Interview

The San Francisco Trainer Who Helps Women in Tech Get Lean

Coach Candace Rhodes shows clients how to transform from “skinny fat” to healthier, toned muscles

John Fawkes
Feb 14 · 9 min read
Photo by bulatovic.

I used to live in San Francisco, and when I did I noticed something odd about the culture there.

In general, people are pretty healthy. They eat well (aside from all the craft beer), and most of them work out.

But at the same time, very few people have much muscle mass. For all the yoga, spin classes, boot camps, and hiking, not many San Franciscans actually lift heavy weights.

Most people I see there are in just okay shape — not obese, but lacking in muscle definition. In fact, quite a few of them are skinny-fat.

If you haven’t heard the term, skinny-fat refers to someone whose weight falls within the healthy range, but who nonetheless isn’t very lean.

I used to be skinny-fat myself. So did my colleague Candace Rhodes. Now, Candace is a San Francisco-based personal trainer who specializes in helping women break out of the skinny-fat trap. Here she shares some of her methods and what has worked for helping clients get leaner while actually gaining muscle mass.

Photo courtesy of Candace Rhodes.

The Interview

How did you get started as a personal trainer?

My background is in biochemistry and I started out working in R&D at a pharma company. But I wasn’t making a clear impact on patients' lives because I was working on drugs that usually didn’t make it to market.

I also personally think prevention should take priority over treating illness, but drugs are mostly about treatment, not prevention. So I became a personal trainer so I could empower people to stay healthy so they could enjoy a better quality of life and not get sick in the first place.

I became a trainer back in 2016. I became an intern at Diakadi, a boutique personal training gym in San Francisco, which taught me how to build a personal training business. That’s unusual — most trainers start out at a commercial gym like 24 Hour Fitness, for at least a couple years, before going independent.

I do a little bit of online training, but most of my business is in person.

How did you get into fitness yourself? Were you always serious about it or did that come later in life?

It started when I was in college, and I was doing a ton of cardio but I didn’t look like the models on fitness magazine covers, which was my goal. I started doing more weight training, but kind of mixing it in randomly without a clear plan, and after a year it hadn’t made much of a difference.

At this time, there was no YouTube or anything like that to show you how to work out, so I learned about training from magazines. After I got out of college, I got my body fat measured and found out it was in the obese range, even though I didn’t look fat. The term skinny-fat hadn’t been coined back then, but that’s what I was.

I was also eating “healthy,” with a lot of rice, lean meat, and vegetables — but I was just eating too much and not really paying attention to quantity.

I ended up hiring a trainer to teach me to work out properly and control my portion sizing, and then I started seeing results and got really into fitness.

Who are most of your clients?

Ambitious professional women. I find most of them are either lawyers, realtors, or software engineers.

Most of my clients are already active, usually in group classes like Orange Theory, SoulCycle, or Crunch, but they’ve found that the group classes have stopped getting results for them and they need something more personalized.

I’d say I get about half of my clients by posting on LinkedIn and getting messages from people, and the other half through my gym.

What are the main issues they deal with?

They want to get stronger and tone up, which is really general. When I dig into it, they want to lose body fat and usually are concerned with specific body parts, like the stomach or upper arm fat.

These are smart, educated women, so they’ve done their research but tend to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Most of them either program-hop too much, or they do something extreme like keto or Whole30, and need something more sustainable that will let them stay in shape indefinitely.

A lot of them are also intimidated by weightlifting, especially free weights. They’re afraid to do it, at least outside of a class setting, and they have no idea whether they’re using proper form. They’re often afraid of getting hurt and need a trainer to show them proper form and give them the confidence to lift on their own.

What do you notice about the types of clients you work with?

One thing I notice about tech people is that they want to see the numbers. They want to track their weight, their workouts, record everything, see the progress. They’re extremely data-oriented.

I don’t see this as much with other clients. Most people are happy to judge their progress subjectively, like they just feel stronger.

A lot of your blog articles focus on helping women who are “skinny-fat.” What causes this issue and how should women fix it?

About 50% of my clients are skinny-fat to some degree. San Franciscans tend to be pretty healthy in general; there’s not much severe obesity here. But there are a lot of people who look okay with clothes on, but when they take off their clothes there’s a lot of loose skin, jiggling fat, etc. and when they get a DEXA scan, they’re shocked at how high the body fat numbers are.

I urge most of my clients get DEXA scans, which I recommend twice a year. We do have a body fat scanner here, but it’s one of those electrical impedance scales which are way less accurate. I supplement that with waist measurements. What you don’t want is to see their waistline getting bigger, or for their weight to not be going down even though their body fat is. The client fails to realize that they actually are making progress.

Since most of my clients are women, I have to take their menstrual cycle into account too; it’s best to ignore day-to-day measurements. I measure every two weeks, and as long as they’re losing fat on that time scale, they’re alright. You don’t want to be obsessing over every day or every pound.

In terms of what we do to get into shape, I have to meet clients where they are. Some aren’t sleeping well, some never cook at home, some drink too much, some do almost everything right except they eat too much healthy food. So there’s no one action plan I follow with all of them because the source of their problem isn’t always the same.

Note: To reiterate, skinny-fat refers to someone who is at a normal weight, yet has an abnormally high body fat percentage — over about 18% for men and 25% for women. Since this is only possible by having low levels of muscle mass, it frequently occurs in people who eat reasonably well and get some exercise but don’t lift weights. Lifting weights is a big part of how you fix it, though obviously not the whole answer.

Do you advise most of your clients to count calories? Why or why not?

About half of my clients count calories, and the other half just focus on portion control. I have one client who hated tracking anything and hated cooking, so I had her measure portion sizes relative to the size of her hand, and she dropped more than ten pounds in the first month.

Eventually, I did I have her start tracking calories and cooking more, but we started small on the cooking. Initially, she only cooked dinner, and that was the only meal where she counted calories. So we gradually expanding both the cooking and calorie-counting habits from there.

There does come a point where you need to track how much you’re eating, one way or another, or you won’t keep progressing. Even if you don’t like it, eventually you have to learn to do it, but you can start small and grow the habit gradually.

Let’s get into nuts and bolts — what kinds of workouts do you have most of your clients perform? How much cardio, what kinds of splits, exercise selection, schedule, etc.?

Full-body strength training workouts. Workouts include squats, hinging movements, horizontal and vertical pushing and pulling movements, and usually some kind of loaded carry. And then maybe a couple of isolation movements to focus on whatever body part they want to focus on.

Most of my clients work out with me two or three times a week. Some work out on their own a few more times a week, either weightlifting, running, or rock climbing, but about half only do the workouts with me. If you’re doing all the fundamental movements every workout, 2–3 workouts a week can be enough to get into pretty good shape.

Of course, the ones who work out more get better results though, at least up to a point. I’ve had a few clients overtrain. I had one who was running four times a week, rock climbing three times a week, and training with me twice a week, and she actually gained several inches on her waist. I had her reduce the running and rock climbing to once a week each, and she started eating more, but she actually lost fat and built muscle.

That’s counterintuitive, but the overtraining was causing muscle breakdown, which made her weaker and fatter in the long run. If you design your program right, you can lose fat and build muscle at the same time.

Note: To be clear, a typical workout for one of her clients will contain the following exercises, usually for around 2–4 sets each:

  • A squat-pattern movement like the squat or leg press
  • A hinging at the waist/hips movement like the deadlift or one of its many variants
  • A horizontal upper-body pushing movement like the bench press or pushup.
  • A vertical upper-body pushing movement like the military press or Arnold press.
  • A horizontal upper-body pulling movement like the cable row or barbell row.
  • A vertical upper-body pulling movement like the chin-up or cable lat pull-down
  • A loaded carry like the farmer’s carry.
  • Maybe one or two isolation movements for whatever body part you want to focus on.

What aspects of your clients' mindset do you find you most often have to help them change?

Clients are usually too focused on their goals and the results they want. Then when they don’t see constant progress, they lose motivation.

I teach them to focus on the process instead — on following the plan and getting better day by day. Do your workouts, follow your meal plan and avoid between-meal snacking, get at least seven hours of sleep a night. And treat the goal as a byproduct of following the process, rather than being hyper-focused on it. Follow the process, and the results will come.

What’s your favorite client success story?

I have this one client from Japan who moved here to be with her husband. Within one year of moving here, she had put on about twelve pounds and went up two pants sizes.

This is the woman I was talking about earlier who hated cooking and counting calories. She and her husband both worked a lot and she was supposed to do most of the cooking, but since it stressed her out she would just throw together some meat, vegetables, and rice without being mindful of what she was cooking or how much.

In the first month and a half of portion control, she lost two pants sizes and lost about twelve pounds, so she was back to where she’d been in Japan. But she realized that she wanted to take it further, to get even leaner and stronger, so now she’s tracking her calories, macros, and workouts.

Funny enough, somehow her husband stayed skinny even though he was eating the same stuff. He actually wants to bulk up now.

John: My guess here is that the husband is taller and heavier than the wife, yet they were both eating similar portions.

What diet do you follow personally?

I’ve never followed a specific diet, like keto or paleo. I’ve tracked calories and macros in the past, but now I only do it about once a year when I’m cutting. Otherwise, I can pick the right portion sizes intuitively because I have so much experience tracking quantity that it’s become second nature.

But a big part of it, too, is that I eat very healthy foods. A typical breakfast for me is lean meat and vegetables. I’m a boring eater, there’s not a ton of variety to my diet, but that makes consistency very easy.

I eat for pleasure sometimes, but only a few meals a week, usually on the weekends. I love sweets, but I don’t have them every day. So I eat for pleasure in moderation; every single meal doesn’t need to be a big experience or taste amazing.

I also tend to eat whatever is most convenient, so I prep most of my meals at the beginning of the week, and then that’s what I have for most of my meals that week.

Better Humans

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John Fawkes

Written by

Los Angeles-based personal trainer, online fitness & nutrition coach, and health & fitness writer. https://www.coach.me/JohnFawkes?ref=ModAV

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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