Lifting While Trans: How to Get a ‘Feminine’ Physique (Part 2)

In How to Get a ‘Feminine’ Physique (Part 1), I began answering the following question:

Can diet and exercise enhance the ‘feminization’ of my body?

And as my answer to the question, I outlined the following argument:

Weight loss, both in the forms of the loss of lean body mass and fat mass, is achieved via a caloric (energy) deficit.

Loss of lean body mass is achieved via a negative nitrogen balance which is indicative of a shift toward protein catabolism as opposed to anabolism.

Diet can be used to promote a negative nitrogen balance primarily via a caloric deficit.

Exercise, including resistance (strength/hypertrophy focused) and cardiovascular training (both steady state and interval training) can contribute to a negative nitrogen balance.

Thus, a combination of appropriate diet and exercise interventions can lead to weight loss both in terms of lean body mass and fat mass.

I then went on to defend the premises in that argument focusing primarily on caloric deficits and nitrogen balance. In this post, I will shift the focus toward physical activity, or resistance training, more specifically–and when I say ‘resistance training’, I mean lifting heavy things.

Before I get into that, there are two basic types of training, or exercise, that are categorized by the primary type of metabolic pathway being utilized. There is anaerobic training that relies primarily on anaerobic metabolism and there is aerobic training that relies primarily on aerobic metabolism. Steady-state cardiovascular exercises such as running a 10K, a mile swim, or cross country skiing are great examples of aerobic exercise while heavy lifting and sprinting are great examples of anaerobic exercise.

So what’s the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? Oxygen consumption. Anaerobic metabolism occurs in the absence of oxygen whereas aerobic metabolism depends on its presence. Aerobic metabolism favors fat as an energy source while Anaerobic metabolism favors carbohydrate.

Does that mean that steady-state cardio is the superior choice for fat loss? Well, no; no it’s not. Here is why:

  1. Fats burn in the flame of carbohydrates.”
    • This simply means that fat oxidation needs carbohydrate to be present in order to occur.
  2. It has been shown that though a higher percentage of energy used during exercise came from fats than from carbohydrates during low-intensity, steady state cardio, a greater number of calories from fat were ‘burned’ during higher-intensity, anaerobic  activities.
  3. Resistance training can lead to greater oxygen recovery demands than aerobic training. Simply put, this means that more energy will be used to bring the body back to its pre-workout state following an anaerobic workout compared to an aerobic workout of similar duration provided the anaerobic workout is of a sufficient volume.

Stone et al. (2007) explain it this way:

Weight training according to a protocol similar to that used by strength-power athletes, lasting 60-90 [minutes] and producing volume loads of 15,000 to 40,000 kg (33,000-88,000 lb) per session, results in much greater total energy consumption that complete recovery might not be achieved even at 15 [hours] post exercise. Thus, volume of weight training exercise…may be a critical factor influencing recovery…Indeed, a review of the literature indicates that weight training can increase lean body mass as well as affect changes in percentage fat and losses in total fat. The use of [free fatty acids] as a fuel source is enhanced post exercise as a result of weight training…

…As a result of a high-volume training session, with large muscle mass exercises, it is probable that a sizable portion of the energy cost, if not most, occurs during recovery…The relatively high energy cost of weight lifting training, coupled with an increased mobilization and use of fats during recovery helps to explain the relatively low percentage body fat found among elite weightlifters and other strength-power athletes.

In other words, elite power lifters and bodybuilders have such low body fat percentages because of their high volume workouts. They continue to have elevated energy levels for several hours postexercise. That’s also why they have such high protein requirements (recall that at least 15% of the calories they consume should come from protein and they should consume as many as 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 g/lb per day) compared to the rest of the population (see figure below). Lifting can provide a greater ‘shock to the system’ (so to speak) that requires more energy for it to be brought back to homeostasis compared to steady-state cardio.

So what is volume in this context? My use of ‘volume’ can be most clearly defined in the following equation:

Volume = Sets x Reps x Load


           Sets is the number of rounds the exercise is performed 

          Reps is the number of repetitions performed each round

          Load is the quantity of weight lifted per repetition

To understand how to apply this more clearly, consider the following example:

During her lower body workout, Jen performs 3 exercises (squats, deadlifts, and leg extensions) for 4 sets of 12 repetitions. She squats 100 lbs, deadlifts 80 lbs, and is able to do 50 lbs on the leg extension machine. To calculate the volume, we must account for all three exercises. For squats, the volume is 4,800 lbs. For deadlifts, it is 3,850 lbs, and for leg extensions, it is 2,400 lbs. Put together, she lifted 11,050 lbs.

This may or may not be enough volume to stimulate the kind of response she might want. If she is a novice, this will likely be enough assuming she is healthy and responds well to resistance training in addition to being able to lift that weight. If she has years of experience, this is unlikely to do anything for her.

Now let’s suppose Jen is a transgender woman who has been on HRT for 18 months. She is interested in losing a few pounds of muscle mass while looking to soften her figure a little bit more. Would this kind of lifting help her or would it hurt her? It depends. If she were to just do high volume workouts and didn’t maintain a caloric deficit, she is less likely to lose the muscle mass she is seeking to lose. She may still put on fat mass, but she may also become leaner overall.

So how can Jen avoid this? First she needs to make sure she is maintaining a caloric deficit like I articulated in Part 1 of this series. If she does that, she will lose muscle mass. Further, she can also avoid becoming more lean by periodizing her resistance training. What do I mean by ‘periodizing’? What is periodization? I will cover that one in Part 3 of this series.

Image taken from NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, Fourth Edition Revised

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