What Amazons Want: Losing Weight (Changing Your Body Composition)


February 5, 2013 by Darlene McC

Are you part of the 8%?

Are you part of the 8%?

The #1 resolution in 2012 was to “lose weight”; but only 8% of all “resolvers” made it to the end of the year with their efforts in tact.    We’ll, Lucky ’13 is going to be different.  Tuesdays in February and March we’re taking on the most common resolutions by turning them into goals, identifying the habits that make them hard, and knocking them down.

Look, we all know “losing weight” is easier said then done.  No one needs reminding (primarily because we’re constantly reminded of it) that we as a nation are gradually getting fatter!  We have no delusions that one little blog post is going to change anything; but we’d like to help frame the conversation, give you some ideas, and hear from you what else we can do.

A Quick Disclaimer: This is a hard one for UA.  We do NOT IN ANY WAY buy into the idea that you or anyone else “need to lose weight”.  We do not want to be part of the machine that tells you that there is anything wrong with you or you need to lose lbs to be happy or sexy or successful.  However, we set out to help you reach your goals in 2013 and, lets face it, there are going to be lots of people out there who want that.  So we’re walking a fine line.  You are beautiful just the way you are; but if you want to change something we’re here for you.  Okay, on to the info!

Say What You Really Mean: You’re Goal is to Change Body Composition

“I really want to lose ___ # of pounds” is how 90% of conversations between trainers and female clients end up boiling down to.  They’re there because they want to “lose weight”; but when you really get down to it, they want to LOSE FAT.  The conversation should not be about LBS, it should be about %.  And here’s why:

Before you stand triplets.  They are all 160 lbs and 5’9, giving them a “healthy” BMI.  But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Let's call her Jennie

Let’s call her Jennie


Jennie has 20% body composition.  This is considered in the “normal” range for a healthy woman in her late 20s to early 30s and a non-athlete.  That means that 20% of her body weight is fatty tissue, which she needs to keep healthy and ovulating normally.

The rest of her body weight is muscle, bone, organs, etc.  Meaning she’s 128 lbs of lean tissue and 38 lbs of fat (20%).


This one is Jessie.

Jessie is also 160 lbs and 5’9″ with 25% body composition.  She’s got 120 lbs of lean and 40 lbs of fat.

At 25% body comp Jessie is a little above average, but not unhealthy.  She’s probably got a little muffin top, but nothing major.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Jennie (Triplet #1) has 8 lbs more muscle than Jessie.  For every pound of muscle mass a person burns 50 more calories a day at rest.  That means with 8 more lbs of muscle Jennie (T #1) burns 400 more calories a day than Jessie, even without a workout.


And meet Jamie.

Jamie has 30% body composition, still 5’9″ and 160 lbs.  That’s 48 lbs of fat, meaning 112 lbs lean tissue.  

That means Jennie (T #1) has 16 lbs more lean tissue.  If all that is muscle she’s burning 800 more calories a day, even when she doesn’t workout!  That’s a WHOLE BEER!

Jamie is considered overweight.  She has a bit of extra weight in her legs and thighs.

All three of these women weigh the same!  Jennie does not need to lose weight, and Jamie would serve from gaining muscle more than losing fat.

But wait!  They all have the same BMI!?

This is the best way I know to outline body composition and why it is so much more important than weight in pounds.  Your goal is to lose fat.  Gaining muscle will help you do that; in fact, more muscle will likely make it easier!

No one wants to be scrawny.  Our goal is to help you be healthy, m’kay.

Something You Should Know

Accept it.  It really will be easier later.

Accept it. It really will be easier later.

There’s a huge difference between dropping a few pounds for a wedding and making a major (hopefully permanent) change to your body.  If you’re planning to change forever, plan to live differently forever.  How often have you heard of someone crash dieting and in a few months they’ve either put all the weight back on or, worse, more than they started with.

You can’t use a system that you’re not willing to keep forever if you want to keep the results forever.  Make sense? ’nuff said.

Okay, But How!?

There are primarily three ways to approach fat loss: increase your muscle mass, increase your cardiovascular activity, or change your nutrition.  Either way you have to change some habits.

Increase Muscle Mass

No doubt you’ve heard the cliche of women being afraid to try resistance training because they’re afraid they’ll “get big”.  It causes a very violent negative reaction in many sporty gals.  Don’t be afraid; if you want to have muscle definition you need to build muscles, right?  Right!  The idea that lifting will make you “BIG” is BULLSHIT!  

If you hate cardio & your diet is already “okay”, your first habit to build is lifting!

Need more convincing?  I know a woman who might inspire you to try.  She was already a runner who ate healthy, but was carrying some extra weight.  While being careful about what she ate in January she lifted heavier than she ever has before… and lost 2% of her body fat.

There are lots of books and lifting programs out there to try, but regardless of the program expect to lift heavy for few reps. (If you are trying one please share in the comments!)  You’ll want to join a gym, and when you do you’ll likely get a free session with a trainer.  Ask them to teach you how to deadlift and squat properly in your session, those exercises have the largest impact on your body composition because they target your legs primarily.

Start with a twice a week habit.  Once you’re lifting twice a week as routine then add a 3rd day.  If you’re working with a trainer follow their advice.

Increase Cardio

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Okay, shameless plug over.  But seriously, you’ll want to run, bike, swim, or take a group class regularly.  Start with two sessions a week for 30 minutes at a tempo that passes the talk test: you’re huffing and puffing and it would be a challenge to talk about your day.

HEY! If you’re already doing regular cardio doing more will not necessarily help! The idea that you can “just do more cardio” and will lose weight is a myth.  That’s just not the way biology works.  Your body acclimates to a stimulus and becomes very good at performing that action without losing resources.  You can’t just keep doing what you’re already doing and expect to change.  If you’re already a 3 times a week runner you’ve got to add something new.  Either change your intensity, frequency, or duration.  Also know that there is an upward limit of what you’ll be able to achieve with cardio alone and eventually you’ll want to add resistance training & change your nutrition.

Change Your Nutrition

If you’re still eating like crap then you’ll want to change.  Check out our section on Whole30 for information on changing your nutrition & take a look at EATS for inspiration.

You can also count calories with a tracking app, which studies show helps with some fat loss; however there’s also evidence that changes gained this way are only present as long as you continue tracking.

Nutrition will only take you so far.  Eventually you’ll want to start either cardio or lifting if you really want to change your body composition.

Stating the Obvious

We all know it’s not that simple.  It isn’t easy to change your body composition or we’d all look like Eastern European models.  Choose one of these three general categories and a single habit to work on first and then get started.  Stick with that one habit until it’s easy, then add another or build on the first one.  You’ll be surprised how quickly things can change for you once you’ve set the foundation.  Try not to beat yourself up, accept that you’re embarking on a hard thing, and don’t lose sight of how freakin’ awesome you are.

What Amazons Want is a goal setting and life change series for 2013.  Visit all the posts for a variety of information on life planning, mindfulness, and achievement.

Darlene McCullough is a personal trainer & health and wellness coach in NYC.

5 thoughts on “What Amazons Want: Losing Weight (Changing Your Body Composition)

  1. xdhaas says:

    Thank you for pointing out a focus on body composition. Skinny fat isn’t healthy either. I’d like to lose FAT, not weight. I’m going to be quite displeased if I lose weight.

    However, and this was a long time ago so could very well have been updated or I just remembered wrong (concussions, not my fault), I thought 25% was considered “normal” for a non-athlete female? I also heard that in the U.S., the “average” was actually 35%.

    • Darlene McC says:

      I hate the term “skinny fat” and try to avoid it if I can help it. For those unfamiliar, it means people of low girth (measurements around) with high body fat and low muscle. It’s a very unhealthy condition that pre-disposes people for diabetes, heart disease, and a lot of “diseases of civilization”.

      Glad to hear the clear goal, Xen.

      And here’s where we get to the sticky business. People get sensitive about “averages” and “recommendations” because they feel you’re making a comment on their bodies. There is nothing medically wrong with a non-athletic female with a 25% body composition if she’s happy with herself. There are female athletes who have body comps over that. The “average” American body comp is highly variable depending on your source and the study; and I don’t know how relevant it really is for our conversation. Body comp numbers are generalizations and normalized for health conscious white people – it’s not “perfect” science.

      The point is definitely driven home: body comp is a more important metric than lbs, but what really matters is how you feel about yourself.

      • xdhaas says:

        I agree with all that except that I dont mind using the term “skinny fat.” What drives me up the wall is when I say something like I want (highlight the word “want,” not “need”) to lose some fat and people act all shocked and point out how thin I am. I want to smack them. I didn’t say anything about my size. But you made a nice point about the whole BMI thing. It really doesnt say much about one’s composition. Then there is the whole social thing about how big or small people “should” be. That drives me nuts too. I just wish, socially speaking, women in general weren’t so afraid of being strong.

  2. […] admit that I coped out a little on this one.  It’s from Tuesday’s post.  What can I say, it’s been a busy […]

  3. […] by habit.  In 2012 the 2nd most common resolution was to “Get Organized” (#1 was to “lose weight”… we took that to mean changing body composition).  By this point last year 40% of “resolvers” had given up already; but we’re […]

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