Pretty much all of the females that come to me for training and/or advice are adamant that they want to ‘tone’ and ‘not get too bulky’.
I think the most important thing to take on board before starting any fitness routine is to understand that muscles don’t ‘tone’. This is really just a phrase that has taken the role of describing an athletic, or healthy look, in females that is more feminine than being too masculine or muscular. Muscle tissue develops from increase and growth of muscle cells. Combine this with a low enough body fat percentage, and you will begin to see the definition that you associate with the ‘toned’ look.
While cardio is a great way to increase TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and overall cardiovascular health, Fat Free Mass (FFM) or lean body mass is a key determinate of resting metabolic rate (RMR). Resting metabolic rate is the number of calories burned while your body is at rest. So to burn more calories overall, we should aim to increase our lean skeletal muscle mass.
It’s completely understandable that women do not want to become too muscular. However, we need to understand that to create that longed for body composition, we need to optimize muscle hypertrophy. This is why hours of cardio and no resistance training is probably not going to get you the aesthetic results you wish for.
Don’t get me wrong, females develop at varying rates, and you will find that some ladies do (naturally!) build muscular physiques more quickly than others. But even with the ‘genetically gifted’ counterparts, I can assure you they have to work incredibly hard in and outside of the gym. Women really shouldn’t fear lifting heavy weights, because aside from the look that they are trying to achieve, there are so many other benefits to enjoy!
While I see no reason why women should train or be treated differently to men in the gym, we do have intuitive instincts and genetic differences that we may actually be able to use to our advantage.
Studies show that when training, women have proportionately larger type 1 muscle fibres than men. Type 1 muscle fibres are more efficient over longer periods of time, meaning women are more resistant to fatigue than men; and can usually cope with higher volume. Our central nervous system may also not respond in the same way as that of a man’s when performing very explosive and heavy weighted exercises (working close to 1RM) in general training circumstances.
With this is mind though, hypertrophy can be achieved throughout various different rep ranges. The traditional 10-12 rep range for bodybuilding is really a misconception. This is great for women, and for those wanting a more varied approach to resistance training.
So does that mean we should stick to high rep workouts? Well, no. While higher rep training and short rest periods will elevate your heart rate, and help you burn calories and fat. Mixing up your approach can be a great way to ensure adherence and enjoyment of a training program.
When coaching my female clients, I combine the principles/examples above with an understanding of our menstrual cycle; but I will also take them through a variety of rep ranges. I don’t believe any approach is mutually exclusive. All rep ranges, whether it be traditional strength, hypertrophy or endurance, all have positive impacts and benefits carried over to training at another rep range.
Please don’t think you have to incorporate the big compound lifts into your sessions either. Though, they are incredibly functional, and recruit more muscle groups than isolated exercises alone. Anabolic hormones (such as testosterone & growth hormones) critical to tissue growth, tend to be elevated after recruiting a larger muscle mass. If you aren’t a fan of performing these big lifts, because you suffer an injury, you lack confidence or you just don’t enjoy doing them, then there are plenty of variations of these lifts; which offer virtually the same benefits.
Most of my clients are juggling a multitude of commitments and emotions when they train. Whatever rep range you use, think about RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort), RIR (Reps in Reserve), and progressive overload. I find RPE and/or RIR a great way to ensure volume and intensity, as it accounts for emotional and psychological factors that may otherwise impair a training session. If you’re having a ‘bad’ day, working towards a perceived rate of effort, or making sure you only have 1-2 lifts left in the tank, means you are pushing yourself in what otherwise might have been a complete write-off! If your training is going really well, you can increase your reps, sets and/or your weight from your previous session.
The take home message: Continually place a demand on your muscles; be mindful about your training; and don’t be afraid to get stuck into what you enjoy.
Read part four of our interval training series here.