Want to lean out your thighs part 2 – Training Regimen
Last week we’ve discussed a topic that trouble many of us girls (myself included): how to achieve leaner thighs. We took a look at how genetics, body composition, metabolism, diet all play a role. This week I’ll venture into the more controversial areas of this topic: training methods to achieve toned and lean thighs.
I think it’s fair to say most of us (if you’re a 90’s baby like moi) have grown up thinking that lifting heavier weights lead to bigger muscles and lighter weights is the best way to slim down and maintain tone. These things are so ingrained in my head that it took me two years to finally give high resistance training a try, despite having learned about the benefits of barbell training from friends who have gotten into Olympic lifting or Crossfit.
So what are some training methodologies that others claimed to have give them success in achieving toned thighs?
1) Spot training
This comes up in the top search results on Google when I search for “how to get toned thighs” and is usually published in the form of an article accompanied by photos of attractive models doing those moves on health.com or cosmopolitan.com. (sorry don’t mean to hate but “flaunting those sexy and toned legs like Angelina”? Typical cosmo writing but it kinda works…)
Some of these workouts can actually improve your body awareness or range of motion if you’re new to any type of training. If they have a jumping component to it, may even add a bit of conditioning alongside. The issue is inherent in its concept to target a certain area and expect that if you work on that area enough, you can lose fat and tone up that part of your body. If you’ve ever tried losing belly fat by only doing ab workouts, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sure it can strengthen your ab muscles but it won’t give you washboard abs and make them look more prominent. Your body predetermines where it stores fat and for women, it’s more common to maintain the weight in your hips and thighs.
Not very effective if you work on 10/ 15 reps for a few sets as Cosmo has prescribed. There’s nothing wrong with the actual exercises. Incorporating it into a more balanced program (so work on other parts of your body) with added weights and/or in a tabata circuit type of setting will result in more desirable results.
HIIT stands for high intensity interval training. There are also other names for it like sprint level training or tabata regimen (named after Professor Izumi Tabata for his 1996 study involving Olympic speedskaters). It’s a more enhanced form of interval training where it involves alternating periods of anaerobic exercise and periods of recovery. I personally have trained the “tabata” way which means 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of recovery for about 4 to 8 minutes.
There are quite a few studies that have proven the effectiveness of HITT in aerobic, metabolic and athletic performance:
– A 2008 study by Gibala et aldemonstrated 2.5 hours of sprint interval training produced similar biochemical muscle changes to 10.5 hours of endurance training and similar endurance performance benefits.
– A 2009 study by Driller and co-workers showed an 8.2 second improvement in 2000m rowing time following 4 weeks of HIIT in well-trained rowers.
– An April 2008 study published in International Journal of Obesity shows that in young women, HIIT three times per week for 15 weeks compared to the same frequency of steady state exercise (SSE) was associated with significant reductions in total body fat, subcutaneous leg and trunk fat, and insulin resistance.
So there you go! I think the evidence is stacked in its favour. HIIT is proven to be more effective than long aerobic workouts in fat burning, even though it is popular belief that fatty acid utilization occurs after 30 minutes and long aerobic workout is the best method to reduce fat. I’ve also tried using the same kind of intensity or time interval but applied to workouts with or without weights. Some rep or interval schemes I like doing:
- 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest for 4-8 minutes (as mentioned already): you can do a variety of body weight workouts like burpees (my favourite!), push ups, sit ups, jump squats or add on a kettlebell and do some kettlebell swings or goblet squats.
- 21-15-9, 50-40-30-20-10 rep schemes: Crossfit peeps are probably familiar with the 21-15-9 rep scheme cause of the dreaded “Fran” WOD. To be honest, I’m not too sure what the added benefits are in using descending rep schemes (would love to hear the opinions of you lovely readers out there). One thing to be sure – I’ve started enjoying more reps-based workouts for time. Sometimes trying to maintain intensity for a specific time period (like in a tabata) is too arbitrary and my lazy self kicks in. Knowing that there’s a set number of reps to complete gives me more motivation to finish all the reps.
3) Heavy weight/low rep vs. light weight/high rep
This is it! I’m finally getting into the most controversial topic of all – does heavy weight make you bulk up? It’s an especially fascinating topic to me, so I’m glad there are lots of literature out there to debunk this myth.
Before we go into this topic, let’s define “heavy”. Jerry Handley, a West Virginia University strength coach, defines heavy as “anything they can do a max of 6 times.”
Dana McMahan has written an excellent article on 75togo.com on this subject and these are her takeaways (word for word)
- Women lack the right balance of hormones, testosterone and growth hormone, to put on muscle mass the way men do.
- When women start lifting, they complain of getting bulky because of a combination of fluid retention, inflammation and plain old “feeling ‘swole”
- Even if you lift enough to put on some weight, many women [and men] prefer the change in body composition.
Testosterone and growth hormones
What are these hormones involved? A simple way to look at it is In natural metabolism, anabolic hormones “build up tissues” while catabolic hormones break down tissues. Testosterone (anabolic) is simulated when you lift heavy. Growth hormone (anabolic) is simulated when you’re doing high volume or spend more time under tension. Although men and women’s hormonal levels will be similarly triggered in lifting, what a man experiences in muscle growth will be much higher than a woman, simple because men have 10 times more anabolic hormones than girls do. In order for women to get bulky, they would need a big nutrition push and constantly applying themselves in training, or if they fall under the very small percentage of women who are “genetically gifted easy gainers”. What ends up happening for girls that lift is that the testosterone produced will help the muscles repair and help retain muscle mass and strength, even when they’re eating less.
Illusion of bulking: fluid retention
This 2nd point really hit the nail on the head for me. I swear this is exactly what goes on in my head on a monday after a weekend of training: “Don’t do any big gestures with your shoulders because the blazer is going to rip at the seam.”.. or “I may need a pair of bigger jeans because I can barely pull my jeans up my thighs”. Apparently it’s a mixture of self perception or disillusion and fluid retention, and is often felt by those that have recently begun training (aka me). A lot of inflammation, which draws in glycogen and water, happens in the early stages of training. This gives the illusion you’ve “bulked up” but it’s not muscle, hence not permanent.
Change in body composition
I really wanted to insert something along the lines of “seeing progress” accompanied by a “before and after” photo. Reality is it’s only been 3 months. According to Jerry, the university strength coach as mentioned above, most of this is still relying on your nervous system. Actual muscle growth doesn’t start till a few months later, and even so it’ll be no more than 1 to 2 lbs/ month of lean mass gain on average. Most of that “swole” feeling comes from a different feel in the body, not necessarily a change in body composition… at least just yet.
For more info on this topic, make sure to check out these articles: