“I don’t want to get bulky”

Ladies, like many of you, my time in the gym used to consist of 45 high intensity minutes on the cross trainer, followed by a few crunches and some time spent wondering why I didn’t have a six pack.

The idea that weight loss/maintenance/a slim physique is brought about by hours of cardio is one that has been hawked by the mainstream media for yonks, and has become entrenched to the extent that, for very many women, the likes of running and spin class are the only exercise they do.

I’m not anti-cardio – it’s great for your health, and if you enjoy it then of course you should do it. But if you’re doing it in the hope that you’re somehow going to look like an Olympic distance runner, then I’ve got news for you…

Professional distance runners lift weights.

As personal trainers, one of the things we hear most often from women is that they don’t want to get “bulky”. That as soon as they do x exercise, y body part bulks up.

Now, first of all, that’s a physiological impossibility. Muscle growth is imperceptibly slow. The idea that you could do some squats one day and have thighs like Chris Froome the next is just fanciful. People who actually want to get muscular, and do everything to optimise muscle growth, dream of gaining a few pounds in a year. One year, of training week in, week out, for a few pounds. It’s not going to happen to you in a couple of weeks.

Now if you think I’m taking a mocking tone, let me tell you that I once thought I was getting bigger arms from using the cross trainer. Yeah.

After years of working out in this compulsive, habitual way, addicted to the calories on the screen (they’re not accurate, by the way), I decided to find out what I should actually be doing to get the kind of ripped physique I craved (I was thinking Cameron Diaz’s body at the time). Everything kept bringing me back to barbells.

And so, six years ago, I started picking things up and putting them down again, as it were. And, after a little time, I started to see some abs appearing. And my thighs, which had touched, stopped touching. My bum, which used to melt into my hamstrings became round a pert. What’s more, I learned to love lifting weights, getting a buzz out of my own sense of strength and power. Now the weights room is my favourite place to be.

Because, unless you’re some sort of genetic snowflake, lifting weights won’t make you bulky (those female bodybuilders that look like men in wigs – they took steroids to look that way). It will give you feminine curvature, and help to recomposition your body for a firmer, sleeker look.

If you’re training for a an endurance event or want to increase your endurance then it’s obvious you should be doing plenty of cardio. But that’s the only good reason I can think of for slaving away on a treadmill, cross trainer or bike. And you should still have a stretching and strengthening programme to complement this training, which will help improve your performance and prevent injury.

But if you’re slogging it out at cardio hoping to lose weight, improve your health and tone up, then I’m afraid you’re making poor use of your time. You can achieve a good aerobic workout with the same benefits for your health and fitness in a much shorter time using HIIT, which won’t contribute to lean tissue break down in the way that steady state exercise does. You can also manipulate weights sessions so that they provide a good cardio workout simultaneously, with the use of circuits or supersets.

So please, stop worrying about bulking up and get in the weights room. Oh, and don’t feel intimidated by those guys in there, often they’re training in flip flops and just standing around texting their mates anyway.

Lift or run

You want to be toned, so you lift weights. You drink your protein shake and eat your egg whites and oats. You’re doing it right, you think.

But you want to be skinner, so you have to eat at a deficit, right? So you keep your calories low and do a load of cardio too.

But you’re just spinning your wheels, making no progress. Why?

Because muscles can’t grow without enough fuel. You’re giving them the stimulus in the gym, but not giving them the nutrition to repair themselves by always trying to be in a caloric deficit.

Add to this that a by-product of aerobic exercise (cardio) called AMPK inhibits mTOR, the molecular trigger for hypertrophy (muscle growth), and you can see that, unless you’re going to eat enough food and stop trying to cancel out calories with cardio, you’re basically wasting your time lifting those weights.

Decide what your goals are. Do you want to be fit? Be able to run for hours? Be toned? Be strong? If you want to recomposition your body then consider doing not a lot of cardio. It is possible to lose weight and build muscle at the same time in the first year or so of lifting weights, but you’ll severely inhibit yourself if you do lots of cardio too.

I’m not suggesting doing NO cardio. It has a myriad of benefits and everyone should do some aerobic exercise. But don’t start or finish your lifting session with lengthy cardio and don’t use it to create a massive deficit, especially on the days you lift. If possible, do separate sessions with proper nutrition in between, or alternate days lifting and cardio. And eat enough food to support both these activities.

It is, of course, possible to be a super-shredded endurance athlete, and if that’s your goal then you will have to time your sessions to account for the chemical reactions instigated by the different activities and to have a proper nutritional plan to make sure that you eat enough to support your training, but also maintain a level of leanness for athleticism.