There’s a lot of information bouncing around the internet suggesting how women should train to get that figure look. A lot of it is really great. However, very are truly accurate and comprehensive — explaining how to train, how to eat, and how to supplement.
To help you cut through all the nonsense, let’s get right down to it. Here’s a figure program that’s designed for results — whether you want to compete as a figure athlete, or just look and feel like one.
I love this quote:
“Movement is medicine for changing a person’s physical, emotional, and mental state.”
Indeed, recent research has demonstrated that exercise is more effective in treating depression than antidepressant medications! Beyond that, we all know that exercise helps us lose weight and build lean muscle. Hummm… exercise helps reshape the body, brighten the spirits, and sharpen the mind. I’m sold!
The biggest question I get about exercise is: “What type of exercise should I do if I want that figure athlete look?” Well, for starters, any exercise is better than none. The best exercise is the kind of exercise you’ll actually do. But if you want to really reshape your body, you’ll need to do mostly high intensity exercise.
Two types of high intensity exercise work best.
- Strength training
- High intensity interval/conditioning training
While most women think of strength training as something reserved for bodybuilders and strongmen, nothing could be farther from the truth. While strength training can be done in the gym with weights, it also can be done with dumbbells, sandbags, old tractor tires, exercise bands, or even your own body weight. And all of this can be done at home, at a local park, or at a community center. The real key is challenging your body through six key movement patterns:
Here’s an example strength training program that would be great for most women, regardless of their level.
Warm-up – 2 minutes of rowing
*With weight if possible
Seated cable row
Warm-up – 2 minutes of rowing
*AMAP = As many as possible **ALAP = As long as possible
Single-leg dumbbell deadlift
Warm-up – 2 minutes of rowing
Dumbbell vertical thrust
Dumbbell iron cross
Dumbbell Renegade row
In addition to strength exercise, you should also include some conditioning exercise, often referred to as cardio. Now, although most people think of long jogs, bike rides, or the Stairmaster, this type of exercise is not all that effective. Indeed, high intensity interval exercise, in which you work really hard for 20-90 seconds, rest, work hard again, rest again, has been shown to be the most effective form of conditioning work.
Here are two videos demonstrating one of my favorite forms of conditioning exercise: interval circuits.
Although in these videos our model Amanda is doing 10s of work and 10s of rest, this is only for illustrative purposes. Typically, she does 30 seconds of work and then takes 30 seconds of rest for the first and last circuits. And she does 40 seconds of work and then takes 40 seconds of rest for the second circuit. She’ll also do between 6 and 12 rounds, depending on work:rest time.
So the workout might look like this:
Tire flip – 40s
Rest – 40s
Ball toss – 40s
Rest – 40s
Ball smash – 40s
Rest – 40s
KB swing – 40s
Rest – 40s
Ring pull ups – 40s
Rest – 40s
That’s 1 round and takes about 6 minutes or so. She’d repeat this about 6 times, for a 36 minute workout.
Here’s another awesome form of conditioning work: 20:10 sprints.
20:10 treadmill sprints
- First, Amanda does a 5 minute warm up.
- Next, she sets her treadmill at an incline of 15% and a speed of 8 mph.
- Then she runs for 20 seconds.
- Next, she recovers for 10 seconds (jumping off while the treadmill is still going along).
- Again, 20 seconds of running.
- And 10 seconds of recovery.
She typically continues this for 5 total minutes. Then, she takes a 5 minute rest. And does it all over again. In total, it’s a 15-minute workout. And believe it or not, this workout is way more effective at burning fat and improving her conditioning than 45-60 minutes of walking or jogging!
Thus, my recommendation: in addition to the 3 weight training workouts per week, add in 1 circuit workout and 1 sprint workout, at least at first. Eventually, if you’re interested in getting really lean — like contest-lean — you can add more. But for now, this should get it done.
You probably think of your exercise time in terms of single workouts, e.g. “60 minutes three times per week”. I encourage you to think of it in terms of total time per week.
Research I’ve done in conjunction with the University of Wyoming has demonstrated that 5 hours per week is the magic number. Anything less fails to produce results while 5 hours or more of exercise produces great results.
So far, we’ve compiled about 3 and ¼ hours of exercise with the three 45 min weight training sessions, one 45 min circuit session, and one 15 min sprint session. To reach the 5 hour threshold, and to help you recover from this high intensity work, finish your week with some very low intensity cardio work: Walk around the block. Go for a bike ride. That’s the sort of stuff I mean. Lower intensity yoga counts too. 30 minutes 3x per week should do the trick.
The total program might look something like this:
Just as exercise is medicine, so is food. And just as it’s possible to dig your grave with your own knife and fork, it’s also possible to prevent and treat disease as well as improve your body with your utensils.
Unfortunately, most people are never very honest about what their knives and forks are doing. In fact, a speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil approach is usually taken. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these lines, I’d be a very wealthy guy.
“I eat really well…”
“…I’m still 20lbs overweight.”
“My diet is perfect…”
“…I often feel sluggish and my energy is low.”
“I make good nutritional choices…”
“…I’ve got high blood pressure, cholesterol, and type II diabetes.”
Obviously these are all lies. If you ate really well, if your diet was perfect, or if you made good nutritional choices, these would not be problems. So, the best way for you to get started in improving your diet is to follow these five rules:
1. Eat about 4 – 5x a day and don’t wait so long between meals.
Research has demonstrated that those people who eat more frequently tend to have better blood sugar control, lower stress hormone production, lower body fat, and more lean muscle. But their food has to be the right stuff.
2. Include lean, complete protein at every meal and snack.
The ideal amount of protein per day for an exercising individual is 1 gram per pound of body weight. For a 140 lb woman, that’d be 140 g of protein. Getting this much means grabbing some protein every time you snack or eat a meal.
3. Include veggies at every meal and snack.
The ideal amount of veggies each day is about 8 servings. Now, the every meal thing isn’t necessary. But it’s quite tough to get all these servings if you don’t include some cooked, raw, juiced, or blended veggies with each meal.
4. Include a variety of healthy fats.
Our food supply today contains a fat balance that’s out of whack. To get our fat intake back to where it should be, we need to include things like olive oil, avocados, flax oil, fish oil, raw nuts, etc. each day.
5. Consume carbohydrate-rich foods only after exercise.
Carbs aren’t the enemy. But they should be controlled — especially for women — since it’s easy to over eat them. The best strategy to control carbs is to eat mostly whole grain carbohydrates (like amaranth, quinoa, whole grain oats, etc.) and to save them until after exercise. Since exercise increases our body’s ability to effectively utilize carbohydrates, the ideal time to eat some whole grains is within the first few hours post exercise.
These “rules” are a great start. But they won’t get the job done alone. In fact, there are two other secrets to helping you build a great physique.
Other food ideas
The first is a lesson we can take from the Okinawans, called hara hachi bu. In Okinawa, heart disease and stroke rates are lower than in North America. So are cholesterol, homocysteine, and blood pressure measures. Rates of cancer are lower — especially breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancer. Hip fractures are lower and dementia is rare. Plus the Okinawans tend to live longer.
What’s their secret? Hara hachi bu. Roughly translated this means eating only until you’re 80% full. And no more. Now, this isn’t a dietary suggestion. Rather, it’s part of their culture. Anyone who stuffs themselves is considered a glutton. In the end, many experts believe that this cultural practice, in conjunction with the Okinawan diet rich in fruits and veggies, fish, and legumes is the secret of their success.
The other thing that’ll help you look your best? If you have a male partner, make sure his portion sizes don’t impact yours. If you live and/or dine with a male partner, chances are you automatically overeat simply because you two are chowing together.
Think about dinners out. You’re served the same portions. Yet you’re likely not the same size. Do you really think that you need to eat the same amount as he does? Only if you want to weigh the same as him, I guess. And the same goes for meals at home. I bet you serve meals on the same size plate for both of you. That’s another recipe for overeating.
To help prevent his portions from influencing yours, there are a few strategies you should adopt immediately.
First, when at restaurants, ask if they’ll accommodate small potion sizes. He gets the normal size, you get the smaller one. And if that doesn’t work, here’s something my lady does. She orders what she wants. Then she tells the server to split it into two, boxing up one half for later. This way she gets two meals for the price of one.
Next, at home, make sure you have two different size plates: One large one for him. And one small one for you. Then you can fill both plates, neither looks sad and empty, and each of you eats an appropriate portion.
Many experts suggest that supplements aren’t necessary when the diet is complete. Unfortunately in North America, the diet is pretty much never complete. Can you believe that 68% of the population is deficient in calcium, 90% in chromium, 75% in magnesium, 80% in vitamin B6, and 95% in omega-3 fats?
In fact, in a recent study, even athletes’ diets didn’t measure up. In this project, the diets of 70 athletes were analyzed for vitamin and mineral intake and not a single one met the recommended daily amount. All of them were deficient in between 3 and 15 nutrients.
Beyond this, other research has shown the following:
- Less than 3% of men and 5% of women get the minimum number of fruits and veggies per day (3-5 servings).
- On average, women get only 80 g of protein per day (when their needs are closer to 120-140 g) and men get only 120 g of protein per day (when their needs are closer to 170-190 g).
I’m definitely not one to heavily promote nutritional supplements. However, with the deficiencies above, folks have to either improve their food intake tremendously or they have to start supplementing their diets with things like:
1. Protein supplements (link to our supplement page): 1-2 scoops a day works well for women
2. Fish oil supplements (link to our supplement page): 4-6 capsules a day is typical for my female clients
3. A good, broad spectrum multi-vitamin (link to our supplement page): 1-3 capsules depending on the potency
Also, for women, I recommend the following
4. Branched chain amino acids (link to our supplement page):I prefer my female clients sip a BCAA drink during exercise to help promote high performance and more complete recovery.
5. Sleep enhancement: Although this isn’t a requirement, I find that many women who start training hard have a hard time falling asleep and/or sleeping through the night. Phosphatidylserine help quite a bit depending on the circumstances.
These are some of my top strategies for helping get women into awesome shape. Trust me, these strategies work fantastically if they’re consistently applied.
And for more on the nutrition and supplement side of things, PN V3 has everything you need to know. You can get yourself a copy, at a special discounted price, right here: Precision Nutrition V3
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