Self-Acceptance in Goal-Setting
Today, I want to address a misconception that I hear all the time as a personal trainer, especially when I make my in-home exercise equipment shopping list for new clients.
I send the list to my client via e-mail, and I often receive a variant of this confused reply when it comes to the two 25-pound kettlebells:
“You meant one kettlebell, right? Not two?”
“That was a typo, right? Those aren’t supposed to be 25 pounds, are they?”
They think I must have mis-typed.
Often, my new clients are skeptical that they are even going to be able to lift these weights at all (spoiler alert: they can). But their uncertainty is often tinged with a deeper fear, which some clients express to me right away, while some wait until several months of training to blurt out. It sounds something like this:
“I don’t want to get big. I just want to lift lower weights for higher reps, so that I’ll just tone the muscle. I just want definition.”
They’re afraid of the weights that I am using with them – worried that they are moving away from, instead of toward, their goals.
While I respect my clients’ aesthetic ideals, there are two major problems with this line of thinking.
- One problem is that the reasoning is incorrect. That’s not how strength training – or muscle gain – works.
- The second problem is that the fear itself. While my male clients in the past have delighted in the feeling of straining shirt sleeves as a mark of progress, female clients are often horrified at the prospect of putting on muscle. They often don’t want more muscle – they just want to improve the appearance of what’s already there. This often stops women from putting the work in over a period of months or years, which would dramatically change their body composition and get them where they truly want to go.
So how do we untangle these misconceptions and fears, so that you can get the results that you really want?
By the end of this post, you’re not only going to have a firm understanding of how and why muscle gain happens (and what variables affect it), but you’ll also be excited to hit the gym (or the exercise mat in your apartment, or your Pilates Reformer) and get to work on building muscles the way you want them.
But let’s start with the science of strength training.
What Happens When You Train for Strength?
I’m going to spare you a lot of jargon, and cut to the chase:
Study after study after study has shown that high weights at low reps and low weights at high reps have an essentially equal effect on muscle change, all other things being equal. As long as you’re working to fatigue/failure, you’re getting stronger and putting on muscle.
Whether you squat 150 pounds for a few reps, or find yourself fighting through the agony of a 90-minute yoga class where the instructor is clearly using “chair pose” as filler, you’re probably going to gain the same amount of muscle in your quads, all other things being equal.
I hope you noticed the phrase toward the end of both paragraphs, because it’s incredibly important: “All other things being equal.” This is the key phrase, because there are three other major variables that impact muscle gain, besides the weight that you use:
When you are working on your strength and body composition goals (i.e. looking more defined with less body fat), you are not making real headway unless you are really fighting to get through the end of each set (or yoga class, or Pilates pose, or run). In other words, what you are doing needs to be hard, several times a week.
An easy way to remember to work hard is that the American Heart Association defines “vigorous” exercise this way:
“You’ll probably get warm and begin to sweat. You won’t be able to talk much without getting out of breath.”
Lifting a few light weights for a few sets of 12 on a couple of exercises is probably not going to get you to that point, and you need to challenge yourself more to see any change in your physique.
How we eat has a significant effect on how much muscle (and fat) we gain.
If you squat heavy but eat at caloric maintenance (i.e. consuming roughly what you burn every day, on average) or less, you’re just going to keep looking and feeling better in your clothes all the time as your body prioritizes muscle and sheds a little fat. The net result is that you will be leaner and stronger, even if you’re not lighter.
But if you tend to “treat yourself” after your weekly 90-minute yoga class (because #balance), you may find that you put on more size than you were counting on, if seeing more definition was your goal.
Of course, it’s often not quite this straightforward. Nutrition can be difficult to manage, but it’s a key ingredient in achieving the goals you want to conquer.
The third major variable is “volume.” In this case, “volume” doesn’t refer to how loud the music is at your gym – it’s how many times per week you’re getting a particular exercise into your schedule.
For example, if you’re working on stronger, more defined legs, then squats once a week won’t be as effective as squats (in some form) three times a week.
It also matters how many sets of an exercise you perform. Without getting too specific, it’s safe to say that 2 sets of 12, once per week, is not as effective as 4 sets of 8, three times per week, regardless of the weight you’re using.
When you match up the perfect combination (for you) of vigorous intensity, proper nutrition, and sufficient volume for several months, you are guaranteed to see a difference in your body – it could even happen within weeks if you unlock that combination quickly and stay consistent.
Ultimately, the great part is that these variables are adjustable for your specific goals.
If you want to get bigger (I have “skinny” clients who want to put on muscle and look like they work out), the answer is to raise your intensity and volume, and eat more – especially protein and carbohydrates.
If you want to get leaner, the answer is to raise your intensity and volume without eating more, and maybe even eat less. (But not too much less, or you risk over-training and under-recovering, which will set you back.)
In fact, you can play with these variables over time. For many of my bridal clients, we start by eating more while we increase exercise intensity and volume. Yes, you read that right – more. By eating more, these bride-to-be’s are able to put on a noticeable amount of muscle that – when they adjust their caloric intake and exercise intensity downward later – is revealed as tight, sculpted, and defined. We carefully balance the variables to make this happen. Here’s a bridal client that I worked with last year:
And one that I worked with this year:
And two years ago:
Getting “bigger” is a good thing when you are being intentional about building up your muscle and increasing your athleticism.
The intensity and volume break down muscle, and nutrition provides the fuel to rebuild the muscles stronger and slightly bigger. These three variables work in tandem extremely powerfully.
The amount of weight you use in your workouts is only relevant in the sense that it determines how long your workouts have to last to generate the right effect. Heavier weights, which are naturally more intense in a shorter amount of time, tend to allow for shorter, more efficient workouts.
Plus, the “bonus benefit” of putting on lean muscle is that muscle is more metabolically active than fat. This means that, pound for pound, a more muscular version of you will have an easier job with weight management and metabolic function. This is partly why running – while it is great aerobic exercise – shouldn’t be your only strategy for fat loss, as it eats away muscle as well as fat, softening the metabolic change in your body.
Takeaway #1: Having more muscle, however you build it, is good for your health AND your fat loss goals. Intensity, nutrition, and volume are more important than the weights you use, when it comes to changing your appearance through strength training and muscle gain.
But in this discussion of physique and science, we have to remember another key element of muscle gain:
Build is genetic. Even though we can achieve changes in weight and body composition regardless of inherited traits, build tends to be determined by our parents and grandparents, not our habits.
In other words, if you are hereditarily predisposed to have strong, broad shoulders and mighty legs, you’re just as likely to “bulk up” from 5 pounds as you would be from 150. Lifting light weights will not shrink you, revealing “long, lean” muscles.
But if you are as wispy as a willow with long, thin arms and legs, you could powerlift for years and still look like a ballet dancer.
To be clear, regardless of genetics, you can still change your fitness, weight, body shape, and physique quite a bit (more on that in a moment). Having lost 50 pounds myself as part of my fitness journey, my sense of my “body type” changed significantly over time as I realized what my body was capable of.
But you’re not going to change what makes you “you,” regardless of what kinds of weights you use. Light weights and special exercises will not transform you in a magical way.
This is incredibly important, because some fitness brands (and personalities) use misinformation, or – at the very least – the power of suggestion, to prey on women’s insecurities.
As one fitness celebrity’s website says, “While all of the women came to her with wildly different genetic backgrounds and body types, [she] gave each and every one of them long, lean muscles. In short, she had figured out how to harness and deliver the elusive dancer’s body.”
For the record, I trained a professional ballerina who was in the American Ballet Theater company, and the way you get a dancer’s body is to vigorously dance for 8+ hours a day for 40+ weeks a year. This dancer hired me so that she could put on more muscle. Go figure.
While this fitness professional I quoted is certainly on the fringe in terms of what she is explicitly promising, many more fitness authorities – both individuals and magazines – indirectly and subtly communicate these ideas.
One example is the use of models. How a publication presents a new exercise or workout through the use of a model can unconsciously affect our perception of the effects of the workout. Seeing a tall, willowy model, a plus-size powerlifter, a muscular athlete, or a lean runner performing an exercise can affect how we perceive the exercise.
As Lou Schuler says in The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess:
“Let’s say you accept the impossibility of developing a celebrity’s proportions without being a clone of that celebrity. Chances are, you still believe that you can achieve a “type” of physique if you train like people who have that type. Magazines feed this notion, rarely stated in so many words, by showing tall, lean models doing workouts that promise readers a long, lean physique. They were cast by the photo editors specifically because they already have what the feature promises.”The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess, by Lou Schuler
Seeing a lithe, lean, lightly-muscled model hold a yoga pose in a magazine is very different from actually going to a yoga class, where you will see instructors of every size and body shape.
This use of visual suggestion affects us. For women who don’t feel confident in their bodies or their workouts, these appeals to insecurity can serve as constant distraction. They see workouts that promise not just a better body, but a completely different body, than the one they have, and they drop what they’re doing and start a new routine.
The net result, in the end, is that switching programs frequently (including stopping weight training) causes exercisers to lose ground on basic progress, because they’re not sticking with anything long enough to see a difference in their physique.
The reality is that they could achieve a really amazing physique, but they’re so worried that they’re not going to fit a culturally prescribed notion of “beauty” that they abandon their goals before they get there.
Takeaway #2: Because build is genetic, chasing after workouts that promise a transformation in body type can sabotage progress. Embrace the body you have, don’t fall for clever marketing that plays on your insecurities, stay consistent with the basics, and you’ll be amazed at how much you love the body you have.
Mental Flexibility and Self-Acceptance
While there has been a renaissance of strength training for women, creating a general cultural acceptance of stronger women, I still find that many of my female clients do not want to put on muscle.
Again, I want to point out that I respect that people have different goals. However, what’s lacking here is an experimental attitude and self-acceptance.
In other words, these women who are horrified of muscle do not pause to ask themselves thoughtfully, “I wonder if I did gain muscle, if I would end up feeling comfortable with it after all – or even liking it.”
It’s possible. Because if you dig deeper, it makes you start asking more questions.
- “Why don’t I want to be bulky?”
- “Am I afraid of being seen as too strong or dominant?”
- “Am I worried about what my significant other or possible partners will think of me?”
For women who have constantly found themselves in this catch-22 of wanting to get fitter but not wanting to get bigger, and never really getting anywhere, asking these questions can be powerful. They’re not easy, and they dig into your concept of body image, attractiveness, and femininity.
Thoughtful self-inquiry invites you to consider the question, “What if?”
Here, I’d like to share a little bit of my own story to illustrate the concept of mental flexibility.
From 2010-2011, I lost 50 pounds. My appearance changed so much that when I returned to my university campus for my husband’s doctoral graduation, one of my classmates did not recognize me.
For years, I maintained this weight loss – until I started strength training more seriously. Suddenly, the scale was harder to control, and – at first – this scared me. It reminded me too much of the out-of-control climb in my weight that I experienced when I was at my unhealthiest.
But then it stabilized. Instead of climbing up and up and up, it crept up about 10 pounds over a period of two years, fluctuated a little, and then held.
But… the experience was different from my previous weight gain, in that my general clothing size didn’t change. Before 2010, I was constantly buying new clothes as buttons wouldn’t close or sweaters stopped looking “right.” This time, the only thing I had to “size up” were my jeans, because of my hips, and my bra band – I had worn a 0 in jeans and I had to bump up to a 2 in most brands (but now the waist gapes), and I had worn a 30 bra and had to move up to a 34.
Essentially, I went from being a very small person to just being an average small person (far from jacked), who has less trouble finding bras and more trouble finding jeans. Oh, and I’m probably twice as strong.
So what is happening when someone’s weight increases by 10 pounds, their waist size stays the same but their muscles get bigger? This is called “body recomposition.” I was getting leaner, stronger, and more muscular without getting a lot bigger, because I was eating and training in a way that slowly prioritized muscle and shed fat.
In other words, “getting bigger” does happen, even if your trainer is telling you that you don’t have enough testosterone for it to happen. But the twist is this: it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s surprisingly empowering. I quickly realized that “getting bigger” is extremely relative and that you learn to embrace it, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. (For perspective, the women who you see on bodybuilding competition stages spend more time in the gym and the kitchen than you will likely ever spend even thinking about fitness.)
Instead of making me feel “manly” or “bulky,” a little more muscle simply made me feel stronger, more confident, and more at peace with the way my body looks and works.
Takeaway #3: “Mental flexibility” means allowing your perceptions and goals to change as you and your life change.
It is completely natural to want to improve your appearance – in fact, I think that recent trends have made personal trainers almost reticent to talk about aesthetics at all, even in a positive way. But I don’t think this is balance, either. Let’s be honest, and acknowledge that we want to look better as well as feel and perform better. But let’s not waste time being so specific about how we want to look better that we miss the big picture and never make any forward progress.
Now, it makes me smile when clients rebuff my suggestion to buy the big kettlebells.
“I don’t want to put on a lot of muscle – I just want to have a Pilates body, like you,” a new client once said, waving vaguely at me.
I replied, “This Pilates body was built by a barbell!”
Whether you choose to get your sweat on with weight training, endurance cardio, Pilates, yoga, Barre, or a combination of all of the above, remember this:
If you spend most of your time worrying about what you do not want, you won’t spend enough time moving toward what you DO want.
As Geneen Roth says, “If you look at the world through shattered glass, the world looks shattered.”
A fitness mindset based on fear will see constant roadblocks – fear that getting fitter will alienate a loved one, make you unattractive, or cause you to be judged. A fitness mindset based on joy will see constant opportunities – possibilities to gain new skills, increase self-esteem, and grow.
Choose joy, and self-acceptance, and curiosity, and all the good stuff… and buy those kettlebells.