I want to tone up and I don’t want to get bulky are the top two things females say to me when discussing fitness or lifting. Many women are scared to lift heavy because they think that will make them “bulk up” and believe that doing 4 x 20 reps of leg lifts will help them get rid of that thigh fat and “tone up.” The level of wrong this is actually annoys me. My ears bleed when females tell me this because it is SO WRONG and I want to beat every women’s health magazine and every “celebrity trainer” who tells women to do these things. **side note: you cannot lose fat in a specific area. There is no such thing as target fat loss. You lose fat throughout your body and where you keep/lose fat is based on genetics, not by doing certain exercises**
First, I will tackle what “toned” means. Yes, I do keep putting “toned” in quotes because it is a ridiculous word; being “toned” literally equates to how your muscles show. In order to have your muscles show and look all “thin and toned” there are two things you need to do: lose fat and gain muscle. How does one do this? Eat at a calorie deficit (lose fat) and lift weights (get muscle)! Some people are just blessed with being thin. They have a hard time gaining weight and never work out. how does this happen? GENETICS. Many of these people have began doing very weak to moderate (bodyweight) workouts and posting them on social media so people believe if they do those workouts then they too will have an oh-so-thin-and-toned body. I’m sorry, but it is not true. The average Jane absolutely cannot do 4 sets of 25 leg lifts and crunches and magically have a malibooty and 6-pack. Do not fall for the unrealistic instagram and pinterest workouts and results.
“But, Karlyn, I always get bulky when I lift.” The only way you will look like those crazy-fit chicks that you see at the CrossFit games is if you are purposely eating more calories than you burn in order to gain insane muscle and MASS. Women do not have the testosterone men do, so it takes work to “bulk” for us. If you are “bulking” without wanting to, it tells me one of three things: 1) you are doing too much volume*, 2) you are eating more than you’re burning, or 3) you have unrealistic expectations of what your body should look like with the amount of commitment you are willing to give. So, let’s tackle each of these problems.
- Too much volume*. I say this with slight regret (hence the *) because I do not believe this is usually the case for women, but for the sake of some knowledge and to make my case for later, I will get into it. Lifting heavy is not what gets you “big”, it is lifting volume. In order for your muscles to really grow, you have to be training in what is called the hypertrophy phase. If you take the textbook answer, hypertrophy phase is between 8-12 reps, but I would argue 6-12+ reps. If you look at bodybuilders workouts, they are not as concerned with getting super strong, they are concerned with getting as much volume as they can in. Volume can come from reps, sets, number or exercises and all combos of these.
- Eating more than you burn. Almost ALWAYS this is the case. When you start working out and lifting weights, people believe this means they can eat whatever they want. Absolutely not. Be realistic about what you are actually burning vs what you are eating. If you are not lifting heavy then you are probably not burning near the calories you think you are during your workout. Later I will get into how you can figure this part out better.
- Unrealistic expectations. This is a huge issue that I believe has always been around, but maybe even more prevalent in the social media and photoshop world we live in. I have always suffered from body image problems. Being a female athlete, I felt like I should look like all the pro athletes I see on TV. This is not so for the commitment level I am willing to put in. When I say commitment level I am talking about working out, sleep, hydration, nutrition, stress levels, and more. Are you willing to workout most days of the week AND eat almost perfect AND get 8-10 hours of sleep every night AND drink a gallon of water a day AND have some natural God-given genetics? If yes, you go girl. If no, then you have to learn that it is okay to not have the “perfect body.”
Now that we have some knowledge, how exactly does someone achieve this losing fat and gaining muscle concept? Be honest, make some sacrifices, and put in some work.
LOSING FAT. I am currently using the “MyFitnessPal” app and website because I am trying to lose some weight. After the holidays and spending a week at an all-inclusive resort, I am a little heavier than I feel my best at. I love this app and website because it helps me keep myself in check by allowing my to put in the food I eat and the exercise I am doing. Do you realize how many calories are in that one (three) cookie(s) you ate? Do you truly understand what eating fried chicken does to your weight goals? I plan out all of my meals for the week and cook at home 5-7 days a week. This makes it much easier because 1) things are way healthier when you eat at home and 2) you know exactly how many calories you’re eating (and it’s WAY cheaper). I know if I want to have some wine or eat some ice cream tonight, I may need to adjust how many rolls I have with dinner or take the dogs on an extra long walk. If I am going to be honest, tonight I am making schnitzel and spaetzel and definitely will be having a German beer to go with it. My dinner will be almost 900 calories tonight, so I had to prep for that during the day. I took my dogs on extra long walks, I did an extra 10 minutes of cardio, and I had an extra large salad WITHOUT CHEESE (I know, dedication) for lunch. Did I hate my life? no. Do I meet my calorie goal every day? definitely not. You do not have to be perfect to reach goals, but you do have to be consistent and decide what you are willing to A) do extra or B) leave out in order to achieve your goals. A final, but very important note to think about is 1700 calories of vegetables is way different than 1700 calories of Oreos…what you are eating matters! This is not rocket science, be basic about it. Eat lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates and stay away from excess sugar, processed foods, fried foods, etc.
- GET MUSCLE. I always lift 3-4 days a week and do some form of sprints/runs 2-3 more days a week (total 5-6 days/week) because I am not willing to do more than that and any less is not good for me reaching my goals (and eating some of my favorite things). Going for runs is not enough. You need to lift and you need to lift heavy. You burn calories based on your heart rate (HR). If you don’t have a heart rate monitor and you are serious, I suggest you get one. Every person burns a different amount of calories doing the same exercises. If my husband and I both went out for a run at the same pace, we would still burn different amounts because we are at different amounts of “in shape.” The higher the intensity = the more calories burned. When running, intensity is how fast you are going-so go sprint! Do interval training to get that HR up. In the weight room, intensity will go up based on how much weight you’re doing per reps. You have to lift heavy. There is a reason HIIT training is so popular right now, it combines weights and high intensity exercises that get your HR spiked up. Is this good if your only goal is to burn calories? yes! If you are looking to get strength as well, I would recommend doing a combo of strength training and HIIT or sprints. Another huge benefit of lifting heavy and anaerobic (sprinting) style workouts is that it keeps you in the burning state longer. When you go out for a steady state jog, you will burn the calories while you jog and that’s pretty much it. When you are spiking your heart rate and working in high-intensity zones, you are creating a excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Studies have shown that the heavier you lift (above 85% of your max), the more EPOC you will see. This after-burn of calories can last up to multiple hours depending on intensity of work and how large of muscle groups you are working (so squat, deadlift, olympic lift! Leg lifts and curls are not total body).
In order to meet goals, you have to be realistic about what you want and what you are willing to do to get there. I personally refuse to give up french fries and some dessert every once in a while, so I know I will never not have a little roll on my lower stomach and that I will probably have a little bigger thighs than will fit into fancy pants easily. OH WELLS! Lift weights, get your HR rate up, and be honest about what you are eating. If anyone tells you that you should not lift heavy or that women should not train like men, please slap them in the face, or at least give them a nasty look and walk off. Happy workouts, everyone!