For most of us, heading into a gym can lead to confusion about what exercises to do. If you want to change the shape of your body, can selecting certain exercises really work? The answer is an emphatic yes.
Once we reach adulthood, our bone structure and proportions are largely fixed. Essentially, the length of your collar bones versus the size of your pelvis, and the length of your body compared to the length of your legs are big factors in determining proportions and aesthetic beauty.
However, we can use exercise to enhance our body shape and appearance, as well as increase muscle and bone strength.
Fat and muscle
We cannot physiologically change fat to muscle. For example, although doing lots of repetitions squeezing your knees together on a hip adductor machine creates a feeling of using this muscle group, it will not burn the fat deposits off the targeted area. What will occur is that with training, the muscles become stronger and larger, which may be contrary to what many women may be trying to achieve in attempting to sculpt leaner-looking legs.
Another example is trying to burn off excessive abdominal fat, which increases the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. No amount of crunches will burn off abdominal fat directly.
Increased physical activity in general, exercise and good nutrition are key to losing fat. Although there’s no way to induce spot reduction in fat that is stored under the skin, moderate to high-intensity cardiovascular training is very effective in reducing fat. This includes running, skipping, cycling and boxing.
We’ve all heard women say: “I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to look muscly.” But it’s really not that easy to put on significant muscle mass. Many bodybuilders will attest to the amount of work and overfeeding required to promote muscle growth. So the idea that weight training will make women bulky is a fallacy.
Training specific muscles
If you train specific muscles, these will increase in mass. So targeting specific muscle groups, as body builders do, can shape your body.
If you only do repetitive cardio exercise in the gym on equipment such as treadmills, a cross trainer or an exercise bike, only the large muscle groups you use to move will get stronger and increase in size.
So running on a treadmill may make your bottom (gluteus maximus), hamstrings, quadriceps (front thighs) and calf muscles bigger; and using a cross trainer will work the same leg muscles, as well as target the muscles in the chest, back and shoulders that push and pull.
Whereas attending a bootcamp-style class, or doing compound exercises (like squats or dead lifts that work lots of different muscles) where the types of exercises are more varied will stimulate a larger number of muscle groups.
Dumb-bell flies make the shoulders bigger, making you look more athletic. [Image: Shutterstock.com
To look more athletic, train the shoulders (deltoid muscles) so they broaden compared to the pelvis. This creates a more V-shaped body.
Examples of weight-training exercises that work the deltoid muscles include shoulder presses (lifting weights from shoulder to above the head) and seated dumb-bell flies (lifting weights from the midline of one’s body in an arc to shoulder height).
Dead lifts are compound exercises – meaning they work lots of muscles. [Image: Shutterstock
In order to have longer-looking, shapely legs, over-emphasise training the hamstring and bottom (gluteus maximus) muscles, and de-emphasise training the quads and adductor groups (front of thigh).
This will give less width and more depth to the thighs. Examples of exercises that shape the thighs include hamstring curls (bringing the heels to the bottom by bending the knees) and stiff-legged barbell dead lifts (bending at the hip to lower weights down the front of the legs).
Inclined chest presses work the top of the chest, which is often ignored. [Image: Shutterstock
In order to have more fullness in the chest, inclined chest presses (pushing weights from the chest level) and pec flies (moving in an arc at chest level) will emphasise the upper chest muscles.
These are often neglected because they’re not as naturally strong as the chest muscles lower down near the sternum which are used in common weight-training exercises like bench pressing.
Training back and abdominal muscles that form the corset around the torso is important in providing a stable base from which our bodies move, and supports the natural curves of the spine, improving our posture and body shape.
A simple, effective exercise is lying rotations. Lie face up and bend the hips and knees to 90 degrees and keep the knees together. With arms outstretched to 90 degrees and on the floor, slowly allow the knees to rotate towards one of the outstretched hands, then stop just before reaching the hand and repeat on the other side.