It all started when I was 18. At the time, I was slowly recovering from an eating disorder known as Anorexia Nervosa, and my dad was trying to lure me into the gym.
“You know, there’s a way you can eat a lot more and still be skinny?” he said. “Come to the gym with me.”
It’s funny how different my ideal body was 10 years ago. If you call me skinny nowadays, I won’t appreciate it. You can call me buff, lean, or strong looking, but do not call me skinny.
My first time at the gym was immensely unproductive, to say the least. My “hardcore workout” consisted of some abdominal machine work, some crunches, and, wait for this… sleeping on the mat. Yup, I fell asleep on the mat about 15 minutes after walking into a gym for the first time in my life.
Since that first encounter, it has been over 10 years and countless sessions of hard work and determination to get to where I am today, and I’d like to share with you 10 lessons that I learned along the road to becoming a stronger, healthier, and more confident me.
1) Women, you will not look like a man
I repeat, you will not look like a man. Women simply don’t have enough testosterone in the body to tremendously increase their muscle mass to the point where they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pictures of women you see online that do have huge muscles use steroids; as long as you don’t use steroids, you will be good.
Steroid use + Years of heavy consistent lifting = Looking like a man.
So don’t be afraid of the weights. The weights are your friend; in fact, the weights are your best friend. Strength training is a key component in the road to a healthy, lean, and fit physique.
This is me - years of heavy, consistent lifting with no steroid use.
2) Strength training shapes your body, not cardio
Let’s start with an accurate explanation of what the word “toning” means. Toning means a display of muscle firmness, that’s it.
There are two components here – muscle and visibility of the muscle. How do we increase muscle mass? We strength train. How do we increase muscle visibility? We have a low(er) body fat percentage. You can’t tone muscles if we don’t strength train.
Doing cardio will not tone your body. No cardiovascular machine (ahem, stair master) can shape your body (or booty). Cardio burns calories and keeps your heart healthy and strong but weights shape your body. Do you want a great example of this? Supermodel Kate Upton has always been famous for her curves but she recently started working out with trainer Ben Bruno, including making strength training the biggest part of her fitness program. Check out a video of Kate training with Ben here.
Kate Upton has managed to keep her curves while adding strength training as a key component of her new workout program.
3) Strength train all the major muscle groups
When most people decide they want to change their physique and improve their health, they tend to only focus on the body parts that bother them the most; women are more likely to focus on their lower body (thighs and butt) and stomach, while men focus on biceps and chest. This is a mistake.
Strength training all the major muscle groups, front and back, is paramount to your success.
In order to improve muscular balance, prevent injuries, improve overall appearance and strength, and increase caloric burn you must train your body as a whole.
Focus on compound exercises, those that use large muscle groups such as squats, deadlifts, overhead press, rows, etc., and add some accessory/isolation exercises, such as leg curls, triceps extensions, etc.
4) There is NO such thing as the perfect diet
I’ve been through all kinds of diets – low fat, high fat, zero sugar, only “specific foods” diet etc. None of them worked. About three years into my weight lifting career I decided to dive deeper into the science behind body composition changes – Why are we getting fat? How are we losing fat? Are certain foods fattening? Do certain foods burn calories just by digesting them? This is what I found:
Contrary to popular belief, (e.g., what you read in magazines and watch on TV shows like Doctor Oz), we gain fat because we eat too many damn calories. This means we lose fat when we eat fewer calories than we burn per day. No foods are “fattening” and no foods burn calories just by digesting them. What determines weight loss or weight gain is your total caloric balance for the day.
There are 3 possible scenarios:
1) Weight maintenance – the amount of calories you eat daily is equivalent to the amount of calories your body burns per day (caloric maintenance).
2) Weight gain – the amount of calories you eat daily is larger than the amount of calories your body burns per day (caloric surplus).
3) Weight loss – the amount of calories you eat daily is smaller than the amount of calories your body burns per day (caloric deficit).
Oftentimes I hear clients say, “If I eat chocolate I automatically gain weight,” or “Pizza is so fattening,” and “I stopped eating ice cream because I gain weight when I eat it.” However,
you can’t put the blame on a single food or macronutrient for your weight gain. You gain weight because you eat too much, not because you ate a specific food. Period, end of story.
Do you want to lose body fat? Find the diet that fits your lifestyle and goals. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer; whether that diet may be high carb, low carb, high fat, or low fat, create a caloric deficit and incorporate foods you enjoy. Focus on whole nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains while allowing yourself to indulge in the foods that are less nutritious (but are still super important for one’s sanity). Also, I would encourage every woman to ascertain sufficient protein intake (as a very general rule, eat 0.8-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight).
5) The possibilities are endless
Strength training is extremely versatile and there are countless ways for increasing your workout intensity. Some obvious solutions include adding more weight to an exercise, adding more repetitions on a given set, increasing the range of motion of a certain exercise, adding an isometric hold (no movement at the joint), or performing the exercise faster. You can use all these tools, and much more, without diving into exercise selection, order of exercises, and repetition range. You can always find new ways to challenge your mind and body and never get bored of workout monotony. Just remember to give yourself at least 4-6 weeks, focusing on improving every workout session, before changing your workout program.
6) Consistency is key
Going to the gym on a regular basis should become habitual. Remember that motivation is what going to get you started, but habits are going to get you to continue. It’s not always going to be all unicorns and rainbows; everyone is busy and everyone deals with their own form of stress. God knows there are days when I’m dreading going to the gym. However, going to the gym and working out is a luxury. Being able to challenge your body and mind are luxuries. If you treat every day as an opportunity to grow and get better than the day before, you’ll rely on your discipline and not on your motivation to exercise and that is the secret ingredient to long term success!
7) Realistic expectations are paramount
You finally decide to start your fitness journey – congratulations! You’re excited and you’re motivated and you think to yourself, “I’m going to have my dream body in 3 months!”
But hold on, not so fast. Clearly, every person has a different definition of what his or her dream body would look like. But it takes way more than three months to go from a sedentary life to getting your “dream body,” whatever that may be. Now, with consistency in your exercise and diet program, in three months you will see measurable and noticeable changes, just not to the extent that is portrayed and promoted on social media.
We live in a society where we want everything done yesterday. We believe in fad diets, quick fixes, and ‘waist trainers’. We want instant gratification. As great as social media is for connecting people around the world and connecting me to you to help you achieve your goals, the problem with it, is that anyone can post anything and come across as an expert or genuine – “I got this body in 3 months,” or, “I only work out twice a week, and drink Shakeology and this is my fantastic fit body,” or, “I used ‘x’ supplement, and now I’m three sizes slimmer.”
You buy into the gimmicks of charlatans because you want to believe. You want to believe getting fit and healthy fast is doable. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Getting a fit body and adding quality muscle takes time. You have to be in it for the long term, you have to know there will be ups and downs, and there will be times when you barely see any changes. But do not get discouraged – this is a process, a journey, a commitment, and you will see positive changes. After all, even I was a rookie once.
8) Let go of the scale obsession
For years I have been attached to this magical number on the scale, the number that would make my life so much easier, fuller, and happier. Boy, was I wrong. I was attached to this unrealistic expectation of what a woman should weigh, when in reality, there is no such number.
Your weight is comprised of fat mass and fat free mass (bones, muscles, connective tissue, organs, and water). Obsessing over a number that is comprised of both aspects of your weight doesn’t make much sense, does it? Once you start strength training your weight might increase and that’s fine; in fact, embrace it, because it means you’re adding quality tissue to your frame.
Instead of staring at the scale, gauge your progress by how your clothes fit, how you feel, and how you look in the mirror, not by a pointless number.
9) Mental strength gains are coming your way
As cliche as this may sound, it is true – there’s something about strength training that is very empowering, especially for us women. It messes with your mind, it tests your will power, and it tests your patience. You might progress, then plateau, and then progress again, and as a result strength training will toughen up your mindset. You will acquire a refreshing perspective on how to approach challenges and overcome obstacles; you will feel like you can conquer everything that comes in your way and you will become more productive and proactive.
10) You won’t always have the support of others
Some people won’t understand your new lifestyle. Sometimes even the people who are closest to you won’t support your new endeavors but that’s okay. Not everyone has to agree with you because the person that is the most important in your life is you. You need to take care of your own health first in order to take care of others so focus on getting stronger, healthier, and fitter and don’t worry about what others think or say. Your body is the only place on earth you can never leave so be sure to treat it well.