I have a confession to make. The one area I don’t particularly like on my body are my thighs. I’ve had this love-hate with them since I was a teenager. Funniest thing is, it’s the one body part, besides my back, that I receive the most compliments on. Everything from, ‘you look like a runner (or ____ athlete they see fit)’, ‘I want your legs’, to ‘your legs are so lean and muscular’….
I can tell you when and why I’ve had this self-consciousness with my thighs since. First, I was a gymnast for pretty much all of my childhood. Competitively from 10 years old to 18 years old. I was jumping, running, landing, and all in a leotard, and sometimes spandex shorts (the Nike shorts I see everyone wear now are so much cooler though!). Gymnasts are known to be pretty petite, short, slim. The sport itself in the past has been one of which body weight was a large influence and body image could overwhelm the minds of the athletes. I saw first hand athletes who developed eating disorders or were overweight and struggling. What about myself? I was somewhat in the middle; never the leanest, and not the strongest either. As a younger gymnast I was really muscular.
What happened? Well I hit puberty, and have a couple of injuries with held me back from training as hard or intensely regularly as my teammates. Yet, I was still eating the same and my body was maturing. One year I grew 6-inches within months! In this sport, height changes meant you had to adjust your technique and you would struggle with losing and having to regain skills.
Most of my teammates within my level were younger by at least 2 years. But they were some of the best teammates ever, and I’m still very close with a couple too.
Anyhow, back to how this relates to my insecurity over my thighs…. One day at practice I was warming up, running around the floor with my teammate, and I had a younger gymnast, on the compulsory team comment ‘haha, your legs are jiggly.’ Well, this phrase stuck with me then. I asked my friend what she said and what she meant and she wasn’t sure. But to me, this meant my legs were huge, not muscular, and therefore I was overweight.
For YEARS those words haunted me. I went from not wanting to show my legs, to whenever I saw a picture of me checking to see how they looked, to when I began working out again after my hiatus in college post competitive years focusing on certain movements.
Being an athlete from a young age, you develop muscles that nonathletes often don’t have or take years longer to develop when they are older. Similar to how your thoughts and beliefs are shaped as a child, so is your body. This meant that I did have more muscular legs, whether they had that much fat then I could not tell you now because we never measured those numbers years ago.
If you are someone in the physique industry, or a competitive athlete, you might be escatic and happy to have strong powerful legs, but hearing someone say they ‘jiggle’ my mind went straight to how I ‘looked’ over what my body did for me. My thoughts became shifted to what I could do to ‘shrink’ my legs and make them jiggle less. But lifting heavy for me, in conjunction with what I ate, and my sport, didn’t aid in that leaning out. In fact, I tend to add muscle and strength to my legs easily when I train them!
My college years, once I gained the ‘freshman 15’ and decided to take it off, I also decided to try some new approaches. I did a ton of research on exercise, working out, losing weight, etc. I started running, watching my portions and food choices, doing higher reps of leg exercises.
I also learned that building up your upper body (shoulders, back) created the look of a leaner lower body. Ding ding ding!! I was onto something! I initiated my weight loss by wanting to lose weight all over, and also create leaner legs, hip, and waist. My workouts consisted of running a couple days a week, I taught myself how to swim, I began lifing weights (going heavier on upper body, trying new exercises), and going somewhat lighter but still fatiguing my lower body using a variety of exercises from standing, to machines, to floor work. In conjunction with my eating, I was able to see some significant changes in my body, my legs, and my confidence. This was a good number of years ago.
In the past year or two, I’ve learned a bit more about myself, my view of myself, and training. I used to be really scared to lift heavy with my lower body. Scared I would add bulk and get thicker in that area. But, what I have actually found is that is absolutely NOT true! In fact, training your lower body, just as any other part of your body, add muscle mass, and that boosts your metabolism, and creates a nice physique!
So what DOES add mass to your body, particularly your legs?
Well, if you are an athlete you will probably have more muscle than someone who doesn’t workout regularly or partake in competitive sports, and yes more muscle versus less muscle (both with low amounts of fat stores) will yield larger size.
Muscle also stores glycogen and glycogen loves water. So, if you are consuming a diet that has carbs, and those carbs are stored or used for muscular performance you will be storing glycogen and water in your muscles, giving you a bit thicker look.
This is why when people go on low carb diets, they lose weight very quickly initially, they are depleting their muscles of water and glycogen. That’s not all though!
It’s not inevitable that you will have thick legs if you have muscular legs. How do you get lean, muscular legs? By watching what you eat, and eating just enough food to fuel your body. Extra calories, whether from carbs or another macronutrient will cause weight gain. Carbs can add fuel to this gain. Timing of your meals also plays a role, replenishing your glycogen stores after a hard leg workout will cause water retention. You will also have some inflammation after you train, as you damaged your muscles and they need to repair.
Lastly, what else influences your fat stores, and particularly your stores lower body, thighs, and hips, are HORMONES. Women carry more cells in their lower body that helps they STORE fat instead of burn it. Hormones such as insulin, cortisol, and female hormones including estrogen and progesterone play influence your fat storing capabilities. Higher insulin levels and estrogen cause women to hold onto more weight. Progesterone is the women’s form of testosterone and helps balance out the estrogen. Women also have less testosterone than men.
How do these hormones get out of balance or too high?
Insulin is secreted when you eat foods rich in carbs and sugars. It helps shuttle the glucose in your blood stream to be used or stored. When too many carbs are consumed, insulin spikes. Excess glucose is then stored as fat. So maintaining healthy levels of insulin is important for fat storage as well as blood sugar health.
Cortisol is the stress hormone, when it is high, we are more sensitive to insulin, glucose, and other hormone and metabolic conditions. High cortisol causes increases in fat storage. Our bodies go through natural cortisol rhythyms throughout the day; being highest in the morning and lowest in the evening, unless there is some stress or adrenal dysfunction (this is for another blog entirely).
Estrogen levels vary throughout the month based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Also, one woman may have a naturally higher level of estrogen than her friend. And, then there is a high Estrogen to Progesterone ratio, also known as Estrogen dominant. All these scenarios influence where you hold your fat, and how well your body stores it in those stubborn areas. You don’t want zero estrogen, but having too much estrogen, will cause more lower body and fat storage. Estrogen-progesterone imbalance or estrogen dominance used to be seen mostly in menopausal women, but now younger women in their 20s and 30s get this too due to stress, phytoestrogens, lifestyle, birth control methods, poor diet, or genetic reasons, including some thyroid conditions.
What do you do about to prevent or change this!?!?
- Since women carry more fat storing cells in their lower body, it necessitates more light weight movement like leisure walking, fidgeting, while also keeping cortisol low.
- Balancing cortisol by consuming plenty of lean proteins and vegetables, some fats, and being extra conscious of eating whole carb/starch sources, keeping them small when you do have them, and eating them at strategic times of the day.
- Doing stress relieving activities to mitigate cortisol increases and high levels
- Keep insulin in a healthy, somewhat lower range by consuming more protein and veggies and less carbs (having fiber rich ones when you do eat them). Avoiding sugars and fast digesting carbs so that you keep yourself in ‘Fat Burn Mode’. If you do have any carbs, sugars, you want to time them around your workouts so your body can use them efficiently for fuel or muscle building.
- If you think you have an Estrogen dominance or Estrogen-Progesterone imbalance, you first want to consult your physician as she will run blood tests to confirm this. Secondary, you want to shift your diet away from phytoestrogens, estrogen leaching foods and plastics, and carbs. Consume plenty of organic, non gmo produce, lean organic and grass fed protein. If your doctor finds you do have an imbalance they can direct you to some protocols. (This area is another blog post too on how to balance your estrogen without drugs, if you have any questions please contact me in the meantime).