Whether you're a teacher, preacher, pauper, poet or streetwalker, I'll bet my ass you've heard this statement at least once in your life: women who lift weights shouldn't worry about building big muscles.
My retort to that mendacity? The only people who say that women can't build muscle don't know how to build muscle in the first place. In other words, the notion that women can't build any appreciable amount of muscle is bullshit with a capital "B."
I started my career by training people in a commercial gym in a major city. While working with my clients I'd sometimes get distracted by a female who was training in our vicinity. I wouldn't get distracted because she was wearing tawdry workout clothing, I'd get distracted by her choice of exercises, sets, reps, and load. Even though I knew nothing about her it was clear to me that she was doing the wrong exercises, the wrong way, to meet her goals.
I know it's a big leap of faith to believe that I knew what this gal wanted without having ever consulted her, but as a trainer I've developed a sixth-sense about what females want. It's really not tough to do, so I'm not singling myself out as the next Nostradamus or anything like that.
I'm just saying that 95% of the time, I have a pretty good idea how a female wants to look. Maybe it's her clothing, maybe it's her jewelry, maybe it's the car she drives, or maybe it's the way she walks and talks. I don't know, but I do know that I can pick up on it rather quickly.
I'm also confident in saying that I can usually ascertain what a female doesn't want. Very few women approach me and say, "Gee, I'd sure like to look like one of those Ms. Olympia contenders -- not like that disgusting Jaime Pressly or that hideous Jessica Simpson."
I often see women performing endless sets of walking lunges, tons of upper back work, and enough crunches and side bends to frighten a young Jack LaLanne. I'm perplexed by this because I'm pretty damn sure these females aren't looking for big quads, big traps, and a big waist.
It's evident to me that these females and their trainers have fallen victim to the notion that women are completely different than men. Well, in terms of pregnancy that's certainly true, but in the gym there's actually very little that separates the two.
You see, men and women have more in common than you probably believe. They both have skeletal muscle tissue that's made up of the same basic proteins. They both have serum steroid concentrations that are quite similar. And the laws of strength and conditioning don't change whether your name is David or Debbie.
But for whatever reason, women who train to slim down are often training the same way that guys train to bulk up. And most of the personal trainers that I encounter who are smart enough to know this aren't making the necessary modifications to make up for it.
Indeed, there's a big clusterfuck happening in the female world of body transformation.
I doubt there's any single source that I can blame for the ineffective training methods that most females follow. But it seems that people are overemphasizing what's not really important and underemphasizing what's important. Let me explain.
A few sentences back, I said that women and men have skeletal muscle tissue that's very similar. Were I speaking at a conference, that statement alone probably would've caused some people to lash out at me in a verbal fury. Why? Because it's postulated that women's muscles are dominated by type I muscle fibers – you know, those endurance fibers that might need a bunch of reps before they'll grow.
So "Tony Tanktop" would've stood up in the middle of my seminar and felt pretty damn special that he knew it. He would reach into his fanny pack and pull out a web article from a no-name trainer who said that women should train with more reps than men because, after all, they have more endurance fibers.
Let me tell you something about determining the fiber make-up of skeletal muscle. My Master's thesis paper at the University of Arizona was on the skeletal muscle fiber alterations that occur with endurance and strength training regimens. I read through 89 papers on the subject and I can tell you that anyone who thinks they know how to determine a person's entire muscle fiber make-up is full of shit.
The majority of research papers that analyze skeletal muscle fiber alterations do so with a minuscule muscle needle biopsy taken from the vastus lateralis. Basically, the researchers stick a needle 2 cm deep into the vastus lateralis and pull out a dab of muscle tissue.
If I performed a study to delineate muscle fiber alterations from training, and if I used the same techniques employed by most researchers, here's what I'd do. I'd stick a needle into your vastus lateralis at the midway point between the patella and greater trochanter (that bony protusion on your outer hip). Then I'd put you on a training regimen for, say, 8 weeks. Then I'd stick the needle into the same place I did before. I'd use a variety of staining techniques to differentiate the fibers and I'd compare the pre-program sample with the post-program sample.
Now, you tell me, how accurate do you think that needle biopsy sample is for determining a person's entire muscle fiber make-up?
My point is that no one knows what the whole-body muscle fiber make-up is of any female, male, or transvestite. Sure, the researchers know the make-up of the fibers that were sucked up by the needle, but that's it.
Okay, that's my first point. What's my first point? You can't determine a female's entire muscle fiber make-up from the skeletal muscle research.
Note: If you want to learn more about the techniques that most researchers follow to perform a muscle biopsy, check out this paper: Evans, et al. Med Sci Sports Exer 14:101-102, 1982.
Then there's the rep test that's supposed to determine muscle fiber make-up. There are numerous derivations, but it basically goes like this. Test your 1RM for a lift. Then, calculate 85% of that number and see how many reps you can get with that load. If you can only get 3-5, you're primarily fast twitch. If you can get, say, 11 reps, you're more "slow" twitch. At least that's what the dogma barks.
Most females can perform more reps at a given percentage of a 1RM compared to males. That's why it's assumed that females should do more reps per set.
Regardless if you're a male or female, I think that test sucks because your performance is dependent on many different variables. For example, if you've been on a low-carb diet, you'll get significantly fewer reps since your glycogen stores are low. Second, your previous training can have a major impact on how many reps you'll get. If you've been on a maximal strength cycle with low reps and heavy loads, you'll appear more fast twitch. If you've been on a high rep cycle, you'll appear more "slow" twitch.
In fact, I did a little half-baked experiment on myself and one of my clients to see how much I could skew this test. Without getting into all the details, I was able to shift what constituted 85% of our 1RM performance by 4 reps within 2 weeks. So you can significantly alter your performance within a few weeks – a much shorter time than it takes to actually change your muscle fiber make-up. Research demonstrates that it can take months, even years to shift your muscle fiber make-up to any significant degree. In other words, there are many other processes at work that we don't completely understand that will throw that test off kilter. Got it?
So my second point is that you can't accurately determine a person's muscle fiber make-up from the rep test.
And the notion that females can perform more reps than males at a given percentage of 1RM? Guess what? It doesn't fucking matter! You want to increase a female's maximal strength? Use heavy loads with low reps. You want to increase a female's endurance strength? Use light loads with high reps. You want to increase the size of a female's glutes? Use a myriad of rep schemes to tax all of her motor units and train her with plenty of volume at each session.
You know, the same way a guy should train.
Now we're on to what seems to be the most prevalent difference between males and females: Testosterone. Indeed, from a steroid standpoint Testosterone is what primarily separates the two sexes. But the term "Testosterone" shouldn't be used interchangeably with the term "steroid." Why? With the exception of Testosterone, the serum steroid concentrations between males and females are actually quite similar. Here's a short list to give you a better idea of what I mean:
|Serum Steroid Concentration (ng/dL)
Depending on what phase of the menstrual cycle a female is in, males and females can have similar levels of andro, DHEA, and estrogen. So from a steroid standpoint it's clear that Testosterone is what truly separates those with a ding-donger from those without one. And since Testosterone is one of the most powerful muscle builders in nature it's assumed that males can build muscle fast, and females can't.
Man, I wish it were that simple.
Regarding the notion that women can't build muscle as fast as men can, I got a big ol' dose of reality during my early training days. You see, I too used to believe that no matter what I did, women wouldn't grow muscle as fast as men. That postulate came to a screeching halt when I had one male and one female client on a front squat specialization plan at the same time.
I had them both performing 6 sets of 4 reps with 85% of their 1RM for the front squat. I increased their loads at basically the same rate, the workout frequency was the same, and they both consumed maintenance calories with the same type of post-workout nutrition. This continued for 4 weeks. What happened?
At the end of the month, the guy's quads shrunk 1/4" while the girl's quads grew almost a half inch! Long story short, I had to double his training volume to get his quads to grow; I had to cut her volume in half to get her quads to stopgrowing.
Now, I don't know what her Testosterone level was since I didn't have it tested, but I can tell you that she was completely natural. Furthermore, she didn't exhibit any signs of higher than normal Testosterone levels. So it can be assumed that her Testosterone was probably in the 40 range while his Testosterone, on the other hand, was sitting at 820.
This is just one of dozens and dozens of scenarios that have panned out in a similar fashion. Honestly, I could give enough testimonials about this phenomenon to fill a rather hefty tome. So anyone who uses the Testosterone defense as the reason why males build muscle fast and women don't, simply hasn't been in the training game long enough.
Finally, I'd like to see a show of hands from the dudes out there that think they build muscle fast. Yeah, that's what I thought.
Let's recap what I've discussed so you understand where I'm coming from. I need to qualify my position on women, men, and muscle growth. Women can build muscle at rates that are comparable to men, but this isn't an all-or-nothing thing. As a gross generalization, women can build lower body muscle at rates comparable to men while men can usually build upper body muscle faster than women.
In order to delve deeper into the intricacies of this discussion, let me bring up everyone's favorite babysitter, Britney Spears.
Think back to when you first saw Britney Spears. If you're like me, it was when she tied that Catholic schoolgirl shirt in a come-hither fashion and started shakin' her moneymaker to Baby One More Time. She was hot, young, and on her way to dominating the pop charts and dominating the fantasies of middle-aged guys around the globe.
Yep, she was perky up top, hard and protruding from behind, and rock hard in the middle. Let me translate that: she had firm boobies, a firm booty, and a slimly sculpted belly.
If you don't mind staring at the above pictures for a few seconds, I'd like you to pay close attention to her midsection. You'll notice that she had a very tiny waist.
Now the next part of this article can't be verified with complete accuracy, but it bears discussion. It can't be verified because it's about her training regimen, and I wasn't her trainer. Moreover, whoever trained her doesn't really matter either. Why? Because not all celebrities follow their trainer's advice with precision. If they did, there would be many more sexy, ripped female figures walking around Hollywood. So my point is this: her trainer probably has nothing to do with the next part of my discussion.
It's been reported that Britney got heavily involved in training when she started approaching the level of über celebrity. That's good. What I've heard around the campfire is that Britney is driven and committed to whatever she puts her mind to. Much like her music career, she put a lot of effort into keeping her body in tip-top shape. (Keep in mind I'm not referring to the Britney of today).
Anyway, I started noticing around 2003 that her physique was really changing. It was evident that she was indeed training, and doing a lot of it. But I could see a transformation taking place that I've seen so many times in the past with females. This metamorphosis that I'm referring to was happening directly in her midsection.
Sometime around late 2003 I saw an interview with her sister and, to paraphrase, she said that Britney did something like 1000 crunches every day. Now, as I said, I don't know if that's true but I can tell you that it sure looked like it. It appeared that Britney spent a lot of time doing crunches, side bends and the like.
What's the big deal, you say? The big deal is this: a ton of direct ab work is bad, bad news for a female who's trying to keep a slim midsection. Here's a picture that demonstrates my point.
There are two things that should be noted about the above picture. First, she's not any fatter than she was in the first pictures. In fact, her abs show more definition. Second, and most importantly, she lost virtually all of the hourglass shape that her younger figure exhibited. She's still carrying very little body fat in this picture, but her waist is much larger than it was early in her career. And I'd be willing to bet a years salary that she wasn't trying to make her midsection any thicker and wider than it was in the first pictures. But she sure did make it bigger.
When I consult females who've been training and want me to take them to the next level, I've seen overdeveloped abs and obliques so many times that I've lost count. In fact, I've seen the disorder so many times that I had to give it a name. I call the female disorder that's caused by excessive core training The Britney Spears Syndrome.
Females typically perform too much direct ab and oblique work! They've fallen victim to the old theory of spot reduction – the idea that working a body part more will result in less fat around that area. My position is that spot reduction probably doesn't happen, and even if it does happen, it doesn't matter in the case of Britney. Why? Because any possible loss of body fat around her midsection from doing a zillion crunches and side bends every day will be overshadowed by the increased girth of her core muscles from training with such a high volume and frequency.
In fact, that's exactly what my High Frequency Training (HFT) philosophy is based on: the more you train a muscle, the bigger it will get. The paradox is that she used a type of HFT plan to make her core muscles smaller, while I preach that HFT is the ultimate way to make your muscles bigger.
But this issue doesn't end with the above thicker-waist-picture. One of the biggest challenges that a trainer like me faces is when a client inevitably falls off the wagon of fitness and nutrition. A good trainer will keep a celebrity client leaner than she needs to be in order to establish a "buffer zone." If a female client of mine thinks she looks best with 16% body fat, I'll keep her at 15%. That's because with even the most diligent clients, their training and nutrition will waver during vacations, holidays, break-ups, etc.
Now back to Britney. If you're one who thinks she doesn't look too bad with the thicker-waist-but-still-lean-physique, then you should think about the buffer zone. Sure, she might not look all that bad with a thicker waist when she's still lean, but guess what happens when she puts on a little extra fat? You get this:
Now we've got a problem. All of that extra muscle that she added to her midsection from endless crunches and side bends is now covered with a little extra body fat. What do you get? You get a midsection that's anything but alluring. Had she refrained from a plethora of ab and oblique work, she wouldn't be sporting that barrel midsection in the "gladiator" picture.
If you still like the idea of doing endless crunches and side bends to keep your waist svelte and sexy, then I encourage you to look at this comparison.
And this, my bra-wearing buddies, is the first thing that I'm here to eradicate. I've got a healthy dose of medicine to cure The Britney Spears Syndrome.
You might be wondering why I spent so much time talking about direct ab work. After all, the answer seems rather simple: just perform less ab work and you won't bulk up your midsection, right? That's true, but the purpose of mentioning Britney Spears and her thick midsection is to further demonstrate that women can build too much muscle, and screw up their proportions, if they're not careful.
This isn't just limited to the midsection. I've also seen it happen in women's thighs, calves, traps, and virtually any other body part.
So I'm also going to show you how to organize your training and eating plans in order to develop the slim, sexy, firm physique that maintains the feminine, athletic look. What separates the following information from everything else you've read is my training experience with this issue, and my understanding of physiology.
Now it's time for all you ladies and personal trainers out there to make a decision. I'm going to lay out the basic principles that a female or her trainer should follow to create the sexy, firm Hollywood look. If that doesn't sound good to you, if you want to look like a Ms. Olympia contender, then stick to my other mass building programs and head to Tijuana for some D-bol.
Out of all the people I've trained since day one, almost half of them have been female. With regard to those females, I'd say 90% of them sought to transform their body into the early Britney-type look. More recently, many females that I've trained have singled-out Jaime Pressly as their ideal physique. I can't blame them because Jaime is one smokin' vixen who possesses a body that quickly erects any mans tower.
And here's another blonde bombshell that my younger female clients have recently referenced: Jessica Simpson. This follows suit with the early Britney and Jaime Pressly look, but I figured you wouldn't mind seeing another example with Ms. Simpson. Yeah, I'm twisting your arm. I've had so many recent requests for the Jessica Simpson-Dukes of Hazzard look that I now have a poster of her in my gym so I can say, Is this the look you're after? Not surprisingly, both men and women say yes!
So as I said earlier, you've got a choice to make. I've given you the young Britney, the smokin' Jaime, and the Daisy-Duke-sportin' Jessica to show you what type of look this program is out to build. If that doesn't sound good to you, or your clients, no biggie since I've got plenty of other programs on T-Nation. And at least one of my other programs will surely meet your needs. To each it's own, I say.
But if you're busting your ass in the gym to create a body like any of the aforementioned girls, or if you train females who want that look, then this article is for you. Of course, some good genetics won't hurt either since I can't turn Homer Simpson into Jessica Simpson.
It's safe to assume that the majority of women out there are trying to lose fat and slim down their proportions. So I don't understand why they organize their workouts with parameters that are similar to the workouts that guys follow when they're trying to bulk up. Okay, I take that back, I do know why: it's because they think the laws of training are different for men and women.
When I used to oversee the personal training department at a fitness facility I'd have weekly meetings with the trainers. I'd devise scenarios and ask them how they'd respond. I'd say, "So Mr. X comes in and wants to build bigger quads, what are some of the parameters you'd choose?" One trainer said, "I'd have him perform full squats, walking lunges, and leg curls three times each week with 75-85% of his 1RM." That's a decent answer.
But then I opened up my book of artifice. I asked this same trainer what lower body parameters he would use on a female who was trying to slim down her hips and thighs. His answer? Squats, lunges, and leg curls.
Don't think for a second that this paradox is limited to the trainer I mentioned. This happens all the time! I see trainers and females using the same parameters to shrink their thighs that men use to build their thighs.
From a training perspective, if a guy is trying to build up his quads, the worst thing he can do is spend 45 minutes running on a treadmill every other day. Why? Because long-distance running will shrink your thigh muscles quicker than anything else. So if you're a female who thinks your hips and thighs are too big, you'd benefit from long distance running.
My point is that if you're a woman and you don't want bigger thighs, don't do what men do to build up their thighs. And if you want slimmer thighs, then do the things that men avoid when they're trying to build up their thighs – long distance running, for one.
It's been said that mastering jazz music is dependent on mastering the art of the notes that aren't played. A similar correlation can be made with training females: it's the art of what you don't do that's just as important as what you actually do.
If you want to have a body like Jaime Pressly or Jessica Simpson, you need to avoid bulking up the muscles that tend to make females look less feminine: vastus medialis, upper traps, and obliques. You do, however, want to build up the muscles that aid in the hourglass figure: vastus lateralis, glutes, and deltoids.
I'm sure you understand that curvy outer thighs with protruding glutes that you could set a whiskey glass on will make a woman look more feminine and curvy, but you're probably not sure why I singled out the deltoids. The reason is because bigger delts will make the shoulders wider. And the wider the shoulders look, the smaller the waist looks. It's all about proportions.
Before we get into the workouts, it's important for me to mention a few key points.
First, this is not a muscle-building plan. It is, however, a plan that will build up your vastus medialis (outer thigh), glutes, and deltoids. But don't think you'll get weak because this plan will keep your other muscle groups strong without bulking them up. In other words, just because this program will shrink your waist doesn't mean your abs and obliques will get weaker. To the contrary, they'll probably get stronger than they've ever been because of the parameters I prescribe.
Second, as with any plan I can't devise a set of workouts that are perfect for every female out there. Some females, for example, have naturally wide shoulders so they wouldn't benefit from more delt work. And some females already have the outer thigh sweep from a well-developed vastus lateralis.
Some females would do well to perform some direct calf work if their calves look like pencils. Other females might already have larger than normal calves, and monstrous calves are rarely sought after from the females that I know. My recommendation is that you drop out any movements that are intended to develop a muscle group that's already been well developed on your body.
Finally, this plan is not about building a female machine of muscle and athletic prowess. This plan is solely intended to make females look good naked (if you're after the female look that I've been referencing). You'll strengthen important structural muscles, you'll build key feminine muscles, and you'll get lean, but this plan won't help you excel in something like female powerlifting.
First and foremost, this program is intended to help females lose fat. I don't, however, want to turn this into a nutritional discussion since this article is already long enough. But without the proper eating plan, you'll never lose fat at any rate faster than really, really slow. So I'm going to get right to the meat and potatoes of it all.
One of the most effective eating plans that I've used with females is what I call The Flip Diet. It's comprised of three days of low-carb eating, followed by one day of high-carb eating. So for the first three days you'll consume a carb/protein/fat caloric ratio of 10/30/60. On the fourth day you'll flip that ratio to 60/30/10. Then you'll start the process over. This continues for as long as you keep losing fat or until you meet your goals. Calories are kept at bodyweight x 10. Meal frequency is 5-6 per day. Six is best, but five works well for many.
With regard to supplements, you must consume 6g of fish oil such as Biotest's Flameout every day. A serving of Greens+ should be taken twice each day: one in the AM hours, one in the PM hours. A multi-vitamin/mineral should be taken every day, too. If you want to take HOT-ROX to boost fat-burning, take it on the low-carb days but refrain from taking it on the high-carb day in order to cycle its use.
Here's the breakdown of The Flip Diet:
Calories: Body weight x 10
- Carbs: 10% of calories in the form of vegetables
- Protein: 30% of calories from lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, and protein powder
- Fat: 60% of calories mainly from mono- and polyunsaturated sources. Be sure to use whole flaxseeds as one of your fat sources since it helps maintain digestive health.
- Carbs: 60% of calories in the form of whole grains, sweet potatoes, and vegetables
- Protein: 30% of calories from chicken, tuna, turkey, egg whites and protein powder
- Fat: 10% of calories from any source
Now for the training part of the article. In order to build a sexy, curvy figure you've gotta build up your outer thighs, glutes, and delts. The midsection should be firm, but not overdeveloped. All other muscles should be trained according to your specific needs. I'll give recommendations for all body parts but feel free to drop out any movements that challenge the muscles that have already been developed on you.
Energy systems work is a big part of this plan. You'll be performing some type of energy systems work for 6 days each week. If you have more than 4% body fat to lose, I suggest you keep it at 6 sessions per week. If you have less than 4% to lose, you can cut it back to 4-5 sessions each week.
What can you expect in terms of results? As I've mentioned numerous times so far, this plan is intended to give you the Jaime Pressly or Jessica Simpson look that's portrayed in the pictures. Both of them are carrying somewhere around 14% body fat, so that should be your goal. Each month you should be able to drop your body fat approximately 2% (more if you're fatter, less if you're leaner).
So if you have 18% body fat, you'll need at least two months of this plan to get you to the look we're after.
(Note: The following workouts should coincide with your eating plan. These workouts are designed so that days 1-3 are performed on a 10/30/60 diet, while every fourth day is performed with a 60/30/10 diet. In other words, this program is structured around a 4-day cycle).
- Circuits: 4
- Reps: 12
- Load: Bodyweight or a 14RM (repetition maximum)
- Rest: 15 sec. between movements, 90 sec. between circuits (A1, rest 15 sec., A2, rest 15 sec., A3, rest 15 sec., A4, rest 15 sec., A5, rest 90 sec., A1, rest 15 sec., etc.)
A1. Reverse Hyper
Note: Hold the "legs up" position for 2 sec. before lowering.
A2. Band Pulldown
A3. Single Leg Bridge with Bench
Note: Hold the up position for 2 sec. before lowering to the starting position. Perform 12 reps on each leg without resting in between each leg.
- A4. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- From a standing position, press the dumbbells up with your palms facing each other.
- A5. Reverse Crunch
- While lying on your back with your legs straight, pull your knees into your chest and roll your hips up off the floor.
- Cycle Sprints:
- Pedal at a moderate pace for 50 sec., then turn up the resistance and pedal as hard/fast as you can for 10 sec. Continue with this sequence for 15 minutes.
Note: Hold the position for 45s on each side. Perform four holds on each side.
- Aerobic Work:
- Run outside or on a track at a moderate pace for 30 minutes. Use a treadmill if you must, but running outside or on a track is better. If you can't jog or run for 30 minutes straight, walk for a minute or two whenever you're tired. But you must build up your capacity to run for 30 minutes straight.
- Rope Jumping
- Duration: 10 minutes. If you can't jump for 10 minutes straight, take short breaks every few minutes. You should be able to cut your rest times down to the point where you're able to jump for 10 minutes straight.
- Sets: 5
- Reps: 6
- Load: Bodyweight or an 8RM
- Rest: 30 seconds between each set. This is not a circuit; these are straight sets.
Note: Perform 6 reps on each leg (12 total reps per set). Take long strides and keep your torso completely vertical. Hold the lowest position for two seconds before stepping forward.
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- From a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand and resting on the front of your thighs, push your hips back and let your knees slightly bend until the dumbbells are just below knee level.
- Standing Dumbbell Side Raise
- Sets: 2
- Reps: 50
- Load: 50RM
- Rest: 90 seconds between sets
- Description: From a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand, lift your arms out to side until your hands are at shoulder height.
- Wall Sit
- Holds: 5
- Duration: To failure
- Rest: 45 seconds
- Description: Stand with your back against a wall with your feet shoulder width apart. Squat down until your knee joint is approximately 130 degrees. Hold that position for as long as you can. Work through the burn! Perform five holds with 45s rest between each hold.
Carb up day. Off from training but spend at least 30 minutes stretching the entire body.
Testosterone is the place where people from all over the world come to learn how to build bigger, stronger muscles. Indeed, I make my living by catering to that market.
But this article is different. It's not intended to grow big muscles on females; it's intended to give them the lean, athletic look. I know there are some females reading this who don't like the look that I portray in this article. I understand, and I've got plenty of other programs that will cater to your needs. This article was written based on the feedback from the vast majority of females who I've trained over the years. It's the look they paid me to give them, so now I'm passing on the information to you for free. You can't beat that!