My journey to giving up dieting and move toward strength training

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Ever since I created my blog almost three years ago, the most popular article is the one related to the 12 week workout plan for strength training for women. I have over 200 comments and questions from women readers and many of the themes are similar. I wanted to take a few of the questions that I see repeated pretty often and answer them in one place to make it a bit easier for those who are just starting out on their strength training journey. Some readers are just starting to lift weights for the first time, and of course there are lots of questions. I had tons of questions when I started to lift and I am happy to share what I know with others. For those that don’t know, my love of the gym began back in high school, when I was a part of my high school’s rowing team. We did extreme training in the dead of winter and it was my first introduction to real conditioning. Other than the rowing team, I was a cheerleader and our workouts were basically cardio, and a lot of pressure for dieting too. Back then, I was not smart about what I did to my body and was so focused on just being skinny and thin. I knew nothing about proper nutrition and certainly nothing about weight training. Once I got to college I took a job at the Rutgers University gym being a workout room supervisor and over time, while watching athletes and others in the gym, I grew to love the weight room. I began to observe and watch and taught myself how to weight training. Overtime, I began to make workout programs for other females and grew to love doing that.

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The sad part was, in college I felt the most pressure in my life to be thin. After lifting for a full year I noticed that I had put on what I thought was weight, but it was just muscle. I saw my clothes get tighter and I noticed my arms and legs were bigger – as a 100 pound person, a few pounds of muscle made a difference and it scared the crap out of me. My constant weight training made me always hungry and I was eating more than I ever did, and just the act of putting more food into my body also scared me. While I was doing all the things that were good for my body, I was not able to mentally handle gaining weight, seeing the scale number rise or see my body change in such a way. Needless to say my three years after that in college I gave up working out in any way that made me put on size, and I reverted to a very scary mindset of “just be skinny, do tons of cardio, eat like a rabbit”. It was a terrible time in my life, and it lasted for years and years. I had a terrible body image, I feared gaining weight, I exercised to get skinner, not to change my body shape – and I was miserable! To this day I don’t know how I became that girl, who allowed food and appearance put me into such a scary, dark and unhealthy place. But let’s fast forward to four to five years ago.

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For me I was skinny, and kinda had strength but not really. I wanted to get a more defined physique with curves and muscles. I knew that doing endless cardio was not going to change the shape of my body, ever. I was eating far too little calories (probably 1400 on average) and doing so much cardio so in the end I was eating and working out on a deficit. By doing this I would never put on muscle – to put on muscle you must lift heavy, eat at a surplus and eat a high protein diet with good for you carbs to fuel your workouts. I had been on a such a low calorie and low carb diet I was just defeating the whole purpose. I finally said enough was enough and in the winter of 2012 I changed my entire outlook and did a complete 180. I bought “ The New Rules of Lifting for Women” and decided that for six months I was going to lift heavy, adding weight every 2 weeks and doing basic compound lifts; deadlifts, chest press, squats, shoulder presses, etc. I did the strong man type of workout of 5×5 (five reps for five sets) and did NO cardio – none. I ate a diet around 2,000 calories per day and was less focused on calories. I would have cheat meats, I would eat lots of protein, use amino acids for recovery – I just went balls to the wall and said “don’t worry about the scale”. This was perfect during the winter since I didn’t have to fear getting into a bikini while I was “bulking” up.

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Bulking typically happens in the fall and winter months. It is when you focus on building as much muscle as possible, even if that means you are eating at a surplus. Lifting heavy makes you hungry all the time and I was not used to that. I would wake up in the middle of the night starving, so I learned that before bed I should consume casein protein, whether it was a shake or a cup of cottage cheese. I learned a lot in the winter of 2012/2013 and within that time I gained about 5 lbs of muscle and dropped by body fat as well. The lifting I was doing was burning so many calories so I wasn’t gaining fat, but I was building muscle. As the summer came I changed my lifting and my eating in order to “shred” or “lean out”. I dropped my calories to around 1800 and while I did still weight lift and strength train I work to do more reps and a bit lower weight. In the spring and summer I was doing around 12-15 reps of the exercises for more of a cardio benefit and less of a muscle building one. My diet was still very high protein and I always maintain that year round.

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Fast forward to 3 years later and I can surely see improvements in my figure that I never had when I was just dieting and doing cardio. It is all a balance however. If you have pounds to lose, body fat to shed then you have to eat and lift in order to achieve muscle growth and fat loss. I didn’t have much fat to lose so for me I didn’t need a ton of cardio. If I do cardio it is HIIT, high intensity interval training, on the treadmill, on a track or on the stair master. I aim to do cardio that still helps to target my leg muscles, because for me my lower body is the area I am always trying to make gains. A lot of people ask, should I just look to lose weight and body fat first, then do strength training and my response is “why wait?!” You can start lifting anytime, but if you have body fat to lose then you will need to eat lower in calories and include cardio. The truth is, unless you shed the body fat which is covering your muscles you won’t be able to see your gains. A lot of women will say “but when I lift I get bulky” – which is just not correct. Bulky is because you have fat layered over your muscle, and once that body fat percentage goes down you will be left with amazing muscles and definition.

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It doesn’t happen over night – it is years of training to get the physiques that many of us look at in magazines or on Instagram and say “Oh I want to have that body” – none of those bodies happened over night. It was years of bulking and leaning out, building and shedding, and a diet that is calculated based on your person goals. A lot of what you see in your body is determined by your diet. A diet full of leafy greens, healthy and lean meats, no processed foods, no chemical sugars or preservatives and lots of water will always yield a better results. You can’t out work a bad diet, and in the end you need to give your body what it needs to build and repair after every workout. It is a lifetime commitment; not just a “I need to look good for the summer/trip to vegas/vacation” it’s “I want to look and feel good for life!”

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Weight training literally saved my life, I say that over and over again. It wasn’t until I jumped head first into lifting that I really respected my body. What I was doing for years was just destroying my body. Lack of sleep, severe starvation type diets, loads of cardio and no vitamins, supplements or nutrients to rebuild my body all added up to me not looking well, not feeling well and always being sluggish, tired and cranky. What you put into your body and how you treat your body will reflect in your appearance and your personality. You need to take it one month, on season, one year at a time. Don’t judge yourself everyday – don’t look in the mirror everyday and get defeated if you don’t see what you want right away. There are days during the winter time that I just can’t look because my body is not lean and cut and I feel sore and bloated, but I remind myself that this is the process. You need to make sacrifices and put the time in now to achieve what you want later.

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I know I rambled a lot in this post, but I hope it helps you all no matter where you are in our journey. It is a journey, a long one and if you are lucky you will live a long and healthy life so give yourself the time you need to get there <3

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