Okay, so I’m no stranger to a transformation challenge. In 2017, I took part in a staff 12 week challenge and dropped 10% body fat, looking and feeling leaner. But after 12 weeks of gruelling HIIT training—dubbed the best cardio for weight loss—and a very strict diet, it’s fair to say I fell off the bandwagon. And when I say fell, I mean I spectacularly tumbled off the wagon and into a proverbial pile of everything I’d tried so hard to avoid over the past 12 weeks. Combined with a new-found love of peanut butter, before I knew it, the majority of the weight was back on.
I’d lost my gym mojo, feeling lost without the regiment of the classes I’d been following during my previous transformation. I realised my personal gym knowledge was, well, average to poor. As a former cardio queen, my workouts would start on the running machine and end on the cross trainer until I’d burnt at least 600 calories. Give me a weight bench and I probably would’ve taken a seat to scroll through Instagram.
So, I made a vow with myself to stop the endless hours of cardio purely for calorie burn and educate myself on how to go to the gym, and learn to lift weights. I know, it’s not exactly radical given the rise in popularity of strength training, but without my trusted cross trainer, the idea of entering the free weights area was terrifying. Despite working for a health magazine, I was still cloaked with fear at even the sight of a squat rack.
Enter Evolve’s 12-week transformation plan, designed to get you leaner and stronger with minimal cardio and a lot of picking up and putting down heavy stuff – otherwise known as strength training.
Evolve claim to help you make ‘big changes and kick bad habits so you can achieve things that you once thought unachievable’. I instantly save images of Steph Claire-Smith to my camera roll for inspo – time to make the unachievable achievable.
My beginner weight lifting routine:
Learning about the benefits of weight training
My training routine began with three sessions a week, which after two weeks increased to 4 sessions. My head trainer, Otaniyien Ekiomado designed a strength training program for me and along with a protein-rich and low carb diet, the fun began.
After my first week, walking downstairs was nearly impossible and getting my sports bra over my head was near torture. I’d previously heard of DOMS but my word, I’d never experienced them like this.
In the first week, I was introduced to two new exercises; the squat and the deadlift. I later realised these big lifts were key to my training. By focusing on compound movements like squats and deadlifts, these help to “stimulate the most amount of muscles with one movement," Otaniyien tells me. One simple move to combine all muscles? Sounds like a transformation dream – that is until you’ve tried squatting your own bodyweight. Not as simple as I first thought…
As well as a traditional barbell squat, I also learnt how to nail a front squat – similar to the back squat except with the barbell across your shoulders. Otaniyien recommended I stick to these, as my calves are tighter than a pair of Lululemon leggings. They also allowed me to get the depth that a back squat just couldn’t deliver. Front squats are also great as they not only target your quads and glutes, but also fire up your core as you keep the barbell level and lifted on your shoulders.
Note – you will get a sexy pair of bruises on each shoulder, but they’ll go nicely with the calluses on the palm of your hands from deadlifting. Who said strength training was pure glamour?
Getting to grips with my beginner's weight lifting routine
Alongside the compound movements Otaniyien introduced conditioning supersets of burpees, battle ropes, slam balls and the much-hated prowler. I’ve never experienced quad and glute burn quite like pushing a large weighted metal sled up and down a gym. I could feel my fitness and strength levels improving.
Moreover, my measurements weren’t lying either. By week three I’d lost almost 3kg in weight and 1kg of fat mass, as well as doubling my leg press weight from 90kg in week one to 180kg by week three.
To keep my body guessing, Otaniyien would ensure each day would focus on a different body part, i.e. Monday might be legs, Tuesday Arms & Abs and Thursday and Friday might be Full Body. A typical Full Body training day at Evolve might look something like this:
MOVE SETS REPS
A1 - Deadlift - 4 - 10
A2 - Bench press - 4 - 10
A3 - Rope slams - 4 - 25
B1 - Static lunge - 4 - 12
B2 - Knee high - 4 - 1 min
B3 - Single arm row - 4 - 10
C1 - Sled push pull - 3
C2 - Med ball slam with walk out - 3 - 15
C3 - Burpees - 3 - 15
Strength training benefits
Slowly but surely the weights were going up as my bodyweight was going down. By week five, I was deadlifting 100kg. For the girl who always used to pick up the trusted 7kg hand weights for squat thrusters, I begin to understand what Evolve have been preaching this whole time.
Weightlifting isn’t just heavy lifts and grunting; I feel stronger in myself, both mentally and physically. Whilst I’m not quite yet loving the pain that comes with lifting heavy, I definitely love the results that come with them.
Otaniyien tells me the key to strength training is down to visualisation. “Visualise the legs you want, the arms you want, the butt you want, the chest you want” (you get the idea). Okay, 12 weeks to Karlie Kloss’ legs – got it. I wonder how many sets it’ll take before my chest resembles Emily Rataknowski. Moreover, Otaniyien tells me that I need to learn how to switch off the feeling of pain, re-teaching the brain to view pain as a positive and focusing on the results that will come from this current excruciating burning sensation in my legs. “Weightlifting is like meditating”, he tells me as I shake off the lactic acid and hit the squat rack again.
One thing I have learnt is the philosophy ‘you can’t out train a bad diet’. Stepping on the scale and – attempting – to hide that drunk burger meal is pretty much impossible, regardless of how many hours you spent in the gym. Sad face.
In order to get the results I wanted, I had to nerd up on macros (that’s protein, carbs and fats to you and me). I was initially put on a Ketogenic-style high protein, low carb diet to get the fat loss started. By limiting my carb intake, my body would burn fat stores for fuel first. Sounds good, eh? In a study by Science Daily, researchers found ‘elite endurance athletes who ate very few carbohydrates burned more than twice as much fat as high-carb athletes during maximum exertion and prolonged exercise’.
I’ll be honest, training hard on a low-carb diet was tough. But the weight came off and carbs were reintroduced, along with a new burst of energy and enthusiasm. My macro divide from here on was along the lines of: Protein: 118g, Carbohydrates: 118g, Fats: 30g. Meal-wise, that translates as two eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast, chicken and quinoa salad for lunch, protein shake as a 4pm snack and chicken and veg for dinner. I also realised that although I was consuming less carbs than I normally would, I was full of energy before and after each session.
By week 9, although I’m hitting weight training PBs, I’m nowhere near my personal weight loss goal. It doesn’t help either when I see men who started their transformations at the same time as me lifting their shirts up to reveal chiselled abs.
Turns out that losing weight as a female isn’t quite as simple, partly as we’re destined to have more body fat (weep). According to Science Daily, ‘women’s ability to store fat more efficiently than men, despite eating proportionally fewer calories (is down to) a link between one hormone - estrogen - and its impact on fat storage for childbearing’. So slow and steady when it comes to fat loss wins the race, then.
My beginner weight lifting routine results
By week 12, Evolve have arranged a celebratory ‘after’ photo shoot in celebration of our strong new bods. I step on the scales amazed to find out I’ve lost 9kg, 7kg of body fat and 5 inches from my waist. And no, I wasn’t perfect throughout the 12 weeks and yes - I maybe had the odd few drinks after work and maybe even a Five Guys (Sorry Otaniyien), but I feel strong, I’ve lost fat and I’m eager to continue my strength training going solo. Turns out, you kind of can have your cake and eat it.
It’s fair to say I’ve had a difficult relationship with food and body image after a four year battle with orthorexia, but for the first time in a long time, I’ve felt comfortable in my skin and actually like the toned reflection staring back at me. Strong Not Skinny runs truer than ever. What’s more, it’s been almost two months since finishing at Evolve and I’m still strength training and loving it.
For me, I’ve learnt that transformations shouldn’t just be about losses, but about gains, too. Gains in strength, gains in self-confidence and most importantly #gains all round.
Brb, just off to the gym to smash Eddie Hall’s deadlift PB. (That’s 500kg, btw).
This article originally appeared on Women's Health UK.