11 Slurpie.
Insulin shuttles off some of the sugar to muscle cells and the rest are stored (in the liver or as body fat), but then insulin levels dip below baseline and you get hungry again pretty fast. If you give in to that hunger, you're ingesting more calories than you might normally have and extra, unnecessary calories get stored as fat. What's more, if you do the juice thing often enough, you may actually develop some insulin resistance, which is the first step down the path to Type II diabetes.
There's one more thing to consider, too. You probably wouldn't be able to eat all the fruits and vegetables that are in a typical fruit or vegetable smoothie if they were sitting there on a plate. They'd take up too much room in your stomach and even all that Spandex in your Lululemon pants wouldn't be able to flatten out your belly. However, pulverize all those fruits and vegetables down into primordial ooze and they, and all the calories they contain, fit in your stomach just fine. Juicing allows you to eat more than you normally could, which is never really good if you're trying to keep tabs on your body fat levels.
I'm not suggesting that you give up all juices. Drink them in moderation, eat them in their un-pulverized, natural state, or simply employ one simple trick: just have the juice junction, jamboree, or whatever add a scoop of protein (whey or casein) to your drink. The protein will ameliorate the big insulin surge, not to mention giving your muscles some extra building blocks.