Women typically start coaching with our team describing the way they want to looks as:
Fit, athletic, toned, and/or lean.
Most are pretty clear they don’t want “bulk.”
Now in reality, what this translates to is:
“I want to build muscle (in the right areas) and get a bit leaner.”
But if your goal is achieving the above fit, athletic, toned, or lean descriptors, understand that it does usually entail building muscle.
Because really the "bulky" look is typically only caused by one of two things:
1. Someone just still has a bit more body fat than they’d prefer, and that fat is covering their muscle.
2. Someone is truly extremely muscular all over (think: elite crossfitter or professional bodybuilder.) In this case, it's also important to remember that many people that fall into this category are also using performance enhancing drugs - so even if you trained like this person, it's unlikely you'd be able to achieve their level of muscularity.
The thing to understand about the truly "bulky athlete" is that this is that happens intentionally. They have been trying to get exceptionally bulky–for years.
This wasn’t by accident, and will not happen by accident to you either.
To use Jeremiah’s analogy, "Getting too bulky is like getting run over by a turtle you see coming a mile away." You can literally just stop the process at any point.
Another aspect of building muscle to obtain that feminine and athletic look vs. what one might consider too bulky is focusing on building muscle in the right areas.
Typically for women these areas are the shoulders and glutes.
If you build shoulders and glutes, your arms look great and make your waist look smaller, and you'll have curves while looking lean.
So with our online clients, we make sure they have a training plan that’s laid out in a way to emphasize these two muscle groups.
This will prevent them from getting huge lats, traps, and biceps like a World’s Strongest Man competitor, and instead will create a shape more like a bikini competitor or fitness model.
Any time we’re creating a training plan for this type of client we look at how their training will be laid out across the week, and then shift volume around to be sure we’re emphasizing the right muscle groups – in this case shoulders and glutes.
There are many ways to allocate volume over the course of the week, but the most common training split for our clients is a 4 day per week upper/lower split.
In an upper lower split, you can allocate volume fairly evenly for someone who’s new or doesn’t have any particular muscle groups they want to emphasize, or you can have emphasis days throughout the week.
For example, we frequently will structure them like this:
→ UPPER - Balanced
→ LOWER - Balanced
→ UPPER - Shoulder emphasis
→ LOWER - Posterior emphasis
By doing this, you still get plenty of volume on each muscle group. We place an emphasis (more volume) on areas like glutes and shoulders that need more growth. You will still train your quads, lats, traps, etc. as you don’t want to completely "detrain" them.
A sample balanced lower training day might look like this:
a1.) Lengthened overload quad movement (think: a squat or lunge)
b1.) Lengthened overload glute/hamstring movement (think: a romanian deadlift, glute emphasis split squat, or reverse lunge)
c1.) Shortened overload quad movement (think: a leg extension)
d1.) Shortened overload hamstring movement (think: a leg curl)
e1.) Optional added glute, core, or calf movements
Whereas a glute emphasis lower body day might look like this:
a1.) Lengthened overload glute/hamstring movement (think: a romanian deadlift, glute emphasis split squat, glute focused leg press, or reverse lunge)
b1.) Lengthened quad movement that also loads the glutes (think: a split squat, lunge, or leg press)
c1.) Shortened or lengthened glute movement (dependent on recovery ability)
d1.) Shortened overload hamstring movement (think: A leg curl)
e1.) Optional added shortened glute, quad, or core work.
When using one of each of these days (a balanced volume day and a glute emphasis day) you get plenty of volume to keep the quads strong and developed, but more volume on glutes and hamstrings that will create more of a hypertrophy stimulus on those muscles.
The same principle can be used with shoulders.
Although shoulders can be heavily prioritized both days because they are a smaller muscle group that can handle a lot of volume and frequency without taking up too much recovery capacity.
Another way of giving more volume to shoulders and glutes is having a higher number of sets for each of the prioritized muscle groups.
In this case the training day will be somewhat balanced, but you’ll use a higher number of sets for prioritized muscle groups.
Using the balanced training day example above, prioritizing glutes on these days would look like this:
→ Lengthened overload glute/hamstring movement, 4-5 sets
→ Lengthened overload quad movement, 3 sets
→ Shortened overload hamstring movement, 4 sets
→ Shortened overload quad movement, 2-3 sets
→ Optional added glute, core, or calf movements, 2-3 sets
Again the same principle can be applied to the upper body to give priority in volume to shoulders.
*One thing you want to make sure of with both upper and lower body is you’re keeping your priority muscle groups as the first exercise of the day (If you want to grow your delts, doing a shoulder press first thing in the training session is going to allow you to put a lot more effort into that movement vs. doing that same shoulder press later on in the training day when you’re already tired from other pushing and pulling movements.)
The movements you select to grow your glutes and shoulders are just as important as how you structure your training days and weeks.
For each muscle group you want to have some lengthened overload movements and some shortened overload movements so you’re challenging each muscle throughout its strength curve.
Research has shown that you create more hypertrophy stimulus in the lengthened overload movements, but they are the more taxing and damaging movements (so to manage fatigue and still be able to recover you can’t just hammer yourself with lengthened movements.)
Here I’ll go over a few of my preferred movements to program for clients.
Assuming that our client have access to a gym and large variety of equipment, I like programming a bilateral lengthened overload movement that puts the glutes under a big stretch.
The reason I like starting with these is that they are lifts where you can really load up quite a bit of weight. Since they are bilateral, they are a large stimulus and are best as first movements (they are also fairly high fatigue so best to put first.)
Before we dig into the movements, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of glute anatomy (we mostly want to focus on training the glute max, as it's the large muscle of your glutes):
My favorite options are lifts like:
→ Bent Knee Romanian Deadlifts
My first choice for loading is a trap bar since these allow you to use a neutral grip (therefore keep lats tight easier) and keep the weight centered around you.
Secondary choice would be a barbell, but dumbbells are also great for these.
→Hip Dominant Trap Bar Deadlifts
These are very similar to trap bar RDLs, but they’re a “bottom-up” movement instead of a “top-down” movement (Meaning, in an RDL you get to the top, set up, and then initiate, and you finish the set before setting the weights down.)
In a hip dominant deadlift you’re setting the bar to the floor between each rep and initiating from the floor.
These are a bit different from regular trap bar deadlifts because hips are starting in a position where they’re pushed further back and your torso is more leaned forward (creating a larger stretch and stimulus on the glutes.)
→Glute Biased Leg Press
For this leg press variation you place your feet high on the foot plate and use a narrow stance. This sets you up to get the best stimulus on the glutes and minimize the involvement of your quads.
For secondary lengthened overload movement I will usually use a bilateral variation. For these I really like the following movements:
→Glute Dominant Rear Foot Elevated Front Heel Wedge Split Squat
For these you use a long stride and a forward lean with your torso. Because of these changes vs. a standard split squat you put a lot of stretch and emphasis on the glute.
→ Glute Biased Lunge
These are very similar in function to the glute biased split squat because you use a long stride and a forward torso lean to emphasize glutes.
In this movement you’ll descend into the lunge, then on the concentric portion of the lift you press through and drive your working leg back into the next rep (which takes your glute through a really full range of motion.)
Other great variations to add for this secondary unilateral glute biased movement would be a glute focused drop lunge, a reverse lunge variation, or a glute focused step up.
The common theme in all of these movements is an exaggerated forward lean, and the intent of fully lengthening the glute in the bottom of each rep.
After you’ve done one or two lengthened overloaded glute movements you’ll move onto shortened overloaded movements.
These are less fatiguing and less stimulative (so they are great as final movements). These will give a little more volume in a different portion of the strength curve.
These are movements where the hardest part of the rep is at the fully squeezed and locked out position.
Here are my favorite movements for shortened overloaded glutes:
→Barbell Hip Thrusts
These are great because you can load them pretty heavy. At the top of the rep you are directly opposing gravity. Conversely, when you are standing, all tension is lost at the top of the rep (because you are no longer opposing gravity at all).
→ Kas Glute Bridge
For these, you’re basically doing just the top ⅓ of a regular barbell hip thrust. This isolates just the very shortened portion of the glute movement.
→45 Degree Hip Extension
For this movement to be focused on the glutes, you’ll round your back forward and just focus on lengthening and shortening the glutes by pressing your hips into the pad. This way you take the spinal erectors out of the movement for the most part.
→Single Leg or B stance Variations
Any of the above movements can be turned into bilateral movements by using a B stance (staggering one leg in front of the other and using the back leg as more of a “kickstand”), or elevating one leg so only the working leg is planted.
These variations work well if you have limited weight to work with.
For shoulders we want to go through the same thorough process as the glutes.
First, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of your shoulder anatomy:
We want to start out with more taxing compound movements first, and make sure to include a variety of shortened and lengthened overloaded movements.
Here are the larger compound movements in a lengthened (or mid-range) overload position:
→Seated dumbbell shoulder press
These will work your front and medial delts.
For this movement you want to use a very slight incline on your bench and allow your shoulders to come just slightly out in front of your body. This allows for your medial delts to take more of the tension, and takes tension away from the joint.
The traditional shoulder press motion of having your arms directly out to your side and at 90 degrees can cause a lot of jamming on the shoulder joint and actually takes the tension off of the target muscle (so this slight alteration of form makes them more safe and effective).
This movement is a lengthened/mid-range overload movement and is a great one to start off with in the training session because they can be loaded up relatively heavy (in comparison to other shoulder movements).
→ Supported One Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press
These are a unilateral version of the first movement. These are great if you have one side that needs catching up because you can start on the weaker side and match reps on your stronger side.
The thing to watch on these is making sure you’re not trying to “help” the dumbbell up by leaning to one side or letting ribs flare out. You want all the work done by the delts.
After performing the lengthened/mid-range overloaded compound movements above you want to include a variation of lateral raises to focus on growing the medial delts.
These are also a lengthened overload movement, but with the ‘arms flying out’ motion, you can better isolate the medial delt without as much involvement of the front delt.
These lateral raise variations are key to capped shoulders.
Here are a few great variations of lateral raises:
→Dumbbell Lateral Raises
These are a standard standing lateral raise with a dumbbell in each hand.
They are very shortened overload, as the delt has to do more work the further away the dumbbell gets from your body and you’re directly opposing gravity at the top.
To properly set up for these you’ll hinge slightly at the hips and let the arms come out to a slight angle in front of your body.
Think about pushing the weight out not up, and reaching and scraping the dumbbells along the floor/walls.
→ Prone Dumbbell Lateral Raises
These lateral raises are the same basic form as the standing variation, but you are adding stability by lying prone on an incline bench.
This allows you to focus solely on the motion of your arms without the variable of stabilizing the rest of your body.
→ Dumbbell or Cable Y Raise
These are similar to a lateral raise but with arms flying more out in front of you forming a “Y” with your body (Think the “YMCA” dance but with a hip hinge and slight forward torso lean.) This allows an even more shortened delt.
→ Cable Lateral Raise
This is the same form as a dumbbell lateral raise above, but with cables instead of dumbbells.
This means instead of having no tension for the bottom ⅔ of the movement, you get more tension throughout.
All of the above movements put focus on the medial delts, which is the side of your shoulder that gives you the capped shoulder look.
To round out the rest of your delts you want to also make sure you’re doing some direct rear delt movements.
Rear delt movements are basically divided into rows/pulls and flies. You can use cables or dumbbells for each type of movement.
→Rear Delt Pull Downs
These are a variation on an upper back pulldown where instead of pointing your chest up you’re more vertical. You are thinking about taking the rear delt through a full range of motion. Your elbows are flared out just slightly so you’re not tucking them in (as if you’re doing a lat pulldown). You should also not be flaring them way out as if to do an upper back pulldown (they’re sort of a hybrid).
These are a lengthened/mid-range overload movement.
→ Rear delt rows
These will use about a 45 degree flare out of the elbows away from your body, and you think about pulling ‘out and back’ rather than just straight back.
When using cables these are a mid-range overload movement, but with dumbbells they will be a shortened overloaded movement.
→ Rear delt flies
These will be performed with a soft elbow but without bending throughout the motion.
You’re allowing rear delts to fully lengthen at the front of the movement and using the rear delt to pull arms out and back.
These can be done with cables or dumbbells, and just like the rows, when using cables these are a mid-range overload movement. When using dumbbells they will be a shortened overloaded movement.
When growing any muscle group, you need to set yourself up for success in order to see hypertrophy. (These can all be complete blog posts on their own, but I can’t end this without calling out these other tips to growing your delts and glutes.)
1. You’ll see better growth if you spend some time in maintenance or a slight surplus.
You can’t build without giving your body the building materials.
Trying to do this while always being in a calorie deficit is like running uphill against the wind. You’re making it way harder than it needs to be and not putting yourself in the optimal environment for growth.
2. You need to dial in other aspects of your day to day that support growth.
That means hydrating properly, consistently sleeping 7-9 hours a night, managing stress, and training consistently and with intention.
3. You won’t see the progress you want if you’re not working hard enough within each set.
That means pushing yourself to reach 0-2 reps in reserve in almost every set.
Just going until it burns a little or gets uncomfortable isn’t enough. You should be seeing reps slow down toward the end of sets, and you should be having to really grind through the sticking points for the last couple of reps.
Only after going through this process of building can you cut down and actually see the kind of shape you want at the end of it.
If this is something you know and it’s just harder to put into action on your own, click here now to set up a free discovery call with our team.
We have helped hundreds of clients actually get through the mental hurdles of building and cutting to see the shape they have worked so hard for, and just hadn’t quite had the structure to get to on the own.
Andrea Rogers is a certified nutrition coach, personal trainer, and coach for BairFit. Follow her on Instagram for more helpful training & nutrition content.
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