This article is an excerpt from the new third edition of Thinner Leaner Stronger, my bestselling fitness book for women.
If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.
Nine of ten people you see in the gym don’t train correctly.
I could write an entire chapter cataloguing their mistakes, but here are some of the more common ones:
- They spend too much time on the wrong exercises.
- They undertrain and overtrain various muscle groups.
- They use poor form, especially on the more technical exercises.
- They use too light or too heavy weights.
- They rest too little or too much in between sets.
In fact, what most people do in the gym doesn’t even qualify as training but is merely exercise.
What’s the difference?
Well, exercise is physical activity done for its own sake—to burn calories or improve energy levels or mood—whereas training is a systematic method of exercising done to achieve a specific, longer-term goal, like increased strength, muscle definition, or athleticism.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with exercise (it beats sitting on your keister), but only training can give you the type of lean, toned physique that most women really want.
Exercise can make you healthier, but it guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss or muscle gain, the two biggest physiological levers you need to know how to work to build the body of your dreams.
Unfortunately, most gymgoers don’t understand this, and that’s why days, weeks, months, and even years can go by with them doing the same old exercises, lifting the same old weights, and looking at the same old bodies.
In the last chapter, you learned why so many women struggle to lose fat, and in this chapter, you’re going to learn why building lean muscle is far more difficult for most women than it should be.
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Let’s get to it, starting with myth number one.
“You Can ‘Tone,’ ‘Shape,’ and ‘Sculpt’ Your Muscles”
Tone those arms!
Shape that butt!
Sculpt those abs!
It sounds so nice and feminine. Nothing like the brutish gym talk about “gaining size” or “adding mass.”
Phrases like these make for snazzy marketing, but they’re often used to sell nonsense.
You can’t “lengthen” and “tighten” your muscles, fundamentally change how they’re shaped, or selectively strip fat away so they look more defined.
You can, however, add muscle to your frame and remove body fat. Nothing more or less. If you do that right, you get the right amount of muscle definition, curves, and lines in all the right places.
The claims that certain forms of exercise produce “long, lean” muscles, like a dancer’s body, while others produce “bulky, ugly” muscles, like a bodybuilder’s, are bogus.
Whether you do Pilates, yoga, or heavy weightlifting to strengthen and build your muscles, their shape will come out the same. The only difference is the rate at which they will grow.
What this means is that while you can absolutely have a great butt, shapely legs, and sexy arms, you can’t necessarily have the same butt, legs, or arms as your favorite model or celebrity because their muscles are structurally different from yours. Who knows though, maybe you’ll like yours even more!
The exercise advice generally given for “toning,” “sculpting,” and “shaping” is also hogwash.
The key, so many women are told, is a lot of high-repetition, low-weight resistance training. This is about as wrong as can be because you should do the exact opposite if you want a toned, defined body as quickly as possible—a lot of lower-repetition, higher-weight resistance training.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “won’t that make me ‘bulky’?”
Yeah, about that . . .
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“Heavy Weightlifting Makes Women ‘Bulky’”
If there’s one mainstream misconception that causes more harm to women’s physiques than any other, it’s this one.
At first glance, it sounds plausible. Heavy weights are for the boys who want bulging biceps, right? Why would women, who want sexy, defined, feminine muscles, train in the same way?
Apparent proof of this myth can be found at any local CrossFit gym, where you’ll see at least a few women with figures that would make an NFL linebacker jealous.
Here’s what you don’t see, however: it’s very hard for women to build a big, bulky body. It doesn’t happen by accident or overnight. It takes elite muscle-building genetics and years of concerted effort in the gym and kitchen. Anabolic steroids are often involved as well, and especially in the case of professional athletes.
That said, there are still enough women in gyms everywhere who hit the weights regularly and look “bulky” enough to give you pause. And that’s why you need to know what really gives women that look: too much body fat.
Harsh, I know, but let me explain.
Take an athletic woman with an enviable body. You know, toned legs, curvy butt, tight arms, and flat stomach. Now add 15 pounds of fat to her frame, and you might be surprised how “blocky” she looks.
This is because fat accumulates inside and on top of muscle, and the more fat and muscle you have, the larger and more amorphous your body looks. Your legs turn into logs. Your butt gets too big for your britches. Your arms fill up like sausages.
Reduce your body fat levels, however, and everything changes. The muscle you’ve built is able to shine. Instead of looking large and fluffy, you look lean and toned. Your butt becomes round and perky. Your legs have sleek curves. Your arms look cut.
Thus, a rule of thumb for women who want to be lean, toned, and defined: the more muscle you have, the less body fat you must have to avoid looking bulky.
For example, a woman with little muscle might feel scrawny at 18 percent body fat—the percentage of body weight that is fat—and comfortable at 25 percent, whereas a woman with a significant amount of muscle will probably love how she looks at 18 percent but feel a bit roly-poly at 25 percent.
This is why most women I’ve worked with are happiest when they’ve gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and dropped their body fat percentage to about 20 percent.
If you’re not sure what that looks like, think Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Want to see what different body fat percentages look like? Go to
My observation about most fitness-minded women’s preferred look has been borne out in scientific research as well.
In a study conducted by female scientists at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, pictures were gathered of scantily clad “fitspiration” women from Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr with varying degrees of muscularity and thinness.
Then, the researchers digitally modified the pictures to make the women look even thinner but less toned and defined.
Next, they showed both the original and modified pictures to a group of 30 female undergraduate students and asked them to rate the women in terms of muscularity, thinness, and attractiveness.
65 percent of the women surveyed thought the fitter (unmodified) women looked more attractive than the thinner but less athletic (modified) women.
In the same study, the scientists did an analysis of the last 15 winners of the Miss USA beauty pageant. They found that the winners in 2013 were about 10 percent more muscular and 20 percent leaner than the winners in 1999.
In the final analysis, the researchers concluded that “although they [women] continue to find a thin female figure to be attractive, they prefer the appearance of a thin and toned female body.”
All that isn’t to say that you can’t be attractive if you aren’t sporting an extra 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, of course, but it does indicate that most women nowadays think this will make you look better, not worse.
“Heavy Weightlifting Is Dangerous”
Many people think weightlifting, especially heavy weightlifting, is inherently dangerous, and I understand why.
When you compare deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing large amounts of weight to other forms of exercise, like jogging, cycling, or calisthenics, weightlifting looks more like a death wish than a discipline.
Poke around on internet forums and you’ll find plenty to feed your anxiety. Personal stories range from the tame—mild joint and muscle aches and the like—to the downright horrific, with some long-time bodybuilders so incapacitated that they can’t even tie their shoes until the ibuprofen kicks in.
And so weightlifting, and strength training in particular, has been saddled with a bum rap for decades now. Thankfully, the tides are turning and strength training is gaining more and more mainstream popularity, but many people still think that its dangers far exceed the benefits.
While weightlifting does have its risks, they’re not nearly as bad as many people think. Ironically, research shows that when done properly, it’s actually one of the safest kinds of athletic activities you can do.
For instance, in one review of 20 studies conducted by scientists at Bond University, it was found that bodybuilding produced an average of just one injury for every 1,000 hours of training.
To put that in perspective, if you spend five hours per week weightlifting, you could go almost four years without experiencing any kind of injury whatsoever.
Researchers also noted that most of the injuries tended to be minor aches and pains that didn’t require any type of special treatment or recovery protocols. In most cases, a bit of extra R & R won the day.
As you’d expect, more intense and technical types of weightlifting, like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, result in more injuries, but fewer than you might think. These activities produced just two to four injuries per 1,000 hours of training.
For comparison, studies show that sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of pavement pounding.
In other words, you’re about 6 to 10 times more likely to get hurt playing everyday sports than hitting the gym for some heavy weightlifting.
The payoff for weightlifting is also tremendous. It delivers a number of health and fitness benefits that you simply can’t get from other types of sports and exercise.
Here’s a short list of what a well-designed weightlifting routine can do for you:
- Stronger, healthier joints
- More muscle mass
- Better heart health
- Improved brain health
- Greater longevity and quality of life
- More bone density
- Lower risk of fracture
- Faster metabolism
- Improved flexibility
When you compare all that to the rather negligible risk of injury, and the generally mild nature of the injuries that do occur, the choice is clear: choosing to lift weights is far better than choosing not to out of fear of getting hurt.
If you’re adamant about experiencing no physical injuries whatsoever, then your only surefire option is to never leave your bed (and even then you’ll have to contend with bedsores!). Remember that every time you step into your car, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or, heck, type on a computer, you’re flirting with one kind of injury or another.
Dealing with risk is just part of life. All we can do is weigh the probabilities and potential upsides and downsides, make choices that are most likely to play out in our favor over time, and do everything we can to create positive outcomes.
“Women Can’t Gain Much Muscle”
You may have heard that women don’t have the physiology to gain muscle effectively, and that they should stick to Zumba and stretching instead.
A reason commonly cited for this is the well-known (and immediately obvious) fact that women produce a lot less testosterone than men—about 15 to 20 times less, to be exact.
Testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth, so it’s fair to assume that a body with very little testosterone flowing through its veins won’t be able to build much muscle, right?
While women’s low testosterone does put them at a hormonal disadvantage for gaining muscle, testosterone isn’t the only hormone heavily involved in muscle building.
Another major player is estrogen, which women produce much more of than men, and which provides several muscle-building benefits, including stimulating growth hormone production, which significantly aids in postworkout recovery, and preventing muscle breakdown.
Women also produce more growth hormone throughout the day than men, which further helps with muscle gain.
This is why research shows that women can gain muscle more or less as effectively as men, and why many elite female athletes have about 85 percent as much muscle as their male counterparts.
Why, then, do you rarely see women who are anywhere near as jacked as many guys?
Because women start out with about half as much total muscle as men and can’t gain as much whole-body muscle, thanks mainly to differences in hormones and anatomy.
In other words, it isn’t so much that we men have far superior muscle-building machinery as it is we have a huge head start.
“If You Do the Same Exercises Too Often, You’ll Get Stuck in a Rut”
How many times have you heard that you need to constantly change your workout routine to continue making progress?
That you have to “confuse” and “shock” your muscles into growth by regularly subjecting them to new exercises and workouts?
This sounds sensible. If we want to improve something, whether a skill or a muscle, we have to continually push the envelope and challenge ourselves in new ways, right? And what better way to challenge our muscles than subject them to new types of physical demands again and again?
While it’s true that doing the exact same workouts every week will eventually result in stagnation, the “muscle confusion” theory misses the forest for the trees.
Your muscles have no cognitive abilities. They’re not trying to guess what workout you’re going to do today and can’t be “confused” by fancy workout programming. Muscle tissue is purely mechanical. It can contract and relax. Nothing more.
That said, there’s validity to the basic premise that for your muscles to keep growing in both size and strength, they must be continually challenged. Where muscle confusion goes astray, however, is with the type of challenge it emphasizes.
You can change up your workout routine every week—heck, every day—and hit a plateau because “change” doesn’t stimulate muscle growth.
Progressive overload does, and more so than any other single training factor.
Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and the most effective way to do this is by progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting.
In other words, the key to gaining muscle and strength isn’t merely changing the types of stimuli your muscles are exposed to—it’s making your muscles work harder. And this is exactly what you do when you force your muscles to handle heavier and heavier weights.
This is why your number one goal as a weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength over time, and why that is one of the primary goals of my Thinner Leaner Stronger program.
“You Must Use Bands, Machines, and Other Contraptions”
You’ve just learned a major part of my plan for you: I want to make you as strong as possible.
To do that, I’m going to have you train very differently from most of the women—and men, for that matter—in the gym.
Instead of telling you to work with big rubber bands, superset every machine in the gym, or play around with the Bosu ball or other toys, I’m going to have you focus on just a few basic things:
Not only that, but I’m going to have you spend most of your time in the gym with a barbell or pair of dumbbells in your hands, because free weights give you the most muscle-building bang for your buck.
Some people would disagree with that statement, pointing to studies that have shown that machines and free weights are equally effective for gaining muscle and strength.
You can’t take such research at face value. You have to look deeper to get the whole picture.
For instance, in almost all cases, the subjects in these studies—at least all the ones I’ve seen—are untrained individuals, meaning they’re brand new to resistance training.
This is important because your body and muscles are hyperresponsive to resistance training in the beginning. This “newbie gains” or “honeymoon” phase generally lasts three to six months in most people, which means that for a little while, you can do just about anything in the gym and see progress and results.
Once that mojo runs out, however, it’s gone forever, and what has been working can suddenly stop producing any change whatsoever.
Furthermore, a number of studies have demonstrated that free weights are superior to machines for gaining muscle and strength. For example:
- In a study conducted by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan, the free weight squat produced 43 percent more leg muscle activation than the Smith machine squat.
- In a study conducted by scientists at California State University, the free weight bench press produced 50 percent more shoulder muscle activation than the Smith machine bench press.
- In a study conducted by scientists at Duke University Medical Center, the free weight squat produced 20 to 60 percent more quadriceps activation and 90 to 225 percent more hamstring activation than the leg press.
Anecdotal evidence agrees here as well.
For decades now, the most successful bodybuilders have almost always emphasized free weights over machines, and I’ll bet that the strongest people in your gym do the same.
“You Should Spend Most of Your Time on Isolation Exercises”
If you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, it’s not enough to just do any type of free weight exercises.
You have to do the right free weight exercises, and for our purposes, the best ones we can do are known as compound exercises.
A compound exercise involves multiple joints and muscles. For example, the squat involves moving the knees, ankles, and hips and requires a whole-body coordinated effort, with the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes bearing the brunt of the load.
On the other hand, an exercise like the Nordic hamstring curl involves moving the knees and focuses on strengthening the hamstrings and glutes.
That’s why the Nordic hamstring curl isn’t considered a compound exercise. It’s an isolation exercise, which involves just one joint and a limited number of muscles.
The biceps curl is another example of an isolation exercise because the only joint involved is the elbow, and the biceps muscles do more or less all the work.
One of the biggest fitness mistakes people make is underestimating the importance of compound exercises. They deserve a lot of your time and effort for several reasons:
1. They train many muscles at once.
The more muscles you can effectively train in a given exercise, the more muscle you can gain as a result.
This also makes for more time efficiency. One compound exercise can do the work of several isolation exercises.
2. They allow you to lift heavier weights.
The best compound exercises put dozens of muscles and multiple joints through large ranges of motion. Consequently, they enable you to move more weight than isolation exercises and thus better progressively overload your muscles. This means faster muscle growth.
3. They significantly raise testosterone and growth hormone levels.
The magnitude of postworkout elevations in anabolic hormones is influenced by the total amount of muscle involved in the workout. This is why research shows that compound exercises produce larger increases in both testosterone and growth hormone than isolation exercises.
These effects don’t influence muscle gain as much as some people would have you believe, but they do have other benefits as well.
I attribute much of my success with my physique to the fact that, after learning about the power of compound exercises, I’ve made them 70 to 80 percent of the work I do in the gym. And I’m going to have you do the same.
“Progressive Overload Isn’t That Important”
If I could go back in time and share just one bit of workout advice with 17-year-old me, it would be this: whatever you do, make sure you progressively overload your muscles.
And I would have gotten bigger muscles a lot faster (*single tear*).
We recall that progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and that it’s the primary mechanical driver of muscle growth.
This sounds simple enough, but how do you actually accomplish it?
Most people don’t. Instead, they go through more or less the same motions for weeks and months on end and wonder why they have so little to show for it.
You must do three things if you don’t want to be one of these people:
- Follow a proven progression model.
- Track your workouts.
- Adjust your diet and training as needed.
And later in this book, you’re going to learn how to do each of these things correctly, and when you start Thinner Leaner Stronger, you’re going to experience their transformative power firsthand.
“You Don’t Need to Eat a Lot of Protein”
I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a woman not into working out who ate a high-protein diet. Heck, many women I meet who are into working out don’t eat a high-protein diet.
As muscle tissue is made mostly of protein, it’s no surprise that scores of studies have shown that a high-protein diet is better for gaining muscle and strength than a low-protein one.
For example, research conducted by scientists at McMaster University, the Nestlé Research Centre, and Kent State University found that women need to eat at least 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to maximize muscle gain.
To put that in perspective, that’s 70 to 100 grams of protein per day for a 120-pound woman, which, in my experience, is far more than most 120-pound women eat. I haven’t seen any research on the matter, but anecdotally speaking, I’d guess the average woman eats just 30 to 50 grams of protein per day.
Thus, it’s no surprise that so many women struggle to develop strong, defined muscles despite regular resistance training. In fact, a number of women I’ve worked with saw immediate improvements in muscle tone by simply increasing protein intake.
“You Have to Do Cardio to Have a Great Physique”
You’ve probably heard that you must sacrifice inordinate amounts of time to the treadmill or StairMaster to look good.
Allow me to disabuse you of such nonsense.
When it comes to improving your body composition (how much muscle and fat you have on your bones), cardio is a double-edged sword.
It burns energy and thus contributes to your fat loss efforts, but it can burn up muscle too. This detracts from your ultimate goal of building a lean, toned physique, because that requires gaining a fair amount of muscle.
Furthermore, if you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, then you want to limit your cardio for two reasons:
- In the short term, cardio can interfere with strength and muscle gain by making you more generally fatigued, which makes it harder to progress in your weightlifting workouts.
- In the long term, cardio can interfere with strength and muscle gain by disrupting cell signaling related to muscle growth.
That doesn’t mean you should completely shun cardio, though.
It does have significant health benefits—some of which you don’t get from resistance training—and it can help you burn more energy, which means faster fat loss and easier weight maintenance.
You just need to know how to do cardio correctly. More on that soon.
You’ve just learned some of the most important lessons about how to effectively gain muscle and strength: free weights, compound exercises, and progressive overload are at least half the game.
You’ve also learned the biggest reasons why so many women wallow in muscle-building misery: they waste too much time with the Barbie weights and oversized rubber bands and spend too many hours on the treadmills.
Later in this book, you’re going to learn how to turn all this newfound knowledge into a simple, practical system for transforming your body, but first, let’s return to fat loss and learn exactly how to do it right.
- Exercise can make you healthier, but it guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss or muscle gain, the two biggest physiological levers you need to know how to work to build the body of your dreams.
- You can’t “lengthen” and “tighten” your muscles, fundamentally change how they’re shaped, or selectively strip fat away so they look more defined.
- You can add muscle to your frame and remove body fat—nothing more or less.
- The claims that certain forms of exercise produce “long, lean” muscles, like a dancer’s body, while others produce “bulky, ugly” muscles, like a bodybuilder’s, are bogus.
- It’s very hard for women to build a big, bulky body. The real reason some women look “bulky” is they’re carrying too much body fat.
- The more muscle you have, the less body fat you must have to avoid looking bulky.
- Most women I’ve worked with are happiest when they’ve gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and dropped their body fat percentage to about 20 percent.
- When done properly, weightlifting is one of the safest kinds of athletic activities you can do.
- Weightlifting delivers a number of health and fitness benefits that you simply can’t get from other types of sports and exercise.
- Women can build muscle more or less as effectively as men due in part to higher levels of estrogen and growth hormone, which promote muscle growth.
- Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and the most effective way to do this is by progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting.
- The key to gaining muscle and strength isn’t merely changing the types of stimuli your muscles are exposed to—it’s making your muscles work harder.
- Your number one goal as a weightlifter should be to increase your whole-body strength over time.
- Free weights give you the most muscle-building bang for your buck—far more than machines, bands, and other contraptions in the gym.
- Compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises for gaining muscle and strength because they train many muscles at once, allow you to lift heavier weights, and significantly raise testosterone and growth hormone levels.
- As muscle tissue is made mostly of protein, it’s no surprise that a high-protein diet is better for gaining muscle and strength than a low-protein one.
- Women need to eat around 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to maximize muscle gain.
- If you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, then you want to limit your cardio because it can interfere with strength and muscle gain by making you more generally fatigued and disrupting cell signaling related to muscle growth.
- Cardio does have significant health benefits—some of which you don’t get from resistance training—and it can help you burn more energy, which means faster fat loss and easier weight maintenance.
This article is an excerpt from the new third edition of Thinner Leaner Stronger, my bestselling fitness book for women, which is currently on sale for just 99 cents.