Even if you’re perfectly at home working out and strength training (and psst, if you’re not, you should check out my beginner’s guide to navigating the gym!), there are always a few misconceptions about fitness that come up over and over again, especially when it comes to women. As a personal trainer, I’m used to clients and gym members asking me lots of questions. Here are the top 3 questions based on misconceptions about working out for women, along with my answers.
IF I LIFT WEIGHTS, WILL I GET BULKY AND HUGE?
This is such a common question from female gym-goers. They want to use weights to build strength, but they’d rather their muscles be defined instead of bulky. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the word ‘toned’ from a potential female client, I’d be a rich woman. First of all, to build enough muscle mass to be what most people would consider ‘bulky’, 99% of women would have to dedicate most of their time and energy to the effort. It requires a huge amount of calories and a LOT of heavy lifting to be able to gain that much muscle as a woman. Our hormonal systems just don’t have enough testosterone to allow us to ‘bulk up’ as much as you might be afraid is going to happen.
That said, every body is different, everyone is born with different types of muscle fibers, and you may know from experience that you do tend to build muscle quickly. In that case, so long as you’re satisfied with your current strength level, you can try focusing on endurance strength training of 15 or more repetitions at a lighter weight, or even on body-weight resistance training, like yoga.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO TARGET TROUBLE SPOTS?
Repeat after me: “Spot reduction is a myth.” If your automatic response to that statement began with, “But what about…” then no. Repeat again: “Spot reduction is a myth.”
Sit ups won’t reduce belly fat.
Squats won’t make your butt smaller.
Leg lifts aren’t going to shrink your thighs.
If your goal is body fat reduction, then your best approach is to lift heavier weights for 8 – 10 repetitions in order to build lean muscle mass. While your scale may reflect a gain at first, remember that lean muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so it will help you burn more calories in the long run. Couple your strength training with cardio to burn calories, and try tracking your caloric intake for a couple of weeks to make sure you’re eating enough to build muscles mass. Healthy doesn’t mean as low as possible! Healthy means enough to sustain you, taking into account your activity level — you can use an online calorie calculator to work out the best range for you.
Even if you do reduce your body fat percentage, you may find you still have some areas of your body that just tend to hold on to a little extra fat than the rest of you. We all are built differently, we each have different metabolic needs and every single person’s body is individual to them. Embrace it. Love what makes you, you.
SHOULD I DO ALL MY CARDIO IN THE FAT BURNING ZONE?
Those cardio zones listed on the ellipticals, treadmills, and bikes in your gym are a little misleading. Technically, if you are working out at a lower heart rate – the ‘fat burning zone’ on those labels – then your body is tapping into fat metabolism. However, your body is therefore also in a fat burning zone when you’re sitting on the couch or sleeping. Also remember, if you’re working out at a lower heart rate, you’d have to spend a lot more time doing the exercise to match the calorie burn from working out at a higher heart rate. All that means if your goal is overall fat loss, or weight loss, then no, the fat burning zone is not where you want to be spending your cardio energy.
Of course, weight loss is not always the goal of working out and there are a couple of reasons paying attention to that zone can benefit you. If you’ve ever heard of the Maffetone method of heart rate training for runners, one of the main components of it is to train yourself to run in a very low heart rate zone, in order to train your body to utilize fat stores effectively while running. If you’ve ever felt the energy bonk when you’re running distance and your body is low on carbs, you know why you’d want your system to be trained to tap into fat stores when it runs out of glycogen. (You can read a little more about this method of training in my recap of the Runner’s Reset I tried out last year.)
Also, the whole concept of cardiovascular training is to train your heart to work effectively in different ranges. If you always lifted the exact same weights for the exact same number of repetitions, you’d naturally hit a strength plateau and not see any improvement in your muscle strength or endurance. Your heart is a muscle as well, so it makes sense that you should train it to be effective and strong at a high, moderate and low heart rate.
Remember as well, most personal trainers have chosen their profession because they want to help people and they want to share their knowledge and experience. If there’s something you’ve always questioned when it comes to working out, or anything about which you’ve heard conflicting advice, you shouldn’t feel shy about asking an expert.
Have you ever wondered about these specific questions?
What’s the biggest fitness myth you’ve had busted?