What Does It Take To Build Muscle Like Wonder Woman?
Photo hijacked from Julia Ladewski (a.k.a. Wonder Woman)
When I was a sophomore in high school I saw Terminator 2 and wanted to have arms like Linda Hamilton. I joined the local YMCA and thought that if I did enough biceps curls on the nautilus biceps curl machine that I would achieve this goal.
Not a chance.
It was sort of like doing a million crunches to get six pack abs without taking into consideration genetics, diet, lean body mass to fat ratio, cardio, and that crunches are not the way to do that.
I am genetically blessed with my mother’s ass kicker arms but they did not start to take shape until I was in my mid twenties after 10 plus years of weight training. Even then they were not what they are now, after finally learning how to lift properly and effectively and after learning that there are other factors that go into building muscle, like genetics and nutrition.
Building muscle, getting “toned”, ripped, jacked, “bulking up”, whatever you want to call it, is HARD; for BOTH women and men, but especially for women.
When I started training for the Iron Maiden Challenge, I knew all of this, but I learned first hand by training for the Iron Maiden Challenge truly how hard it is to build muscle or “bulk up” as a woman from lifting weights.
I was throwing around very heavy weights consistently for about three years while I trained for the Iron Maiden Challenge and the most “bulking up” that ever happened to me was that I weighed in on my heavier side of my plus or minus 3 lbs which is 118 lbs wearing size small and extra small clothing. Oh my God I was HUGE. (<– Sarcasm)
Many women fear weight lifting because they either fear building muscle, or of “bulking up” as mainstream media calls it, and/or they are afraid they are going to get hurt because they don’t know how to lift.
Often times these women who have this fear think that if they strength train 2-3 times per week for general fitness that all of a sudden they are going to look like a bodybuilder or turn green and bust out of their clothing.
A few of the reasons why I created my workshop I Am Not Afraid To Lift was to help to,
- Educate women about the myths that surround strength training;
- Teach women how to strength train in a non-intimidating way;
- Encourage and inspire women to strength train and to do big things in the weight room so that they are no longer afraid to lift weights and in fact are motivated to get crazy strong.
However, sometimes it takes a village and this is a hot topic in the fitness industry and an ongoing battle for those of us women in the fitness industry who are strong proponents of lifting weights, and heavy ones at that.
So I decided to call in the big guns to help spread the word about how hard it is to build muscle, especially for women.
Julia Ladewski, a.k.a. Wonder Woman.
Julia Ladewski is a strength and sports performance coach, professional powerlifter, physique athlete, mom, and all around badass.
She has first hand experience building muscle and knowing how hard it is to build muscle from her 15 years as a competitive powerlifter to her experience as a physique athlete.
I train for general fitness and to be strong without focusing on hypertrophy.
Julia trains specifically to build muscle and to shape her physique for competition.
I follow Julia on Instagram and I followed her progress as she recently prepped for the NPC Junior National Bodybuilding Championships this past June 2015 in Chicago.
When I saw a progress picture that she posted 5 weeks out from the competition my first thought was, “Holy crap she looks amazing!” and my second thought was “I don’t know if I could ever build that kind of muscle and shape my body to look as amazing as hers does no matter what training program I follow and no matter how on point I am with my nutrition.”
Progress Picture ~3 Weeks Out From The Competition
I have good genes but I don’t think I could ever build a body as glorious as Julia’s.
I don’t know, I haven’t tried, but my point is that I know that it’s VERY HARD.
So I reached out to Julia and asked her if she would be willing to contribute to this blog post and share exactly how hard it is to build muscle like Wonder Woman…
“Wow. You look great! How long have you been working out?”
“I’ve been training for, oh…. 17 years.”
“Yeah, I want arms like yours.”
Seventeen years. Think about that for a second. Seventeen years of pretty much consistent weight training. Granted the focus over the years has changed from time to time but the training has always been there.
I first started at the ripe age of 15 with a general program like Bigger, Faster, Stronger. Moving into my college years was a mixture of sports performance and fitness magazine-esque routines, finishing up with powerlifting my senior year. That set off the foundation for the next 15 years of competitive powerlifting and thus, heavy, heavy weights.
I didn’t begin dabbling in bodybuilding until 2013 when I thought the idea of stepping outside my comfort zone would be fun. You know, see what my body could do in a different setting. As the first few weeks went by and the body fat came off, we (my coach and I) realized that I had some pretty good dense muscle in there. Now into my third year of physique competitions and things are finally coming together.
The idea that women can just “get toned” or “trim their legs” or “flatten their stomach” by doing a few targeted exercises is still perpetuated by the mainstream media. In fact, I just had a conversation with a lady today about this very subject.
“Well, I want to lose my belly fat and flatten my stomach… what core exercises should I do?” I proceeded to tell her no matter how many core exercises she did, it doesn’t take off the fat from that area specifically. If that were the case, we’d have a lot more flat stomachs in America. (Maybe.)
So what does it take to build some serious muscle? And I ain’t talkin’ over-the-top 90’s old school female bodybuilders. I’m talking good athletic muscle, the kind that most women want and attempt to train for.
The majority of the year, I train heavy. It’s a part of building the look that most women avoid or won’t even entertain the idea of. Why? Because lifting heavy weights is associated with… you guessed it… the old school female bodybuilders, who, let’s face it, used performance enhancing drugs. Plus, lifting heavy weights is hard! It’s physically crushing, it’s mentally demanding and it can be scary for many women getting started in strength training. Scary for the “bulk” reasons. Scary for the technical reasons. And scary for the “it’s just heavy and I’ve never done this before” reasons.
My 15 years of competitive powerlifting built some serious dense muscle. While I wasn’t focusing on aesthetics really at all, it built a solid foundation, one that I wouldn’t change if I could go back. Every year as I got stronger, I wasn’t physically lifting more weight. The more weight I could lift, the more muscle I could build. But it took years and years of big compound strength movements.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the nutrition aspect. I’ll be the first to tell you that my first 10 years of training I either had a skewed view of nutrition or I just didn’t care. Well, maybe I did care a little (we all want to look good) but I didn’t care about having abs or quad lines or shoulder striations. I wanted to look big (jacked, as they say) but knew that having a level of leanness would interfere with my powerlifting. So while my diet was still far from perfect, I was able to build a solid foundation. And in order to do that, I had to be eating enough. Enough meaning not a calorie deficit and more often than not, higher than maintenance level. (This topic could really be an entire article in and of itself in regards to cycling calories up and down, eating at maintenance and how that plays into strength, performance and aesthetics). Package the diet and the intense training together and it’s extremely difficult to put on muscle and good weight while keeping body fat gains to a minimum.
Now, enter that “fit and toned look” that most women are looking for. I just spent the former part of this article talking about building some good dense muscle with heavy lifting. If you’ve never really trained much, or even pushed that hard in the strength training area, you won’t be carrying a lot of muscle mass. So even if you changed your diet to “lose weight”, your body would lack the shape and tone you were looking for.
If you have a good base of training under your belt (even a solid year or two), then aesthetic or “bodybuilding” training can help bring in some details to some areas. Now before you get too sidetracked, let’s not forget that we can’t “spot reduce” body fat. What that means is that no matter how many crunches we do, we won’t lose fat from the abdomen. No matter how many triceps exercises we do, we won’t lose fat from the triceps area. We can build muscle in that area and bring shape to the muscle that is under the body fat, but until we lose overall body fat, that area won’t change.
The work that comes with stepping on stage for a physique show (or even getting “photo shoot ready”) can be just as hard, if not harder than putting on mass. (And if you still think putting on good mass is difficult, ask competitive lifters, bodybuilders and strong women just how hard it is… especially as a female.) Dieting to step on stage requires a great attention to detail week in and week out. It requires constantly adjusting food to fit what is happening to your body composition changes. That could be lower or higher calories, it could mean more or less carbohydrates, it could mean adding an intra-workout drink and it could even mean switching up certain types of protein, carbs or fat for better digestion, uptake or performance.
Dieting for aesthetics (especially stage shows) goes to the extreme. Ask any bodybuilder or physique competitor and they will tell you that it’s not exactly a “normal” way of eating. Sure, the food is good, quality food (chicken, fish, lean meats, eggs, avocados, coconut oil, veggies, sweet potatoes, rice and more), but the monotony and the strictness of it is definitely not a way to life year round. It takes time and attentiveness to get that lean and it also takes time and attentiveness coming off the diet as well. (They call it “rebound” or “reverse dieting”.)
As I mentioned above, both putting on some serious muscle AND leaning out for the stage take considerable time. One cannot get jacked in 6 weeks (or even a “flat tummy”) or get toned arms and shoulders for bikini season in 30 days. If either of those are your goals, be prepared to put in some serious work. Be prepared to have months of pushing the diet hard and leaning out, but also be prepared to have months of growth and weight stabilization (or gain). When the body keeps getting pushed toward the “lean” spectrum (lower calories, lower carbs, more intense training, long cardio sessions), it eventually breaks down and stops responding. So please understand that there are times of stabilizing as well. But most importantly, be prepared to be patient with the process. ENJOY the training. Enjoy learning new things. Enjoy the process.
Julia and her children at the EliteFTS Compound two years ago before her first figure competition.
Follow her on Instagram: @JuliaLadewski
Follow her on Facebook: Julia Ladewski