Ginny is a 41-year-old client of mine who loves lifting and has developed a strong, athletic body in the last eight months. She’s proud of doing four unassisted pull ups (so far) and gaining five pounds of lean muscle mass. Ginny enjoys a good slice of pizza and piece of chocolate now and then, but she knows how to eat clean and usually does. But what’s still missing for Ginny is the holy grail of a lean, muscular physique: Freaky sculpted muscle definition that shouts feminine and athletic at the same time. What’s holding Ginny back?
She’s not active outside the weight room. Like, at all.
How many weightlifting women can relate with this? We’re busy enough trying to get in four or five strength training sessions a week without adding in “cardio.” But while strength training does help you become a fat-burning machine, it’s not enough to sculpt epic muscle definition, especially as we get older. And who wants to eat a restrictive diet all the time? We’re eating for muscle, you know.
The secret ingredient for carving out muscle definition is moving more and moving aerobically.
Notice that I didn’t say eating less was the key to muscle definition. When you’re already fairly lean and active every day, you can actually eat more. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
So the real question is, how can you attain muscle definition without overtraining, constant cardio, or diet deprivation?
How to Eat for Muscle Definition
Let’s get diet out of the way first. What I’m going to say applies to women who aren’t too far off from around 18-20% body fat. We’re not talking about contest-prep body fat here, but it has to be on the lower side. If you’re above 20-24% you can still see definition, but it may not be as freaky as you’d like. So if you’re not there yet, keep reading.
If you listen to the din of voices out there, women should be dieting all the time. Yet if you’re active enough, you can eat a LOT of food and still be at your leanest. Two-time Ms. Figure Olympia Erin Stern said it herself on Instagram:
In this post, Stern says she doesn’t restrict calories even when she’s in contest prep mode. Instead, she does boatloads of aerobic training (as does Pauline Nordin and other crazy-ripped women). Obviously, we mere mortals with day jobs need a less rigorous training schedule (and a higher body fat!), but women need to hear what Stern is saying.
Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but restricting calories holds you back from carving out your best muscle definition. Sure, if you want to lose fat you should restrict calories for a period of time and exercise regularly. But if you want to build and retain muscle, you need to eat enough quality foods.
If you’re active enough, you can (and should) eat a shit ton of food and have a lean, sculpted body with gorgeous woman-muscles. But this is very hard for women to do because we’re programmed to believe we should eat less and exercise more. At the same time, if you’re only strength training and eating more for muscle, it’s fairly easy to gain fat, too.
When you’re more active outside the weight room, not only will you be able to eat without deprivation, you’ll get the AHA minimum requirements for exercise. It’s becoming clear that even if you lift four days a week, you’re still probably not getting enough exercise for optimal health and performance. So more activity is a complete win.
How Much Extra Activity Are We Talking About?
First let’s address the fear that aerobic exercise will cause you to go into a catabolic state and lose all your muscle. The breakdown of muscle mass most often happens with prolonged, vigorous exercise and is actually rarer than you might believe. It can also be mitigated with proper nutrition and rest.
Plus, you don’t have to spend hours on a cardio machine.
The key to a lean yet muscular physique is to find creative ways to stay active every day, along with possible supplementary aerobic periods that are highly individual, depending on your age, body type and composition, and activity level, among others.
How to Stay Active Outside the Weight Room
There’s several approaches to getting more active, and you need to choose the ones that best fit your lifestyle. Be sure to recover adequately and don’t train the same muscles back to back, lest you plateau or worse, overtrain.
Exercise as a Lifestyle You Adore
The reason I’m at my leanest in the summer is because I cycle, hike, or power walk almost every day. I love being outdoors, so it’s not difficult for me to get aerobic exercise this way. In the winter, I usually gain a little fat as my activity level tapers off, but I still try to walk and hop on a machine for HIIT or steady state cardio sessions a couple of times a week.
If you don’t have something physical you love doing besides weightlifting, now’s the time to find it. Even if you don’t love the outdoors, there are lots of fun things to try, like:
Indoors: Swimming, dance or aerobic classes, ice skating, racquetball, basketball, volleyball, tennis
Outdoors: Running, power walking, hiking, cycling, rollerblading, ice skating, snow shoeing, Nordic skiing, skiing/snowboarding
As Erin Stern says, there’s also a freaking million variations of tabatas, finishers, metabolic circuits, and other bodyweight routines that get your heart rate up without overstressing your muscles.
NEAT: It Ain’t Sexy, But It Works
With few exceptions, everybody needs to move more. Sitting is now classified with smoking in terms of health risks, and we’re clearly all too sedentary. That’s why NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is so promising for both fat loss/maintenance and general health and fitness.
NEAT includes activity such as as standing, walking, talking, and fidgeting that is not considered planned physical activity. If you have doubts about how important NEAT is to losing weight and preventing weight gain, consider this:
A study recruited 20 healthy volunteers who were self-proclaimed “couch potatoes.” Ten participants were lean by BMI standards and 10 were mildly obese. The researchers measured their BMI and then collected data about how much they moved and how often they were seated.
The study found that the lean participants, although couch potatoes, burned an average of 352 more calories per day than the obese participants. That’s the equivalent of 36.5 pounds in one year. Can you say eureka?!
It turns out that the obese subjects were seated for 164 minutes longer each day than the lean participants. The lean participants were upright for 153 minutes longer per day than the obese subjects . So you can see that moving matters!
>> Check out these ideas for increasing NEAT.
Are you ready to get cut while increasing your health, performance, and energy? Choose to be more active – find an activity you love and schedule it in 1-2 times a week. Move more and get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. You’ll also be able to eat normally (or more) for fueling your workouts.
Questions? Got a plan? Leave ’em in the comments below and let’s compare ideas.
 Levine, J.A., Lannigham-Foster, L.M., McCrady, S.K., Krizan, C. Kane, P.H., Jensen, M.D., and Clark, M.M. (2005). Interindividual Variation in Posture Allocation: Possible Role in Human Obesity. Science, 28 January, Vol. 307, pp 584-586.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.