If you’re like most women, you want a very specific type of body.
You want to be lean but not too skinny (and most definitely not “skinny fat“).
You want a toned upper body but don’t want to look like a “bulky” weightlifter.
You want a flat, defined stomach.
You want tight, shapely legs, and last but most definitely not least…
You want that perfect, gravity-defying butt.
Well, you–yes, lil’ ol’ you–can have all these things.
You don’t need top-shelf genetics or a lifetime of training to look like a million bucks.
You have to know what you’re doing, though.
Forget what the fitness magazines have told you–you don’t become a “goddess” through starving yourself and doing an unconscionable amount of cardio.
Instead, you need to take a completely different approach. And believe it or not, a much healthier, more enjoyable, and sustainable one.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn exactly what that approach is and how to build the body of your dreams.
If that gets your attention, then you’ll want to listen this episode, because we’re going to start with what you most definitely shouldn’t be doing…
Would you rather read about the ultimate fitness plan for women? Then check out this article!
4:29 – What’s the worst fitness plan for women?
9:54 – How much muscle should you gain?
11:37 – How do you do get to where you want to be?
12:06 – Doesn’t heavy weightlifting make women bulky?
17:48 – How much cardio should you do?
23:47 – Do I have to starve myself?
28:36 – What’s an action plan to put these strategies into place?
[00:00:22] Hey, Mike Matthews here from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics, and welcome to yet another episode of the Muscle For Life podcast. Now, if you are a woman and you are like most women, you probably want a very specific type of body. You want to be lean but not too skinny. And you definitely want to be skinny fat.
You want a toned upper body, but you don’t want to look like a bulky weightlifter. You probably want a flat defined stomach. And you want tight, shapely legs. And of course, last, but most definitely not least, you want that perfect gravity-defying butt. And I have good news, because you, yes, little you, you can have all of those things. Most definitely, absolutely. You do not need top-shelf genetics.
You do not need a lifetime of training. And you do not need to live in the gym to look like a million bucks. You do have to know what you are doing, though. That means that you have to forget a lot of what the fitness magazines have told you that you have to do. You do not become a goddess through starving yourself and doing an unconscionable amount of cardio.
Instead, you need to take a completely different approach to your fitness. And believe it or not, a much healthier and more enjoyable and sustainable approach. In this podcast, you’re going to learn exactly what that approach is and how to use it to build the body of your dreams.
[00:04:21] All right, so let’s start our discussion with what you definitely should not be doing. Let’s start with the absolute worst fitness plan for women. Now, really, what this comes down to is just the bulk of the mainstream fitness advice for women, which is guaranteed to really just make you skinny fat. So here’s what I’m talking about.
One thing is eating very little food, starvation dieting, and very little protein and carbs in particular. The second point would be to develop a clean eating monomania, obsessing over eating only “clean foods”, which, of course, change depending on who you’re listening to. Third point would be doing an excessive amount of cardio, one to two hours per day.
A fourth point would be very little weightlifting. And if you’re going to do any weight lifting or resistance training, make sure it’s not heavy. And the fifth and final point would be very long workouts, you know, two plus hours in the gym, six or seven days per week. All that probably sounds familiar.
And what do you get when you subject yourself to this prescription? You get misery. You’re tired all the time. You’re hungry all the time. You are dreading your workouts. You are daydreaming centrally about bingeing on carbs, and you are simply counting the days until you can finally live again. It sucks.
[00:05:57] And I’ve done the male version of that. It’s not quite the same. The male version sucks as well. But I have worked one on one with many, many women who have gone through that and it is no fun and that’s not all that talks about it. Even worse is what happens to your physique.
As I mentioned earlier, it is a one way street to skinny fat. Now, if you do all that, you lose weight. Of course, you starve yourself to a bunch of exercise, you’re going to lose weight. But you’re also going to lose a considerable amount of muscle. And the more muscle that you lose, the worse your body will begin to look even at a low body fat percentage. You see, what most women don’t know is just how different low body fat levels can look with and without good muscle development.
[00:06:52] Many, many women who I have spoken with and worked with over the years have been shocked to learn the body weight of some of the women whose bodies they admired the most, their dream bodies. And the reason is body composition. The women with the model physiques often had quite a bit more muscle than the average woman.
For example, the type of body that – again, this is me speaking on behalf of all the women I’ve worked with – the type of body that most of them want requires 10 to 15 pounds more muscle than the average woman has, as well as 5 to maybe 8 percent less body fat. So in the end, what that comes down to is 10 to 15 pounds more muscle than the average woman at about 18 to 20 percent body fat.
[00:07:49] And the reason why muscle is so important is: muscle is what gives you curves and shape and tone and definition when you’re lean. You need to have both of those together. If you are just lean, but you don’t have adequate muscle, the best you can really hope for is maybe best described as scrawny.
And you can find plenty of examples of this in the bikini competitor space. You may not want to look like some of those women, but if you look at transformations, and there are a lot of them on the Internet, you will inevitably find some where women have gone from – I would say normal, you know, higher body fat, not bad, just normal to super fit and end up weighing the same.
[00:08:44] So I remember one in particular, this was a two, two and a half year transformation where a woman went from a normal, you know, maybe 25 percent body fat, a little bit of muscle tone, very normal looking woman to, you know, super fit, and weighed exactly the same before and after. Weight had not changed at all. What had changed, though, is body composition.
She stripped away quite a bit of fat and added quite a bit of muscle in the right places and had a completely new body. And that is the transformative power of improving your body composition and really focusing on that, as opposed to obsessing over losing weight, or reaching an ideal weight, or just maintaining a body weight.
And when you do that, when you reframe your goals in terms of losing fat and gaining muscle, you open the door to real progress because that is how you build a killer physique. That’s how you build that fantastic body.
[00:09:51] So the question for most women, unless you are a woman who is naturally very muscular, the question isn’t if you should gain muscle, it’s just how much you should gain. So as I mentioned earlier, most women need to gain 10 to 15 pounds of muscle. And in the right places, of course.
Women – at least most women – are more concerned with their lower body development than their upper body and don’t want as much upper body development as guys, for example. Most guys, on the other hand, are going to have to work a lot harder to get the upper bodies they want than the lower bodies.
Most guys can be happy with their lower body development in the first year to, let’s say, year and a half, maybe two years of training, yet very unhappy with their upper body. And it could take another one and a half, two, or even three years for them to have the upper bodies they want. Whereas with most women, they are pretty happy, usually with their upper bodies within the first year to year and a half.
But depending on how fit they want to be and really how much muscle you need to gain in the lower bodies, it may take anywhere from two to three to four years to ultimately have the whole package that they want. And then there’s body fat as well. And again, most women that I’ve worked with are happiest around 18 to 20 percent. Some do like to get a bit leaner, but usually find that it isn’t enjoyable or sustainable year round, it’s usually a summer thing to look good at the beach.
[00:11:28] So now that we have dispelled a few myths and at least located true North, the next question is: how do you get to where you want to be? What should you do to get moving in that right direction? And it’s pretty simple. Well, you have to do is lift a lotta heavy weights. Don’t do too much cardio. Use a moderately aggressive calorie deficit to lose fat, if and when you need to lose fat. And balance your macros properly. So let’s take a closer look at each of those points.
[00:12:04] Let’s start with the top: heavy weightlifting. Now, of course, many women, when they hear that, they think, “well, doesn’t heavy weight lifting make women bulky?” And if you’re thinking that right now, I do understand. I have spoken with many, many women who were afraid of any sort of serious weightlifting because they thought it would turn them into an NFL linebacker.
And the good news is: it does not work like that. It doesn’t even remotely work like that. In fact, if there’s one lie that prevents women from getting the bodies that they really want more than any other, it is this one. It is the claim that heavy weight lifting makes them bulky.
[00:12:48] Now, I understand that the idea seems plausible at first blush, because us boys, we train with heavy weights because we want those big bulging hulk-like muscles. Right? So why would women who want the longer, leaner, more toned muscles do the same thing as us guys?
And CrossFit also has not helped this either, because many women think that what they see in the CrossFit space, especially among the competitive females, they think that that’s representative of what heavy weightlifting does to the body in all cases for everyone. And I understand.
There are definitely some super jacked women in the CrossFit world who make many other women swear on their children to never ever do a heavy squat, deadlift, or bench press in their lives. You know, they think, “whatever I’m going to do, I do not want to look like that.” And so if you ever had that thought, I have good news. And that is: it is much, much harder to look like that than you probably know.
You don’t hit the gym every day and wake up one morning looking in the mirror and then scream in horror as you have bulging biceps and veins everywhere and so forth. It takes the right genetics, it takes many, many years of training and eating, and in many cases it also takes steroids.
And so the reality is: you probably couldn’t look like some of those women who you might be thinking about, even if you tried. Even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t even do it. You probably don’t have the genetics for it or the time or inclination to live in the gym and eat tons of food and really just make your life revolve around getting as big and strong as possible.
[00:14:56] Now, that said, there still are many women in many gyms who are pretty into weightlifting, who don’t look super jacked necessarily, but are big or bulky or blocky enough to give you pause. And here’s what you need to know about that. Heavy weight lifting is not what is making them bulky. That’s not what could ever make you bulky. Being too fat is what makes them look bulky. That’s the only way that you could look too bulky. And I know that might sound a little bit harsh. But let me explain.
[00:15:37] So if you took a super fit fitness model woman who is on the cover of magazines and who has fantastic muscle definition where she looks muscular but also lean, defined, toned, not bulky. If you took her and just added 10 to 15 pounds of fat on her body, you just had her overeat for a bit until she had gained 10 to 15 pounds of fat, she would look very different.
Her legs would lose those sleek lines. Her core would bulge and grow. Her arms would fill out like sausages. And the reason for that is very simple: when you gain fat, the majority of it accumulates inside and on top of your muscles. So the more you have of both, the more you have of both muscle and fat, the larger and more formless your entire body begins to look. Therefore, a simple rule of thumb for women who want to be lean, toned, and defined is: the more muscle you have, the leaner you have to be to avoid looking bulky.
[00:16:57] For example, a woman with very little muscle might feel rawboned at 18 percent body fat and comfortable at 25 percent, whereas a woman with a bit more muscle than average – 10 pounds, let’s say – would probably love how she looks at 18 percent body fat, but feel downright huge at 25 percent.
And this is why I’ve mentioned that many of the women who I have spoken with and worked with seem to be happiest after gaining 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and dropping their body fat percentage down to about 18 to 20 percent. The muscle gives the shape. And the relatively low level of body fat really lets it shine, that brings out the definition.
[00:19:18] Ok, now let’s talk about cardio. So let’s be honest here, how many marathon runners do you see with enviable bodies? Probably not many. Of course, there are outliers, but on the whole, people who do a lot of endurance training tend to look rather unimpressive. And this is simply a direct result of how they exercise.
And it also shows you exactly what you do not want to do in your workouts. So if you have thought that you had to just sacrifice your life to the treadmill or the StairMaster to look great, you’re wrong. And it’s good to be wrong in this case. You do not have to. Unfortunately, most women don’t know this. They think that cardio is the key to losing weight and getting and staying fit.
[00:20:14] Ironically, research actually shows that doing cardio guarantees little in the way of weight loss, even when you do quite a bit. And studies have found that many people actually just wind up fatter as a result of starting an exercise routine. Mainly by negating cardio’s already meager weight loss benefits by accidentally and unconsciously eating too much or reducing other forms of physical activity.
So, of course, we’re getting back to the importance of energy balance here, which is the primary factor that governs body weight and body fatness, and if you are not familiar with it, you can read about it over at Muscle For Life, if you search for “energy balance” or find an episode, I believe I recorded an episode of this podcast on energy balance as well.
So you can just pull up the list of all the episodes and search for “energy balance”, I think I did do that. So anyway, this is why there are so many overweight people in gyms everywhere who slave away week after week after week on the cardio machines, baffled as to why they’re not losing weight. Doing a lot of cardio also has another downside. It can result in a fair amount of muscle loss. And as you now know, this only makes it harder to get the type of body that you really want.
[00:21:40] So what should you do? Am I saying that you should just forget cardio altogether? Some people would say, yeah, that you should only use resistance training and ideally weightlifting and ideally compound weightlifting and proper calorie restriction to lose fat. And while I think that is better advice than going the other way, where all you do is cardio and no resistance training, I disagree that cardio should be completely shunned.
When done properly, I do think cardio is worthwhile because it can burn quite a bit of energy, and it can appreciably speed up fat loss, and especially when you combine it with weightlifting. That has been demonstrated in a number of studies. And it also can provide some health benefits that you can’t necessarily get from weightlifting, primarily cardiovascular benefits.
And so I tell people that assuming they’re like most people and they have three to five hours per week to give to exercise, I prefer that they spend about 80 percent of that time training their muscles with some form of resistance training. Weightlifting, of course, is my go to and what I recommend most highly. And then allot the remaining 20 percent of the time to cardio if they are going to do cardio at all.
And if they’re not going to do cardio, that is okay. If they are still getting in the few hours of resistance training each week. That does provide tremendous health benefits and dramatically improves body composition, which also then provides additional health benefits. So you don’t have to feel bad if you are not doing cardio.
[00:23:24] My general recommendation on cardio is to do as little as you need to do to accomplish your goals. And if one of your goals is to maximize your overall health and well-being, then including some cardio in your routine is a good idea. Doesn’t have to be a lot, though. I myself do 1 to 1.5 Hours of cardio per week and it’s biking. And it’s on an upright bike down in the exercise room in my basement. Nothing fancy.
[00:23:52] Now, if you are trying to lose fat, I should mention that the most effective form of cardio you can do for fat loss is high intensity interval training, which you can learn about over at Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics. Really, I’ve written articles on both of those websites. If you just search for “HIIT“, I believe I have also recorded one or two podcasts on it as well.
[00:24:13] Now if you don’t want to do HIIT as it’s generally called or you can’t for whatever reason, then you can do standard lower intensity, steady state cardio, or you can really go in the opposite direction of HIIT and go with walking actually. If you can fit in several hours of walking per week, you can burn quite a bit of energy without putting any real stress on your body, which is great when you are training hard in the gym.
Walking isn’t going to beat up your joints like running can. It isn’t going to place extra strain on the nervous system like HIIT can. It’s a great alternative. And if you want to learn more about walking in the context of weight loss and just general health, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “easiest cardio” and you’ll find an article that I wrote on it called – I think it’s called like, “The Easiest Cardio You Can Do”, “The Easiest Form of Cardio You Can Do”, or something like that, and I believe I also record a podcast on it.
[00:25:16] Okay, so let’s move on now to the mistake of starvation dieting. So imagine for a minute: you have the lean, sexy body that you want and you maintain it by eating foods that you like every day, including treats that are normally considered off limits. Yes, even ones that contain sugar. You are never feeling starved. You are never feeling deprived. And so you rarely feel the urge to binge or even over eat. You do this every day, every week, every month for the rest of your life, and you live happily ever after. What a great story. Right? The end.
[00:25:59] Okay, I am not a storyteller, but that isn’t a pipe dream. Millions of women and men for that matter, are living that fantasy right now, and you can too. You do not need to develop an eating disorder or a tapeworm to get and stay lean. You can eat more than you probably think and you can enjoy your diet and your lifestyle.
[00:26:31] That said, you do have to follow a few rules. There are a few non-negotiables and they mostly revolve around energy balance and macronutrient balance. So energy balance is the relationship between the amount of calories that you are eating and burning. And macronutrient balance is how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
And so what that means is: if you want to get leaner, you are going to have to eat fewer calories than you are burning, no matter how you get there, no matter what foods you eat, no matter how often you eat, no matter what type of diet you follow, it’s going to have to produce a calorie deficit to produce fat loss.
And if you want to retain as much muscle or gain as much muscle as possible while you are losing fat, you are going to have to eat a fair amount of protein. Once you have those things taped, though, everything else really becomes negotiable. And in many ways, the best diet for you is going to be the one that you can stick to. So long as it stays within some pretty loose boundaries.
[00:27:39] And so let’s use that as a Segway into an action plan of sorts. Now, if you really want to dove into all of this deeper, I recommend that you check out my book for women called Thinner Leaner Stronger, which, by the way, is about to receive a complete overhaul. I have rewritten it from scratch over the last few months and we’ll be releasing what is going to be the third edition.
So if you were to go to Amazon right now on November 15th, 2018, you would find the second edition, which I wrote four years ago, and which is a great book, a lot of good information. But over the last four years, I have learned a lot, I have worked with a lot more people, I have become a better writer, and all of that has culminated in this new upcoming third edition, which I’m pretty proud of, actually.
I’m really happy with how it came together. And I hope that it will come to be known as the best fitness book for women on the market today. And if nothing else, it is the absolute best fitness book for women that I am currently capable of writing. So, again, if you are listening to this sometime around November 15th, 2018, hold off on buying the book. Do not buy what is currently available.
I recommend that you wait for the third edition, which will start rolling out soon. The digitals, the e-book and the audio book are going to be live in the next two to four weeks. And the hard copies will be coming out in January probably. Because we are placing the order with the printer this week or next, and then you have to wait, and then you got to get all the books over to Amazon, and then we’ve got to figure out what we’re gonna do with the remaining second editions and so forth.
But if you like to read digitally, you can get your hands on the e-book and or the audio book soon in the next two to four weeks. If you are on my email list, you, of course, will hear about this. If you are not, I recommend you get on my email list, not just to hear about this, but also to get updates on the other things that I’m up to, the articles I write, the podcast that I record, the products and services that I release, blah, blah, blah. And if you want to get on the email list, just head over to muscleforlife.com and you will see a few places on the website where you can do that.
[00:30:06] However, before we wrap up here, I want to leave you with an action plan of sorts that will allow you to put some of the strategies that we have discussed into play. So here it is.
[00:30:16] The first thing is: I want you to do weightlifting workouts every week for eight weeks. And if you want some sample workouts, you can head over to muscleforlife.com and check out the workouts category of articles and find a bunch of different workouts that I have put up online or search for “ultimate fitness plan for women” and you will find an article that this podcast is based on. And in that article, there is a sample workout routine that you can follow for eight weeks.
[00:30:48] So the second thing is: if you would like to do cardio to lose fat even faster, then I recommend 1.5 to 2 hours of high intensity interval training per week, not more than that. And I recommend that you limit each session to 20 or 30 minutes. Now, if you can’t do that or don’t want to do that, you can do low intensity, or you can simply do some walking.
Now, if you want to learn about all of those things, you can head over to muscleforlife.Com and search for “how much cardio” and you’ll find an article that I wrote on how to determine how much cardio you should do.
[00:31:22] So next on our implementation plan is, now that you know how much exercise you’ll be doing, you need to work out your dietary numbers. You need to figure out how many calories you should be eating every day and how those calories should break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
And to do that, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “macronutrient calculator” and you will find an article that explains macronutrients and why they matter and how it all breaks down, and that provides you with a calculator that allows you to easily figure out approximately how much energy you are burning on an average day, and therefore approximately how much you should be eating and so forth.
[00:32:05] Then, this is step number four in our plan, once you have your dietary numbers, you’re going to have to turn those into a meal plan that you can follow, which is a bit clunky at first if you are not used to it, but becomes very easy, very quickly. And if you want some help with that, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “meal planning” and you will find a long, in-depth article that I wrote that really breaks down everything on how to make meal plans that work.
[00:32:34] Step five: now it’s time to do the work. Now it’s time to show up every day and put in the work.
[00:32:40] And step six is: make sure that you are tracking your progress correctly. Don’t just weigh yourself here and there, or weigh yourself once a week. That is an easy way to miss the forest for the trees, become demotivated, and want to quit. Instead, you want to track a few things to see not just how your weight is changing, but how your body composition is changing.
And to learn about that. Head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “body composition” and you will find an article that wrote that explains what body composition is and how to track it easily and accurately.
[00:33:20] The last step, step seven is the best, and that is: watch your body transform before your very eyes. Take progress pictures every week, take front, back, side pictures, good lighting, in the mornings, after the bathroom, with as little clothing as you are comfortable with.
And in time, as those weekly progress pictures begin to add up in your gallery, start to flip through them, and you might be surprised at how much progress you are actually making compared to your perception of where you’re at just looking at yourself in the mirror every day.
[00:33:56] And that’s it. It’s really that simple. That really is the ultimate fitness plan for women.
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Sawyer BJ, Bhammar DM, Angadi SS, et al. Predictors of fat mass changes in response to aerobic exercise training in women. J strength Cond Res. 2015;29(2):297-304. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000726
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