Many women go to the gym and do hours and hours of cardio with the aim of ‘toning up’ and end up simply smaller versions of themselves, with similar percentages of lean body mass and fat. This is not toning. Toning involves building muscle and losing fat, to create a firmer, leaner physique with a higher proportion of lean body mass compared to fat.
For those who fear that they will develop huge muscles if they so much as look at a set of dumbbells, worry not! It is very difficult to develop large amounts of muscle mass due to the influence of the circulating female hormones and only very low levels of natural testosterone. While many natural female body builders develop significant muscle mass, this is from training hard and eating right over a period of many years before achieving competition standard. For the average recreational female trainer, a lean toned physique can be achieved without the worry of gaining excessive mass.
There is no reason that female body builders should eat a different diet from their male counterparts. The types of foods that should be consumed to achieve the best results are that same as those that make up a bodybuilding diet for a man. However, portion sizes will be smaller than for men, due to the lower body weight and proportion of lean body mass naturally present in women. This results in lower energy requirements.
Exact portion size will depend on the body weight, proportion of lean body mass, activity levels and lifestyle of the individual, plus natural genetic variation in metabolism. It will obviously also be goal dependent, with more being consumed during a bulking phase, compared to cutting. It is important to listen to your body, gauge how it reacts to different eating and training regimes and adjust your intake and training accordingly. Personal experience is the key to finding the right diet to meet your goals.
What foods should women eat?
A cutting or bulking plan should be based upon a core of healthy foods supplying all the macro- and micronutrients. The relative amounts consumed will vary depending upon the goal – a cutting plan will be lower in carbs than one aimed at bulking.
Examples of the type of foods that should make up a body building diet are given below. The key is to get a wide variety of foods. Not only will this reduce menu boredom, it will also ensure that the full spectrum of micronutrients, amino acids, essential fatty acids and so on, are provided.
Example foods for a body building diet:
- Low GI carbohydrate such as brown or basmati rice, granary bread, wholemeal pasta, quinoa, sweet potato and other starchy vegetables.
- Good quality, lean protein sources such as skinless chicken or turkey, lean fillets of beef, lamb or pork, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards), white fish, eggs, pulses, and soya / tofu / quorn. It is best to oven bake, grill, roast or stir fry, rather than shallow or deep fry.
- Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, flax, oily fish, avocado and olives, plus poly- or monounsaturated oils. These will ensure a good supply of poly and monounsaturated oils. Restrict foods containing a lot of saturated fat
- Lots of fruit and vegetables. These are typically low in calories but packed full of vitamins and minerals plus other phytonutrients essential for the maintenance of a healthy metabolism, immune system, skin, nervous system… the list goes on
- Low fat dairy products such as yoghurt, skimmed milk, lower fat cheeses (such as Edam or Brie), cottage cheese and quark
For further detailed information, please see the articles on bulking. Essentially, bulking is the gain of body mass (a mixture of lean body mass and fat) achieved by consumption of a calorie surplus, combined with weight training, resulting in a greater muscle mass. The aim is to bulk as cleanly as possible, gaining only minimal amounts of fat. This will result in a more painless process of cutting, to strip away the fat and reveal the hard earned muscle.
Bulking does not mean putting away as much food as possible, regardless of the quality or quantity. Few women will want to gain large amounts of fat as well as muscle. This is simply a waste of energy and will not achieve the desired aesthetic.
Aim to consume a Performance-Meal or Meal Replacement drink every 3 hours, comprised of low GI carbs, lean protein and healthy fats. In addition, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables will keep you feeling full and will ensure adequate micronutrient and fibre intake.
Pay attention to the pre- and post-workout meals, in particular. The pre-workout meal, consumed at least an hour if not two before training should be focused on low GI carbs and lean protein, with some fruit. Post-workout nutrition should be an immediate whey protein shake, or other fast acting protein source, followed by a meal of low-medium GI carbs, lean protein, healthy fats and vegetables.
Cutting is the reduction of body fat and preservation of lean body mass to achieve a leaner yet still muscular physique. It is done by creating a calorie deficit through diet and cardiovascular activity. Cutting diets are lower in both calories and carbohydrate than bulking diets. Fats are lowered slightly but protein intake is maintained, so the proportion of the diet that is protein is actually higher than in the bulking diet.
While carbs are not completely removed from the diet, or indeed any particular meal, they are reduced and limited to slow acting, low GI carbs. The majority of carbs will be focussed before and after weight training and the portion sizes should be reduced (but not eliminated) at every other meal.
Early morning cardio exercise, at a moderate level, will increase the calorie deficit without having to reduce intake of food dramatically and will help to burn fat while the body is in an unfuelled state.
Weight training should be no different from that of male body builders. Low to moderate rep ranges with heavy weights will promote the development of muscle, unlike high rep ranges with low weights, which is more likely to burn a mixture of muscle and fat. See the articles on training for further details.
Cardiovascular exercise should be performed at least 4-5 times a week, early morning, on an empty stomach, at a moderate intensity, while cutting. However, during bulking, cardio should not be totally neglected, just completed on a different day or at a different time from weight training. Not only will it promote overall health, it will ensure that excessive levels of fat are not gained and the subsequent process of cutting is more efficient.
Supplements should be just that – supplemental to a healthy eating plan, tailored to the individual, alongside a well designed training regime. While whey protein is a great addition to any body building diet, ensuring a fast acting supply of protein post workout, other supplements, while not essential, may be of benefit. Examples include glutamine and creatine ethyl ester.
While serious body builders who regularly compete tend to follow bulking and cutting cycles, maintaining a very low level of body fat for only a few days around a competition, the average recreation female body building will follow a less stringent programme.
The Cutting Range of Performance-Meals is for gaining lean body mass with minimal fat gain. This will result in a harder physique that will result in a leaner look overall. It incorporates a weight training session in the afternoon.
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