Last week, I discussed the wide range of health benefits that come along with developing and maintaining plenty of lean muscle mass (read part 1 here). This week's installment on this topic will be directed toward the positive (and attractive) aesthetic benefits of improving your body composition, along with clearing the air on some misconceptions or downright false information out there in regard to gaining muscle and how to go about doing so.
Remember when I told you to erase the image of the over-developed body builder from your head? Same rules apply here. I'm going to start with some of my old favorite comments from clients (on Day 1). Those who stick around through the hard work come out with a very different view on their bodies and goals.
I don't want to get muscles, I just want to be toned.
Just freaking shoot me. Every time I hear the word "toned" I want to curl up in a ball and curse the names of every Hollywood trainer and fly-by-night infomercial exerciser. I don't blame you (well maybe a little bit) for mentioning it, really. Let's get down to the root of this one.
That "toned" look that you are referring to is really a balance of having an amount of lean mass that greatly outweighs your amount of body fat. In other words, you need to be lean and carrying a good deal of muscle. You aren't going to get there by doing 100 reps of curls with a 1 pound dumbbell. In fact, that's likely to wear your muscles down to nothing.
The idea set forth in the above statement also undermines the amount of effort and discipline that is needed to achieve such a look. Your diet is first and foremost, but the work in the gym should really be comprised of both lifting challenging weights for moderate volume (let's say 5-10 reps) and performing some high intensity training (short bursts that get you sucking wind). In essence, you DO want muscles and you want to be LEAN enough to show them off.
I get bulky really quick if I start lifting weights.
Well, I'm jealous. And if this statement is true, what are we doing wrong at our gym? Everyone here lifts weights, but I'm not seeing the next Mr. and Mrs. Olympia anywhere. Here's a pro tip for you: don't train like a bodybuilder if you aren't trying to look like a bodybuilder. Did I just blow your mind? Again?
This brings me to a concept that I need everyone to hear loud and clear --- especially you, ladies. When provided with the same stimulus, 100 different people are going to have 100 different results. Your genetics play a huge role in your physical outcome. Embrace it. You ladies want those curves in all the right places? Well, curves are made of muscle.
Take me for example. I am a 6' tall male who weighs 170lbs at about 8.5% body fat. I'm lean and always have been. I also lift reasonably heavy weights on a daily basis and eat all day long. My point is that I'm not HUGE, although wouldn't that be sweet if it were that easy? Meanwhile, my wife puts on muscle and weight pretty easily. Two very different sets of genetics at play. We can train exactly the same way and get two different responses. You should also consider the volume of training and nutritional discipline involved here. Getting a good workout for an hour a day, 4-5 times per week, and eating a healthy diet will be great and is not likely to leave you "bulky."
So what do I do?
For starters, stop killing yourself doing cardio for hours and lifting weights that don't leave you breathing hard after a set. That may work to cut big amounts of weight, but you'll tap into that healthy muscle mass in the process. There is a balance in the middle.
In my opinion, it consists of performing compound lifts (think squats, deadlifts, overhead presses) at challenging weights and high intensity intervals (HIIT) for conditioning. You'll get the most return in terms of body composition and it won't take 10 miles of running to get there.
-Taylor Race, co-owner and trainer at St. Pete Strength and Conditioning, home of SPSC CrossFit