Don't Want to Become Bulky, Just Toned & Strong? A Basic Weight Lifting Routine, Time & Consistency Let's You Achieve Both Without Eating Cotton Balls

Basic weight training to get toned, or hours of cardio in the evening and cotton balls a la pret-a-porter for launch, you got the choice. A choice between health and happiness and chronic fatigue and misery.
The unwarranted fear of getting "bulky" (whatever that may be) is still looming large among the female gym-goers. And since the same goes for the adherence to unnecessary and highly counterproductive hours of "cardio" (*) training in the "fat burning zone" (that is the zone that will burn you out, but not your fat away), I thought it may be nice writing about the results from a recent study that was conducted at the University of Extremadura in Cacare, Spain (Timon. 2013)... If you are now expecting another "revolutionary 2 weeks to your beach body" program, I will yet have to disappoint you. In fact, the only thing that is special about this study is that the thrice a week resistance training regimen the 20 women (age 21-23y) followed was not special, at all. It is rather so conventional that is sounds almost boring and guess what? That's the secret!
*Note: There is nothing to be said against "cardio" training, but if you want to up your cardiovascular capacity you got to challenge your heart, so HIIT for VO2Max increases and nothing but a fast-paced walk on an incline to get some baseline activity into a sedentary day are the tools you should use - no more "training in the zone!"
The scientists had picked their study participants using the following criteria: Healthy physical condition, non-smokers, sedentary or recreationally active (engaging in B20 min of vigorous intensity exercise three or more times per week over the 3 months prior to the study), no use of pharmacologic contraceptives or other medications that might interfere hormone levels, no self-reported endocrine abnormality (diabetes, thyroid or liver disease), self-reported regular menstrual cycles (cycle 25–32 days long) and not to be pregnant. The emphasis on the menstrual regularity actually hints at the real background of the study, which was originally conducted to "evaluate urinary steroid profile across the menstrual cycle phases in healthy women, checking urinary steroid excretion before and after a strength training program" (Timon. 2013); a research question that would obviously also be relevant with respect to what you've read / learned in the SuppVersity Athlete's Triad Series (read more).

Lifting weight increases strength, tones  and leaves the endocrine system intact

The measured changes were yet not so pronounced that you could draw any meaningful conclusions on whether or not a reasonable training regimen like this could skew the menstrual regularity of previously healthy young women. In fact, Timon et al. actually suggest that they could be exploited to increase the benefits from strength training:
The best workout is always the one you can stick to. And the 8% body fat in 10 weeks crossfit workout you read about before does not really fulfill that criterion.
"Focusing on hormonal variations across the menstrual cycle, changes in estradiol and progesterone excretion were observed during the follicular and luteal phases, following a similar pattern both before and after training. [...] Given that there is a high correlation between the blood and the urine steroid profile [...], a large excretion would indicate a rise in ovarian production of estradiol and progesterone during these phases. Based on these hormonal variations across the menstrual cycle, some studies have stated that muscle hypertrophy and strength gain are higher in the luteal phase than in the follicular phase Sakamaki et al. (2012)." (Timon. 2013).
Apropos benefits: What was it about the toning effect? Well, if you take a look at the exercise program, it included neither "toning" exercises nor "cardio" training - just a 10-15 minute warm up with general and specific exercises that was followed by 3x sets of 9-10 repetitions for each of the seven strength exercises:
  • Topical fat loss? Thought you may be interested to hear that a 1995 study found that a combination of forskolin, yohimbine and aminophylline (applied 5x/week for 4 weeks) can actually "spot-reduce" body fat. The figure above shows the effect of 10% aminophylline, the most potent of the three agents on thigh circumference in isolation (Greenway. 1995)
    dumbbell lateral deltoid, 
  • leg press, 
  • hamstring curl, 
  • bench press, 
  • seated pulley dorsal, 
  • dumbbell bicep curl and 
  • seated French press
The 2 min recovery time between sets and the 3 min between exercises don't look much like "toning specific" either and the 70–75 % of one repetition maximum (1-RM) are obviously too much to train for strength endurance, of which the average woman's magazine will tell you that it was the way to go to give your muscle that anorexic cover model shape (dunno if you realize that, but that look does not come from muscle, but from sinews and bones, but alas... I don't want to rant).
Figure 1: Body composition, and 1RM strength before and after the 24 training sessions (Timon. 2013)
As the scientist point out, the effects would probably have been more obvious, if the training program had been "accompanied by a specific diet to improve the muscle hypertrophy" (Timon. 2013). But hey, you did not want to build too much muscle anyway, right? And did you lose 1% body fat in the course of the last 2 months without dieting or torturing yourself on the elliptical or stairmaster in your gym? No? That's what I thought. If you did the latter it's in fact more likely you lost much of your power, some muscle and - in the case you accompanied your "toning" exercises with a low calorie diet your menstrual regularity.

Learn how to thrive without a scale and program success (read more)
Bottom line: It does not alway have to be a fancy routine to make slow, but significant progress towards improved health and a better physique - and that's true for both women and men. I mean, come on guys 6% more muscle and 6% less fat* in a year with only three workouts per week, no hours of cardio or scary high intensity workouts is better than nothing (*this hilarious calculation assumes that the progress remained constant for a year)!?

Be honest with yourself : Did you achieve that in the past 12 months or were you too busy jumping from one "quick fix solution workout" to the next while constantly scaring the hack out of yourself when you did or didn't see the tongue of the scale moving?

  • Greenway FL, Bray GA, Heber D. Topical fat reduction. Obes Res. 1995 Nov;3 Suppl 4:561S-568S. 
  • Sakamaki M, Yasuda T, Abe T. Comparison of low-intensity blood flow-restricted training-induced muscular hypertrophy in eumenorrheic women in the follicular phase and luteal phase and age-matched men. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2012 May;32(3):185-91.
  • Sowers MR, Crutchfield M, Richards K, Wilkin MK, Furniss A, Jannausch M, Zhang D, Gross M. Sarcopenia is related to physical functioning and leg strength in middle-aged women. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2005 Apr;60(4):486-90. 
  • Timon R, Corvillo M, Brazo J, Robles MC, Maynar M. Strength training effects on urinary steroid profile across the menstrual cycle in healthy women. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Jun;113(6):1469-75.
Disclaimer:The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. It is by no means intended as professional medical advice. Do not use any of the agents or freely available dietary supplements mentioned on this website without further consultation with your medical practitioner.