There are a few words that are commonly misunderstood, but communicate very similar concepts, in the world of women’s strength training. When talking with women about how they would like their physique to look, I often hear the following: sculpted, toned, shaped, defined, but “not bulky.” What this translates to is: I want to be able to see my muscles and have healthy, muscular shape to my body, but do not want to look like a bodybuilder. If it is any consolation to the women who do not want to look like a bodybuilder: these people spend hours upon hours in the gym on an almost-daily basis for years to look like that, and it is hard work; often, bodybuilding is their job. The likelihood that you could commit half the time that they spend in the gym to doing a workout is unlikely if you have a full-time job, are a parent, etc.
“…you can’t ‘sculpt’ muscles you haven’t yet built.”-Lou Schuler
You cannot sculpt a pot out of clay you don’t have, you can’t sculpt musculature out of muscle you don’t have.
Ladies, we cannot be afraid to lift heavy weights!! In order for physique change to occur, you have to challenge your muscles! Lift heavy while practicing a full range of motion to get the greatest muscular and hormonal response for physique-change and fat-loss! Muscle-growth in women tends to be slower than that in men, with a MAXIMUM growth rate of 2.5 pounds per month, but it’s likely (if you are lifting the proper amount of weight) you’ll fall in the range of .5-1.5 pounds per month. Your muscular response is your muscular response–just remember that the “look” of your muscles is determined by what you do with them, whatever you are genetically predisposed to, the size of your muscles (as a result of training) and wherever the attachment points of the muscle happen to be. If you are truly concerned about cardio and not getting the intensity you need while lifting, add in cardio intervals. This means sprint-intensity. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will produce results. You are in control of the intensity of your workout–control what you can, let go of what you cannot.
What you CAN control:
To get the best physique you are genetically, physically able, you NEED to burn the fat and build the muscle! Women want all of the above (to look sculpted, toned, shaped, defined, “not bulky”), but often do not have the muscle mass to achieve their goals. Even if they were to burn off a lot of the overlying fat, they are left with a relatively small muscle mass. While Zumba may be a fun workout, it’s not going to give you the physique you want. While many-a-person has seen great results with what I am going to call the “Zero-to-Zumba” or Z2Z experience, eventually you will plateau. You will still sweat, but as far as seeing results, one activity done at the same intensity will eventually cease to produce change. It’s a lovely thing called “adaptation” which is just one of many amazing abilities of the human body. You get stronger as a result of neuromuscular adaptations (your body’s coordination of specific muscle fibers to fire at specific points in a movement—this is why someone who has learned a specific movement pattern in athletics may inherently move in a similar manner day-to-day, or in a different sport: with the repetitions of sport-skill training, their brain has learned to fire specific groups of muscle fibers in a specific manner to achieve a desired result) to resistance. Eventually, to continue to see results (unless you are perfectly content where you are), you will have to continue to challenge your body by increasing the intensity of whatever exercise you are doing, whether it be lifting, sprinting, pushing, pulling, dancing, cycling, etc.
A common belief that has been submitted by the media and absorbed by curious minds (the ones who care and will actually argue points you make with what was published in Oxygen Magazine or reported on Good Morning America five years ago) as pure truth is that women should train for endurance and men for strength and power. It seems logical that if you get stronger, you’ll develop endurance as a secondary effect, and be able to do x,y, and z longer, with your “endurance” level intensity coming as you fatigue, not as the point you are fatiguing from. If they say “yes, but ________ said ____________” you’d better be ready to justify why what you are telling them is different than mass media. The reason this is a common belief is that through research, it was discovered that women tend to have larger type I fibers (the ones responsible for endurance) than type II (the ones responsible for strength and power). The opposite is the case in men. The logic followed that because this was the natural case, women are better at higher reps, low weight, so they are the routines that are oftentimes recommended for women. As I said before, strengthen your weaknesses—in this case, literally. The Type-II fibers are the ones that will give you that hot physique you want, but they aren’t trained through “endurance” “long, slow distance” type activity–they are trained by high-intensity activity. The Type-II, no matter how much you try or desire, will not be sufficiently trained through easy aerobic activity. Train for how you want to be built: a sprinter looks drastically different than a marathon runner. Someone who wants to have muscle definition, or a strong (not bodybuilder) physique should not do marathon-type activities and expect to come out looking like a sprinter. It just is extremely unlikely—with the rare example of a champion bodybuilder looking to cut back on the muscle mass (NOT the fat mass)—they may come out of the endurance-style training with their ideal, sustainable look. They are likely the only exception. I say “likely” because the Lord only knows there are a few others out there. If you are looking for a defined physique, do interval training. Plain and simple, it’s the best of both worlds—strength/power training, and cardiovascular conditioning.
That being said, as far as what you do with your muscles, you have all the control you could want. If you’re deconditioned to do what you want to do, condition yourself by gradually building up. I am not in jump-roping condition—my cardio has been related to cycling—so, today I have been jump-roping every 15 minutes. The impact is important to keep bone strength. I started with 60 seconds, went up to 2 minutes, and then realized that a) it was hard, and b) I didn’t do a very good job focusing on the clock and jumping, so I decided to go for repetitions, and found myself staring at the top of a squat rack, counting, and jumping. This worked well, so the past three times I jumped, I did 150 repetitions in a little over a minute. The last time I jumped, I decided to go for 200 if I felt okay. I reached 200, and decided that I would go for 300—I just had to take it 10 repetitions at a time. I made it to 300 repetitions without stopping, and the next time 300 repetitions with a few mess-ups, which worked out to close to two-and-a-half and three minutes—unthinkable when I started jump-roping in college as a warm-up, and unthinkable when I started jumping today because 60 seconds was HARD, and I was barely getting 120 because of the mess-ups as a result of lack of focus. Find what works for you in conditioning you to accomplish your goals!!
Small goals help you to reach the long-term goals and celebrate the small successes!!
While my ultimate goal is not to jump rope with the best of ‘em, it is to condition myself in a wide variety of activities. That will leave you the most prepared to handle the physical stressors of life.
The second element you can control is what you put in your mouth. 🙂 Whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, protein) are the core of your diet, with everything being in as much of its “as-found-in-nature” form as possible. For a little elaboration, check out my recent post “The Dieting Mindset Can Leave You Lacking—In More Than Just Satiety”
What you cannot control:
Genetics (bone structure, anatomical features, physiological function)—congratulations, this is the one aspect of your body that you can do absolutely nothing about without surgical procedures (NOT worth it to take you and turn you in to not-you). For example: a typical white girl attempting to produce Jennifer Lopez’s backside would take a lot of work, and likely still fall short simply because of genetics. I will never be built like Jennifer Aniston, and that’s totally okay, because she wasn’t designed to be a collegiate softball player—it was in the plans for my life, not hers. My broad shoulders were a gift from God to accomplish what He has planned for each day and season of my life. Michael Phelps has a ridiculous wingspan as well as other aspects of his anatomy and physiology that, on top of intense training and competition, make him quite adept in the pool—he uses what is unique to him, and isn’t trying to play professional baseball. (MJ had a respectable run, but was simply better cut out for basketball. Same goes for Deion with football.) Your bone structure may not allow for you to get down to the “size” you want to be—so be it. At 5’11”, with my broad bone structure, I will never be, nor should ever be, a size 2. Even being a size 4 would be pushing it, and that’s okay. Your genetics may not allow you to reach some arbitrary, ridiculous goal that someone else has decided you should achieve. Good. You show them that you can be absolutely awesome as YOU and they have no influence over that. Take the control back from others and set your standards based on you, not Hollywood or mass media.
Keep celebrating the small successes and enjoy the journey! 🙂