Last week I was training next to a woman for awhile and watching her out of the corner of my eye. I do this out of habit, probably my professional side waiting to be impressed by her knowledge or form. And I was impressed – she pushed 45-50 pounds overhead with relative ease and you just don’t see that very often. I was amazed that she followed this immediately by doing pushups.
I, on the other hand, was wicked tired already and barely able to eek out my eight reps of 50-pound overhead presses.
Then this woman asked me how I had built my arms and shoulders. She said she had trouble gaining any muscle definition, even though her body fat was on the lower side and she trained super hard. This conversation made me realize there’s a major disconnect among women about how to train for sculpted delts, arms, calves, and butt that shout “Damn, girl!”
Just to be clear, you do need a “lower” body fat in order to see your delts and biceps pop, quadriceps flex, and abs ripple. But maybe not as low as you think, plus there are other important variables involved. As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, I have some muscle definition when I’m at a higher body fat (24% is my highest since I started tracking).
Unless you want washboard abs, many women do not have to be below 20-23% body fat, IF they also build enough muscle mass – which means training smart.
Training Muscle Away
So back to our woman in the gym who has a reasonable body fat percentage, lifts heavy, and trains hard but has little muscle definition. She’s clearly strong and fit – why doesn’t she have cap shoulders and bulging biceps/triceps she wants?
Genetics and body type play a role, but let’s take these out of the equation for now and talk about the way she was training.
Her heavy presses were followed by pushups, after which she disappeared and did something else. She was strong and had great endurance, but she was not optimizing her workouts for muscle building.
At the risk of sound obvious, you need to need above-average amounts of muscle mass to see muscle definition. Especially if you do not have a body fat percent in the teens (although even this does not guarantee that sculpted look).
However, I truly don’t think this is as obvious as it may seem. We’re so obsessed with fat loss and washboard abs it’s as if we’re programmed with the message, GET THAT FAT OFF! Keep the intensity high and don’t slack off – work hard.
This is without a doubt one of the biggest mistakes I see women make, both when I meet new clients and from what I see in my gym.
In addition to our obsession with being skinny enough to see our abs, some women are cardio addicts. Let’s just get it out in the open – busting out HIIT can be an adrenaline rush… a runner’s high, if you will.
I’m kind of awed by chicks who are addicted to cardio because they really are training hard and they’re going after the body they want.
Unfortunately, they’re going about it the wrong way.
I understand the fire in your belly, so to speak, to lose fat. I’ve been there… it can be a singular focus that drives your workouts. Many of us want “flat abs,” but this just isn’t going to be a reality for most women.
Our different ways of storing fat, especially as we get older and after pregnancy and C-sections, make having flat abs really, really difficult for some women. Water retention and a muffin top are pretty common too.
Yet you can still look smokin’ hot even if you don’t have a six pack. It’s a mentality we need to break through.
This isn’t to make you to give up hope on having washboard abs but to help you prioritize your muscle building and train more effectively.
Optimizing Your Training for Muscle Growth
When you’re too focused on attaining perfect abs, chances are you’re doing too much intense, cardio-type training to build the muscle you need for standout definition.
I’ve had hardworking, strong clients with very low body fat who had a hard time attaining muscle definition because they couldn’t stop doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or metabolic resistance training.
High-intensity strength training thwarts muscle growth by using up energy needed for muscle building. Put another way, what you’re eating fuels these high-intensity workouts and doesn’t leave enough calories – energy – left to build muscle.
And to top it off, many women who do a lot of intense, cardio-style workouts also eat sparsely to avoid gaining weight.
The strong woman in the gym doing presses and pushups together needs to slow down, rest between sets, and work in different rep ranges to build muscle. There may to be other changes needed too.
If you already have a body fat you’re happy with, then your next task is to learn how to push hard safely and train for the fastest muscle growth. And if you have a low body fat but are addicted to cardio, you have some mindset work ahead.
So while body fat IS important for muscle definition, it’s not always the only reason you’re not seeing it.
What does smart, muscle-building training look like? Stay tuned – I’ll address this in upcoming posts.
This article originally appeared on workoutnirvana.com.