Someone sent me the following question recently, and seeing as I have gotten lots of similar questions from women, I thought to make a post of my thoughts.
Question: I want to lose fat around my thighs to make them smaller, firmer and defined. They have cellulite and remain flabby. I am training so hard and they don’t really change that much. I know I am being hard on myself and know my legs aren’t “fat” in any sense, but they are bulky but still kind of soft compared to the rest of my body and I don’t like it. Every time I do heavy squats consistently (which all the fitness people tell me to do), my thighs just bulk up. Please please please can you give me some advice?
Ah, big topic for women! The above question I received is, in a nutshell, what so many women are struggling with. One reason why this is a problem for women, is because naturally women do tend to carry extra lower body fat than men, so they can have a hard time getting their legs really lean. This is mainly due to our hormonal make up, and it’s a very normal, common occurrence.
Another major part of the problem is often that women are afraid to lift heavy weights in the fear that they are going to bulk their legs up, so they never get their legs to look the way they really want them to. If all you do is power-walking holding 2 kg hand weights, and then you do some step ups and a few half-squats, and finish with a run, you aren’t doing ANYTHING that’s actually going to alter the shape and appearance of your legs.
Which brings me to my first topic:
First things first! Get your mind in the right place: great legs take HARD WORK.
The average gym-going woman does not lift heavy enough weights to change the look of her legs. That is the number one biggest problem for every woman who can’t seem to “firm” up her legs and “sculpt” them or add nice shape. All of those words, like “firm up”, “sculpt”, “define” and “shape” are just nice sounding words for building muscle, plain and simple. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise. If you don’t lift heavy enough weights you won’t build any shape in your legs. Neither will you be able to “lift” your butt and make it appear rounder without adequate weight training. Building muscle in your lower body is the only thing that will do this for you.
Many women (and I have experienced training a lot of female clients!) don't know what their bodies are capable of and tend to not push themselves hard enough, especially when it comes to the lower body, which tends to be a more stubborn region for us females.
So before I get into specific tips I want to make sure you all understand that regardless of the particular “look” you are going for with your legs (and even if you don’t want “bigger” or “bulky” legs) you still need to lift heavy weights to get the results you are after. If your butt is sagging and your thighs are soft and squishy and you are afraid of picking up a barbell, you are going to have a tough time getting any results. Learn how to squat properly, deadlift properly and add other lower body lifts in as well, with a heavy enough load to make it a challenge.
I’m often asked “what is heavy enough”? Well it’s different for each individual because we all have different strength levels. But a general guideline (which is easy to follow and start with before you get into your rep max percentages) is to squat or deadlift a weight that you can do 8 reps of with good form. Make sure the last few reps are a bit of a struggle as well. If you can squat 30 reps with the little barbell then it’s more than likely not heavy enough. (That is for your strength work. You can use lighter weights for your metabolic conditioning, complexes, etc., which I will talk about more further down.)
Next step: Check your diet, and adjust your lower body training according to your goals.
If you are a lady who wants to grow (increase size in) your quads and your glutes, you are going to have to eat above maintenance. New muscle does not just appear like magic. It needs extra food to help it grow. Increase your calories by 100-200 a day and keep training your legs consistently.
If you are in the above category and would like to add a bit more size to your legs and butt, stick to lots of strength work. Squat, deadlift and hip thrust heavy, and often. Actively chase progression in weight and volume. Your legs won’t grow in size without proper progression. You need to squat heavy to get stronger and you need to squat with enough volume for hypertrophy (increasing the size of the muscle).
Now in saying that, if you are eating calories above your maintenance number of calories, and you are squatting and deadlifting heavy weights regularly, your legs are going to get bigger. I am not going to lie and say “no, of course squatting does not make your legs bigger”…well, because, quite frankly, it’s the opposite. And while plenty of us want nice big juicy glutes and quads (and we want to be REALLY REALLY strong), it’s not everyone’s desire. I’m not going to tell every woman what her goals should be or that she should want to build bigger quads and glutes. Everyone has different "looks" they are after and I’m okay with that. I have had many female clients who wanted to reduce the size of their legs and I have set out to help them reach their goals.
If you want leaner legs and you find that your legs are getting bigger and bigger even though you are lifting heavy weights, chances are you are not losing much body fat, but just adding muscle. In that case, check your diet. Dial it in a little if needed. Just dropping even 100 or 200 calories a day and being consistent with that for a few weeks, while keeping up with your training, could make all the difference.
I have written two pretty thorough blog posts about food and eating for fat loss and building muscle which you can find here and here. I strongly recommend you get your diet in order if you have particular aesthetic goals or want to change the shape and look of your legs. Nailing the diet side of things will be a big part of your success.
For example, something I covered in my nutrition posts, is the importance of protein. If you are not getting adequate protein in your diet you will not be able to gain muscle (or tone, sculpt, lean up your legs) because protein is the building block of muscle.
Another thing I cover which I strongly promote is drinking enough water. It’s such a simple thing, but drinking more water can make a huge difference for your body composition, muscle growth, and overall health.
Now that we've got the basics covered, here are some specific tips and tricks I have used with clients who don’t want to massively increase the size of their legs, but who are after lean looking, firm legs.
-Mix things up to include more variety in lower body strength training. Don’t just squat and deadlift every day. Try adding other lower body movements to your training. Things like lunges, barbell step ups, split squats, glute bridges, etc.
-Do more drop sets. Add supersets and tri-sets when performing your lower strength work. (i.e. go from your squats, straight to your lunges before taking a rest).
-Change up the lift you are doing a little bit. For example, if you are always doing back squats, try learning front squats or overhead squats. If you always do conventional heavy deadlifts, try learning snatch grip deadlifts or sumo deadlifts.
-Try adding progressive overload to your strength training, in other ways apart from always increasing the weight. Some ideas: Increase the reps you are doing with the same weight; complete the exact same amount of work in a shorter period of time; take less rest in between your sets.
-Add more lower body conditioning to your training regime. Add metcons and finishers that target the lower body. Do things like hill sprints, sled drags, prowler pushes, kettlebell circuits, barbell complexes, burpees, thrusters, rowing intervals, tabata intervals etc. Get your heart rate up and your legs burning. Even adding some occasional long-distance aerobic training sessions, like a 3-5 km row or run every week can make a difference.
Now I am not out to start promoting cardio over weight training, so please don’t take this the wrong way. I always promote strength training as the superior method of training. But do you see what I am getting at with these tips? Adding more variety in your training could be what you are missing in your lower body program, in your quest to build lean-looking, shapely legs.
Here is an interesting recent article I read on cardio and fat loss. By Matt Perryman, author of Myosynthesis. It’s his take on a recent study that popped up. From my personal experience with training clients (especially "endomorph" women), I have to say that I completely agree with him.
Quote from above article: “I don’t entirely agree with the author’s conclusions, but the study itself is interesting and I believe that, if anything, it suggests that those looking to reduce fat mass and improve the distribution of lean and fat mass should be lifting and keeping some conditioning work in the mix.”
Busting some common myths!!
Now onto a couple common myths:
Mythbuster # 1: You cannot “spot reduce”. You cannot decide where you want your body is going to take fat away from when you lose weight. Even if you lose 5 kilos, your body isn’t going to magically take it all of you thighs or wherever you tend to hold onto it. In saying that, however, you most certainly can apply the principle of specificity to your leg muscles and work them more often to target them and build some muscle in them to make them firmer and shapelier.
Mythbuster # 2: You cannot “lengthen” your leg muscles. I have heard many people talking about “lengthening” the legs and using specific training methods (like yoga for example) to create “long and lean” muscles. This is also regularly used as a marketing ploy. I’ve seen it advertised on products saying that if you buy “such and such” a product it will deliver you with “long and lean” muscles. That is also a myth and completely unfounded by science.
A little bit of science: The muscles in the arms and legs are connected to the joints with connective tissue. The muscles in your arm, for example, are connected to your elbow joint at one end and the shoulder complex at the other. The length of your BONE between those two joints determines the length of the attached muscles. Unless you plan on stretching out the distance between those two joints and lengthening the bones somehow, how in the world are the muscle going to get any longer???
See, when you stop to think about it logically you realise that these marketing ploys are just that: big fat lies! The bottom line is, you’ve got the length of your leg muscles thanks to your genetics. You are not going to “lengthen” your muscles by doing yoga or any other method of training.
(I am not bashing yoga. I love it and think it's fabulous for stretching, mobility and mental development as well. You can also develop some strength from doing it, but it's not going to do that much to change the shape of your legs. Read about my thoughts on Bikram yoga here.)
Remember, you can certainly improve your legs, your muscle definition and most certainly firm them up no matter what your “genetic” size. You can definitely get results in the lower body region, and reach your genetic potential if you eat properly, train smart and with proper intensity.
A few more bits and pieces:
Boost your calorie intake and exercise output:
A little trick that I picked up along the way for helping out when you are stuck in a plateau, is to increase your calorie intake by 25% while also at the same time increasing how many calories you burn by 25%. (These are approximate numbers of course.)
By doing this you’re pretty much telling your body that you’re not “calorie broke” and you still have food coming in. When this happens you’re body is going to quickly go right back into fat burning mode, because it’s not worried you are trying to starve it. All you really have to do is add another small meal or snack in somewhere in your diet or eat a little more food with each meal than normal.
But that’s the easy part. :) The hard part is actually getting in the gym and working your ass off (which you will have to do if you want this tip to work, otherwise the extra calories will = storing more body fat). Train your legs harder and more frequently. You should have more energy from the extra food.
Could you be working out too much?
I’m very hesitant to throw this one out because I have found that it’s hardly the case for the majority of women when it comes to training their lower body. Many women can handle higher volume lower body training than they are doing. But I feel I need to add it in here as some women do have the tendency to push too hard, especially if they aren’t eating enough food (see point above). You can be doing too much training, overdoing it on the leg work, the squats and the conditioning and this will plateau you and keep you from getting any results as your body will start to hold onto the fat. This can lead to your hormones getting out of whack, your cortisol elevating and you will most likely start to put on fat around your hips and legs.
If this is the case for you, take it easy, be sure to recover and hydrate well. When you're increasing the resistance training, drop the long cardio, at least at the start. Overdoing it on the cardio especially is not a good idea for weight loss. I’ve seen people and even some of my clients working out in the gym or going for super long runs or spending 14+ hours a week training hard. That is what I am talking about by possibly overdoing it.
I hope some of these tips will be helpful. Remember that while the basic shape of your body and length of your muscles will come down to your genetics, you can still work with your genetics to become the best you possibly can. Also don’t forget that the lower body can be a tough muscle group to conquer, especially for women. It can be very stubborn. Be patient and kind to yourself. Don't beat yourself up if you aren't seeing the results as quickly as you want. It will take a bit of time. Genuine hard work and intensity in your training will go a long way in shaping up your legs.
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