Strong Women are Beautiful Women

This is a revised version of an article I wrote entitled “But I Don’t Want to Get Bulky” that was featured on my old blog. I revised it because it attacked cardio enthusiasts in general, when my intent wasn’t to attack anyone but rather educate. I also improved the overall flow of the article, added some more information about the specific processes involved in building muscle, as well as a concluding thought.

90% of the people on the elliptical at my gym are women and while some are on them because they love to run and hate it outside, I’m assuming most of them are trying to improve their appearance, maintain it, or they’re running away from the deteriorating effects of aging.

Listen. Your appearance is the sum of your various lifestyle choices and not the result of burning calories. Your folly is largely in your nutritional choices and they will account for most of your appearance. Resistance training (weight lifting/body weight+gravity) will account for the other portion. No, you will not get bulky when you get muscular. Before you get the urge to burn a bra, that’s not meant to be read as a get back in the kitchen shut up. It’s an I hate seeing women wasting their time because they’re misinformed shut up.

Strong Women Are Beautiful Women

Most women do not have the appropriate testosterone levels to get “bulky”. The ones that do and find out that they’re better at lifting heavy things than other women end up doing it competitively. A lot of them also do hormone replacement to get those figures that look more manly than me. Those are the ones you’re thinking of. There’s almost a zero percent chance of you getting bulkier than you intend to if you’re a lady. Also, I don’t know if you think lifting a bar once is going to make your blouse split open with rippling muscles but putting on muscle is kind of a pretty long process. If you look in the mirror one morning and a shadow hits a crevice and you think to yourself, “Oh, I do not like that!” then you can just stop lifting.

A lot of the problem is marketing. Women constantly walk into our clinic doing the exact same things and having the exact same problems. So many women starve themselves and do nothing but cardio that it can’t be a coincidence. This is just a small sample size in Concord, North Carolina. Literally every woman under 150 pounds who comes in trying to get leaner is doing exactly the opposite of what she should be doing. Most of the ones over 150 pounds are doing it, too. It’s because people will make more impulsive purchases that require smaller monetary investments over larger ones. Selling a $15 5lb kettlebell is easier than selling a $60 45 lb kettlebell and fitness companies know it. Along those same lines, selling a $10 2lb dumbbell or exercise ball is way easier than selling you a barbell, bench, and some plates.

Diet companies know that by starving you, you will lose a ton of weight in the first two weeks, and then blame yourself when it slows down and eventually reverses; then you’ll move on to another diet that’s either owned by the same conglomerate or has its food produced by the same conglomerate. Another reason this is both an incredibly insidious and an incredibly lucrative practice is that by starving yourself, you’re screwing up your metabolic rate. So when you gain that weight back, you’re going to gain over what you were originally. Desperation sells and unless corrected, you’ll likely still buy into starvation as a viable means of weight loss because supermodels have been stereotyped into the ground as all being anorexic. Yes, by not eating, you can look impressively terrible.

Let’s talk about what your appearance consists of. Body fat is the appearance killer, which is why I think most of you are chugging along on a treadmill or elliptical. Burning calories isn’t necessarily burning body fat. However, you can completely regulate your body fat through nutrition if you choose. Your body fat only represents the bubble wrap covering the canvas, while a few specific muscle groups play the role of the canvas its self; your skin is the paint. Let’s make art.

Skin is the largest organ on the human body. There are not pieces of skin that aren’t attached to other pieces of skin. It’s all connected. That and the fact that most women cannot bulk up make up the reason why — for women — “spot toning” is a bunch of crap. Men can do curls to increase their bicep sizes because we have the testosterone required to build giant stacks of lean muscle mass that can push the skin up enough to forge definition.

The only way for a woman to look toned up is to either be hit by the genetics stick or get their diet under control and do resistance training. The reason for that is that women naturally have a higher body fat percentage and because they can’t build big muscles, the easiest way to get around genetics is to increase your body’s overall lean muscle mass while attacking body fat through nutrition. Here’s how.

Carbohydrates -> Glycogen -> Higher Blood Sugar -> Insulin -> Fat Storage
No Carbs -> Ketosis -> Lower Blood Sugar -> Less Insulin -> Less Fat Storage

Ketosis is a state your body enters when its deprived of carbohydrate wherein it begins to utilize fats for energy instead. It is one the most efficient ways to demolish body fat. What’s the most inefficient method of attacking body fat, you ask? Well, sitting on your ass in front of a T.V. but also not eating enough and then doing a bunch of cardio. Not eating enough food translates into you not taking in enough protein, which can result in muscle loss, lighter skin pigmentation, swelling in the stomach, and hair loss. When you add cardio, you are burning calories you don’t have to spare because you’re already eating at a substantial deficit.

A note on PCOS and ketosis.

Some women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are often put on Metformin (diabetic medication) and sometimes ketogenic diets because they are often naturally insulin resistant, which means that the pancreas has to pump out way more insulin than it should have to in order to keep blood sugar from elevating to toxic levels. This is why women with PCOS and diabetics tend to find it much easier to put on weight.

You probably guarantee that you’ll induce a starvation response if you eat too little and then do half an hour or more of aerobic exercise. That will get you the OPPOSITE results you’re looking for. You’re essentially torturing yourself so you can go in reverse. Let’s assume you’re a 35 year old female who’s 5’5″, 140 pounds, and do intense exercise 5 times a week. You require 2,000 calories a day to maintain your fat mass and the top end of your starvation response is something around 1300 calories probably, which is still dangerous, and most of you eat under 1,000. Caloric needs needs go up with weight, height, and activity level. The older you get, the less calories you need because your metabolism slows down. The difference between 20 years is somewhere around 100 calories.

2 eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, a grilled chicken salad from Arby’s with light ranch, 4 oz of skinless chicken breast, and I’ll throw a CLIF bar in there to be generous. This is probably more than a lot of women eat and it’s like 950 calories. Calories aren’t the holy grail or anything but you can use them to kind of guess on food intake and when it’s low, it’s low. The problem with starving is that yes, you will burn fat, but you will also shed muscle due to the protein deficiency, and you’ll probably cause the one area you’re trying the hardest to tone up to puff out like a blowfish.

So let’s get into why you should stop trying to run away from lean muscle mass and instead covet it like a shoe sale, or something equally girlie that you like. Ok, you can burn that bra now. Anyway, you should want to put on muscle. That means you should want to get the hell off of the ellipticals and pick up heavy things instead. The reason is simple. Muscle is hard, so skin will look better when it stretches against it versus how it looks when stretched against fat. Imagine a balloon stretched around your fist and then imagine a balloon stretched around an equal volume of liquid. In your mind’s eye, you’ll either see the definition in your fist because it is rigid or you’ll see a generic and plumpy water balloon because it is not.

Water Balloon @ Face

Watch the image above and as the balloon’s form is changed by the force of the impact, imagine the balloon is skin instead. Imagine the rolls in the material are filled with body fat, and instead of forming due to inertia, imagine them being formed by the constant pull of gravity. The image in your head should look a lot like love handles. That’s because as far as volume goes, water and body fat are fairly similar, while lean mass (muscle) is a completely different beast. You can sculpt your form out of lean mass like modeling clay, while trying to sculpt it out of body fat will be as effective as capturing a waterfall between your cupped hands.

5 Pounds of Muscle and 5 Pounds of Fat

That’s 5 pounds of muscle and 5 pounds of fat. Those two objects weigh exactly the same so you’ll understand my frustration when folks come to weigh in and do not care at all about their body composition as long as that number on the scale goes down, which is the product of marketing yet again. That number gives you a false sense of accomplishment and an easy-to-tabulate high score you can share with your girlfriends. It is the biological equivalent of, “Look at this engagement ring I got!” It reminds you of something tangible but the objects’ worth is completely and utterly fabricated by our culture.

If you look at your weight for for what it is, you’ll feel as silly as you would declaring a Ford Pinto superior to a Aston Martin DBS because it weighs less. You can weigh exactly the same but look completely different and it’s a matter of burning as much fat while building as much lean mass as possible. That will naturally occur if you focus more on your body composition instead of your weight. Body fat is what is making you look bad and if you’ve spent 90 minutes a day on an elliptical for 2 years and your midsection still jiggles like that balloon up there, you’re probably doing it wrong.

We want to get rid of as much body fat as possible because it gets in the way of the relationship between the muscle and the skin. It will be much easier to look how you want to look if you lift heavy weights and eat a lot (of protein). CrossFit is a good solution for this, especially if you have problems getting your heart rate up. Aerobic activity (135ish BPM) essentially does nothing for you except for burn calories and improve your endurance while anaerobic activity (150ish BPM) will improve your ability to recover as well as your resting metabolic rate, which will aid in fat loss. And to get to an anaerobic heart rate, you still have to climb the aerobic ladder, so your endurance will also improve.

When women discuss the sections of their bodies they want to improve, it’s usually the butt, stomach, thighs, and hips. Remembering that muscle gives the skin a better surface to stretch against, exercise that induces an anaerobic heartrate promotes healthy fat loss, and being stronger allows you to beat your husband up, let’s play a game.

How many of those muscles do we use on an elliptical? Trick question! A lot of them are actually kind of used. Not really to any great effect though. Your hamstrings and quads will take the brunt of the impact. Your core will be only slightly utilized if you don’t use the handles. However, if you spend an hour or more on the machine and your legs never burn like they’re on fire, it means that you’re not exercising hard enough to induce an anaerobic heart rate. There is a process called anaerobic glycolysis, which is when your body is using glucose and glycogen for energy. The absence of oxygen (huffing and puffing) and the breakdown of glucose is what results in lactic acid and legs that feel like they’re being repeatedly stung by wasps. This is a necessary step towards improving your resting metabolic rate and turning you into an efficient fat-burning machine.

Now, how many muscles will a deadlift hit? Everything, but it will also get your calves, hamstrings, and shoulders. When you lift against a resisting force (such as gravity), microtrauma (microscopic tears) occurs in your muscle fibers. The body then repairs the damage by replacing the injured tissue with additional tissue to future-proof it against further injury. This is what makes you stronger. Muscle hypertrophy is a byproduct of the microtrauma and where the “bulk” comes from but women just naturally suck at muscle hypertrophy, which is why I can find you about a hundred videos of beautifully toned (non-incredible-Hulkish) women deadlifting their own body weight or more. Lifting heavy things will also increase your bone density, which is a fairly nice investment to make in your future health. Enough of that general health crap, though! Let’s get back to the appearance.

Kim Kardashian is a target physique for a lot of women. Genetics, photoshop, surgeries, and make-up probably play a part in her appearance but a lot of it is a ridiculous degree of resistance training.

Thighs = Squat, Deadlift, Lunge
Hips = Squat, Deadlift, Lunge
Butt = Squat, Deadlift, Lunge
Stomach = Squat, Deadlift, Lunge

I’m just making a point. Spot toning is still a myth. You need to work all of your muscle groups so that your skin stretches more toutly, which will allow it to push through the extra body fat you’re carrying around because of of your gender. Unfair, I know. Don’t believe me? There’s plenty of proof.

Here’s some proof from around the Internet:
A video of the always-popular AllisonNYC!

The conclusion we come to is that women are woefully and intentionally mislead when it comes to their body composition, nutrition, and fitness. The result is that when you compare yourself to genetically gifted women who just happen to also be misinformed, you wonder why the hell the elliptical isn’t giving you a “V” shaped torso too? Well, if lemmings march off a cliff and some of them have genetic variations that make them more aerodynamic, the lemmings who don’t understand wind resistance might be left wondering why they’re not hitting the ground as fast as their friends. If they spend enough time contemplating and lamenting their peers’ speed advantage, they might run out of the time they could have spent opening their parachutes.

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  • Andia12000

    Kim kardashian is fat. Why use her as an example. No way she lifts heavy.

    • amyrosebrown

      Kim Kardashian weighs 125 pounds at the most. To call her fat shows that you have a completely warped sense of what the female body is supposed to look like.

  • Andia12000

    Kim kardashian is fat. Why use her as an example. No way she lifts heavy.

    • amyrosebrown

      Kim Kardashian weighs 125 pounds at the most. To call her fat shows that you have a completely warped sense of what the female body is supposed to look like.

      • JenY

        I would not consider her toned or ideal….surgeries/cosmetic enhancements aside. She looks dumpy to me.

  • JanObe

    My only concern with crossfit is the intensity. As much as I like intensity, I easily get sick when my immune system lowers. Correct me if I am wrong but daily moderate exercise causes your immune system to get stronger while intensive exercise can lower your immune system for 24 to 72 hours after working out.

    I read the best thing after intense workout is eating right and sleeping well. Anyone else have problems or experience with getting sick after intense workouts?

  • Rogdennison

    About the women on the ellipticals… you have a point that they should be doing free weights (they all think they will turn in to Arnold, so they are afraid of weights), instead of hours on the elliptical, but it is decent cardio, and the fact that they are exercising at all is good… Also I disagree with your statement that it’s 85% diet, 15% exercise…. I eat WHATEVER I want, and let me tell you, it isn’t pretty, but then I lift as hard as I can, run like a crazy man, and play sports… if those % were correct, i’d look terrible, you really wouldn’t believe what and how much I eat… not trying to be a jerk… i’m just pointing out that those percentages are not accurate for everyone.

  • Rogdennison

    Ok, my previous comment didn’t take into account that this article was mostly aimed at women… i’d say diet does have a much greater impact than it does for men who are lifting regularly.

    • Vainglory

      It’s for women and I also mentioned genetic advantage that some people have that allow them to eat trash and never gain a pound.

  • Melissa Honeydew

    You had me at shut up. 🙂

  • I have never had a problem with lifting, but I have had boyfriends/guy friends “warn” me about getting too bulky. So it’s not just news and media – this false message is coming from people who should care about us the most. It’s very confusing.

    The reason I don’t lift more is because cardio is just easier and requires less equipment. Any thoughts on how to get more lifting in at home? Or with minimal $$$ investment?

    • vgisverbose

      P90X 🙂 Body weight exercises provide resistance as well.

      • Thanks! I hadn’t considered that. I have some friends who might even lend it to me to try out.
        You’re awesome. Have a great weekend.

        • vgisverbose

          It’s one of the only infomercial things that actually works pretty well. Insanity works too I think but it’s essentially the same concept.

    • JanObe

      I know what you mean. I was trying to do pull ups one time at the gym and a random guy walked by and told me to up the assisted weight so I wouldn’t get bulky (more reps = less bulk!). I just stared at him and was like… zomg did he really just tell me that?? Fortunately by this point I knew more about the myth and how I really don’t have enough testosterone in my body (or steroids) to make this possible. I would need to be eating a ridiculous amount of calories and taking supplements to make this happen as a woman.

      • Misha

        Gotta love the random broski in the gym who knows more about YOUR workout than YOU do.

  • i hate the elliptical, but then again i love it because it’s great for my legs. i’m a runner. i do have to agree with women not using the weights, it’s such a body transformer beyond cardio. i stand taller because of it.

  • Andrew Bosserman

    Slight science correction: You state that anaerobic glycolysis “is when your body is using glucose and glycogen for energy instead of oxygen (because it’s out of it).” You are correct that anaerobic metabolism occurs in the absence of oxygen, however this does not change the source of the fuel, but rather the method of extracting energy. In fact, both aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism use glucose as fuel.

    In aerobic metabolism, which is generally what takes place while you are still providing your muscles with enough oxygen, the oxygen itself is not a source of energy, but merely a required part of the process. You still burn the glucose, but you’re doing so in a way that is much more efficient due to the presence of oxygen. In fact, you will create about 20 times more ATP (your body’s currency for energy) with each molecule of glucose burned by using aerobic metabolism as opposed to anaerobic.

    • Vainglory

      “instead of oxygen” should be “in the absence of oxygen” — thanks for pointing that out. The lack of oxidation is what breaks the electron transport chain and causes lactid acid fermentation.

      The remainder of the article should be sound. Aerobic activity burns calories, anaerobic activity increases endurance and improves the resting metabolic rate. I didn’t really want to go too deeply into why because I don’t believe most people care lol

  • Sunbutterelizabeth

    Love your perspective–as usual. Hope all is as well as it looks in your corner! Take care.

  • VenusGenetrix

    Cardio is not a waste of time. Let’s not lump every woman working out on cardio equipment into an assumption that they’re doing so to look pretty. Cardio is the best type of exercise for your heart and that has an incredible amount of benefits to one’s health overall, not to mention increasing endurance and being able to move fast. Weight training is great for losing weight, building strength and improving body composition, but cardio has its place too and is not a waste of time. Thank you.

  • Venus Genetrix, I agree with you about long distance cardio being the best exercise for the heart. Let’s not kid ourselves though. Health is not the only reason people hit the gym. Looks is a big part of it. It’s also no secret that a lot of times women are scared to touch weight and do anaerobic training, because they feel like they will get “bulky” or “manly”.

    Long distance cardio absolutely has its place in a workout routine, but I think this article does a good job of trying to get some of those women a little less timid about making resistance training a bigger priority. You can use weights and resistance exercises to increase your heart rate too. The treadmill isn’t the only way to do that.