Archive for month: September, 2015

Cellucor whey is my favorite!

Getting in more protein is a recurring issue I run into with my clients, particularly ones who are newer to the fitness game. And understandably so – carbohydrate- and fat-heavy foods tend to be far more palatable, and I really don’t know of many, if any, individuals who have woken up in the middle of the night craving a thick slab of grilled chicken breast.

Still, dietary protein is a critical component of not only your physique but also your overall physical health, so it’s important that you’re taking steps to ensure that you’re consuming enough.

Let me walk you through how you can get more protein in your diet.

What is dietary protein?

What’s all the hype about protein, anyway? Isn’t it really only for hardcore bodybuilders who are looking to get jacked out of their minds?

Actually, we all need it.

Going back to the basics, protein is one of the three macronutrients, next to carbohydrates and fats. Proteins are made up of amino acids and constitute the building blocks of skeletal muscle.  For athletes and other active individuals, this macronutrient is crucial to help rebuild and repair skeletal muscle before and after an intense bout of exercise.

Here’s a rudimentary list to give you an idea of what protein sources look like in whole foods:

  • Egg whites
  • Whole eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey breast
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Canned tuna
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk
  • Extra lean ground beef
  • Top round steak
  • Top sirloin steak
  • Flank steak
  • White fish (cod, halibut, haddock, mahi mahi, tilapia, etc.)
  • Salmon
  • Protein powder
  • Quest bars

Are all proteins created equal?

Not at all, actually. Proteins differ not only in their quality but also in their source and digestion rate.

There are 20 total amino acids, nine of which are considered essential amino acids (EAAs), meaning that they cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained via diet. While there are a number of different methods to determine protein quality, typically the higher the EAA content of a protein, the better the quality (Lemon, 2000).

Of the nine EAAs, the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three are unique, as they play special roles in neural function (Blomstrand, 2006), protein metabolism (Norton & Layman, 2006), and blood glucose and insulin regulation (Brosnan & Brosnan, 2006). Leucine is particularly special in that 2-3g of leucine alone has been found to stimulate protein synthesis independently (Layman, 2002).

Meat- and dairy-based proteins, such as steak, milk, and whey all contain high concentrations of leucine and are therefore considered higher quality proteins (Norton & Wilson, 2009). Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, often lack sufficient EAAs to be considered a complete protein source (Campbell et al., 1999). As a staunch omnivore, I’m admittedly not well-versed with vegetarian or vegan diets, so here’s a solid post from Greatist taking you through some complete plant-based protein sources you may not know about.

How much do I need?

Protein needs vary based on the individual.

Before we move forward, one thing is abundantly clear: the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein set by the US government is not nearly enough for healthy, active folks like you and me. Keep in mind that the current RDA of 0.8g/1kg total bodyweight is actually set for sedentary persons. When you add resistance training to the mix, everything changes.

For most active individuals, somewhere within the range of 0.6-1.0g protein per 1lb total bodyweight per day is solid, with approximately 30g consumed per meal for satiety and optimal muscle protein synthesis (Layman, 2009). It doesn’t hurt to go above that, either, particularly if you’re in a steep caloric deficit and your bodyfat is already low. As well, more protein can help preserve, and sometimes even add, muscle mass when dieting.

Check out our Physique Science Podcast hosted by myself and Dr. Layne Norton as we interview Dr. Stu Phillips on dietary protein:

As well as our interview with Dr. Don Layman on leucine:

How do I get more protein in my diet?

Ah, finally. Now that we know how much protein you should be shooting for, how the heck do you get there?

Aim for around 30 grams of protein per meal.

For practical purposes, breaking down your protein goal meal-by-meal is a lot less daunting than trying to shoot for a daily total without a plan for how to get there. Striving for 30g per meal is very reasonable and can be accomplished with the following:

45g most protein powders
100g chicken breast
100g pork tenderloin
150g 93/7 ground beef
9 egg whites
5 eggs

That’s just a starting point to give you an idea of how much protein is in different food sources.

If you don’t have a food scale (and I highly recommend you get your hands on one), you can eyeball your portion sizes. In general, go for protein around the size of your palm and you should be fine.

Oh, and yes, trace protein counts, too. An ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, has 6g protein, 1g carb, and 9g fats — so those 6g would absolutely get added to your total.

Make protein the center of (almost) every meal.

This means that having mac and cheese for dinner is probably okay on occasion, but make sure you add in some protein as well. May I suggest some ham, or perhaps some diced chicken breast?

Oh, what’s that? You want to have a quesadilla? Sweet – just make sure you throw some meat in there.

Whenever I eat something, I pretty much always try to pair it with a protein source as well. If I’m going to have an apple, for example, maybe I’ll have a protein bar or a protein shake with it. I just took that from an all-carbohydrate snack to a protein-and-carb meal. Easy.

When I go out to eat, rather than thinking, “What looks tasty?” I’m wondering, “What has ample protein and mostly whole foods and looks delicious?” Oftentimes for me, that ends up being a giant chicken or steak salad with fun toppings (dressing on the side!), seared tuna, or salmon. That subtle shift in mindset can be a true nutrition game changer.

Work on making this the norm. The default, over time, should be to put protein first.

Lean burger patties!

If you’ve already hit your target protein intake for the day, then of course a non protein-centric meal is perfectly fine at that point to help round out the rest of your macronutrient numbers. But this is only if you’ve met your intake.

Keep more protein around the house.

You’re going to eat what you have access to – and conversely, you’re not going to eat what’s not available. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Yet you’d be surprised at how many people claim to be trying to consume more protein yet don’t take measures to keep more protein around at home.

At the very least, I recommend having some high quality deli meat in your fridge as well as some tuna cans in your pantry. Oh, and some protein powder. It can’t hurt.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, you probably won’t need that emergency tuna. But one day when you find yourself in a bind, you’ll be glad you kept it around.

Increase your protein intake slowly. 

This is an important point for those of you whose current protein intake is far below your goal intake. Trying to consume 80g more protein overnight and then sustain that over the long haul is a lofty endeavor and likely won’t shake out too well. It’s really not enjoyable and you may find yourself constipated – and we don’t want that, now, do we?

Instead, shoot for a 20-30g bump per week. This is far more attainable. You can do this by simply adding in 5g protein per meal or tossing in an extra meal or protein shake into your day. Continue increasing your intake on a weekly basis until you’ve reached your target number. This may take a few weeks or maybe even a few months – that’s completely okay.

Supplement with a protein shake.

I keep a few tubs of whey protein around for those times when I want a quick pulse of protein and don’t want to take the time to whip up a meal.

While there’s nothing inherently magical about whey protein, it’s a great option for when you’re short on time or on the run. Just add water. Convenience at its best!

I’ll usually blend some protein powder with milk and a banana after a training session for quick digestion, though when it’s hot out, I’ve been known to blend some chocolate whey with iced coffee to create a faux frappuccino. Mmm mmm tasty.

My favorite brand is Cellucor in the molten chocolate and peanut butter marshmallow flavors. With 25g protein per scoop, it tastes great and mixes well with other ingredients.

Protein recipes

Here are some recipes I’ve collected for you to help you get started. These ones are simple to make and you don’t need to be a fancy chef to whip these up by any means.

I strongly recommend that you make multiple batches when cooking. This will not only save you time, but will make meal prepping easier by a thousandfold without adding much work. I’ve been known to double or even triple recipes, and doing so will last me the whole week.

When it comes to diving up recipes, don’t stress over exactly even measurements. I promise you it’s not worth the stress and won’t even matter in the long haul. Measure out all the ingredients for the entire recipe, put it all together, and then split it into roughly equal servings – and let that be good enough.

Betsy’s Peanut Butter Pretzel Pancake

Betsy Welch is a long-term client of mine who is not only strong as hell in the gym but also a genius in the kitchen. Her Instagram is chock-full of protein pancake recipes, and if you like this one below, you should pick up a copy of her protein pancake e-book here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 2.28.17 PM

What You’ll Need

Batter:

30g Quest Nutrition peanut butter protein powder
15g coconut flour
46g egg white
120g unsweetened vanilla almond milk
3/4 tsp baking powder

Filling:

3g sugar-free vanilla jello pudding mix
33g fat-free cream cheese
20mL unsweetened vanilla almond milk
6g PB2 powder

Topping:

18g fat-free Cool Whip
12g PB2 powder mixed with water
15g pretzels

Directions

  1. Mix all batter ingredients in a bowl and allow to sit for 5-7 minutes while coconut flour absorbs moisture.
  2. Heat skillet on medium. Once heated, reduced to medium-low heat and spray pan with oil.
  3. While pancakes are cooking, mix together cream cheese (melted), pudding mix, almond milk, and PB2 for filling in a small bowl.
  4. Once pancakes have cooled, spread filling on top of each pancake before stacking.
  5. Top pancake stack with Cool Whip, then drizzle on PB2 powder mixed with water, and finish off with pretzels.

Makes 1 serving

Nutrition Information Per Serving

435 Calories
44g protein
45g carbs
8g fats

Sohee’s Chicken Apple Salad 

I actually came up with this dish just last week. I was on the hunt for a protein-heavy dish that was simple to make, and I remembered when my best friend Marci sent me a recipe for this chicken apple salad recipe back in the spring.

I’ve tweaked that recipe a good bit – substituted some ingredients for others and added some tidbits – to make the macros a little more to my liking. I was surprised at how easy this was to make and have since re-created it four different times. Friends and family alike have given this one a thumbs up.

Sohee's Chicken Apple Salad

What You’ll Need

400g cooked chicken breast (I recommend cooking these in the slow cooker for easier shredding)
1 medium diced apple (I use honey crisp)
2 cups broccoli
40g raisins
40g walnut pieces
1/4 cup diced red onion
5.3oz Greek yogurt (I use Chobani plain)
2tbsp dijon mustard
Stevia to taste

Directions

1. Shred chicken breast in large bowl.
2. Mix together broccoli, raisins, walnut pieces, and red onions with chicken.
3. Stir in Greek yogurt, dijon mustard, and Stevia, and mix well.
4. Portion into roughly four equal containers.
5. Refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

Makes 4 servings

Nutrition Information Per Serving

272 Calories
36.3g protein
20.1g carbs
5.4g fats

 

So here you have a number of concrete tools to help you on your quest to consuming more protein.

To learn more about how to count macronutrient numbers and adhere to them to reach your fitness goals all while incorporating your favorite foods into your diet, pick up a copy of my e-book, The Beginner’s Guide to Macrosand be sure to join the accompanying Facebook support group that comes with your purchase.

Beginner's Guide to Macros

 

References

Blomstrand, E. (2006). A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr., 136(2):544S-47.

Brosnan, J.T., & Brosnan, M.E. (2006). Branched-chain amino acids: enzyme and substrate regulation. J Nutr., 136(1 Suppl):207S-11.

Campbell, W.W., Barton, M.L., Jr., Cyr-Campbell. D., et al. (1999). Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Amer J Clin Nutr., 70(6):1032-9.

Layman, D.K., (2002). Role of leucine in protein metabolism during exercise and recovery. Can J Appl Phys., 27(6):646-63.

Layman, D.K. (2009). Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needsNutr & Metab, 6:12.

Layman, D.K., & Walker, D.A. (2006). Potential importance of leucine in treatment of obesity and the metabolic syndrome. J Nutr., 135(1 Suppl):319S-23.

Lemon, P.W. (2000). Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. J Am Coll Nutr., 19(5 Suppl):513S-21.

Norton, L.E., & Layman D.K. (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr., 136(2):533S-37.

Norton, L.E., & Wilson, G.J. (2009). Optimal protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis. AgroFood Industry Hi-Tech, 20:54-7.

Phillips, S.M., & Van Loon, L.J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci., 29(1):S29-38.

Paper Towel Analogy

I want to take a few moments to clear up the misconception that faster fat loss is necessarily better.

This piece is dedicated to those of you who are feeling discouraged by your “measly” 1lb/week loss and you’re thinking that it means that you’re not doing enough. (Hint: you’re doing just fine.)

Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss

Before I move forward, it’s important to make the distinction between general weight loss and fat loss. When people refer to weight loss, they are, most of the time, actually meaning fat loss.

What’s the difference?

Weight loss does not clarify where exactly the weight is coming off from. Could be fat, could be muscle, could be glycogen loss, could be water loss, could be cutting off a limb, could be explosive diarrhea – who knows? The point is, all of the above fall under the umbrella of contributing to weight loss.

The overarching goal when it comes to fat loss for 99.5% of people is to shed as much bodyfat while preserving as much lean body mass as possible.

Yes, including women. When they feel “bulky,” it’s usually the case that they simply have a layer of fat over their muscles, contributing to the beefy look. When they shed the fat and keep the muscle, they look lean and athletic. Promise.

The only times I’ve known of individuals actively and very intentionally trying to shed extra muscle mass was when, say, their quads were too big or their traps were a little overwhelming. These are usually competitive bodybuilder-type people who have been told by judges that they would place better in their shows if their body parts were more proportional.

Chances are, that’s not you.

How Do You Know When You’re Losing Fat vs. Muscle?

If you’d like to get your body composition measured, the dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan is your best bet. This is the most accurate and reliable method of measuring fat mass, bone mass, and lean mass distribution throughout your body. I believe you can get this done at most large universities for a reasonable fee, and many healthcare facilities offer this service as well. If you have the means and the desire to do this, I would recommend getting this done at the beginning and at the end of your fat loss journey to compare numbers.

The best way to ensure that you’re maintaining, or perhaps even gaining, muscle mass while on a fat loss program is to be strength training regularly with a variety of rep ranges. You also want to be prioritizing the compound movements and striving to gain, or at the very least, maintain your strength levels from week to week. To that end, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping a training log and tracking your weights and reps for each set from week to week to gauge your progress.

As well, you want to make sure that you’re taking regular body measurements. Scale weight is great and all, but it’s only one metric and doesn’t tell the whole story. At the bare minimum, I’d suggest taking your waist measurement once every two weeks under the same conditions (first thing in the morning after a full night’s rest, after going to the bathroom, before eating or drinking anything). I also like tracking hip, thigh, chest, and arm measurements. If scale weight is moving downward but measurements are holding relatively steady, this may be a sign that you’re losing precious muscle mass – particularly if you’re rapidly losing strength in the gym as well.

(See related: Why Relying Solely on Scale Weight is a Losing Strategy and Why Scale Weight Does Matter)

Lastly, perhaps the most subjective but also the easiest way to tell if you’re maintaining muscle is, quite simply, observing how you look in the mirror. If you find that the number on the scale is dropping relatively consistently, yet you’re still just as flabby as before, then you may be losing more muscle than you intended. As you shed mostly body fat, you should be looking noticeably firmer and more defined. Continue reading below to find out how to preserve muscle and shed almost exclusively body fat.

What’s a Good Rate of Fat Loss?

Contrary to popular belief, slower fat loss may actually be better.

I understand that we’re impatient and we want to get to the end of the journey yesterday. We don’t care for the how and we’re willing to suffer for a short period of time in order to get to where we want to be as fast as possible.

But this backfires for a number of reasons:

  • From a behavior change standpoint, the more drastic the behavior, the less likely you are to stick to it. This is because a more difficult behavior necessarily requires a higher degree of motivation, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that motivation is unreliable. Sometimes it’s high and sometimes it’s low, and “sometimes” motivation just isn’t enough to get a behavior to stick. If you try to rely on extreme measures, sooner or later, you’re going to putter out.
  • The more restrictive the diet, the higher the chances of binge eating episodes (Gormally et al., 1982). Restrictions refers not only to total calorie intake but also to food choices. In particular, I’ve noticed that individuals who actively try to put themselves into an extreme deprived state tend to overindulge more frequently and consequently blow their calories out of the water, effectively erasing any caloric deficit they may have worked to create. This is why I’m such a huge proponent of flexible dieting regardless of your fitness goal.
  • The degree of caloric restriction is directly related to the percentage of LBM lost (Chaston et al., 2007), meaning that the harder you crash diet, the more precious muscle you could lose. You probably don’t want this.

In general, anywhere between 0.5-1.0% of weight loss per week is a good rate to ensure that LBM is being preserved as much as possible (Garthe et al., 2011). In fact, a slower rate of weight loss may actually contribute to an increase in LBM by anywhere between 1.7-2.5% as well as increased strength, whereas the same could not be said for fast weight loss.

If you weigh 200lbs, then, that means that a loss of 1-2lbs per week off the scale is right where you want to be. If you’re more on the petite side like I am, maybe something like 0.5-1lb per week will be more the norm. This is good. You should be very happy with this rate.

(I should mention here that fat loss is not linear and that the scale won’t necessarily move down at a consistent rate from one week to the next. Some weeks it may seem as though you’re doing great, and then the next week the scale weight may actually go up. No worries. Focus on the general downward trend of the scale.

And still another caveat: when your body is going through body recomposition – that is, simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain – then you may see yourself looking noticeably more muscular and leaner in the mirror, but scale weight may stay the same or even go up a bit. This is particularly common for individuals who are beginner trainees, coming back to the gym after a long layoff, or using pharmaceutical enhancement. So again, take your unique set of circumstances into context when interpreting scale weight.)

If you want to maintain your fat loss results, buckle up! You’re going to be in for a long ride. But I promise it will be well worth the extra time.

What You Need to Do to Lose Fat – and Keep It Off

An appropriate caloric deficit.

This is going to differ from one individual to the next, and I won’t be able to get too deep into this within the confines of this article.

Suffice to say that setting an appropriate caloric deficit for yourself is going to depend upon a myriad of factors, including but not limited to: your age, height, bodyfat percentage, current caloric intake, activity level, dieting history, health status, and genetics.

Phew.

First, you want to determine your maintenance calorie intake – that is, the intake at which you maintain your current bodyweight. Most individuals will find that they maintain their weight between 14-16 times their bodyweight in pounds. Some may fall slightly under this range, and others, such as highly active individuals or those with crazy high metabolisms, may be well above this range. If you’re not sure where you are, I recommend you take a week to track your current day-to-day diet using an app such as MyMacros+ (for iPhones) or MyFitnessPal.

From there, subtract anywhere between 200-500 calories. That will be your caloric deficit.

If you’d like help figuring out your starting numbers for fat loss, you can purchase a custom one-time macro calculation from yours truly.

(I’ll mention here that there are many, many different ways to set your dieting numbers, and this is just one of them. Other methods are not necessarily wrong, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m presenting just one approach.)

Sufficient protein.

General protein recommendations will vary across the board, but one thing is clear: the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein of 0.8 kg per 1 kg bodyweight is woefully low for healthy, active individuals (like you and me!).

A greater proportion of protein in the diet can allow for for increased satiety and thermogenesis (Rolls et al., 1988). In addition, a higher protein diet can help attenuate losses in LBM and, when combined with exercise, can virtually halt LBM loss altogether (Layman et al., 2005). And finally, the greater the caloric deficit, the greater the protein needs; conversely, when calorie intake is higher, protein intake can be reduced (Layman, 2009).

As a general rule, I like to recommend 0.6-1.0 gram per pound of bodyweight per day, with a minimum of around 30 grams of protein per meal for improved satiety and optimal muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response (Layman, 2009). You can err on the lower side if you have higher bodyfat and shift more toward the higher end if your bodyfat levels are relatively low. Of course, you can go even higher than that if you’d like, but keep in mind that doing so will necessitate that you then take away calories that could otherwise be partitioned to carbohydrates or fats.

(See related: Calculating Your Dieting Numbers)

Listen to the Physique Science Radio podcast interview that Dr. Layne Norton and I conducted a few months back with Dr. Stu Phillips, who is known, among other things, for his research in diet-induced body composition changes:

A strength training program with an emphasis on progressive overload.

I’m a huge, huge advocate of strength training and proper programming – yes, for women, too. It’s not enough to walk into a gym and waltz around the weight room, randomly picking up weights here and there and throw in a stealthy bicep flex in the mirror when you think no one’s looking.

What builds the muscle keeps it. Remember that.

Here are some guidelines for the beginner trainee, and here is a more advanced program. You’ll notice that I pretty much always start with the big compound movements and sprinkle in some accessory work at the end.

An appropriate sprinkling of cardio on an as-needed basis.

With just about every fat loss client I work with, I’ll start her out with zero prescribed steady-state cardio. By this I don’t mean activities such as low-intensity leisure walking (which I am a huge advocate for everybody for stress reduction and general health purposes), but rather, formal exercise such as jogging around the neighborhood or peddling away on the stationary bike.

Most individuals, so long as they are nailing their nutrition program day in and day out, won’t have to add in any formal cardio throughout the duration of their fat loss journey. If they do, it can be done in the form of high intensity intervals, which have been shown to aid in reducing abdominal and subcutaneous fat to a greater extent than steady-state cardio (Boutcher, 2011).

In the words of Dr. Layne Norton, “Cardio should be like a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting.”

Consistent adherence.

If you’re not consistently adhering to your nutrition program, then you need to either 1) alter your behaviors to better align with the program, or 2) change the program itself such that it’s easier for you to follow.

So many times, I see people giving up and calling it quits before they’ve given the program a fighting chance.

Listen up: one week is not enough time to see the results you’re looking for. Two weeks won’t cut it, either. You’re going to have to be consistent for long enough – for most, that will mean a minimum of two to three months – for the visual progress to manifest.

Check out the paper towel analogy below to see what I mean.

To that end, it will help tremendously to be on a training and nutrition program that you actually enjoy. Because if you’re having fun, then you’re far, far more likely to keep up with it consistently.

That means if you don’t love running, then don’t run. If you truly enjoy going out for a long bike ride on the weekends, then keep doing that.

At the end of the day, some form of exercise and some form of consistent caloric deficit is really all you need to get things moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

 

References

Boutcher, S.H. (2011). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat lossJ Obesity. 

Chaston, T.B., Dixon, J.B., & O’Brien, P.E. (2007). Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond), 31(5):743-50.

Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P.E., Koivisot, A., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2011). Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletesInt J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab21(2):97-104.

Gormally, J., Black, S., Daston, S., & Rardin, D. (1982). The assessment of binge eating severeity among obese persons. Addictive Behaviors, 7(1):47-55.

Hall, K.D. (2008). What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? Int J Obes (Lond), 32(3):573-6.

Johannsen, D.L., Knuth, N.D., Huizenga, R., Rood, J.C., Ravussin, E., & Hall, K.D. (2012). Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free massJ Clin Endocrinol Metab, 97(7):2489-96.

Layman, D.K., Evans, E., Baum, J.I., Seyler, J., Erickson, D.J., & Boileau, R.A. (2005). Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr, 135:1903-10.

Layman, D.K. (2009). Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needsNutr & Metab, 6:12.

Rolls, B.J., Hetherington, M., & Burley, V.J. (1988). The specificity of satiety: the influence of foods of different macronutrient content on the development of satiety. Physiol Behav, 43:145-53.

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If you ask me what I think is the most badass exercise that a woman can do, I’ll tell you that it’s the chin-up, without hesitation.

Why? Because they are, in my opinion, the perfect intersection of lean, athletic, and strong.

Not all ladies can do them. And those that can have worked for months and months to get their first rep. They likely put in a good deal of dedicated time and effort into building up their upper body strength so they could clear their chins over the bar.

For those ladies who can into a gym on any random day and bust out a beautiful chin-up, #respect.

Can Women Do Chin-Ups?

Some men will tell you no. Hell, even some women will tell you that it’s not possible.

If anyone remembers this New York Times article from a few years back, the author (a female, at that!) very misleadingly writes about why women supposedly can’t do pull-ups. In this piece, Parker-Pope discusses a University of Dayton study that recruited 17 college-aged women and put them through a three-month training regimen that would supposedly help them perform a pull-up. Participants performed biceps-strengthening exercises and modified pull-up variations three days a week, but by the end of the program, only four of the 17 women could perform a single bodyweight pull-up. Therefore, the author concludes, despite the fact that four women did get a pull-up, she makes the sweeping generalization that women cannot do pull-ups. Period!

Um, what? Did she not just say that four women… could… nevermind.

There is a big, big difference between “can’t,” as in, physically incapable of doing something, and “have a harder time achieving,” which implies that with concerted effort, some specific task can be done.

So yes, actually, women can do pull-ups, and they can actually do them quite well.

I’ve asked some of my #eatliftthrive teammates to contribute some videos of themselves knocking out chin-ups, pull-ups, and variations thereof to show you exactly what women are capable of. Look at all these women failing miserably at pull-ups (please note the heavy sarcasm here).

I also have a video of my former client Shelley Cook (who, by the way, is a mother of three and recently killed it on the figure stage) doing weighted chin-ups here (10lbs x 5):

And finally, to show that I do indeed walk the walk, here’s a video of me doing 11 neutral-grip pull-ups last year:

as well as weighted pull-ups (10lbs x3):

Yes, it may be harder for us to accomplish them, but that’s because women tend to have poorer relative upper body strength as compared to men (Miller et al., 1993). As well, women tend to carry slightly more mass in their lower bodies overall.

All of this to say that while it’s possible for women to rock chin-ups for multiple reps, we do face more of an uphill battle than men do, and it typically takes us far longer to get that first bodyweight rep.

(I will note here that there are obviously outliers who indeed are not capable of performing a single chin-up no matter how hard they try, but these individuals typically have a combination of: 1) poor genetics in terms of their ability to pack on muscle mass and strength; 2) poor leverages in the upper body musculature for performing the pull-up; and 3) poor anthropometry in terms of ratios of upper body to lower body mass.)

What’s the Difference Between Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups?

Fair question.

The pull-up involves a pronated (overhand) grip, whereas with the chinup, you used a supinated (underhand) grip. Then there’s also the neutral-grip pull-up, in which your palms are facing in toward each other.

A 2010 study conducted by Youdas et al. in the Journal of Strength and Conditinoing Research found that pullups and chinups both activated the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, infraspinatus, lower trapezius, and pectoralis major, erector spinae, and external oblique. In other words, pullups and chinups involve a whole lot of upper body muscles (plus the abs!), making them two of the best upper body compound movements out there.

The chin-up activates the pectoralis major and biceps brachii to a greater extent, though, while pull-ups involve greater activation of the lower trapezius. This may in part explain why pull-ups tend to be harder to do.

For these reasons, we’re going to tackle the chinup first.

What Does a Proper Chin-Up Look Like?

Here are a few key points to keep in mind with a chin-up:

  • A proper rep involves full range of motion (ROM). That means you start from a dead hang and work your way up, and then come all the way back down. Some people may say that it’s unsafe to go to full lockout at the bottom of each rep as it’s bad for the joints, but I see no problem with doing so as long as it’s pain-free. I’d rather see pain-free full ROM rather than wimpy half-reps (which, by the way, don’t count in my book unless there’s some medical rationale).
  • Your chin must clear the bar (in other words, you must get all the way up to the rep) in order for the rep to count. Depending on who you ask, people may even say that your sternum or touch has to touch the bar. I’m okay with this recommendation as long as it’s clear that you’ve actually made it all the way up to the top.
  • You want to maintain tension throughout all reps, even at the bottom when you’re at a dead hang.
  • Limit the body English. A kipping chin-up is a kipping chin-up, not an actual chin-up. No flailing, no partial reps, no funny business. While there will almost always be some compensatory movement in a chin-up, try to keep it to a minimum.

What Can I Do to Get My First Chin-Up?

Eccentric Chin-Up

I did a lot of these before I could get my first real bodyweight chin-up. What this involves is essentially getting yourself up to the top of a rep (typically via jumping) and then slowly lowering yourself back down. I like to do at least a 3-second count with these, although I’ve been known to extend them for even longer, as you can see below.

If you’re unable to perform eccentric chin-ups, there are still other options for you.

Band-Assisted Chin-Up

This was my to-go movement last summer when I was trying to increase my reps. I really like this variation because it provides progressively less resistance as you pull yourself up to the bar. The one thing I will say about this is that yes, it necessarily provides the most tension at the bottom where individuals typically tend to struggle the most. With that said, I still think it’s a really great way to practice proper form, increase confidence, and get your reps in.

As well, as you gain strength, you can move from having the band looped around your feet to having the band looped around your knee, and then work your way down to using thinner and thinner bands.

Iso Hold Chin-Up

This involves getting your chin over the bar in whatever manner possible (either by jumping, using a bar, of having a gym buddy help you up) and then holding that top position for a few seconds. This can help if you are someone who struggles with the top portion of a rep.

Try to hold for a 5-second count before lowing yourself back down.

Chest-Supported Row and Inverted Row 

These are exercises that will help improve your pulling strength. I think these are a great option for those of you who don’t yet have the physical strength to perform eccentric chin-ups (i.e. you’re essentially dropping straight down without being able to resist the force of gravity) or if you’re not quite ready for band-assisted chin-ups yet. In this case, I would recommend building up your strength via chest-supported rows and inverted rows.

With chest-supported rows, use a variety of rep ranges (I would recommend six or more), and for inverted rows, I would say that once you can do 15 reps at a given height, advance the movement by adjusting your body such that you are more horizontal to the floor. Eventually, you can move onto the feet-elevated variation. You can do them with a TRX or a barbell in a squat rack.

Pull Into a Row 

This tip comes from Max Shank by way of Bret Contreras’s blog. Before this, my recommendation for getting stronger at the bottom of the rep was to simply get stronger overall.

In the video below, Max shows you how to put your shoulders in a better angle to lift yourself up via a pull-up/row hybrid.

Increase Frequency 

Now I’m not saying that this method will work for everyone, but some people respond really well to volume and frequency.

You can increase frequency in a number of ways: by doing some chin-up variation everyday (maybe even multiple times throughout the course of a day) or by tossing them into every training session,

For me, when I told my trainer Bret Contreras that I wanted to increase my pull-up strength, he prescribed them to me 4x/week at the beginning of every workout. So right now, I’m doing 1xAMRAP bodyweight pull-ups, 3×1 weighted chin-ups, 1xAMRAP bodyweight chin-ups, and 1xAMRAP weighted pull-ups. Note that this is the protocol specific to me, my needs, and my anthropometry. Last year, when I wasn’t quite as strong, I was incorporating a lot of band-assisted variations and eccentric chin-ups into my routine 3x/week, which is how I achieved the 11 bodyweight neutral-grip pull-ups in the video above.

2014 summer of pullups!

2014 summer of pullups!

Here’s a picture of the whiteboard I used to track my progress last year. As you can see, lots of volume!

Lose Bodyfat 

Along with increasing strength and flat-out practicing, losing bodyfat will take you a long ways toward your goal of accomplishing your first bodyweight chin-up. This is largely because fat mass doesn’t actually help contribute to the lift at all and really just weighs you down.

The best way to accomplish this, if you ask me, is via dietary intervention. It’s far easier to lose fat by cutting back on your daily caloric intake rather than trying to burn off extra calories from more exercise. Of course, strength training is an important part of the muscle-retention process as well, but that bodyfat is not going to budge if you’re eating Ho Hos all the doo-dah day.

Nothing wrong with the occasional treat, but these suckers are some calorie-dense mofos!

Nothing wrong with the occasional treat, but these suckers are some calorie-dense mofos!

Here’s a basic primer on how to determine your macronutrient numbers, and I’m now also offering a custom one-time macro calculating service that comes with exercise recommendations and access to a Facebook support group

Be Patient 

Some women can get their first chin-up within a matter of weeks, while for others, it may take months or even years depending upon their starting point. Don’t let this deter you from your pursuit of badassery.

Track your progress!

Track your progress!

As well, tracking your progress from week to week can be incredibly helpful in determining whether or not you are indeed moving in the right direction. Above you’ll see my whiteboard that I’ve been using this year to log my numbers over time.

You’ll notice that strength progress is not linear, and that’s completely normal. Don’t get discouraged if you go a handful of weeks with seemingly no gains.

At the end of the day, there are multiple methods that can work. You can improve your grip strength. You can improve your core strength. You can do lat pulldowns. You can use a assisted pull-up machine. You can do high volume, low frequency. You can do low volume, high frequency. You can do high volume and high frequency if your body can handle it.

I’d love nothing more than to see more and more women busting out beautiful chin-ups left and right. Let’s get to chinning!

 

 

 

References

Flanagan, S.P., Vanderburgh, P.M., Borchers, S.G., Kohstall, C.D. (2003). Training college-age women to perform the pull-up exercise. Res Q Exerc Sport. 74(1):52-9.

Miller, A.E., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnopolsky, M.A., & Sale, D.G. (1993). Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Pshyiol. 66(30):254-62.

Youdas, J.W., Amundson, C.L., Cicero, K.S., Hahn, J.J., Harezlak, D.T., & Hollman, J.H. (2010). Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 24(12):3404-14.

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