Small waist, round booty, and toned legs—do I have your attention? Over the last decade, more and more women have been willing to embrace the weight room, which I, for one, think is awesome. But, even so, there are still many misconceptions surrounding weight training for women. Today, I am going to shine some light on the top three misconceptions that I continuously hear when working with female clients.
1. She-Hulk Enters the Gym
When the typical client comes to me looking to change her physique, her goals are to lose body fat, gain overall "tone," and shape glutes. Some areas of concern are the abdomen and thighs. This is usually how the conversation starts when discussing these goals: “I want to lose this (points to a stubborn area of the body), but I don’t want to lift heavy and bulk, just tone and lose fat.”
I fight every urge to stop my visible cringe. But it’s not her fault she has the misconception that lifting heavy will suddenly transform her into She-Hulk. It’s 2020 and we’re still being bombarded with things like juice cleanses, detox teas, countless fad diets, creams, lotions, and potions all aimed at women with the promise to help you drop inches, lose fat, drop X number of pounds, and “tone” trouble spots.
Next time you’re standing in line at the grocery store, take a look at the women’s fitness magazines. They will always have something on the cover along these lines: “Burn fat in just 10 minutes,” “8 moves that tone every zone,” “13 ways to burn fat fast.” There will be no mention of heavy resistance training accompanying the cover model that’s, of course, beautiful and fit. It’s no wonder this misconception is still so prevalent.
The truth is, the best way to change your physique and create the curves that most women covet is to progressively lift heavier weights with a combination of compound and isolation movements. Put that on the cover of a magazine and maybe we can slowly get rid of this misconception once and for all.
Weight training will not turn you into a big bulky bodybuilder. What will make you bulky is eating excessive calories, and even then it will most likely be due to a higher body fat percentage and not excessive muscle. Building muscle is a slow, long-term process—a process that many women spend years trying to achieve, myself included.
I also have to mention the other slew of positive benefits that weight training offers. Weight training increases skeletal strength, which in turn reduces the risk of osteoporosis. It creates stronger connective tissue and joint stability that helps prevent injury. It increases functional strength for everyday activity, because why make two trips to carry groceries from the car when you can make one? And last but not least, let’s not forget improved confidence and self-esteem.
I encourage my clients to keep a training logbook when I program a training split. The goal of this logbook is to continually improve from week to week, whether that improvement comes from an increased load, better execution, or adding on a few reps. Not only does it keep my client accountable, but it also helps me see the progression within their program and see where improvements are being made.
I made the mistake of spinning my wheels for years by blindly going into the gym with no plan and no way to track my progress. My wheels were spinning but they sure weren’t growing! So if you’re after that slim waist and shapely glutes, embrace weight training. Take it seriously and make it a priority.
2. Hard Work Equals Hard Body
After I get my clients on board with the idea that weight training is the key to changing their physique, we encounter misconception number two. “Don’t I need to lift lighter weights for more reps to tone muscle?” I find that women are typically encouraged by mainstream media to use limited resistance, such as light dumbbells and banded exercises, with no mention of effort or intensity. Such lightweight training loads are significantly below what you need for muscle adaptation.
For muscle growth, we need a weight that can really challenge you and that falls within the 6-20 rep range. The kicker is that those reps need to reach a point close to muscular failure. That means HARD sets! Women need to train intensely enough to cause adaptations to the muscle. Insufficient stimulus will result in minimal benefits; working sets should be taken at or near the rep maximum for each set.
Let’s touch on effort level and intensity. What does “hard sets” mean? It means you’re going to have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Say, for example, you have a leg press programmed into your training with the first work set rep range between 10-12 reps. You do your warm-up sets and work up to a weight that’s heavy enough to achieve the desired reps. Now, what do those last reps look like? Were they just as easy to complete as the previous reps? Did your speed slow down because you were fighting for those last few? Or did your last rep feel and look as easy as your first rep? These are all questions I have to ask clients to assess their effort level.
More often than not my client is falling within the prescribed rep range but not putting forth the effort that she needs to cause the adaptations required to build muscle. Since I work exclusively online with clients, I find video submissions are useful in helping me assess and teach effort level and intensity. Video your hard sets and see if your last reps start slowing down and if you are having to grind to complete them—those are the reps that are going to change your body. Also, make sure your form looks just like your first rep. We want to stay safe and train hard.
3. Train the Muscle Not the Flab
Once my client is weight training and learning to push past her comfort zones with her sets, we can see her body taking on more shape. Misconception number three, spot reduction, usually appears at the next check-in. The client is seeing results, but that stubborn area is still holding on for dear life with minimal changes. She might ask me what exercise she can do to get rid of fat in the arms, thighs, or lower abdomen. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but exercising those stubborn areas will only strengthen the muscle responsible for the movement. It won't significantly impact the amount of fat stored there.
Ultimately, that stubborn fat loss comes down to the basic principle of how many calories you consume versus how many calories you expend. You can do as many crunches as you want, of course, you’ll effectively strengthen your abdomen, but it will not make your abs more visible unless other steps are being taken to reduce overall body fat. Even when we have our nutrition, training, and cardiovascular programming down to a T, we can’t influence where our body draws the fat from to be burned.
Everybody is unique in the sense that we have a pattern of where we lose body fat from first and where we lose it from last. This is heavily influenced by your genetics. This is why the last place I’ll lose body fat is my thighs/glutes, but you bet it will be the first place I’ll regain it. Thanks, mom! But don’t let that discourage you. Sticking to the plan that’s right for your goals will reduce overall body fat, and with time you’ll start to notice a reduction in those specific areas of concern.
In a world flooded with information that can lead us off course, let these takeaways guide you back to your goals:
- Weight training is the most optimal way to change your physique.
- Don’t be afraid of lifting heavy, and remember effort and intensity are of the utmost importance.
- Localized fat loss through exercise is a myth. Focus on overall body fat reduction.
To all my ladies out there, don’t let these three misconceptions slow down your journey to achieving the body of your dreams.