As a new feature of my blog, I’m encouraging readers to share their fitness experiences and lessons learned along the way to getting into great shape. Up first is Toni, a 40 year old mother who has been a long time reader of my blog. If I go so far as to think of myself as a teacher, I’d consider Toni one of my finest students. I think her story will resonate well with women, especially those who suffer with misinformation and too much broscience as Toni has. There are also useful lessons for anyone who has struggled with being skinny fat (look fine in clothes but have excess fat at a low scale weight).
In the Beginning…
For most of her life, Toni was chasing after scale weight. In other words, she honed in on a number on the scale and tried to get to that number through excessive cardio (running, biking) and a highly restrictive diet. This approach helped her achieve her target weight, but she didn’t look anything like celebrities or others with comparable heights and weights. What had gone wrong? She was skinny fat…weighing around 110lbs with 30% body fat.
Like many women (and men), one of Toni’s goals was to get a nice set of six pack abs. However the caloric deficit combined with excessive cardio resulted in a frail, weak body. She had extremely low energy levels, got dizzy at times, and was downright miserable. Her strength was non-existent, and she couldn’t even lift a 5lb dumbbell. What was the point of pursuing six pack abs if it felt so bad? There had to be a better way…
The Truth Is Out There
It took a lot of research, but Toni accepted that she had to perform strength training to help transform her body. Some women worry about gaining excess muscle mass, but Toni’s concern was that she was too old and too inexperienced to start lifting weights. That’s when she found New Rules of Lifting for Women. The first few months were discouraging because she was so weak, but Toni pushed forward.
In conjunction with starting a strength training program, Toni minimized cardio. This was a battle as Toni was hesitant to stop something that could be considered so healthy, and I remember having numerous conversations with her. Unfortunately, the best way to fight the skinny fat look is to perform strength training, minimize cardio, and eat a good diet right around maintenance calories.
While at a very low starting weight, Toni still had too much cellulite and struggled with the same trouble spots as most women: waist, hips, and thighs. After 8 months of strength training, Toni completely transformed her body, adding (yes, adding!) 15lbs while reducing her body fat to 18%. One of her big takeaways was that with increased strength came an improved appearance. Rather than focusing on aesthetics, she focused on gaining functional strength and eating healthy, and her body took care of itself. Despite the higher number on the scale, Toni’s clothes fit a lot better, and she now has tight and toned muscles, especially her hamstrings and glutes.
Toni started with no equipment and is now on the verge of outgrowing her adjustable dumbbell set. She also uses a kettlebell and has gone from 7lbs to 25lbs and is probably ready for a 35lb one. Beyond a better looking body, strength can be empowering and helps her perform some simple tasks that were previously left to her husband. Additionally, she’s always felt like she’s been competing with people her entire life. Now she’s moved past that and doesn’t worry about looking like a celebrity any more.
That’s not to say she didn’t hit some bumps along the way. First of all, it was unnatural for Toni to gain weight after trying to minimize it her entire life. Additionally, it was challenging for her to eat the right amount of food to gain muscle. Like most people, she hit some plateaus along the way and had to switch routines and adjust the quality of calories she was consuming. With an Italian upbringing, she craves carbs like most of us but she was able to successfully change her diet to include 125g of protein, none of which comes from supplements. Combined with strength training, that really helped Toni develop a tight and toned upper body.
After completing New Rules of Lifting for Women, Toni asked me to construct a kettlebell routine for her as more of a maintenance approach. While she loved the routine, she actually found herself leaning out a bit too much. If your goal is losing fat, increasing endurance, and getting lean in 20-30 minutes, consider giving these workouts a try (3 days per week with 1 day rest between each workout):
Workout 1: Circuit Training
Perform as many reps of each exercise as you can in 30 seconds. Immediately proceed to the next exercise.
Floor Press (each arm for 15 seconds)
Rest 30 seconds
Snatch Pull & Push Press
Rest 30 seconds
Shoulder Press (each arm for 15 seconds)
One Arm Row (each arm for 15 seconds)
Rest 2 minutes and repeat the entire circuit twice (total of 3 circuits)
Workout 2: Tabata Intervals
4 supersets using the Tabata protocol. Perform the first exercise in the superset for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, perform the second exercise for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and repeat 4 times. Rest 1 minute before moving to the next superset.
Shoulder Press (switch arms each set)
One Arm Row (switch arms each set)
Floor Press (switch arms each set)
More recently, Toni has gone to a split routine involving 2 days of upper body strength training and 2 days of lower body strength training with a few other exercises thrown in. This has really helped her tighten up her shoulders, biceps, hamstrings, and calves.
Monday / Thursday: upper body strength training, kettlebell swings
Tuesday / Friday: lower body strength training, Abs Blueprint, walking
Wednesday: 15 minutes circuit training
This approach, combined with a mostly clean diet (wine and nights out are allowed) in the 1,800 calorie range should help her maintain her body fat in the 17-20% range. She’s also hoping to perform a full handstand pushup in the near future (currently doing one-half handstand pushups).
First of all, everyone’s body is different so what worked for Toni might not work for you. That aside, here are a few reasons Toni has been successful (in my opinion):
- She stopped focusing on the scale and starting focusing on her body fat, strength and overall appearance.
My advice: stop stressing about your weight and start worrying more about how your clothes fit, how lean and toned you look, and your overall energy level.
- She stopped combining long runs with a severely restrictive diet and shifted to strength training with a clean, healthy diet.
My advice: start tracking your calories (Toni and I both use MyFitnessPal) so you can not only see how much you eat, but what you eat as well. Don’t stay in a huge deficit for too long!
- She got really strong using New Rules of Lifting for Women.
My advice: it might be tough for women, but start lifting heavy weights in the 5 rep range while avoiding fatigue (guys, you too!).
- She recognized that she needed to change her routine to fight the skinny fat look.
My advice: if you have a low body weight but high body fat percentage, start strength training, eating around maintenance level of calories, and avoiding too much cardio.
- She committed herself to succeeding.
My advice: if you’re self-motivated, make time, dedicate yourself, and push yourself. If you need help, find a fitness partner to share challenges and successes with. Ask questions to people you trust along the way (Toni has left over 300 comments across my blog).
I’d encourage you to ask Toni any questions or let her know what you think of her transformation in the comment section below.
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- My Intermittent Fasting Experience: 24 Hours of Eat Stop Eat