Translating Theory into Buffness: A Checklist

I hear it when you say it can be a struggle getting the results you want. An online friend even pointed out to me the other day that knowing the theory and science behind building muscle and losing fat doesn’t always translate into results – getting buff, that is – that  holy grail of looking exactly like you want to look.

So I started thinking about the ingredients of attaining a buff state and how much of it is a series of questions asked throughout my workout. I realized I follow an internal check list – a little voice that guides me and is ultimately responsible for getting me to my goals. As I’ve become more aware of it, I’m truly impressed with how effective it is.

You have a little voice following you around during your workouts too, and if you’re not seeing the results you want, it’s time to tune in and listen to what that voice is saying – or not saying.

If there’s negative talk going on – “I can’t lift that much… that will make me look stupid… what if I hurt myself” – it’s affecting your results. Negative thoughts only serve to distract you from your goals.

You also need to realize that weight lifting requires reasoning and comprehension to be effective. Just double-checking your form alone involves an ongoing thought process throughout your workout.  Add the questions I list below and you can see why you need to have a laser-like focus every time you lift weights. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be focused.

Take a look at my check list to see if there’s something your internal guide is missing. If you don’t have a check list, you may be cheating yourself out of the results you deserve.

How many reps should I do?

This question automatically pops up when I approach a machine or bench. It is crucial because the number of reps you do directly impacts your results. The answer will depend on these things:

  • If I haven’t increased the weight in long time, I’ll keep the reps low/resistance high to increase strength. I’ll also think about using an advanced technique to surprise my muscles.
  • If I like my current results and the weight is still challenging, I’ll do 8-12 reps to stimulate muscle growth.

As you can see, I vary the number of reps according to my current goal. It’s not random, and in order for me to see a difference in either my strength or size, I need to ask myself this question every time I start an exercise. Another question you need to ask, perhaps less frequently, is how long do I rest.

Can I go heavier?

As alluded to above, I must continually lift heavier to get bigger and/or stronger. Please don’t let that scare you; women cannot get big and bulky without steroids. And if you’re lean, strong, and muscular, you will be what’s referred to as “buff.” Isn’t that desirable?

As I discussed on my wall, “toning” is a myth. Muscles cannot be “shaped” with light weights and high reps; they can be enlarged or atrophied. If you want definition (that buff look), you’ll need to work on enlarging your muscles while eating lean. You won’t see muscle definition until you lower your body fat.

So when I ask myself if I can go heavier, I again look at my current goals:

  • If I’m doing a special technique to shock my muscles into growing (like a reverse pyramid), I think about the weight I need for that. For a reverse pyramid, that’ll start with the heaviest weight I can lift for three to five reps. I’ll want to do about two more reps each set after that. But can I go heavier than last time? If I don’t ask myself this question, I’m not progressing.
  • If I look at my training log and see that I did 12 reps easily the last few times, I know it’s time to try a heavier weight. I’m almost always pleasantly surprised by how much stronger I’ve become when I do this.

Can I do one more?

As I approach my target rep range, positive thoughts kick in such as, “I’m strong,” and “I can do this.” If I’m doing it right, the last few reps are hard. I have to push it. I’m breathing hard and grimacing. All the stuff you see bodybuilders doing during their sets? It’s not (always) just for show. It’s because they’re serious about getting results and they’re pushing it. They know the power of positive self talk, too.

If you really want to see results and feel strong, you need to push it. Among other things, that means asking yourself every set whether you can do one more rep.

  • If you’re within your prescribed rep range and cannot, then you’ve pushed it. You may even need to lower the weight to get back in the right range.
  • If you can do one more, then you need to ask whether it’s possible to lift more the next time or if it’s just right. Being able to lift the weight once or twice more is ok – you don’t want to go to failure every time. But again, that’s fairly individual.

So you see, weight lifting is really a series of questions asked over and over during your workout. As you can see, keeping a training log can be truly beneficial for more than keeping track of your workouts. It can tell you what to do next. So listen carefully while you work out… and watch for the results.


21 thoughts on “Translating Theory into Buffness: A Checklist

  1. This is a terrific checklist for helping people determine whether they’re putting in the hard yards or just going through the motions. It’s so easy for us to slide into a comfortable routine of continuing to do the same things over and over–and then we wonder why we’re not seeing results anymore!

    I also appreciate the subtext of this piece: that lifting is a *thinking* activity, not something we shlep through mindlessly.

    Here’s to continued buffness!


  2. Suzanne. This is terrific advice! In the past, I’ve let negative self-talk keep me from trying something new or heavier in the weight room. Since I’ve been working with my personal trainer twice a week, that has definitely changed. Reading your post helped me understand more of his strategy in pushing those extra reps this morning, which did push me to my limit. And on the days when I train by myself, i will show up armed with the questions you mention above. Thanks!


  3. So funny! I have a post tomorrow on my lifting heavier again now that age has slowed down my easy gainer title from when I was younger & that means even in my 40’s! 🙂 the 50’s have been tough on the bod! BUT, lifting heavier again has been fun!

    It definitely is mental & I never tell myself I can’t lift something – I at least try! 🙂

    We may go about the gaining differently but the results are what we want to get for ourselves! YES!!!


    • Love that you like traditional weights Jodi. And as far as lifting heavy, I’m sure hoping I can keep doing it a LONG time! It’ll be hard to keep ladies like us down!


  4. Great checklist! I always tell my clients to get the best results they are going to have to push out of their comfort zones. Yes, it will be hard but the results are so worth it in the end. They agree when their husband admire their toned back sides!


    • That’s the perfect perspective Pamela. New clients are sometimes surprised when they sweat and breathe heavy with me (lol)… I try to tell them that I’m hired to make them work hard, not get away with slacking!


  5. Those are truly great ideas that you have shared. I have once tried to get that buff look to no avail; I struggled in keeping my body fat down. Now I am aiming to try it again using a different approach.


  6. oh, wise and muscular toned woman (ha! just kidding on the “toned”), so now I have a question: If I’m doing biceps curls, but my muscles don’t start burning at all until the 2nd set, am I lifting too easy? Should I be feelin’ da burn on that first set of curlies?


    • Grrr! I mean, great question Josie. I do think you should feel da burn on the first set. So up that weight and see how many reps you can do. How many reps you want to do will depend on your goal of course…


  7. My goal is to be toned. Wait… no?
    More definition. That’s my goal. I’m getting leaner so I do see the underlying definition in my biceps more than ever, but I want to enhance that.


    • Getting leaner is the best enhancer. I found this out when I lost several pounds due to being busy at work recently. There’s a limit to how lean I want to be, however. Finding that just-right weight is magical!


  8. I love it when women focus on progressive overload! It never ceases to amaze me how terrified most women are of resistance training when, in truth, it’s one of the best things women can possibly do for shaping their bodies into what they want to look like.

    Also, I really like the focus on positive self-efficacy as you approach your next lift. It’s a huge part of the game when you’re trying to increase your lifts.


    • Thanks! Looks like we share that desire to spread the word. The topic of women and progression so often gets neglected. Visited your site and loved the comment on your About page that your first goal is safety and injury prevention.


  9. I’ve been reading my copy of “Weight Training for Dummies” since I workout at home and have only been lifting for nine months and this post completely hit home. You speak of many of the same things the authors do in the book. And, totally agree on the power of positive thinking affecting your lifting session. You have to have a “can-do” attitude when it comes to tackling the iron!


    • Wow, believe it or not that is the exact book I started out with back in umm, 1994 I think. I’m glad to hear that book is still helping people! And I so agree about positive thinking. Saying “I can do this” will get us a lot farther without a doubt.


  10. Nice article. I like the part about weightlifting requiring reasoning and comprehension. Well said. I love my training log to understand more about where I’ve been and where I want to go.


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