Strong is the New Skinny

Box Jumps
I'm not a leftovers kind of girl (although that has changed a bit with paleo). I rarely see the same movie twice. I hate routine. Nothing drives me more crazy than to see and do the same shit over and over every day. Monotony is my nemesis.

Have I ever truly expressed how much I LOVE my training?? 

I do. 

Throughout my life I've always been very active (running, hiking, backpacking, skiing, kayaking, etc...) I was fit, but I've never been particularly strong. However, I'm in better shape now than I've EVER been in my entire life. And lets be honest here, I'm no spring chicken. I'm dancing smack dab at the mid-life crisis party right now. 

I guess I never really cared much about being strong. I figured that as a woman my strength was limited. I ran. I hiked. I skiied. But I felt I was only as strong as my body allowed me to be. And because I was "fit" I figured that real strength didn't matter all that much. I was wrong. 

Fast forward fifteen years and two children later and I'm discovering that being strong is so much more important than being fit. In fact, I would argue that being strong is way more fundamental than being fit. You need to be strong to function in everyday life. 

I remember shortly after having my first child I could barely bend over to tie my own shoes. Yeah. It was pretty pathetic. I felt like an old lady. And then there was all that lifting in and out of strollers, cribs, car seats, and on and off changing tables. And as the kids got older I was carrying bikes (and kids - or sometimes a bike and a kid at the same time), giving piggy-back rides, balancing kiddos on my feet, playing airplane and wrestling. Who knew parenthood would require so much strength?

Functional Fitness
Somehow women have been led to believe that significant physical strength is reserved only for men. What's up with that? What I've been learning is we don't get strong, fit or even lose weight by running ourselves to death on a treadmill or lifting small pink weights. The magazines tell us how to look good and be fit by sculpting our shoulders, our butts and our backs, but what does all that "sculpting" really do? Are we seeing real results? Are we stronger? Are we functioning better in our everyday lives? While all these magazines are pushing women to get fit they are failing to teach us how to get strong.

The Program
So what kind of training do I do? 

I do general strength and conditioning with high intensity interval running/cycling (although I run more than cycle these days) and all this is with a focus on my mobility and flexibility.  Basically I train to be strong, have endurance, and stay injury-free.

Yeah. It may be hard at times. I don't call them "workovers" for nothing. And my schedule tends to get in the way on occasion. But the variety makes it such that I rarely have a problem finding motivation. And in order for me to be able to run a marathon (or more) I have to put in the work and make the effort or I will fall short. For me, motivation = consistency. Consistency is critical to achieve my goals. As Seth, my coach, says "Fitness is a journey. Its not just about the next event."

So here's an example week of my training. I might spend about 40 minutes tops at the gym for my workovers. This is an excerpt from my Daily Mile account back at the beginning of September when I was neck deep in prepping for my trail marathon:
WED 9.28.11
• Max set of push-ups in 2mins
• max set of sit ups in 2mins
• max set of aussie pull-ups in 2mins
• 8x3 40lb Dumbbell rows
THU 9.29.11
FRI 9.30.11
SAT 10.1.11
• 3 rounds of:
- 120 lunges
- 60 air squats
- 1 min. hollow rocks
SUN 10.2.11
• 3 rep max over head press - (this was 30lb dumbbells)
• 4 rounds of:
- 5 burpees
- 500m row
- 12 20lb thrusters
• 100 yard suicide sprints (later in the day)
MON 10.3.11
TUE 10.4.11 
• 45 Minute Trail run (running 12 minutes on then 3 minutes off for duration)
WED 10.5.11
• 4 rounds of:
- 8 deadlifts 75lbs
- 20 burpees
- 20 thrusters 20lbs
for time - 19:58
THU 10.6.11 
• 1.5hr trail run (approx 5-6 miles)

The thing I love most about this strength and conditioning program is that there's always a surprise thrown in. Recently, I got to do hurdle jumps. Well, hurdle jumps without the hurdles. Who knew? I had no idea I could jump so high or at least feel like it. I felt like a supersonic bunny rabbit! It was awesome.

My other favorites are the deadlifts, back squats and box jumps. This is super basic stuff, but there's something deeply satisfying about lifting and carrying heavy stuff. When I do deadlifts and back squats I feel it deep in my hip joints, (which normally feel out of place and pop sometimes - I'm currently working on this), but after doing a set of deadlifts or weighted back squats I feel like I can stand up taller and walk smoother. And the box jumps challenge me mentally. Knowing I can jump a box as tall as my hips gives me a ton of confidence and the drive to go higher.

There's also movements I'm not particularly fond of. I recently had to do spiderman crawls. Yeah. Those suck. Well, let me put it this way... I suck. Its a good thing I don't have to climb spidey-style up buildings for a living. My uncoordinated ass wouldn't get very far. And up until recently I hated the hollow rock. But, I'm learning not to look at my watch mid rock and mess everything up.

You might be wondering about my running?

Kettlebell Swings

This may seem odd, but when people ask me about my running I often tell them I don't run. I run for my races, but not for my training. Well, not like long, consistent, slow distance running, anyway. No Hal Higdon for me. Because of my long history with feet, knee and hip problems my weekly running mileage is low (in the 1-7 mile range for the most part), while my strength training and mobility take priority. I swear this is what has kept me able to start and finish all my races this year. Granted I still had problems crop up with my knee until my marathon (and I'm still dealing with some hip issues), but I realize that this mobility thing is going to take some time to un-do all the crappiness that my body has endured throughout my life.

So, there's basically several components to my strength and conditioning training program: 

High Intensity Intervals. I do high intensity interval training. These would be my workovers above that say "rounds of:" as part of the description or most of my running or cycling. These circuit exercises are short in duration (between 5 and 20 minutes) and usually involve more than one repetitive movement, (unless I'm doing running intervals). If you're around me while I'm doing any sort of high intensity interval training you will hear lots of inappropriate expletives escaping under my breath. And trust me. I will be breathing hard. These workovers usually have me teetering on the edge of passing out. Apparently, even though this type of interval training generally tends to be short in duration it increases your metabolism rate and burns calories even after you've finished your workover. Which makes it a perfectly efficient late-night-I-don't-have-much-time-to-do-a-workout-workover. These workovers tend to leave me feeling... well... "worked over" and sometimes I'm sore for days.

Heavy work
Weight Lifting. This is a large portion of the the type of training I do. Some of the intense interval stuff I do includes some sort of weight bearing component whether it be body weight like pull-ups and push-ups or additional weight like dumbbell presses or deadlifts.

When I tell women that part of my training is lifting heavy weights I almost always get the same response which is some form of the statement "I could never lift weights. I would get too bulky." Seriously. Many women I've talked to are convinced that they would transform into fist-pounding, growling WWE wrestling stars if they lifted weights. I get it. No woman wants to look freakishly ripped. As much as I want to be a badass, I would prefer to be stealthily badass by looking little and petite and then blowing the guys away at the gym with how much I can lift. Yeah. I'm still working on that. I have a ways to go before I can out-lift some of the dudes at the gym, but, ladies, unless you're taking large doses of hormones and eating eight pounds of protein a day I'm afraid you won't be able to look like a man no matter how much you try. Do the research yourself. You just don't have enough testosterone to get the big muscles. If you have a program that consists of whole body functional movements (lunges, deadlifts, squats, presses) with low repetitions of progressively heavier weights it will make you stronger, not bigger. THIS is key.

Check out the chick below. She's about my size and can lift twice her body weight. Does she look like she should be headlining in the freaky muscle lady circus act? No.

I just recently had this bulking-up conversation with my sister-in-law. I wonder what she thinks when she looks at me. Afterall, I've been doing this sort of training for nearly a year now. I was petite when I started and I'm petite now. Unless I'm actively flexing my bicep you won't see bulk on me at all. Seriously, girls, there are a ton of things strength and conditioning will give you and a man's body is NOT one of them. 

Running. Cycling. I usually have three runs/rides scheduled throughout the week. For the most part my runs are high intensity intervals like tabatas or some kind of speedwork and fairly short in duration. For example, I might do eight 100 meter sprints with a minute rest in between each one. I almost always end up doing a run or ride on the same day as my workover, but I usually make sure to have at least a three hour break between the two. I like to do my longer non-sprint runs on the trails and will often do them partially or all barefoot if I can. Sometimes I will wear my huaraches or pace gloves depending on how much I want to push it. If I need to work hard and be really fast I wear my shoes. 

Mobility/Flexibility. In addition to my workovers, I get up extra early in the morning and try and get my body mobile every day (well mostly every day). I roll my quads and calves. I also trigger point my hips, knees, achilles and glutes with a lacrosse ball and do some hip flexor stretches like the Couch Stretch or Super Couch. I usually accumulate about 30 minutes of this work over my day if I can't be arsed to wake up early. 


The Benefits
There are so many benefits to a training program like this one. One of the biggest (and most important for me) is that it keeps me relatively injury-free. I say relatively because sometimes a workover will leave me so sore that it takes a few days to recover, but that's not really an injury so much as recovery and strength building. 

So what are the benefits of strength and conditioning for women? Here are a few...

Strength Training Can Reduce your Risk of Osteoporosis
The "use it or lose it" rule applies here. When you lift weights you are putting a healthy dose of stress on your bones. This continual stress builds bone density and can help to keep your bones strong and healthy.

Strength Training Makes You Stronger
Um. Duh. Having "functional strength" will help with everyday life. But remember that the body has these amazing powers of adaptability too, and if you don't progressively lift heavier weights you won't be doing yourself any good. Do you lift children or groceries or maybe even both at the same time? Ever rearrange your living room? I once had to haul a big ass fire pit into the back of our minivan. I had to lift it myself. If I hadn't been lifting heavy shit as part of my training I would have had to recruit a man to do it for me. I felt empowered. This is core stuff, ladies.

Strength Training Can Help You Lose Weight
I don't think most women truly believe this. They will focus 100% on cardio workouts or diets alone thinking those are the golden paths to losing weight. Ever feel like you can run forever and never lose a pound? Of course nutrition has a lot to do with this, but what most women don't seem to get is that our muscles are the "engine" that actually burns the calories that we consume. If we don't use the engine and keep it progressively tuned it can't burn the fuel. Strength training is another powerful tool to help you achieve your goal weight.

Strength Training Is Good For Your Heart
Try doing twenty push-ups and I guarantee you will feel your heart pounding and be a little out of breath. Yeah. That kind of work is good for your heart. There's a reason why the American Heart Association recommends strength training as a way to reduce the risk of heart disease in cardiac rehab patients. By making your body stronger you also increase your endurance which puts less stress on vital organs.

Strength Training Can Help Reduce Stress
I did Ball Slams the other night. It had been a tough day emotionally for me and the ball slamming felt so cathartic. Seriously. There is nothing more stress-relieving than deadlifts, kettlebell swings or ball slamming with a heavy ball. Heavy work raises the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Most antidepressants work by doing that same thing. Strength work can give you a bit of a happy boost and calm you down, too. Funny. I usually use happy hour for that. 

The Resources
Ladies. You're smart. If you're working hard to achieve your goals (whether it be to run injury-free or lose weight) and its not happening don't be afraid to re-evaluate your training. Empower yourself. Do some research. If you're a barefoot or minimalist runner you've probably already done this to a certain extent. We've had to re-evaluate how we run. We might need to re-evaluate how we train. Chuck the stupid fitness magazines. Get rid of the pink dumbbells. Learn to be strong.

OK. I admit. I'm super lucky. I found an awesome coach and mentor to help me out, but there's a ton of information out there if you know where to look.

First of all... DO YOUR RESEARCH. Here are a few helpful links:

Nerd Fitness - a very comprehensive site with a ton of info. Dude has a LOT of information and how-to videos that are easy to understand and follow.
Look Better Naked and Improve Performance - 13 Great Tips for women interested in building strength and mobility.
Mobility WOD -  K. Star can be a little hyper and hard to understand, but watch him. He gives great tips on mobility and flexibility and if you like to nerd out on fitness jargon he's your man.

And ladies, don't be afraid of the male dominated weight area in the gyms. I admit, I was intimidated at first (and I still am on occasion), but if you do your research first and go in with a plan it will make a world of difference. I think guys have a lot more respect for us than you think.

Speaking of male domination and plans (um... that didn't really sound right) anyway, here's a great resource to check out if you're serious about your training:

Joe DeFranco's Westside for Skinny Bastards, Part III - this may seem a little intimidating, but trust me, its a great resource even for women who aren't skinny bastards or serious athletes. Yeah. Ignore the title. This is a great 4-Day Strength Training template and he explains why he programs the stuff. He also has speedwork/interval training templates. Be careful, though. Don't try to do long, slow distance training in combination with this or you will be on the path to injury.

One more thing. We hear this often. Listen to your body. Just because you have a goal and a plan (or even a personal trainer) doesn't make it full-proof. If something doesn't feel right or it hurts, its probably not doing you any good. This training thing is really more of an art than a science. And each person is different. Educate yourself but be honest. If its not working don't hesitate to step back and re-evaluate. Afterall, fitness and strength is a journey, not a one time event.
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Photo credit ©2011 Christopher Nolan, MetCon Photos - this is some seriously awesome photography!


  1. Love, love, love that you dropped a Westside training link. I use a split similar to Defranco with folks I train and it works great. Lots of variety. Glad you like the program!

  2. Christian - Actually, that Westside link was what Seth recommended. I wanted to have some decent resources and a starting point. That's cool that its working for you and your clients, too.

  3. Good post! I agree. Now I just need to find some time in the day to focus on me ... once the baby is older that'll happen ... trying to enjoy her first year but man I do miss a good quality workout!

  4. It is nice to see you have embraced this. These are important lessons. You have taught yourself what you do in the gym can be applied to everyday life.

    I learned these things a number of years ago. Very similar ideas that you speak of. Earlier in this year. I learned my space was much more enjoyable to be outside for working out. So I bought some basic equipment, and created some homemade stuff. I store it inside, and pull it outside when I'm ready to workout. It feels very empowering to not have to rely on some gym. For me that was the next step to make my personal experience even more enjoyable. Basic tools, and homemade tools go far when you know what to do with them.

    I still do this, but have learned physical strength is not the all round universal fix. That rest is also important for the body, mind, spirit. So my most recent journey to add to my "rituals" is meditation and restorative yoga. This style yoga is very restful, and relaxing. Meditation is far more powerful then I could have ever imagined. I'm very lucky to have a wealth of alternative living practices in my small town area.

    Enjoy your ever evolving journey !

  5. Butner! Dude! Good to hear from you. I love the ideas of incorporating meditation in. I used to practice yoga and meditation a lot. Years ago. I still incorporate some yoga poses into my stretching. I stopped yoga shortly after I miscarried my second child. Never got back into it. Maybe I should think about that.

  6. Love, love your workout routine. I am finding that mine is getting stale. What is worse, my desperate search for a decent coach so far have produced nothing - not that I am picky or anything :) Thanks for the links. I would love to get a feedback from a coach but until I find one, links will have to do.


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