Tuesday 4 February 2014

My Top 20 Female Body Transformation Tips

As a trainer and strength coach, I have had the privilege of working with countless female clients, athletes and students. I have always enjoyed working with you ladies because you are so teach-able and coach-able. I also enjoy the opportunity to give ladies the truth about how to get them to their training goals. It breaks my heart to see so many women trying so hard to reach their goals, but going about it in all the wrong ways. You already know you need to watch what you eat and train hard. Here are the 20 tips you need to know so you can go about reaching your goals and transforming your body in the most efficient and effective way possible.

1. Seek your best body
A huge mistake that we have all made is to want someone else's body. Ladies will pick of a magazine and announce, "I want to look like her" while pointing to the cover model. I like to remind women that with today's photoshop artists, not even the model who posed for the picture looks like that.

Instead, follow Bill Phillips' advice and seek your best body. Do not get caught up in having to be a certain weight or dress size (as some sizes will not  be attainable for you unless you get a pelvic transplant). Certain body types will not be able to get abs without getting to "unhealthy lean". Most ladies (even those who are really lean) will have some fat on their triceps. Instead of trying to look like someone else, pursue your best body in a healthy, reasonable way that does not cause you to neglect important relationships or responsibilities. Never compare yourself with others - especially guys (as men naturally have less body fat and lose body fat faster than ladies).

Work hard to make the reasonable changes you can make and learn to accept the things you cannot (I know - easier said than done). Be proud of who you are. As a guy (and as one who has had other guys share their tastes in women with me), I know that if guys actually think for themselves (instead of letting the media tell them what they should think), men's attractions to women are as varied as the varied shapes and sizes of women. A while back I heard a wise person say, "I wonder how many companies would be out of business if women actually liked themselves." Reasonably pursue your best body and be proud of who you are!

2. Eat meat to get lean
Many women mistakenly fear meat. They think that meat will make them big, fat, bulky and manly. As a result, they shy away from meat and mistakenly eat more breads and other carbs (which for many carb-sensitive ladies results in unwanted fat gain). If you want to get leaner, remember that meat and vegetables are your friends. 

3. Do not let your body starve
The female body is more sensitive to starvation than males are. As a result, crash diets and missing meals can send your body into starvation mode. Eat regularly (e.g. 4-5 meals per day) and emphasize lean meats, vegetables, some fresh fruits, healthy fats and an appropriate amount of good carbs. 

4. Add occasional treats to your good foods
Many women mistakenly play the numbers game and replace healthy foods with treat foods. Since their calorie or point totals don't go over the limit, they think they will be okay. Dr. John Berardi calls this dietary displacement and it will not work in the long run. Once you are filled up on protein and vegetables, feel free to add the occasional treat.

5. Do not fear bulking up
Some women refuse to touch a weight and stay only on the cardio machines. Others venture only so far as the really light weights for really high reps. Regardless, nothing good happens with your training until you get over the fear of bulking up. Stay away from steroids, eat and train for strength - not size and you will be just fine. I still chuckle on the inside when I hear people say, "I don't want to get too big." Even for guys (who have about 10x the testosterone of women), building lean muscle can be quite a challenge. If you don't believe me ladies, talk to a natural female bodybuilder. For more information on this, check out my previous posts on Why ladies should not fear bulking up Part 1 and Part 2.

6. Build some lean muscle
Building some lean muscle is good. It will give shape to your body. It will improve your life/sport performance. It will also raise your metabolism. Every extra pound of lean muscle can result in an extra 35 calories burned each day and that adds up. For example, in one year, 5 extra pounds of lean muscle would burn an extra 63,875 calories - just to have that muscle there! Since there are 3,500 calories in a gram of fat, this would equate to about 18.25 pounds of fat. Also, because muscle is denser than fat, you can gain muscle, lose fat and still be smaller - even if the dumb scale doesn't change.
Reference: Hoeger, W., Hoeger, S.,Locke, & M.,Lauzon, L. (2009). Principles and Labs for Fitness and Wellness (1st ed).  Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thomas Learning.

7. Forget the light weight and high reps for toning
For years the fitness industry has told people, "heavy weights to bulk and light weights to tone and define". While I will admit that light weights will make you more toned than lifting no weights, they are not very effective. Definition refers to having lower levels of body fat which makes muscles more easily seen. Tone refers to a hardness in the muscle. A toned muscle looks somewhat flexed - even at rest. Tone is best built with lower reps and heavy weight.

8. Lower volume, not weight
We all have different body types. Some ladies can truly gain muscle more easily than others and may not want to for aesthetic or sports performance reasons. If this is you, do not make the mistake of staying with light weights. Light weights are a way for beginners to get used to lifting slightly less light weight - not something to stay with long term. Decrease your volume (total sets and reps), not the weight you lift and you will build strength and tone without size. For more info, check out this post on Non-Bulk Strength Training.

9. Forget spot reduction
Many women who venture into the world of weights think they should do specialized women's toning routines. This usually results in a hand-full of small, little isolation exercises done with very low weight for a ridiculous amount of reps to target your problem spots. While there are some minor exceptions to this, you really cannot spot reduce - especially this way. The best way to target your "problem spots" is through total body training with big hard exercises and good nutrition. For more info, check out this post on The Greatest Fitness Myth of All Time.

10. Do the right cardio
Many women have been told that cardio is the path to the body of their dreams. As a result, many women put in countless hours pounding the pavement and slaving away at the stair master. However, most women fail to achieve their fat loss goals when relying on cardio only. They start doing cardio, lose some fat and then hit a plateau and the fat loss stops. I have seen countless women faithfully put in endless hours of cardio and still fail to lose fat. The problem with cardio for fat loss is that the more you do, the better you get at it and the less effective it comes. It also fails to speed your metabolism. See the following posts for more information:
The Limits of Cardio for Fat Loss
The Myth of the Fat Burning Zone
Becoming Fuel Inefficient for Fat Loss
What is the Best Type of Cardio for You?
The Secret of EPOC for Fat Loss
Should YOU be Jogging?

11. Minimize core training
Core training is overrated. However, despite the impressive claims of better performance a healthier back and six-pack abs, research has failed to demonstrate a solid connection between core stability exercises and performance. By all means, feel free to do 1-2 core stability exercises (i.e. ones that teach you to resist movement at your low back), but do not get carried away. Many ladies will spend the majority of their workouts on core exercises and this is a glorious waste of time. Big exercises (e.g. squats, deadlifts, swings) will have a far greater impact on how your abs look than ab exercises do. Also, exercises such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, push-ups and loaded carries (e.g. farmer's walks) work your core very well.

12. Prioritize posture
While the importance of posture is better understood in the context of moving well and feeling good, many people with aesthetic goals overlook the importance of good posture. Just learning to stand up straight will make you instantly look younger, fitter and leaner. For more info, check out How to Instantly Look, Feel and Perform Better.

Posture also has huge implications for your abs. For many women, the lower abs are a problem spot. As a result, they waste time trying to spot reduce the lower abs with lower ab exercises. The first problem with this is that there really is no such thing as lower abs. The second problem is that most "lower ab" exercises end up over-developing the hip flexors and actually making the problem worse. The reason that many women (even those who are quite lean) struggle with their lower abs is postural alignment. If your pelvis is tipped forward (as it is with most women), your abdomen will protrude. The solution to this problem is to fix your posture. This involves stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the glutes. For more information, check out The Real Secret to Flat Lower Abs.

13. Learn to land & stop
Since the explosion of women's sports over the last several decades, we have seen an explosion in non-contact knee injuries in females. Part of the solution is to get your glutes and hamstrings really strong. Another part is to learn to land and stop safely. Many ladies shoot their knees forward during landing and stopping and this puts tremendous stress on the knee ligaments. Instead, learn to move the hips down when stopping and back on landing. This will take the stress off your knee ligaments and onto your glutes and hamstrings. See this video on landing mechanics and this one on stopping for more information. Whether you are trying to improve athletic performance, or just look and feel like an athlete, jumps and sprints can be a great help - but landing and stopping properly are an important pre-requisite to training these movements safely and effectively.

14. Hammer your glutes and hamstrings
Whether you want to improve athletic performance, reduce your risk of knee and ankle injuries, improve your posture, improve your back health or simply enhance your aesthetics, training your glutes and hamstrings properly will get you the results you want. However the stair master and all the other small, silly exercises that are often done for the glutes will fail to deliver the results you want. To effectively train your glutes and hamstrings, you need three things:
  1. Proper technique and range of motion. Use full depth for squats and lunges. Be sure to properly lock out your hips on deadlifts and other hip extension exercises.
  2. Heavy weight. The glutes and hamstrings are powerful, fast-twitch dominant muscles. Progressively work up to big weights on your squats, deadlifts and hip thrusts.
  3. Speed. Fast-twitch muscles also respond well to speed. Olympic weightlifting variations and swings are excellent, high-speed exercises for the glutes and hamstrings - if you can do them safely. And, do not forget one if the very best glute and hamstring exercises ever - sprints!
15. Skip the inner/out thigh machine
Like all that extra core training, the inner/outer thigh machines are a waste of time. They will not trim fat off your thighs. Also, the hip adductor and abductor muscles do not do this function in real life. To train your inner thighs, try sumo deadlifts or lunges/split squats with a long stride and deeper range of motion. To train your outer thighs, focus on proper knee alignment for all your squats and lunges. Also, try single leg kettlebell deadlifts.

16. Use long, deep strides for lunges
Many ladies use lunges to train their hips and thighs. However, they use short strides and a shallow range of motion which largely limits the stress to the knee and quads. Instead, take a long stride and get deep and you will effectively train your hips and inner thighs. See this VIDEO for more details.

17. Get good at pull-ups
My goal for most women I train is to get them doing pull-ups. Not only are pull-ups an amazing time-efficient exercise for building upper body strength (something most women are lacking), but getting good at them is a major confidence booster. When you can do pull-ups, you know your strength is well above average. When a woman is in the gym cranking out pull-ups, everyone (guys and ladies) is impressed. For more information check out How to Get Good at Pull-Ups Part 1 and Part 2.

18. Do bar push-ups - if needed
Push-ups are a fantastic exercise for upper body strength, triceps, core strength, shoulder health and fat burning. However many women - even those who have been training for a while cannot do a proper, full range of motion push-up. As a result, they often flair their elbows and cut their depth (thus missing out on many of these benefits). Some resort to modified push-ups from the knees (these used to be called "girl push-ups" in the pre-politically correct era), but these are too easy for many women. As an experiment, I stepped on the scale with my hands while being in a push-up position. Then I dropped down into the modified position - it dropped my scale weight by 40 pounds. This drastic change in weight leaves many women stuck in the middle where modified push-ups are too easy and regular push-ups are too hard.

The best way around this problem is to do push-ups off a bar on a power rack or Smith machine in a gym (click HERE for more details). This allows you to do proper push-ups from  an appropriate bar height and then gradually progress the bar height down while maintaining proper form. If you do not have access to a power rack or smith machine, you can do a similar progression with a foam roller - click HERE for details.

19. Ditch the scale
This is an oldie, but too important not to mention. The scale does not give you the full picture. Remember that muscle is much denser than fat. As a result, you can gain lean muscle, lose body fat and look totally different despite zero change in the scale. Focus on how your clothes fit. Another super-effective method is the tape measure. Note: if you have struggled with eating disorders or body image issues, I would not touch the scale or the tape measure. For some women, tape measures and scales can be triggers for disordered eating/behaviors. Instead, just measure your improvement with your training log.

20. Train like a man

Guys tend to love stats (think of the sporting world) and carry these into the weigh room. As a result, they tend to focus on more objective measurements of their training progress (e.g. weight, vertical jump, girth measurements). Many women tend to be more subjective in their evaluation of their training (e.g. how they feel). While it is great to feel good and training should improve your physical and emotional well-being, it can be problematic if that is your only measure of training success. As fun as training can be, it will cease to be fun and feel good if it is not getting you to your goals. One of the most important ways to measure progress is with a training log. Remember that it is not just doing great exercises, but rather getting better at these great exercises that will get you to your goal. Follow what the guys do and learn to celebrate the PR's (personal records) and to seek performance improvements.

As mentioned previously, specialized "women's toning routines" are a waste of time. The real secret for ladies is to train like men (or more accurately how men should train). What I mean is that traditionally men tended to do exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, pull-ups while women tended to do butt kicks, triceps kickbacks, the inner/outer thigh machine, crunches and the stair master. Learn to do and get better at these big, hard exercises. This will build functional strength, athletic or daily life performance and confidence. In addition to these great benefits, performance-based training has a very profound aesthetic effect on the female body. Train for performance and as a natural by product you will get the tone, shape, definition and curves you want. For more information on this and complete training programs check out my book Athletic Training for Fat Loss.  

If you live in the Langley, BC area, check out Coastal Fitness. This is the best gym in Langley and this first class Semi-Private Training gym adheres to these training principles. For more information on Coastal, click HERE


  1. Hi Andrew,

    I have a question for your regarding lifting weights while trying to conceive. Is it alright to train, 70-85% 1RM 8-10 reps, while trying to conceive? Perhaps decreasing the load to to 60-70% 1RM?
    Thank you.

    Nimbrad Alicaya
    (formerly Vancouver-Now in Jakarta)

    1. Great question Nimbrad! Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of research here to give you a definitive answer. I'm sure many babies have been conceived while ladies were doing hard training. However, if you are training too hard, you may have trouble. It never hurts to back down for a bit and see if that helps.

  2. My motivation for this year competition Swiss IFBB