Life as a Transgender Gym Junkie
My Transition Fitness Theory and Methods.
A bit of a Prologue-
My interest in fitness is a long one. Prior to the dissolution of my first marriage in 2009, I had worked out in a gym maybe a dozen times in college and never really felt passionate about it- but in the wake of that separation, I found myself in need of something healthy to both serve as a distraction as well as something to rebuild my shattered self esteem. I started slowly at first, usually 30–45 minutes of cardio, a few resistance exercises here and there, and cut back on extra calories, but without any drastic steps, managed to go from 220lbs down to 165lbs in a few years. By this time, my gender dysphoria was causing me some real grief and desperate to mask it, began adding more weights to my workouts and quickly discovered that if I could fit into the “gym-bro” clique, that I would have a perfect cover and no one would ever question that I ever struggled with my gender identity. While I came to genuinely love working out and felt an extreme sense of reward from it, my goal to fit a mold was driven entirely by my insecurities and my hope that if I acted *enough* like a man- that it would somehow make me a man and this struggle that I had wrestled with for so long would somehow be “fixed”.
From 2014 through part of 2017 I essentially lived in the gym- with plans to transition taking shape near the end of that period. By that time I was at peak “gym-bro” status; I looked the part, I acted the part, and I lived on eggs, chicken, rice, broccoli, steak, oatmeal, and whey protein. Whenever I was in the gym, I was usually one of the biggest and I was one of the few that combined Bodybuilding methods with Power Lifting to strike a balance between the two. Both the gratification of increased strength and muscle and the ever-present desire to reinforce the walls of this impenetrable shield that I had constructed, from which no outsider could ever see any vulnerabilities led me to convince my Doctor to prescribe Testosterone Replacement Therapy. I didn’t truly need it- my levels were still “normal” for a male, but in my desperation, I felt that anything would help. Though I did extreme amounts of research on everything I put into my body during those times; taking multiple compounds at a time (and others to protect from side-effects) for many weeks at a time became my new normal. I kept telling myself that maybe I would work to compete on stage and THEN Transition after achieving some kind of closure with all the work I had done.
To make a long story short, Eventually, this entire lifestyle was no longer providing the bullet-proof shelter from dysphoria that I hoped it would. I knew that I was using the concept of fitness- in theory a healthy lifestyle- in an unhealthy way. Physically, Emotionally, and Mentally I couldn’t keep up that game anymore. I genuinely loved to workout. I knew how to eat, how to train, my technique was solid and I never had a substantial injury aside from strained rotator cuffs. But the persona that I had adopted vanished quickly in a gasp of relief after I came out and began my transition in the Fall of 2017.
What follows is an account of how my methods and experiences in the areas of fitness have changed and observations made in this regard since I began Hormone Therapy.
I will say that more or less, the way that males and females *should* train in the gym, is essentially the same- meaning that women should lift weights and train hard as well. The key difference is that hormones play a huge difference in how much a particular muscle group can usually get relative to ones frame, the amount of physical strength and effort needed to exert force on an object to propel it in a certain direction, and that different areas of the body are typically focused on in the gym to different extents. Men typically favor developing their chest, shoulders, and arms whereas women typically focus more on the glutes and lower body as a whole.
It took me alot of time to make peace with the fact that I could continue to workout the same way. I have always prided myself on training intelligently and learning how to have a solid workout without spending 3 hours in the gym every day. Here are the biggest insights in a variety of topics that come to mind. Granted, everyone should workout and diet in whatever way grants them results that they personally seek, but this is what has helped me. Many of these are not necessarily gender specific tips, either but are what I have done to aid my progress.
- Instead of “bro-splits”- training chest one day, back the next, etc- I opted for upper/lower or more recently, full body workouts 3 or 4 times a week. I do not need to do 4 or 5 exercises each for areas like chest, arms, or front delts. Those only need to be stimulated with a few sets, and then move on to a totally different group.
- In the area of exercise selection, I continue to prioritize compound movements that target multiple muscle groups. Squat and Deadlift variations that target the entire posterior chain are unsurpassed as far as the amount of muscle stimulation. Keeping 80% of your work to those types of exercises and using isolation exercises like bicep curls or leg extensions as only accessory movements is a much more valuable use of time.
- Again, regarding exercise choices, I try to be conscious of why I am choosing particular exercises. If I wish to choose a Chest exercise, for example- would I prefer Straight Arm Pullovers that can lift the breasts or Dumbbell Flyes that can widen the pectoral muscles? If I am thinking in terms of female aesthetics, the Pullovers win every time.
- I now include mobility/stretching into my workout more so than ever. I do notice that I am far less stiff and tight in my shoulders in particular, than I ever have been. I feel like I owe it to myself to not neglect this area of physical health as I had for so long.
- It is very natural to want to want to prioritize cardio when transitioning and many do give up weights entirely. I have chosen to use cardio to supplement my exercise- NOT to base it around that. I am not bio mechanically inclined to be an endurance runner, so I usually stick to 20–30 minutes of cardio max, either walking at an incline or interval sprints on the treadmill, a few miles on the stationary bike, or some time on the elliptical. Occasionally I will do HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) with a Jump Rope as well. I always keep cardio to the end of my workout.
- While I was much more regimented before HRT, I am now finding myself susceptible to emotional eating for the first time in recent memories. My willpower has required much more effort, and the fact that Spironolactone (taken to block Testosterone) is a diuretic that often induces salt cravings doesn’t do me any favors. I feel like after 10 months, I am just finally starting to get this area back under control.
- This goes without saying, that your caloric needs and metabolism change dramatically on HRT. I am still trying to dial in my diet, admittedly, and I am still trying to determine what constitutes a caloric surplus or deficit for me now. The best bet is to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure with one of many online tools, be honest or even under-estimate your activity level when doing so, and go from there. I used to consume between 2250–2500 calories, and now I find that I struggle to get into the right direction unless I am closer to the realm of 1600–1800 calories.
- Protein intake has dropped measurably. Previously, including 2 protein shakes a day with my diet would easily put me in the realm of 230–270 grams of protein a day. Now I might have a shake a few times a week depending on the rest of my diet choices on a given day and my daily total may average between 130–160 at the most.
- I am not an advocate of the Keto Diet, and I find that my strength and performance is much benefited from carbs. However, I am methodical in how I go about consuming them, usually timing them to either in the morning or within 2–3 hours of when I plan to workout. Usual carb sources are oatmeal, sweet/white potatoes, or white/brown rice (white preferred for higher nutrient count, contrary to stigma). Also an Apple or Banana with a Protein Shake makes for an excellent pre-workout meal in the afternoon. I typically keep fat intake moderate still, between 40–60 grams a day. A general rule that I try to follow is to keep Protein high and that I can either have higher carbs OR higher fats on a given day, but NOT large amounts of both.
- My strategy has been two-fold and not typical for most Trans Women- Rather than just “losing all the muscle” in the hopes that I would achieve a svelte feminine build, I have largely attempted to maintain for the first year of my Transition, allowing any change in muscle volume (and fat redistribution) to be driven by HRT alone. In theory, this has allowed me to maintain much of my lean muscle while avoiding an excess of fat gain. Results of this have been mixed. My bodyfat percentage has changed from 12% to about 25%, while my weight has dropped by less than 12lbs.
- As the shoulders, neck, and traps have the highest concentration of androgen receptors in the body, in the absence of Testosterone, they have decreased in size noticably. The reverse of this is also a telltale sign of androgen supplementation when they grow rapidly. (The more you know, right?)
- While my upper body muscle volume has decreased, my lower body has become both more defined as well as round. I have noticed quite a bit of fat mobilization to my hips, glutes, and thighs.
- Interestingly, my strength in the “Big Three” Power Lifting movements has dropped by give-or-take a third across the board.
PR’s Pre-HRT: Deadlift = 555lbs, Squat= 405lbs, Bench Press = 325lbs
Since starting HRT, as of the past two months or so, the most I have attempted or succeeded in so far: Deadlift = 425lbs, Squat = 285lbs, Bench Press= 215lbs
- For these trained lifts, I have sustained a surprising amount of strength that I attribute to both learned form, muscle memory, and having developed fast twitch muscle fibers that assist in this type of work. For higher repetition/volume work, my performance has dropped in terms of weight/set. Oddly enough, functional strength is down and the 5 gallon water jugs at work seem awkwardly heavy now.
- I will insert a note on flexibility/mobility here. I was very shoulder heavy previously, and with a decrease in that volume as well as muscle tightness, I have noticed a great increase in muscle elasticity and range of motion. I am lighter on my feet, faster, and am much more graceful in terms of general movement.
In closing, I’ll lay out a template of what I am currently doing in the gym. I am essentially following a Template style designed by Bret Contreras, which consist of full-body workouts with an emphasis on Glutes and lower body development. These workouts consist of 8 Exercises that I alternate and change from one workout to the next, but they are usually one of the examples I list and are done in the 5–20 rep range, with core work usually ranging between 20-30 reps.
1: 4 sets of a Glute Dominant Exercise: Examples: Glute Bridge, Bar Bell Hip Thrusts
2: 4 sets of a Quad Dominant Exercise: (Barbell/Goblet/Plie Squats, Lunge Variation, Bulgarian Split Squats)
3: Vertical OR Horizontal Pull: (Pull Ups, Cable Pull-Downs, BarBell/ Dumbbell Row Variation, Seated Rows)
4: Hip Dominant, Straight Leg Movement OR Hamstring Dominant Movement: (BarBell or DumbBell Deadlift Variation, Hyper Extensions, Good Mornings)
5: Vertical OR Horizontal Push: (Flat/Incline BarBell or DumbBell Bench Press Variation, Military Press, Overhead Press (I have bad shoulders so I am very careful here)
6: Glute Accessory Exercise: (Cable Kickback variations, Banded Clamshells, various step-ups/leg lifts/adductor/abductor work)
7: Linear Core Exercise: (Smith Machine Hip Thrusts, Rope Crunches, Exercise Ball Crunches, Ab Roller, Reverse Crunches)
8: Rotational/Oblique Core Exercise: (Oblique Cable crunches, Heel-touches, Wood Chops, Side-bends, Bar Twists)
Ended with 5 minutes of isolation exercises of my choice. This is when you might throw in a few sets of things like Dips, Skull crushers, Bicep Curls, Upright Rows, Calf work, Flyes- things of that nature.
I save any cardio for the end of my workouts.
A typical week looks like:
Sunday: Full Body Workout + Cardio
Monday: 30–45 Minutes Cardio Only
Wednesday: Full Body Workout + Cardio
Thursday: Full Body Workout (No Cardio)
Friday: 30–45 Minutes Cardio only OR Rest
Saturday: Full Body Workout + Cardio
I hope that I was able to provide some insights on what I have changed or am doing to put the experience I gained from years in the gym to work towards both my physical health as well as learning how to use fitness for self improvement instead of something to hide behind. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!
If you are interested in my story, you can follow me on Instagram under the user “avidlyallie”. I have taken the approach of leaving my entire pre-transition life up to the present visible. If you look back a ways, one can see every back and forth, up and down, subtle hint as I came to understand and admit who I was.