“hi bret. i luv your blog and read it everyday. the reason why I’m emailing you is to ask you if I should train differently than how you recommend. you see, i have a lot of respect for all the strong, muscular, and ripped ladies, but i personally don’t want to look that way. i want a slender physique, like jessica alba or zoe saldana. please help! thanks, kristine
Hi Kristine, this is an excellent question and one that I commonly receive. In the S&C community, this is a touchy topic.
On the one hand, we’ve made great strides in getting women to:
- Not fear heavy weights,
- Conquer eating disorders,
- Realize that they can look great at a variety of body weights as long as they’re fit,
- Not rely solely on scale weight for measures of progress, and
- Focus on performance
Women can indeed attain amazing physiques by lifting heavy weights and eating well without starving themselves. I should know – I’ve trained dozens of these types!
On the other hand, we as an industry need to understand and accept that it’s okay for a woman to desire a slender physique that isn’t overly ripped and muscular. We can’t be prioritizing our values over those of our clients. Women should not let others dictate their physique goals as they’re a matter of personal preference.
I believe that as an industry, we have failed a portion of the population of women.
I’m talking about women who don’t want big lats, big arms, big erectors, or big quads. They just want to look slender with some decent shape, and they want to know how to best train for this purpose. Ironically, this is the type of woman that gravitates to yoga, Pilates, and certain aerobics classes because they feel that these modalities will better-help them reach their physique goals. But these systems cannot do as good of a job at physique enhancement that proper strength training can simply because we can tailor the workout to the woman.
Related Article: Long, Lean Muscles: Oh, the Irony!
If you’re a personal trainer who train models, then you know what I’m talking about. My twin brother does photography on the side, and specializes in shooting female models. Here are some of his clients:
I’ve been involved in the training of several models and I can tell you that while I initially start training them just like everyone else, I do in fact modify the training after a couple of months, which I’ll describe at the bottom of the article. When a model gains muscle, it really shows on camera, so you have to be aware of this. And the agencies don’t like a lot of muscle – they freak out on the models if muscles start protruding. This isn’t to say that models can’t weight train – they can and should. They just need to go about it differently.
My primary advice to ladies seeking the “slender model look,” however, is the following:
Wait until you start getting “bulky” or “overly muscular” until you decide to switch up your training.
Start off training just like other fit women. Wait til you get too bulky to admonish heavy strength training. Many women never bulk up or develop bulging muscles. This is why the typical strength training advice – to focus on progressive overload on a handful of primary movement patterns – works for a good percentage of women.
Moreover, any muscle that a women packs on will elevate their metabolic rate and help them lose bodyfat. So the training itself and the adaptations the training imposes will help women reduce their bodyfat levels and improve body composition.
Considering that 69% of Americans are either overweight or obese, most women should be more concerned with losing weight and fat rather than packing on muscle. When women lean out sufficiently, they lose the fat that hides their muscles so that they can start to see whether or not they indeed have too much muscle.
Furthermore, when dropping significant weight, it’s damn near impossible to build or even retain muscle mass, even if gaining tremendous strength. For reference, see the strength, weight, and lean mass charts HERE from one of most impressive one-year physique transformations I’ve ever witnessed.
However, there are indeed a certain percentage of women who do what we tell them to do and aren’t happy with the results. They focus on progressive overload, they get markedly stronger while eating properly, and they end up gaining muscle. While many women do this and end up loving their new shape, some do not. This is the population that I believe we’re failing, and we typically lose them to yoga, Pilates, and other training methods simply because we don’t teach them how to modify their training.
Now, the majority of lifters (men and women) aren’t very good at lifting. They never progress that far because they don’t understand proper form, proper intensity, and proper program design. Therefore, there’s a sort of built-in safety net for female lifters not seeking advanced muscular development. When top coaches and trainers train their clients, however, they often achieve very rapid results. Skilled female lifters with good kinaesthetic awareness and a genetic propensity toward building muscle tend to see rapid results too, and these are the ladies who speak up about heavy progressive resistance training and its tendency to add too much bulk. The typical response in the industry to these ladies is to tell them that women are unable to get too muscular. This is both foolish and myopic as it depends on the woman’s training, genetics, and goals.
It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the female experts in strength & conditioning are very strong and carry good amounts of muscle. They don’t look like models nor do they want to look like models. They love their shapely appearance and they feel empowered by their feats of strength. This is great, and it’s something that I love to witness as a personal trainer. However, not all women share this same mindset. And women who love strength training, love getting stronger, and don’t mind increases in muscle mass, tend to have a hard time relating to women who don’t share the same values and goals.
Nevertheless, here are some thoughts for you Kristine:
1. It’s hard to give you advice given that I don’t know what you look like
I haven’t seen your physique as you didn’t include a photo of yourself, therefore it’s impossible to give you proper guidance.
Are you significantly overweight and carrying large amounts of body fat? If so, becoming too muscular and bulky shouldn’t be a concern right now if you’re going for the slender look. You need to drop serious weight if you’re ever going to achieve your goal, and heavy strength training will help you achieve the weight loss while retaining muscle. A proper combination of diet, cardio, and resistance training is the best plan of attack for this type.
Are you skinny with no muscle? If so, you need shape. The best way to gain muscle is to engage in heavy strength training.
Are you overly-muscular according to your standards, but markedly heavier than the body weight you’re targeting? If so, get down in weight so that you can properly evaluate where you stand. Many women find that when they reach their target weight, they actually love the way their bodies look and they don’t feel that they’re too bulky.
Are you lean and slender with the “model” look? If so, congrats – you’ve reached your goal! Keep doing what you’re doing, but if you eventually find yourself developing too much muscle for your liking, then switch it up (I’ll elaborate below).
Are you lean and at your target body weight but still overly muscular according to your standards? If so, this is where you’ll definitely want to switch up your training. Again, I’ll elaborate at the end of this article. Here’s a summary chart:
2. The ladies you mentioned are very light and lean
Jessica Alba is 5’7″ and weighs 124 lbs (56 kgs).
Zoe Saldana is 5’7″ and weighs 115 lbs (52 kgs).
At 5’7″, 115-124 is very light!
While they’re both quite lean, they’re not “ripped to the bone” with “shredded abs” and “striated glutes.” They possess enough bodyfat to maintain what many would deem a feminine disposition.
Most professionals in the industry will tell you to ignore scale weight. While I appreciate the deflection, I tend to be a straight-shooter. I believe in having high expectations for clients and believing in their goals, and I try to create the best possible plan depending on those goals.
If you tell me that your goal is to look like one of these ladies but you’re currently 5’7″ and weigh 200, then I’m going to map out a target weight along with monthly goals. You will look better every step of the way and will be happy with your progress each month, but unless you tell me that your goals have changed, I’m going to keep striving to get you to where you want to be. This is why you hired me – to help you achieve your goals.
However, if you get to 145 lbs and keep spinning your wheels but you look fantastic, then I’m for damn sure going to tell you to improve your attitude and take a step back to notice how far you’ve progressed. I’m also going to try to help you be pleased with your physique and not rely solely on scale weight for determination of progress.
In fact, here are various indicators that I tell my clients to pay attention to:
- scale weight
- body fat levels
- strength levels
- how clothes fit
- progress pictures
- compliments from others
- how fit and conditioned they feel
- other measures of health such as blood pressure, cholesterol profiles, triglycerides, blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, inflammation, etc.
Furthermore, I make damn sure that my women understand two important things about their weight:
- Weight fluctuates daily according to hydration, which is influenced by carb intake, stress, menstrual cycle, and other factors. A five pound fluctuation is normal for women so this needs to be taken into consideration.
- Weight loss is never linear. Over the course of a year, it should decrease significantly if that’s the goal. But there will be weeks of rapid progress, weeks of plateaus, and even some weeks of backpedaling. Again, see the charts HERE for a visual.
3. These ladies still have sexy shape to them
Even though these ladies are light and lean, they have shape.
It’s not all about weight; it’s also about shape!!!
Many women get down in weight and are not happy with the way they look. You commonly see this with ladies who go crazy on the cardio or endure crash dieting – they end up being “skinny-fat” with no shape (especially in the glutes). Let’s look at some celebrity butts who focused solely on weight loss and ignored shape:
As you can see, it’s not all about losing the weight. When you get down in weight, if you’re like most women, you’ll want to have some shape. Many women get down in weight and are happy with the way their legs, back, arms, and abs look, but not their glutes. If you have excellent genetics for glutes, then you may not need to do much glute training, but chances are, if you’re like the majority of women, your glutes will require extra attention.
4. These ladies are the genetic elite
Please bare in mind that you’re telling me that you want to look like Jessica Alba and Zoe Saldana – two of the hottest women in the entire world.
They’re genetically elite and not everyone can look like them. They have a huge advantage in terms of being able to look amazing. So please put this into perspective and know your genetic potential and limits. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make lofty goals for yourself or strive to be your best. However, please keep this in mind:
You are more than your physique so cut yourself some slack!
5. Ladies like Jessica Alba and Zoe Saldana are typically diligent about their daily caloric intake and don’t go off the deep-end like others do
In the US, the average daily caloric intake is around 3,770 calories. I bet that Jessica and Zoe consistently keep their calories in between 1,200 – 2,000 per day.
Jessica stated in an interview that she takes portion control very seriously and adheres to good nutrition. For example, for breakfast she likes egg-white omelettes and fruit, or cottage cheese and a peach, or yogurt. For lunch she likes salads. For dinner she likes chicken or fish and some veggies. Zoe’s personal trainer mentioned that Zoe is very good about portion control and her nutrition as well. While both ladies will occasionally splurge form time to time, they don’t seem to go off the deep-end and go overboard like many individuals do.
Having worked with plenty of physique athletes, I can tell you that many of them sabotage their progress with 5,000+ calorie binges on a weekly basis. In my experience, ladies who maintain slender physiques have mastered portion control and exert great will-power in avoiding temptation with junk foods and overeating.
I’m not suggesting that women should drastically reduce their calories overnight. What I am suggesting is that women who seek the slender look should gradually begin to curtail their caloric intake if they’re overweight, as trying to “outrun” a sub-par diet is not efficient.
6. Ladies like Jessica Alba and Zoe Saldana typically do cardio and resistance training but aren’t obsessed with progressive overload
Many Americans aren’t very big on exercise. In fact, 25% get no exercise at all. And only around 50% exercises at least 3 times per week for 30 minutes (see HERE for recent Gallup poll). On the contrary, Jessica and Zoe exercise very frequently.
They like their cardio, they like their circuit training, they like their stretching, and they do their resistance exercises. If you activate muscles daily, they remain firm. If you quit exercising, muscles get soft and the body gets flabby.
Jessica and Zoe perform exercises like planks, lunges, stability ball leg curls, and weighted glute bridges. However, their goals are not to be able to bust out 20 chin ups, 20 push-ups, a 135 pound full squat, a 225 pound deadlift, or 225 pound hip thrusts. Their secret is consistency and nutrition.
In my experience, ladies who maintain slender physiques prioritize daily physical activity and make sure that they exercise almost every day – they make it a part of their daily habits.
How to Attain a Slender Look
Having said all of the above, how should women seeking the slender look train?
Initially, nearly everyone should train the same way – learn proper form with the basic movement patterns and get stronger at them. Master bodyweight squats, lunges, hip thrusts, and back extensions. Learn to hip-hinge and perform barbell RDLs. Start doing torso-elevated push-ups, dumbbell military presses, rows, and band-assisted or negative chins. Throw in some lateral band walking and planking.
However, recall the information from the chart that I posted above (also below). Most ladies can continuously engage in progressive overload and keep looking better and better according to their standards. However, some will eventually need to chill out depending on where they stand.
For the ladies who fall into the category highlighted above – those who are at the weight they want to be at and still feel too muscular – here’s how I adapt the training (it’s also how I train models who need to be extra careful about gaining too much muscle for their liking).
1. Less squats, lunges, and deadlifts – do them, but go light. Don’t obsess about progressive overload. Feel the right muscles doing the job. Higher rep goblet squats and American deadlifts are good choices.
2. More glute isolation work – wise choices here include barbell glute bridges, back extensions, and cable glute kickbacks, as are lateral band walks and band seated hip abductions.
3. No direct ab training – the abs will get activated with most free weight movements. They don’t require direct training past a certain level of competency. Some planks and the like are certainly okay, but there’s no need for intense abdominal/oblique training. Despite what most S&C experts claim, a small percentage of women do get bulky midsections from too much core work, so this needs to be considered.
4. More variety – this is key. You want challenging workouts from metabolic and muscle activation perspectives. However, you should switch it up, rotate lifts, and employ different techniques and methods. This is also good for preventing boredom.
5. Less focus on progressive overload – continuous progressive overload can make people very hungry. It’s a natural response. You’re telling the body that you want it to be stronger, so it responds by gaining muscle. For overweight individuals who are dieting, it helps them retain muscle mass while shedding fat for weight loss. But for some ideal weight individuals, it can backfire in the long-run by forcing weight gain. This is why powerlifters have such a hard time staying in their respective weight classes over the years.
Focus on progressive overload for exercises targeting muscles that you want to grow – usually glutes and whatever other weak parts that are specific to your body. But with exercises targeting muscles that you’re happy with, don’t concern yourself with progressive overload and just make sure you get in a good work out.
6. Faster pace – you want dense sessions that are metabolically demanding. There’s no need to rest longer than 90 seconds, and you can employ paired supersets that combine non-competing lower body and upper body movements. A 60 second rest period is the usual here.
7. No sprints or plyos – trainers love these and clients do even more. But what can sprints and plyos do for the physique that weights can’t? Weights are a better tool for targeting muscles, and they’re much safer too. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve encountered who hurt themselves almost every time they sprint. I know it makes people feel athletic, but nothing makes you feel more “un-athletic” than an injury. So spare your joints and just stick to weights. It’s not worth the risk with physique clients. Hill sprints and box jumps are easier on the body than traditional sprinting and jumping, so keep that in mind if you’re hell-bent on training explosively.
8. Continued focus on nutrition – this is the most important point. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition! Too many calories will prevent a slender appearance. Many slender women are lucky in that they don’t tend to get as hungry as heavier women and aren’t in a constant state of hunger-battling. Sure extra calories are great for continuously improving performance, but that’s not the goal here.
The training needs to fit the individual.
I recall reading a couple articles years back that jive with the advice contained in this article. The first was in regards to Jessica Simpson, while the other was in regards to Jessica Biel.
When Jessica Simpson was training for the part of Daisy Duke in Dukes of Hazard, she needed to get in better shape and gain glute mass. Her trainer had her training six days per week doing lots of squats, lunges, kickbacks, and other glute exercises. She needed to gain significant muscle mass in strategic places, and the results were outstanding.
Conversely, after Blade Trinity, Jessica Biel was overly muscular for her liking and needed to lose some size. She stopped focusing on heavy resistance training and switched it up a bit more, incorporating more variety and using lighter weight. She experienced great results as well.
The solution though is never to quit training. I’ve seen pictures of the hottest actresses and models in the world looking out of shape – including the ladies mentioned in this article. Everyone needs to stay active in order to look their best, and proper resistance training is always warranted. Here is a flowchart that sheds light on this (click HERE for a clearer pdf):
The training plans of the various actresses make sense when you analyze this flowchart, as the ladies train according to where they stand on the chart.
If most of the world’s most popular slender actresses and models trained the way that the strength & conditioning industry recommended, within a year or two they would look markedly different. Their muscles would definitely be larger and they’d be more ripped. For example, if Jessica Alba and Zoe Saldana worked their way up to doing 3 sets of 12 chin ups, 3 sets of 20 push-ups, 3 sets of 10 full squats with 95 pounds, 3 sets of 20 walking lunges with 50 lb dumbbells, and 3 sets of 10 deadlifts with 135 lbs, their bodies would look much different. Whether this is ideal or not depends on your particular goal, and most of the actresses and models aren’t going for that look. This is why they train differently. I believe that the S&C industry needs to realize and accept this.
Sometimes women shift their goals when they start training as they end up loving the strength & conditioning gains so much. You see this from time to time with women in Crossfit. They start out training for physique purposes, but as they gain proficiency, they gradually begin to train for performance purposes. There’s nothing wrong with this and I love when my clients alter their attitude in this manner. In general, when starting up a new hobby, you like to improve. You don’t just like to go to the gym and go through the motions, nor do you like to just match your performances week in and week out without ever improving on anything. Setting personal records (PR’s) is fun! This is where strength training hooks you, and for some women this spells markedly increased muscularity.
This information is not to say that women should fall prey to Tracy Anderson type B.S. and stick solely to bodyweight and 2 lb dumbbell exercises. Rather, it’s to train and eat according to individual preferences, to be able to recognize when you’re satisfied with your muscularity, and to have the willpower to place the muscles you’re satisfied with on the backburner while still hammering the muscles that you’re not currently satisfied with. This is much easier said than done.
In summary, training plans should be tailored to the individual and are dependent upon genetics, logistics, preferences, and goals. There is no one-size fits all approach to strength training and we all need to respect the various training methodologies.