Almost every woman I know wants a lean body with sculpted muscles. She doesn’t want to bulk up. She wants a feminine body with curves from nicely rounded muscles. Yet, when we ask how to achieve this, the exercise experts give us conflicting information.
The buff trainers advise us to lift heavy weights to see muscle tone, while the Tracy Anderson-style trainers advise us to use light weights with lots of repetition. Who’s right or is there some middle ground?
Over the past 18 months, I inadvertently conducted an experiment on my own body. For 15 years, I’d worked out with trainers and always requested the same thing – give me leaner legs and get rid of that fat above my knee (I have leg issues). My legs didn’t change much, but then, under the advice of my trainer-at-the-time, we increased the weights to tighten the muscle around my knee. The objective was to make it smaller. It didn’t work – it bulked it up.
After that, I was done; I went on a trainer hiatus for 12 months. There were enough boutique studios popping up in New York that I opted for group classes instead. I ran, took spin classes, yoga classes and, when I was on-form, did Tracy Anderson’s leg workout (this didn’t happen often). The only weights I used were in the spin classes for my upper body. Did my legs change? No. Did my body change? Yes… but not in the direction I wanted it to. The sculpted arms I was proud of the year before were no longer there. I felt dumpy and pudgy.
Was it time to go back to the heavy weights? I felt like one of my detox-retox-detox clients. It wasn’t time to do that. I needed an alternative strategy.
I replaced my cardio-skewed exercise program with a muscle sculpting program. I took Barry’s bootcamp 2-3x per week and used medium weights. I continued with yoga, and started with movement specialist, Erik Hansen, who also trains Eva Mendes and Bruce Willis. Erik taught me the importance of postural alignment, working on the small muscle groups, and using a combination of weights to improve my body shape. I’m happy to report that my arms are back and I’ll be wearing shorts this Summer!
Here’s what Erik has to say:
Drawing on my experience, most women prefer to avoid muscle hypertrophy. Keeping this in mind, my workouts address any postural imbalances, mobility or stability issues and improve overall strength and conditioning.
I choose carefully when and which muscles to place under significant load, sometimes only using body weight exercises. I utilize full body and functional movements and movements inspired by yoga and Pilates.
I tend to steer clear of heavy lifting with presses, pulldowns and rows, using them at a lower intensity instead, to support good posture rather than going after big strength gains.
I’ve also found that the smaller muscles, the biceps, triceps and deltoids can be pushed harder strength-wise without adding size.
When training the lower body, I choose compound movements in which the muscles of the posterior chain (lower back, hamstring, glutes) are the primary movers, with variations of deadlifts, squats and lunges, in an attempt not to overload the quadriceps muscles, as they can tend to hypertrophy as well.
Thank you Erik.
As I’ve been in search of the perfect legs for the past 20 years, I’ve asked many experts along the way. Chris Heron from Shaping Change in London, added this to the solution:
Tip 1: Sprint – this has better fat loss effects in half the time of steady state cardiovascular exercise. Studies have shown that near maximal efforts (90% + of max effort) for 15 repeats of 30 second sprints helped participants lose more fat in 6 weeks than people who spent more than double the time daily doing steady state cardio exercise.
Tip 2: Lift Moderate Weights but at Very High Volume – women should lift a little lighter weights, but lift them lots of times! Try a set of exercises that hits muscles in order of size, starting with legs, then back, chest and finish with shoulders and arms. With each exercise do 20-25 reps and go through the entire set 3 times.
Chris has kindly created a program for you to help re-sculpt your muscles. Click here.
My advice – spend 15 minutes doing sprint intervals, followed by Chris’ program, then do another round of 15 minute sprint intervals. This mimics the Barry’s bootcamp program I do in New York.
In terms of diet – use it to strip fat versus cardio. Eat clean. Mostly plants. A small amount of protein. An even smaller amount of carbs.
If you find yourself rationalizing your food choices with “I’ll run it off tomorrow” then you’ve just taken a step backwards. Use exercise to change the shape of your muscles and diet to burn fat.
If you’ve conducted an exercise experiment or found something that works for you, please share it with us – we’d all love to benefit from it.