As a woman, the heavy marketing to having the perfect physique, plus all the wrong messaging about how to get there can leave you pretty frustrated by lack of results.
It’s not the effort that’s the issue… you’re working your tail off. It’s just not showing up in the mirror like you want it to.
There are a few mistakes a lot of women make that could be holding you back from looking and feeling the way you want.
As women, we tend to want to do it all, all at once. That can be great in some aspects, but with physique transformation, it doesn’t work out in our favor. When you try to build muscle, lose fat, get stronger, and improve cardio all at once, you’re sending conflicting signals at the cellular level.
This ends up with you not actually making adaptations toward any one aspect despite working really hard. Lack of effort isn’t your issue, it’s distinguishing what to do now, and what isn’t serving you.
The solution for this is to hone in on one thing at a time. This is why we have your training and diet periodized over the course of months and years. There are distinct phases for building muscle, cutting body fat, and maintaining.
→ BUILDING MUSCLE
Once you’re beyond the beginner phase you’re going to need a dedicated building phase to see much muscle growth, so we’ll set up a 3-12 month building phase where your sole focus is to build muscle tissue. From there you can cut to lose any fat you put on in the process and reveal the muscle you’ve built during that time.
Women tend to try to skip over this phase and stay in a deficit but that’s a big mistake that is holding your physique back.
More muscle is going to give your body shape.
Without it, even if you lose quite a bit of body fat you’re going to end up with the same shape you currently have, just smaller. This is what you’ll hear people call a “skinny-fat” physique.
When you see someone who has defined shoulders and arms, toned legs, and shapely glutes, it’s because that person has a relatively low body fat percentage and muscle mass underneath it.
Going through this phase is also setting you up for a productive cut later on.
Giving your body plenty of calories will not only supercharge your energy for training, but you’ll tell your body it’s safe to start to upregulate things like thyroid hormone and sex hormones, decrease hunger hormones like ghrelin, and increase the fat-burning satiety hormone leptin.
These things, along with increasing weight from muscle mass, and increased NEAT mean you’ll be starting your next cut with a higher metabolism.
To set up your building phase:
Find the top end of your maintenance range (the highest amount of calories you can eat while maintaining your weight), then add 100-200 calories and monitor your weight.
You’re looking to add about 1-2 pounds per month in a build. Much more than that and you won’t be adding any more muscle, just more fat.
Training is the other half of the muscle gaining equation. To maximize the amount of weight you’re gaining is coming from muscle tissue, make sure your training is on point. You should be aiming to train with an appropriate amount of volume, and make sure your technique is correct. (For a full breakdown on how to set up your hypertrophy training, check out The Hypertrophy Training Guide.)
→ CUTTING BODY FAT
This is the phase everyone tries to stay in all year round. There are a lot of problems with this approach:
As a general rule, you want to get in, get the fat loss phase done, and get back to maintaining or building.
If you have just a small amount of fat to lose, you could diet for up to 12 weeks or so and return to maintenance.
If you have a larger amount to lose, and losing that weight would make you healthier, you can diet for quite a while before you have a need to get back to maintenance, but it may be psychologically helpful to take a week or two of a diet break every 12-24 weeks.
→ REST BETWEEN SETS
Most women who come to us as coaching clients have been doing circuit training, or instagram swipe workouts with lots of calisthenics, jumping, bodyweight training, and very short rest periods. Those are easy to sell as effective because they burn and feel hard. You’ll end your session tired and sweaty, and it feels like it worked.
When you rest longer between sets, your body regenerates ATP, which is the fuel source you’ll use in the first few reps, or when performing something like a sprint. (This is also part of why creatine can help performance, because creatine is stored as ATP.)
You need about 3 minutes to fully regenerate ATP, but with most hypertrophy training you’re going beyond the typical “strength” reps and also using the glycolytic system (carb-fueled training–hint, hint…it’s helpful to have carbs to work work within this rep range).
For this style of training you’ll need at least a minute or two of rest to put your full effort into your sets – closer to the 2-3 minute end if you’re performing a big compound exercise, and can be closer to the 1-2 minute side if you’re doing isolation work.
If you’ve ever been in a training session and gotten distracted during the rest period making it longer than usual, you can tell when you go back to the next set how much it helps to have that extra recovery time.
This matters a lot, because the closer you can push your muscle toward failure, the more muscle growth you’ll stimulate in that set. We like to have clients push to around 1-3 reps in reserve.
If you aren’t taking adequate rest between sets, the thing that will give out isn’t your target muscle, but the cardiovascular system. That means the target muscle for that exercise never actually gets within an effective RIR.
→ REST DAYS
There’s also the issue of not taking enough rest over the course of the week. If you’re someone who trains 6-7 days per week or takes “active rest days” that are way more active than rest, you may not be recovering enough to make progress.
You need rest days in order to keep your total stress load low enough for health and performance, and to actually recover from the training you’re doing so that you can adapt and become bigger/stronger.
This goes even more for anyone in a deficit. In general, if you are in a deficit (which adds to total stress load) you can make progress with 3-5 training sessions per week. If you are in a surplus and have sleep and stress dialed in, that’s when you may be able to push things to 5-6 days per week. Either way, rest days are important and an overlooked aspect for progressing your physique.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do things that are active on your rest days, but you should keep it to activities that don’t eat into your recovery ability.
Things like leisurely bike rides, walks, housework, playing with kids, gentle yoga, and other activities that would be considered NEAT that you enjoy are still great to incorporate and may even enhance recovery. Just be cautious not to turn every day into a day to push the limits.
Cardio can be a helpful addition to your training when you’re in a fat loss phase to burn a few extra calories a day, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of your training, and you should be careful not to do so much that it takes away from your resistance training performance.
Weight training is used to build your shape, not to burn calories. The pursuit of burning extra calories through training leads to ineffective modalities like mentioned in the section above, and can easily be undone with just a few bites of your favorite high-calorie food.
When weight training is added and you’re building your muscle tissue, it sends a signal for the calories you eat to be used as fuel, and to be stored in the muscle to grow and repair and become stronger. Cardio is a catabolic activity, and your body can much more quickly adapt to it and burn less calories to compensate.
When adding cardio, your body has a lot of mechanisms in place to “make up” for those calories burned.
In this study they showed the amount of exercise (cardio) didn’t correlate to the amount of weight lost you would predict based on the numbers.
That’s in large part to all of the things our bodies do to make sure you don’t starve to death. When you add cardio:
That last one is typically the thing that makes up the biggest difference. When you do a bout of hard cardio, the rest of the day you’ll naturally decrease movement through non exercise activities.
You will tend to walk around less, rest instead of cleaning or playing with the kids, lean or sit more instead of stand. All of those add up over the course of the day and can totally wipe out the calorie deficit created through exercise.
There’s also the psychological side of it where you eat more, or justify eating things you wouldn’t normally, because you went for a run or did a cardio session. When comparing the calorie value of the two, cardio vs. food, you can start to see how easy it is to quickly eat more than you’ve burned.
A cardio session may burn 600 calories an hour if you’re really pushing it. That is equivalent to half a meal out at a restaurant, or one dessert.
Yes, cardio burns more calories during the time spent doing it, but that doesn’t mean you’re burning more calories overall.
The focus of exercise shouldn’t be to burn the most calories to lose weight, but to build your muscle tissue so that when you do lose the fat from a calorie deficit, you have shape created by the muscle mass underneath to show. After all, such a small percentage of your total daily energy expenditure comes from exercise:
When you replace the time spent doing cardio with weight training, you start to create a job for your food to do.
Now the carbs you eat are stored as glycogen in your muscle tissue to repair from training and to fuel future training sessions. This also acts as a storage unit for carbs, and the more muscle mass you have, the more carbohydrates you’re able to eat without them circulating as blood glucose or being stored as body fat.
The protein you eat is broken down into it’s amino acids which are the “building blocks” for your muscle mass. You start to utilize the nutrients in your food and keep your metabolism running at a higher rate rather than giving it the signal to adapt and slow down.
Building phases are often uncomfortable for women.
You start to eat a larger volume of food, which can give you a feeling of fullness that makes you feel “fluffy” or heavy. Even for women who know they should take a building phase to get the hypertrophy they want to reach their goals, they abandon ship when they start to feel the discomfort of the building phase.
This is a hard one to get through, but there are some mindset shifts you can attempt to make to make the building phase easier:
Ideally, if you’re doing this in a slow and steady manner you will put on much more muscle than fat, which means you’ll end the build looking leaner and with lower body fat percentage.
This is a time to utilize foods that are less filling per calorie, the exact opposite of a cutting phase. You still want to include plenty of fruit and vegetables, but once you get enough for health, you don’t get extra credit for more, so this is a good time for:
Once you take 6-9 months (minimum) in a building phase, that’s when you can go back into a cut to strip down any fat you may have gained during the process and reveal the muscle you’ve built, and the toned look you were after.
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Andrea Rogers is a certified nutrition coach, personal trainer, and coach for BairFit. Follow her on Instagram for more helpful training & nutrition content.