Tag : body-composition

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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…)

Angelina Jolie's right leg

Angelina Jolie’s notorious right leg at the Oscars in 2012 started a new meme and had close to 42,000 followers on Twitter – Okay Cosmo, I get you!


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.

Tabata timer app

By the way, a tabata timer app may come in handy!


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:


http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2011/07/21/meet-staci-your-new-powerlifting-super-hero/ (must read: her story is phenomenal!!)



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Want to lean out your thighs? You won’t believe what you’ve been missing…

Okay, maybe it’s a cheap shot that I’m buying into the whole Upworthy practice of writing ridiculous headlines! Now that I’ve gotten your attention…Recent conversation with two girl friends of mine reveal that I wasn’t the only one a bit self-conscious of my thigh area. This seems like a more common nuisance among asian girls, whether genetically or culturally, as our mamas love to call them “childbearing hips” and move on to comment on our other body parts as they usually see fit. Asian moms mean well, I’m sure :)

It shouldn’t be any revelation on my part – girls have been subconscious of how they look for centuries. What’s ironic to me is how small my two friends are in contrast to me. They’re both really fit girls who know how to take care of their body. Our conversation took an inevitable turn and they asked me for workout advice to tone and lean out their legs. I’m both surprised and flattered that they’re seeking advice from me. After all, I only started weight-training like what…6-7 weeks ago (and may I add, only on the weekends). Though I’m no expert and have no original advice to give, I did recall what my chiropractor told me – 40 seconds as the defining time under tension. I decided to take it upon myself to do a bit of further research (aka doing a lot of Google searches).

I love lists and categorizing, don’t you?
I took the liberty of outlining some areas to consider in a list:
– genetic predisposition
– caloric input vs. output
– body composition
– metabolism
– hypertrophy vs. strength

Genetic Predisposition

Genetics do play a role, in that women tend to carry more fat in the upper legs and hips than do men.” – This fact taken from an article from the Dailymail.co.uk “Femail” section doesn’t surprise me a bit.  However the next paragraph says that “Scientists, led by researchers at Oxford University and the Medical Research Council, looked at the genetic code of more than 77,000 people, and found 13 gene locations that may influence fat deposition on the hips.” Does that mean you should just give up on the whole pursuit of getting slimmer legs?

Genetic predisposition – gender, genetic body fat distribution and body shape, play a huge factor on how our lower body is shaped. Fat on the lower body for women is tricky as it often is the last place to show signs of weight loss. Unless you are genetically lucky in a sense and have naturally slim legs, your body fat % will have to be in an uncomfortable level and drop below 20% or more to achieve the “definition” zone. Many bikini and fitness models will reach this body fat level (15-17%) and some may not be able to menstruate. 

Caloric input vs. output

This seems very logical and has been a long-standing formula for manipulating weight.  When your caloric output is greater than your caloric input, you lose weight. It seems simple and all, except that it completely neglects the type of food you’re putting in your body and the type of exercises you should do. Certainly, one boiled egg which is equivalent to a chocolate bar calorically cannot be regarded as the same nutritionally. Same can be said about the caloric output. Can all exercise whether it’s running, weight training, circuit training, zumba be considered to have the same effect on your body as long as the caloric output is the same?

Another common saying that we’ve been fed growing up in the 90s is the “fat burning zone”. The longer you stay in that zone, the more fat you can burn. Many think that cardio for a sustained period of time can contribute to fat loss. 
According to this women’s running site, a recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology discovered that regular 30-minute workouts resulted in more weight loss than regular 60-minute workouts. “At the end of the 13-week study, the half hour workout group lost 8.8 pounds, while the one hour workout group lost 8.4 pounds. Scientists hypothesize that our bodies compensate as the exercise session drags on, thereby dampening the results.” 

The human body is amazing in adapting to external environments and harsh circumstances. When you train for a long-distance event, your body gets better at it which also means it becomes very efficient in using the least amount of energy possible to complete that event. This can improve your performance in endurance sport but may work against you if your goal is fat loss.

Body Composition and Metabolism

There was a blog post written a while ago that spread like wildfire on the topic of “running makes you fat?” It certainly would be easy for me to jump on that bandwagon and start trash talking all the marathon runners and that they’re setting themselves up to get fat with their training.  The logic behind their explanation makes sense to me but I also believe that the human body is very adaptable and our ancestors were probably good at both steady state activities (ex. running or jogging at a steady pace)and burst activites (ex. sprinting).

To give this whole argument a bit more context, these writers hold the point of view that steady state activities, running long distance for example, will enable the body to go into self preservation mode. Some of the reasons include:

  • Training consistently above 65% of maximum heart rate shifts the body to salvage as much body fat as possible, ultimately slowing down your metabolism
  • After regular training, fat cells stop releasing fat during moderate-intensity activities like they once did.

There are many reasons why one wants to run a marathon. For one, it’s a real and measurable accomplishment. I absolutely admire endurance athletes for their determination and mental toughness (things I wish I have… sigh). However, I find myself siding with the above viewpoint that if your goal is to lean out and lose weight, training to run for 26.2 miles may not be your answer.

I did find some tips on how to prevent your body from going into “self-preservation” mode if you’re continuing your endurance training.  Thanks to many more google searches, I stumbled across the Science of Triathlon blog – also listed below.

1. Do not restrict calories intake when initiating endurance training

Isn’t that the first thing we girls do when we want to get that beach-ready body – ramp up the cardio and cut down on calories. According to Science of Triatholon, that’s the last thing you should do. Generally you’d notice the weight loss as your caloric output exceeds your normal calorie intake  4-6 weeks into training.

2. Eat Fat!

You heard that right. Gone are the days of the 90’s way of thinking. Fat is essential for hormone production and absorption of vitamin D. Not eating fats during endurance training would only mean your body hoards the fat even more.

3. When you’re training hard, think about what that food does for you nutritionally before you put it in your body.

Here are some opposing viewpoints around this whole “running makes you fat” issue:

Why running is making you fat by Patrick Hitches

Does running make you fat by Science of Triathlon

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get to the bottom of my list so keep an eye out for a Part 2 post to discuss the last bullet points (metabolism, hypertrophy vs. strength). You would think fitness experts and trainers could have exhausted this topic by now. The deeper I’ve gotten into my research, the more opposing viewpoints and training methodologies I’ve discovered. Apparently there’s still a lot more to be said. Until then, ladies, what say you, LET’S DO SOME SQUATS! :)