Women have made a huge impact on the hardcore training world. We’re busting the myths, disproving the lies, and taking the lead in helping other women look and feel amazing.
Yet, mistakes still get made, often because we don’t have all the information we need in order to use the most effective strategies. The good news is that using the following three principles easily solves most of these mistakes:
1) Do some form of training with weights.
2) Do some form of interval exercise in which you alternate bursts of effort with rest.
3) Eat a whole foods diet that optimizes protein and carb intake for your unique genetics.
This list will identify common errors and tell you how to use these principles so that you get everything you can out of your efforts.
Mistake #1: Focusing on Getting “Toned”
The average training program for getting “toned” has women lifting super light weights and doing bizarre exercises. This is not an effective strategy for changing your body.
We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Getting toned requires two things to happen:
• Lose excess body fat
• Increase the size of muscle cells to provide shape
Solutions: To lose excess fat, tighten up your nutrition. Try a whole foods higher protein diet that avoids all refined carbs and extra sugar. In addition, doing workouts that are metabolically taxing and significantly overloads the muscles will support your nutrition efforts.
Best results will come from training “classic” lifts like squats, lunges, step-ups, presses, rows, pull-downs or chin-ups, etc.
Use free weights that are between 65 and 80 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. If you can squat 100 pounds one time, then you need to use a weight that is at least 65 pounds when doing squats for reps.
Do two interval “fat loss” workouts a week. This can be sprints or high-intensity training with weights (circuits or pushing a weighted sled).
Mistake #2: Not Prioritizing Training the Posterior Chain.
Men and women alike often ignore the muscles on the back side of their body in favor of “mirror” muscles like the upper arms, abs, and chest. Big mistake.
Prioritizing the posterior chain allows you to train the largest muscles in the body that have the greatest effect on your metabolic rate. Optimizing strength and function of the posterior is particularly important for women for the following reasons:
• Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to leaning out our thighs and glutes. Studies show that women tend to lose fat from the upper body first when doing an exercise program, but have a much harder time losing lower body fat than men.
• Women’s bodies preferentially store fat in the hips and thighs for pregnancy, but they also have a greater number of alpha receptors in this region than men, which inhibits fat loss.
• Women are especially susceptible to strength imbalances between the hamstrings and quadriceps muscles (quads being strong and hamstrings being weak), which can lead to poor movement patterns and chronic pain.
Solution: Strengthen the posterior chain by doing multi-joint exercises, with a focus on lower body and total body lifts such as squats, deadlifts, step-ups, and lunges. Include single-leg training, hamstring curls, and back extensions to ensure balance.
Throw in some high-intensity interval workouts to target the alpha receptors in the hips and thighs and enhance fat loss from the lower body.
Mistake #3: Eating High-Carb All of The Time.
You probably know that carbohydrates that are refined, processed, or have added sugar will do your physique no good. But, what you might not know is that planning all your meals around carbs, even if they are “healthy” whole carbs can be a problem for many women because of how our metabolisms work.
At rest, women’s bodies rely more on burning glucose (from carbs) for energy than men (who burn more fat). In addition, women rely on fat for fuel during exercise to a much greater degree than men.
This means that women’s bodies are set up to be metabolically flexible and be able to switch between burning fat and glucose with ease—a state that is beneficial for body composition and avoiding low energy levels.
However, research shows that overweight women, especially those who are sedentary, have poor metabolic flexibility, which means their bodies have a harder time using fat for energy.
Solution: Two things can improve metabolic flexibility. First, reducing the proportion of calories you get from carbs in favor of protein and fat will improve metabolic flexibility.
For instance, if you’re eating 55 to 70 percent of your calories from carbs, reduce carbs to 40 percent, increase protein to 25 percent, and fat to 35 percent. You could also try eating lower carb on days when you don’t work out and higher carb on workout days.
Second, exercise is critical for women because it capitalizes on the fact that our bodies favor burning fat during vigorous activity.
Mistake #4: Getting Rest Intervals Wrong.
First, a rookie mistake that both men and women make is to choose machine-based exercises and then sit on the machines while they are resting. This is all-around bad: Bad etiquette, bad choice of exercises, and bad for your body since you’re not working hard enough to benefit from a passive rest.
Second, trained women recover faster than men and they need shorter rest intervals. This is due to the fact that women’s bodies rely on aerobic energy pathways more than men and we deplete ATP and glycogen more slowly, but are able to generate energy at a faster rate.
Third, not resting at all is also a problem. You have to allow time for anaerobic energy substrates like creatine phosphate to regenerate when doing heavy strength exercises, which takes about 3 minutes. But, women tend to carry the “no rest” metabolic mindset too far and apply it to strength workouts.
Solution: When training for strength in the big lifts use 2 to 3 minute intervals. For maximal attempts, give it at least 3 minutes.
For high-intensity weight training workouts, feel free to use circuits with no rest, but alternate upper and lower body lifts. Advanced lifters may benefit from supersetting exercises, such as different squat variations (wide stance squats followed by close stance with heels elevated) using 10 to 30 seconds rest.
With intervals, research suggests that women will benefit from submaximal sprints at 80 to 90 percent of maximal with a 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio. If you’re doing 1-minute intervals, rest 20 to 30 seconds.
#5: Slashing Calories.
Cutting calories drastically (to the 1,200 a day range) is one of the worst things you can do if you want to lose fat. Fairly quickly, the body will downregulate your metabolism in order to preserve the fuel stores, and you’ll burn fewer calories daily.
Top it off with needing to fight off hunger with willpower, and you’ll elevate cortisol. If you’re training hard in an effort to get things moving again, high cortisol will become a chronic problem and you can throw your hormones completely out of balance.
Solution: Never slash calories intentionally. Instead, figure out a way of eating that allows you to stay satisfied and avoid hunger. Most people find that higher protein, lower carb diets allow them to naturally eat less without trying because the protein leads to a better release of hunger-reducing hormones.
Mistake #6: Fearing Dietary Fat.
First, if you’re not eating fat, you’re probably eating carbs, and we already covered the problems with an all-the-time high-carb diet.
Second, filling your diet with beneficial fats (nuts, seeds, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, avocado, coconut oil) provides nutrients so the body can produce brain transmitters, build bones, repair tissue, and have a healthy metabolism.
Third, fat is critical for reproductive health in women because it’s used to manufacture hormones and improves gene signaling that regulates hormone balance.
Solution: If you’re in the habit of avoiding fat, start adding a little bit of good fat to every meal. First, pick your protein source. Does it naturally contain fat?
For example, fish, whole-fat yogurt, or an egg all contain protein and fat, so you’re all set, and now all you need is to add a vegetable or fruit.
If you’re eating fat-free yogurt or very lean meat, add some nuts, seeds, or an avocado for fat. Top it off with veggies or a bowl of berries and you're in business.
Mistake #7: Ignoring that Exercise Is the Best Way To Solve Most Problems
Research into women’s physiology shows that many of our problems can be prevented or solved if we exercise the right way. Consider the following benefits of exercise on women’s health and well being:
• Physical activity reduces breast cancer risk because it improves estrogen metabolism and enhances immune function, lowering inflammation.
For example, in a 2008 review, the authors found a 25 percent decrease in the risk of breast cancer among the most physically active women as compared to the least active.
• Bone loss, fat gain, and health complications like high blood pressure are not inevitable as women age even though they are all associated with menopause. Research shows that a combination of strength training and conditioning can prevent all three, while also reducing risk of related problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
• Women have higher growth hormone levels, a fact that women can capitalize on for better body composition, less belly fat, and healthier skin, hair, and nails. We experience a large increase in GH with certain types of exercise training.
Solution: If you’re new to exercise, or have been doing the same old cardio workouts forever, don’t be afraid. You don’t need a complicated lifting program or have to do all-out sprints at the track.
What you do need is a plan every time exercise. Your plan should include what exercises you intend to do, weights, and the number of reps, sets, and rest periods.
For interval training, the intensity needs to be relative to your conditioning and skill.
Here are a few ways for novices to begin:
• Try walking vigorously up a hill, and then leisurely back down. Repeat 4 to 10 times.
• Do 30-second to 1-minute long intervals on a bike. Start at a moderately high intensity so it feels “somewhat hard.” Use rest intervals that are the same duration as work intervals. Work up to doing “hard” intervals in which you go almost all-out.
• Try stair walking. Go to a stadium and walk up the stairs as fast as possible. Come down under control. Repeat 4 to 10 times.
Final Words: Exercise and nutrition shouldn’t be complicated, but they should be individualized. Put in the effort to learn the basics. Figure out what works for your unique genes. This method does wonders for making fitness and health a fun part of your life rather than a struggle.