I was fortunate to start this whole weightlifting thing off with a good coach. Justin Tooley at The Gym knows how to get strong, but he also knows the body. He knows how it is supposed to move, how to work with limitations, and how to get the body past those limitations. He’s also pretty good at getting someone out of their head. I refused to box jump for my first several weeks at The Gym, even used plantar fasciitis as an excuse to keep both feet on the ground. One day, he decided enough was enough, told me to “just jump on the damn box!” and now box jumps are one of my favorite things to do. (It wasn’t actually that simple. I made him stand in front of the box to catch me if I missed).
I learned a lot from Justin. He taught me how to move, how to lift, and how strong I can be. He also taught me how to coach. He doesn’t allow anyone under a barbell until they can move well without one. You’ll see newcomers spending time doing box squats and deadlifts with a kettlebell until he’s satisfied. I personally got to spend a fair amount of time benching with a bamboo bar to improve my shoulder stability before he let me touch a “real” bar.
Because of Justin, I learned what to look for in a good coach from the start. When I moved and joined CrossFit Local, good coaching played into that decision. A lot of people – maybe even most people – aren’t as fortune to find a good coach from the beginning. They work out on their own, making it up as they go, or they take a group fitness class that is at max capacity and the instructor can’t work with everyone, therefore can’t correct form. They don’t hire a personal trainer or else they get one that isn’t as skilled as they should be.
Or, they download a workout program from a website wrapped in shiny fonts and promises of dramatic weight loss in a short amount of time and try to follow along..
I can’t deny that some of these popular programs – Kayla Itstine, Tone It Up – have success stories. I appreciate that they get women who may have once been sedentary up and moving. These programs, and others like them, aren’t all bad. I want to emphasis that – they have a lot of good merits. I followed Emily Skye’s 12-week program from start to finish before joining The Gym, and I saw a lot of success with it. It’s a good program, overall.
However, as brands with large followings, they have a responsibility to produce knowledge-based content. They have a responsibility, too, to demonstrate a healthy lifestyle that includes well-balanced meals, rest days, and, for lack of a better phrase here, reality. Not every woman downloading their programs will be doing burpees on the beach or have the ability to create elaborate spirulina smoothie bowls on the reg. This isn’t a responsibility exclusive to big brands with big followings. It’s a responsibility for any of us in the health and wellness industry as people are trusting us with parts of their lives and well-being. It’s a big responsibility, not one to be taken lightly. That’s why I post failed deadlifts alongside squat PRs, and Instagram stories detailing how I busted it three times in a row trying to PR a snatch and how much I dislike running and in turn, struggle with it.
Last week, two separate people sent me a Tone It Up article titles “How Weight Training at Tone It Up Makes You Stronger, Leaner, and Happier.” One, a friend I’ve trained with for a while, said “you’re going to die when you read this.” The other, an Instagram follower of mine, said: “I’m new to weightlifting and you seem to know a lot about it. Is this article good advice? I want to make sure I’m doing things correctly.”
I did in fact roll my eyes pretty hard when I read it, and while some of it is decent advice, some of it is not.
My first issue is, of course, with the cuteness of it all. Phrases like “allllll the details” and “gorgeous muscles” are right on brand with Tone It Up, but strength training isn’t meant to be cute. It’s meant to help you lead a healthier, more functional life. “One of my favorite ways to get photo shoot ready” also made me cringe, again because it sells an image, not a purpose. It took me long time to get to a place where I understood that nutrition and fitness shouldn’t be about fitting into a certain size, but about improving overall health and being able to function well in day-to-day life. I struggle with programming – diet, fitness, or otherwise – that focuses on “get skinny fast” rather than “get healthy for life.”
From there, TIU lists their reasons you should be weight training. Compared to my 7 Reasons Women Should Lift Weights, at first glance, they’re onto something. But, then, I began to read.
Yes, strength training does boost the metabolism. TIU promotes their product, then vaguely mentions the “afterburn effect.” What they’re referring to is Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption or, simply, EPOC. Think of it like this. You turn your car off after a long trip, but the engine? It takes a while to cool down. For more on EPOC, read this article from ACE Fitness.
When you’re strength training, your muscles are breaking down. To rebuild themselves takes energy and the body burns calories for energy. So, if you’re lifting weights regularly, your body is going to be hard at work, repairing itself even while you sleep. Especially while you sleep. However, this doesn’t mean you can eat a bacon cheeseburger and double fries every night because you’re strength training and your body is burning so many more calories because of it. You’re not burning that many additional calories. You’ll also need to eat more. I know how that sounds, but as a recovering chronic dieter, I can confirm the massive difference MORE food can make. Perhaps one of my biggest issues with TIU overall is their nutrition plans, which are generally calorie and food restrictive. A former “TIU Girl,” @KP_ingitsimple, has a great – knowledge backed – breakdown of TIU’s most recent nutrition challenge under the “Recent Rants” highlight of her profile that I highly recommend. She gets to the nuts and bolts of this better than I ever could.
Perhaps the part of the article that bothered me the most was their answer to “will lifting weights make me bulky?” They are correct in saying it will not. Ladies, lifting weights will not make you bulky. That needs repeating over and over. I disagree with them when they say “bodybuilders go through very specific training lifting massively heavy weights.” Bodybuilders do follow specific programming. You won’t necessarily see them lifting “massively heavy weights” however, at least not frequently.
Generally, bodybuilders focus on higher reps which results in muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth). On average, their reps per set are in the 8-12 range. While you may see a bodybuilder curling 50lb dumbbells, if they can do that 8-12 times in a set, that’s not “massively heavy” for them. You or I? You betcha. But strength is relative. Bodybuilders want the pump, the growth. To gain strength, the focus is on lower rep schemes at heavier weights. I wrote about this concept in my How Much Weight Should I Be Lifting post, and you can read more about the science behind bodybuilding here. There’s another great article on the topic of high reps and muscle hyperplasia (the increase of cells/fibers in muscles) here. It’s misleading to women already concerned about bulking up to tell them bodybuilders are so big because they lift “massively heavy.” They lift the appropriate amount of way for the appropriate amount of reps for their goals.
They also state that their programs opt for high reps to lengthen and tone muscles rather than put on size. Even I, the barre studio owner, a form of exercise that’s been marketed as “lengthening and toning the muscles”, knows that you can’t lengthen a muscle. Your muscles have a predetermined length. That length is determined by things like the type of muscle, it’s attachment points, and those pesky genetics. You can improve your flexibility and mobility to help some of those tight muscles unwind a bit and function through their proper range of motion, but your muscles? They ain’t gettin’ any longer than they already are. Trust me, if there was a way to make my leg muscles longer, I would have found it.
Additionally, TIU promotes their nutrition plan as a means of avoiding the bulk look. I’m all about plugging one’s product when you can, but as mentioned above, their nutrition plan is dangerously low calorie, often no more than 1200 net calories a day, despite it’s nutrient dense makeup. Again, see KP’s “rant” – she, who happens to be a nurse and working on her Ph.D, breaks it down far better than I ever can. While you do need to eat more to build strength, you need to eat to recover after a workout and keep your metabolism humming along. I learned that the hard way. Don’t be me, friends.
Finally, in their tips to get started, TIU points towards 3-5lb dumbbells. Honestly, those weights probably won’t do much for you. If you’re brand spankin’ new to weightlifting, maybe grab those for things like side and front raises, but to make a real difference, you’ll need a weight that challenges you, a weight that helps you achieve your goal reps, but the last 2-3? Not so easy. Doable. But not easy. They also allude to building a certain area. Friends, you can’t target problem spots. You just can’t. Sure, you can only do arm day and skip leg day (please, don’t do this), but deciding you want thinner thighs so you’re only going to do exercises to make them thinner just won’t work out. Again, if there was a way, I would have found it.
One thing I 100% agree with is that form is everything. I come from a proper form evangelist and have been baptized in his ways. I’ll even say that their form cues in the post they link to are (pretty much) spot on. But don’t look at their demos. Some are okay (that pistol squat is goals – and also a super advanced move I wouldn’t recommend just anyone go out and try). Some, not so much.
I’ve ranted and raved a bit, but at the end of the day, I just want you to be educated. As I said above, and want to emphasize again, programs like Tone It Up do have value in the fact that they get people up and moving and inspire them to want to lead a healthier lifestyle. To that end, the founders have done their job, and have built good communities around it. But, with their target market being women who are often chasing an “ideal body”, the need to produce factual content is especially important. I know I’ll never win the battle of convincing the entire population of planet earth that diet and exercise should be less about aesthetic and more about health, and that “goal bodies” can’t be achieved in a 30 day challenge. Those before and after pictures of women in bikinis are a lot more marketable than the reduced blood pressures, lower A1c results, and the ability to play at the park with their kids without shortness of breath that my clients report back. But if I can educate a few people, and maybe inspire a woman to pick up a weight and clean up her plate, I’ve done my job.
At the end of the day, you’re responsible for what you read and what you believe. Just remember that even a pig in lipstick can be gorgeous. Pretty colors, swirling fonts, and “hey girl!” copy doesn’t always mean “accurate information.” Get to the root of what you’re reading. Do you own research. Make your own educated decisions.
And if you have questions, ask them. I’m always happy to answer.