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Ever since I began training several years ago, I have had the chance to work with both men and women of varying levels of experience and with differing goals. Although my approach for both genders is very similar, there are a few considerations I take for both sexes. The considerations I reference in this article are geared toward non-competitive females looking for improvements in both physique and health. In other words, if the client is a competitive figure athlete or a performance based athlete the considerations differ a bit. Also, I will point out that, in my opinion, general physique improvement is one of the simplest goals to attain, yet one of the more difficult programs for the general population to follow. A person’s physique reflects their genetic component compounded with the sum of the decisions they’ve made in regards to their health. In other words, I’ve yet to see someone who didn’t have an incredible physique from working out hard, smart, and often combined with a perfect diet. The difficulty lies in actually following those guidelines. In the end, a person must be consciously aware of their own control and responsibility for their health, physique, and performance and make decisions based on their own goals, priorities, and motivations. With that being said, I hope the following considerations help you in your pursuit of health and fitness.
The Women’s Food Pyramid
The biggest obstacle that people (men and women) face when achieving health and fitness goals is how to eat properly within a nation of horrible eating habits. Even more difficult is how to decipher through all the “health” promotions that we are constantly surrounded by and come up with a quality, maintainable way of eating. In my experience, the majority of my female clients put a greater emphasis on eating healthy compared to my male clients. However, this emphasis is often times misdirected.
Many people look at their diet as being either bad or varying degrees of good. In other words, as long as someone isn’t eating pop-tarts and ice cream for breakfast and snacking on cupcakes all day long, in their minds they are eating well. The majority of my women fall into this category. They eat kashi cereal, drink fruit smoothies daily, and snack on yogurt and cheese instead of Hostess snacks and therefore they categorize their diets as being good. Unfortunately, this way of eating and thinking rarely helps them achieve their desired results. Sure, if they currently are eating true junk food all day long, eating like this will cause a significant improvement. But if they have been eating “healthy” for some time and are still not satisfied with their current physique, a different approach must be utilized.
I find the above picture is a fairly accurate depiction of what a typical female client considers a “healthy” diet. Meals consist of high amounts of grains, dairy, and fruits. This can cause a less than desirable affect on blood sugar which leads to a regular snacking on sweets, which in turn causes an even less than desirable effect on blood sugar. Protein from meat or eggs is usually consumed in small amounts and typically not till dinner. This way of eating leads to an abundance of carbs being consumed while protein and healthy fats are lacking.
I find that giving too strict of dietary guidelines can be too difficult for most people to follow so I give some very simple guidelines. Once they master the guidelines and are looking for continued improvement, then a more detailed approach can be taken.
The guidelines are as follows:
- Eat 3-5 meals a day
- Every meal should consist of an animal based protein (meat or eggs), complex carbohydrate, healthy fat, and vegetable. Fruits can be eaten first thing in the morning or post workout.
- No dairy, no sweets.
- Drink only water
Simple and effective.
Strength Training for Females
The underlying factor for why men and women differ in every way is the varying hormones that they each produce. Men tend to produce higher amounts of testosterone and growth hormone which allows them to build muscle easier and keeps them from storing higher amounts of fat. In women, testosterone and growth hormone are responsible for the regulation of muscle mass, fat dissemination, and libido. It is very important to seek to increase the amounts of these hormones if improved physique is a goal. Heavy weight training, specifically axial loading exercises (squats, deadlifts, carries) causes a significant increase in growth hormone and testosterone in women. The highest increases seem to come from heavy squats between the 1-5 rep range. Other tips to help increase these hormones include getting quality protein and fat at every meal, getting plenty of sleep in a completely dark and quite room, limiting alcohol intake, having regular sex (once a week), and taking supplemental ZMA.
The fear most women have of “bulking up” from weight training is not rooted in any scientific truth. While testosterone is responsible for muscle growth the average women’s levels are too low to cause large amounts of muscle gain. In fact, the extremely low end for male testosterone levels is 200 or less ng/dl while the average range for females would be between 40 and 70 ng/dl, with 70 ng/dl being considered fairly high. Compare that to a teenage boy who has testosterone levels above 700 ng/dl and actually has the potential for extreme muscle gain and you can see why there is no need to worry about excessive “bulking up”. Absent of anabolic steroid use or testicles, females will not add on significant muscle mass.
In addition to improved hormonal responses, strength training stimulates bone growth. Bone breakdown increases past the rate of bone growth after the age of 30 in most women. Prior to age 30, extra bone can be developed in response to weight training and other weight bearing activities while after 30 it can reduce the degree to which bone is broken down. This is important for women since they are at risk for increased bone loss once they reach menopause.
Another positive effect that weight training can have on women is increased self-esteem and empowerment from seeing their strength levels improve. This can have a great carry over into their day to day lives as they are better able to handle strength based activities. Also, as overall strength and power are often underdeveloped fitness qualities in women, it is something that must be trained in order to bring up their general physical preparedness.
Living the Life
All of the women I train have many responsibilities including work, raising kids, dealing with husbands, and all the other responsibilities of life. Life can get hectic from time to time and the added stresses of it can make finding the time and energy to work out and live healthy difficult. That being said, I personally believe that health is a responsibility that we cannot afford to toss to the side whenever it isn’t perfectly convenient. Exercise combined with a proper diet and other healthy life habits allows our bodies to function optimally and therefore provides us with higher quality lives and improves the interactions that we have we others we interact with. The issue of actually doing so arises when life’s situations are less than ideal to suit our exercise and dietary needs. Here are a few suggestions to help you in this struggle:
-Recover your central nervous system through restorative means. Many of my female clients tend to hold onto stress easier than my male clients. While the cause of the stress may be the same, the effect it causes and the amount of time it has effect is much greater. I encourage my female clients to get massages, take hot baths with oils and salts, meditate, or any other means of restorations (aromatherapy, music therapy, light therapy, laughing, screaming, singing, dancing, drawing, writing, acupuncture, stretching, vibration therapy, reflexology, yoga, tai chi, etc.) Returning to a parasympathetic nervous system state from a high level of stress can be tricky so it is important to find out what works best for you.
-Ink in your workout, cardio, and recovery sessions in your calendar. Everyone runs off a calendar these days and if something isn’t on the calendar, it’s not getting done. So pencil in your training sessions and don’t reschedule them. If something else comes up, tell whoever it involves that you have other obligations and will have to reschedule. This doesn’t always have to be set in stone but it is important to give your health and least some priority in your life. I have many clients who call or text me to cancel workouts because something has come up and not so many who call or text to get in an extra training sessions. My most consistent clients are also the ones who get the best results. Go figure.
-Find a training group. People are pack animals. We are meant to function and operate in groups. There will be leaders and followers and the group will decide the direction of the individuals within it. I have a ton of female clients who are the only ones in their inner circle who exercise. How successful can you expect to be when you have no friends who are? I absolutely hate enablers and I’m sorry to say it but there are many women who are and who surround themselves with enablers. Psychologically it’s very easy to do stuff you know is wrong (not training and poor eating habits) when the people you surround yourself with are making the same decisions, encouraging you to continually make bad decisions, and console you with lies when you do make those bad decisions. “Oh girl, your body is fantastic. You don’t even have to worry about what you eat. Want to get some cheesecake?”
Hopefully you found something useful in this article that you can take with you in your daily battle for improved health and physique.