From talking to women all over the country about their fitness goals and their workout practices, it seems to me that one of the greatest obstacles to having a lean, strong body is a woman’s reluctance to focus on her own needs. Between families and/or careers, many women are busier now than ever before. They are so focused on others that they have little time for themselves.
Here’s what I find ironic: Giving so much of yourself to those around you may in fact be making life more difficult, not easier, for them. Certainly that’s the case when it comes to your long-term health. Put it this way: Do you really want your loved ones to someday visit you in the hospital rather than your home? Do you want your grandchildren to know you only in a wheelchair? Your focus on others at the expense of your own health perpetuates an endlessly repeating, zero-sum game; no one wins. You spend time and energy taking care of others, who later must spend their time and energy taking care of you. You have limited your life’s potential so that they may have a good life, but when the time comes, they, too, have to limit their potential, not only caring for the next generation but caring for you.
While there is no actual fountain of youth, exercise has proven over and over again to be the closest thing. Becoming a stronger, leaner you now paves the way for a brighter, stronger future for all those around you. If you care about their happiness, care about your own.
Having children must shift from being an excuse not to exercise to being the primary reason to exercise—a reason to look, feel, and perform at your best. You owe it to those around you as much as you owe it to yourself. Exercise to make your life, and that of your children, easier. Lead by example.
But let’s say you do make time for yourself and you do go to an exercise class or circuit-train on gym equipment regularly. Is that really working for you? Are you in the best shape of your life? Do you feel athletic and in control? I didn’t think so.
In 2012, Americans spent over $20billion in health-club memberships. But I say that savvy marketing is robbing you of cash and buying you very little. Twice as many people belong to gyms as they did twenty years ago. And yet obesity is skyrocketing. This sends a clear message: What we’re doing is not working.
I take issue with the kinds of exercise you’ll get at the gym (more on that below), but in my view gyms are also guilty of exploiting the belief that women like exercising in group classes because they are social creatures at heart. They trick you into replacing real social time with climbing into spandex and futilely sweating with others to techno music while an instructor soothes you with superficial support.
Okay, group activities can be fun. But there are far more fun ways to hang with your friends or meet new people than getting stinky in a fitness center, don’t you think? Furthermore, why would you want to mold your day’s valuable free time around someone else’s schedule when you could work out when it’s convenient for you? Why listen to their music when you can choose your own? Why pay for encouragement when you can have real results? Break away from the comfort of being in a group, and find comfort in your own body.
It’s time to take out the garbage. Toss out what you’ve been taught about “women’s fitness.” Throw out the baby weights. Step away from the treadmill. Get off the wheel-less bike. Quit hopping around in some class. Don’t be seduced by empty glam-magazine promises and the useless fitness gadgets on the market. Don’t waste your time and money on fitness-center memberships. Remember, the most advanced fitness machine is the one thing you are never without: your own body.
The Myth of Cardio Efficiency
So why do some people still sweat it out to techno tunes in crowded aerobics classes or cycle to nowhere on stationary bikes? Answer: the calorie defense. That is, they think that aerobic activity burns a ton of calories. But here’s the unfortunate truth: If you put whole milk and sugar in your morning latte, boom, you’ve just consumed more calories than you burned during an average cardio workout. Cardio is simply an incredibly ineffective use of your time—an average of only 200 calories burned per 45 minutes of activity.
Cardio exercise keeps you weak and pudgy because it doesn’t build muscle. In fact, cardio exercise can cause a loss of muscle, because your body will shed anything it’s not using. And if you’re only doing cardio, you’re not using most of your muscle mass. If your goal is to get lean, you need to build muscle, plain and simple.
Here’s what I want to make clear: Your focus should not be on the few calories you burn during exercise; instead, I want you to focus on the metabolic boost that muscles give you the rest of the time, even while you sleep. Gaining muscle through strength training is the key to losing weight.
Think of your muscular system as a motor that requires fuel (calories) while both working and idling. On average, each pound of muscle burns ten calories a day at complete rest. That’s 3,650 calories a year—more than a pound of fat, which clocks in at 3,500 calories. Adding just a few pounds of muscle is equivalent to upgrading to a stronger motor that burns more fuel.
Not only is aerobic activity ineffective at improving body composition or overall fitness, it’s also not nearly as safe as most people believe it to be. Its highly repetitive nature makes the risk of overuse injuries high. The thousands or even millions of identical repetitions that you undertake over the years are likely to cause unnoticed cumulative stress on joints, until chronic injuries eventually surface.
Sure, there are the few genetically exceptional people who can run, cycle, or hop around for a decade without problems, but these people are a small minority. For every success story of someone who spent a lifetime pounding the pavement or hunching over a bike, there are many more for whom injuries resulted—too often, ironically—in a loss of mobility.
I cringe every time I see an overweight man or woman running to get in shape, bouncing up and down, with knees and elbows all going their own way. Without first developing a foundation of strength and stability, running or jumping around in an aerobics class is a formula for failure.
The body adapts to whatever stress we place on it, and initially difficult and energy-consuming tasks quickly become less difficult as we learn efficient motor patterns. Unless you increase intensity continually, the calorie expenditure of an activity will decrease as your movement proficiency increases. This is why aerobics instructors are often not as lean as you would expect. They have become so efficient at that particular type of activity that they are no longer burning very many extra calories doing it. This is also why trotting along at the same pace day in, day out, on machines such as treadmills takes you nowhere, literally and figuratively.
The Myth of the “Fat-Burning Zone”
But what about the magic “fat-burning zone”? If you’ve used a stationary bike or elliptical machine, you’ve seen the “target heart rate” monitors that encourage you to exercise in the fat-burning zone. The marketing logic on this is that when you get your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute through light, prolonged activity, you are oxidizing fat to fuel your movement instead of using sugars and phosphates, which is what more-intense activity involves.
Unfortunately, while a fat-burning zone sounds like where you want to be, this is one of the biggest hoaxes going, and as long as you subscribe to it—and keep plugging away at 120 to 140 beats per minute—you’ll be going nowhere fast.
If you know very lean men or women who do only cardiovascular training, they’re thin not because of their exercise but because they are naturally blessed with a fast metabolism and/or they eat a proper diet. For all the rest of us, cardio does little in the short term and can have negative effects in the long term.
While it’s true that high-intensity activity doesn’t burn much fat during the very short interval of the actual workout, the thing left unsaid is that it burns fat for many hours after the workout in order to replenish the sugars and phosphates, rebuild muscle, strengthen joints, and increase bone density. Low-intensity activity, on the other hand, causes none of this “after burn,” and calorie usage returns to normal almost immediately after you step off the machine you’re on. The fat you mobilized during the low-intensity, fat-burning-zone workout is almost negligible.
Honestly, if you want to lose weight by running, for example, you need to run hard, and I can tell you from many miles of personal experience that there are few things more grueling than prolonged intense aerobic activity. Just ask some of my Combat Control trainees. You can lose some pounds, but it’s a terribly inefficient way of doing it, and you have to stay far above the fat-burning zone.
Activity in the “zone” is best reserved for warm-ups, cooldowns, active recovery between days of strength training, and the development of movement proficiency for specific endurance sports.
The Myth of Nautilus
You are not a cyborg! You don’t need machines to move your muscles through a fixed range of motion. Besides improving strength, endurance, and body composition, your training should develop stability, effective movement patterns, and coordination. By using gadgets that force you through a set motion, none of these latter qualities are improved.
Low-intensity activity in the “fat-burning zone” does not build muscle, and it will cause muscle wasting if overused, which in turn slows your metabolism. High-intensity activity does build muscle, which increases your metabolism.
Many Nautilus-type machines are built for big men and are not ideally suited for women. Often, they begin movements in the most vulnerable position. Consider a pec deck or preacher curl. Both begin the movement with your isolated working muscles fully stretched. Then they force you through a fixed motion that you’ll likely never use in the real world. This is especially hazardous under heavy loads. Because your body is not functioning naturally, as a cohesive whole, ineffective motor patterns are developed, making you more susceptible to injury.
The Myth of Spot Training and Low-Weight/High-Rep Effectiveness
Many women isolate muscles on machinery because they think that they can best reshape “problem” areas like abs or thighs or the butt through “spot training” with isolation exercises. Impossible. They also go for low weights and high reps on machines because they worry that strength training through low repetition of high-intensity movements will bulk them up in an unfeminine way. Won’t happen. Some women I’ve talked to even think that any muscle they build through training can turn into flab if they don’t keep working out. Oh, boy.
Let me address that last one right off the bat: Fat cells and muscle cells perform completely different and separate functions. One will never transform into the other. When someone becomes “soft” and overweight after being firm and lean, it is because their calorie input has exceeded their calorie output. This is usually due to 1) eating things to temporarily please your mind as opposed to pleasing your body and 2) a decreased metabolic rate from muscle loss caused by a lack of necessary stimulus—use it or lose it!
There’s no magical transformation of muscle into fat, just a loss of muscle mass and an increase of body fat. Similarly, fat will never turn into muscle. When an overweight person becomes firm and lean, it is always the product of burning more calories than are being consumed and building new muscle.
Let me dispel the other rumors one at a time:
SPOT TRAINING, ISOLATION EXERCISES, AND TONING UP: THE THREE DEAD-END EXERCISE METHODS
Every time I’m fresh back from a few months abroad and standing in any American airport kiosk, I’m always astonished to see that magazine covers—both women’s and men’s—still boast some new crunch exercise that promises to make a six-pack magically pop out of your belly like a rabbit out of a hat.
Such proclamations are a load of bull and ought to be exiled to late-night infomercials where they belong: “Call now, and in four easy installments of $19.95 you, too, can climb into this gimmicky contraption and look like our smiling fitness models, who had never seen one of these abominations before they stepped onto the set this morning.”
Crunching away like the model in the magazine won’t make your abs any flatter; using a ThighMaster will not make your inner thighs any leaner. If the backs of your upper arms seem a little flabby, cranking out triceps kickbacks with light dumbbells isn’t the answer.
Fat loss simply cannot be isolated to a particular area of the body, because fat can only be lost over your whole body. To repeat: You can’t specifically exercise it away from a chosen body part.
When you expend more calories (energy) than you consume, you create a deficit. In order to keep you moving, your body uses its own fat—through a series of chemical reactions that takes place throughout tissue all over your body—to cover the gap between consumed and expended energy. The areas of your body where those chemical reactions occur most can’t be controlled, just as you cannot control where fat accumulates.
What is true is that the regions where you are genetically programmed to accumulate fat fastest—such as your hips, thighs, and butt—will likewise undergo the greatest proportional decreases in fat. Fat loss and gain may be universal, but muscle growth, on the other hand, is confined to only those regions you work out. Still, let’s be clear: The shape that your muscles take, as they change in size, is determined not by the specific exercises you do but by genetics. (Some body parts that we often think of as single muscles—such as your shoulders, thighs, or back—are actually muscle groups. The shapes of these muscle groups can be changed by emphasizing individual muscles within them.)
Fat loss can’t be isolated. The only way to tighten certain regions is to reduce fat on your entire body, which will in turn reduce fat in that region. Only then will the effort you’re expending to, say, strengthen your triceps or firm up your thighs yield new curves and firmness in them.
Another way of saying this is that you can choose which body parts to make stronger, and that effort, in turn, will help your overall fat loss. So while doing exercises for your arms will do little to work the flab off them specifically, the effort will strengthen your arms and in turn help burn fat off your entire body, arms included.
Similarly, if you’re looking for a firm backside, yes, you should develop your glutes. But unless you are burning fat off your entire body, increasing the muscle in your glutes will do little to firm up that region. Remember, your muscles will not look toned unless there is little fat masking them.
LOW REPS, HIGH WEIGHTS, BULGING MUSCLES, AND OTHER MISINFORMATION
Maybe you’ve been told that low-rep bodyweight strength training will bulk you up. Or, conversely, that working your muscles with small amounts of weight over and over and over again is the key to toning them and not building them. Not so. For starters, see what I said above about the myth of “toning” any one muscle.
The reality is that strength training my way will make you smaller, not bigger, because increasing lean muscle mass will burn up fat over your entire body. Yet still I hear it from women all over the world: “I don’t want to get too muscular.” Some have seen the initial results of strength training and then shied away in fear of becoming the next Ms. Olympia.
First off, in case you didn’t already know, male and female professional bodybuilders competing at the highest levels (and most likely some of the bigger guys at your gym) all use steroids and other illegal substances. The human body—yours included—simply will not accrue that kind of muscle mass without serious drugs.
For men and women, some good initial gains in muscularity are common within the first few weeks, but after that your body adapts and growth slows down to a decent, stable level.
A woman making exceptional progress might gain 1.5 pounds of muscle per month, for the first three months. With a good diet, these muscular gains will be accompanied by a fat loss of six to eighteen pounds, depending on her condition. After that, women simply do not have the hormonal makeup to maintain that kind of gain in muscular size (and neither do men). So while the muscle you built will continue to help you shed more and more fat, because it’s boosted your metabolism, bodyweight strength training will not continue to increase the size of your muscles (beyond giving your body some new curves).
Overcoming the media-driven misconception and unfounded fear that strength training will build big bulky muscles is essential. Those men who strength-train without drugs celebrate every extra millimeter of muscle. That’s because it’s really hard to pack on muscle for us. And it’s quite a bit tougher for females, who lack the testosterone that lets men do it. You simply can’t and won’t get bulky.
So what about the issue of reps?
Neither your body nor a particular muscle will become more defined by doing a high rather than a low amount of repetitions. High-rep “toning” workouts do little to improve muscle tone, because, again, they are effective at neither burning fat nor building muscle. This is largely because they develop only the weaker, slow-twitch muscle fibers.
With a well-designed program, about 90 minutes or less of strength training a week is all that’s needed for novices and many elite athletes alike.
Any activities beyond this should be either light ones to aid recovery or sport-specific ones—for example, soccer practice if you play soccer. Working out more than is necessary only prolongs recovery and slows progress. Your muscles and your body change not during exercise but during rest. Let’s not make this harder than it has to be. Train hard, but train smart. Leave yourself valuable time to recover instead of pushing yourself too hard.
While many men are all about stacking the barbell plates on at the cost of precision, women are often all about precision at the cost of challenge.
Again, only a muscle’s size and the amount of fat over it determine how lean and defined it looks, period. For a lean physique, we need to do what most effectively builds muscle and burns fat. The answer: intense strength training in the 3-to-12-rep range and eating properly. Doing higher reps does not burn more calories than doing low reps. In fact, it burns less because it builds less fat-burning muscle.
The Myth of Male and Female Workout Needs
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the typical strength training that many women do is nearly useless. Going from machine to machine—using resistance that isn’t very challenging—will yield limited results for the first couple of months at best, but, honestly, so will anything short of bed rest.
Men and women have different hormones and (usually) different fitness goals, but the best methods to achieve those different goals are the same.
Most women aren’t looking to develop big arms but rather to firm and tone the entire body, especially their legs and bellies and glutes, which tend to be the hardest areas to maintain. The ironic thing is that you should do exactly the same thing to achieve this goal as men should to bulk up.
Since women don’t have the hormonal makeup that allows men to get big muscles, most women simply won’t achieve men’s goals. Instead, they will achieve their own goals of getting a leaner, harder body.
While a woman’s muscles won’t get as big as a man’s from strength training, the stimulus to make a woman’s muscle bigger and stronger is identical to that of a man’s: overload the muscle with progressively greater workloads.
Women too often take their arms along for the ride when they work out. Some women continually fail to understand that if they exercised their upper bodies as much as their lower, their tummies would just be that much flatter and their glutes that much tighter, because they would be increasing their overall lean muscle mass.
As you age, without exercise your metabolism dips and your body becomes softer due to a loss of muscle. The average female loses five percent of her muscle per decade after the age of thirty. This causes an average weight gain of 2.2 pounds per year; it’s generally agreed that inactive women over the age of forty lose muscle twice as fast as inactive men do.
There is an enormous difference in appearance between a thin female with muscle and a thin female without muscle. The latter often has the same body-fat percentage as someone quite a bit bigger, but due to the lack of any significant muscle mass she appears to be thinner. This is commonly referred to as “skinny fat,” and it is often the result of weight loss through aerobic activity and calorie restriction only. Yet another reason why it pays not to worry about weight loss but instead to focus on body composition and performance.
But this weight-gain trend is halted and reversed by the calories required to keep just three pounds of extra muscle alive. This becomes more and more important as your age increases. Precisely because women don’t have enough testosterone to retain muscle the way men do, the benefits of strength training are actually more important to women.
But it’s not all about looking good. Effective strength training improves bone density (helping you avoid fractures and breaks), joint resilience, balance, coordination, flexibility, stability, strength, and cardiovascular endurance; this in turn lowers your risk of arthritis, osteoporosis (which affects women more than men), obesity, depression, back pain, insomnia, poor libido, poor posture, injury, and immobility, among other ailments. Gaining strength even lowers blood-sugar levels and cholesterol, reducing your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Let’s put it this way: Falls bring more people over the age of sixty-five to assisted-living facilities than anything else. As strength diminishes, so does stability, which increases your chances of falling while making you less able to deal with the impact.
Working out when you’re young is the best prevention. But it’s never too late. Improvements are possible at any age. Women in their seventies and eighties can still build important strength through bodyweight exercises.
Strength, more than any other factor—whether physical or financial—is essential to maintaining your quality of life as you age. Strength training is practical. Steady-state aerobic activity is not. Being strong is being able to move through life with ease.