FTM Fitness Part 3: Exercise for YOU

I spent many years doing all the wrong things, re: diet and exercise, and so for many years, I -- like a lot of people -- threw my hands up and said it was impossible. That my body weight/shape just did whatever it wanted, with only the loosest correlation to what I ate or how I worked out, and that dieting was either ineffective or an infeasible amount of work.

Turns out I was just doing it wrong. There's a lot of misinformation out there about diet and fitness, and a lot of "common knowledge" that isn't knowledge at all.

So I learned some things about some things, and now I get out of my workouts exactly as much as I put in. There's no magic method for getting results without having to work for them, but it beats busting your ass and never having anything to show for it.

Diet is job one: eat lean proteins/whole grains/vegetables instead of processed crap, and get 100g of protein a day. The former is necessary for losing excess body fat. The latter is necessary for building muscle. Cheating on either one will reduce your results accordingly.

Exercise is job two, and here's where I admit that I don't actually like working out. I get bored, I have other things I'd rather be doing, and I find excuses to cut it short after about 20 minutes. I am decidedly not a gym queen, so my workouts are designed to get maximum results with minimum time spent working out. If you have the self-discipline to do more than me, then you'll likely get more impressive results faster. That said, one hour a day x three days a week gets me what I want -- it really is a matter of working out smarter, not longer.

Training Splits

Rookie mistake #1 for people starting a weightlifting regimen is to try to hit every machine every time they go into the gym. It's a scattershot approach that doesn't tax your muscles effectively, and leaves you sore all over such that you can't go back for another week or so.

The proper way to do weightlifting is to focus on only one muscle group per trip to the gym. So if you work the hell out of your pecs on Monday, they might be sore until Thursday, but you'll have no problem working out your back & biceps on Tuesday. Here's an example of a professional training split, the winner of a contest that bodybuilding.com sponsored:

Day 1: Legs/Abs
Day 2: Chest
Day 3: Back/Abs
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Shoulder/Abs
Day 6: Arms
Day 7: Rest

The key point is that your muscles should be fully recovered (i.e., no longer sore) by the time you go to work them out again. If it's pecs day and your pecs still hurt from the last workout, give it a miss. You don't gain anything by working muscles that are still in recovery.

Now, since I'm lazy, I don't actually work out five days a week, I usually manage three. And because I'm not interested in bulking up my thighs (and I do running for my cardio and ride my bike a lot anyway), I ignore leg exercises and fold abs into the upper-body workouts. So my split comes down to back/biceps and chest/triceps. That's not an arbitrary grouping, because those muscles tend to work in conjunction with each other -- back and biceps are active in motions where you're pulling a weight towards you, while chest/triceps are active when pushing weights away from you. So my schedule looks something like this:

Day 1: Chest/Triceps
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Back/Biceps
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Rest

Rinse and repeat.

Do any sort of training split like that, and you're already on your way to seeing results, regardless of whose workout you choose to follow. However, there are also some FTM-specific things you should be doing: (A) giving quadriceps a miss if you're already bulky enough in the thighs and (B) putting extra emphasis on building your shoulders.


Also known as deltoids, they are the little "caps" of muscles that sit on the top of your arms like shoulderpads. Developing your deltoids is what gives you breadth across the shoulders, and is possibly THE strongest visual cue for differentiating male from female. (And, according to my high school P.E. teacher, deltoids are "the prettiest muscle on the body." That is apparently the only thing I retained from ten years of public school gym classes.)

The deltoid group is comprised of three separate muscles, sometimes called "heads": anterior (front), lateral/medial (middle), and posterior (back). That is important because there isn't one single exercise that hits all three, you have to work them out individually. Medial deltoids are the ones you should absolutely not cut corners on.

This is what they look like in SCIENCE VISION.

This is what they look like on a hottie.

Before going any further, I'd like to impress on you that deltoids are important but they are also very fragile. More than any other muscle group, be very careful to avoid overtraining your shoulders and injuring them. If you fuck up your shoulder, you assuredly will NOT be able to keep training it, and you can say goodbye to bulking them up. For this reason, I mix deltoids in with other workouts rather than having a day dedicated to deltoid exercises.

Best medial deltoid exercises:
- Upright row -- which you can do with barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines, whatever. Do this on a BACK/BICEPS day
- Lateral raise -- for BACK/BICEPS day
- Dumbbell raise -- for BACK/BICEPS day

Best front deltoid exercise:
- Shoulder press -- with dumbbells or barbells. Do this on a CHEST/TRICEPS day

Best rear deltoid exercise:
- Bent-over row -- for BICEPS day
- Deltoid row -- for BICEPS day
- Rear lateral raise -- for TRICEPS day


To pecs or not to pecs? If you haven't gotten top surgery yet, it's a toss-up whether you want to start on them now, or whether you already got more bulk on your chest than you know what to do with. I'm inclined to say start anyway, because:

1. Muscle growth is very slow. It's unlikely that you'll put on enough to push your chest out that much further.
2. Pectorals also fill out your chest above your breasts, giving you visible musculature there and making it better-proportioned.
3. It is easier for surgeons to produce good results when they have the line of pectoral muscle to follow.

It's up to you -- all I know is that I stepped up my chest workouts before surgery, precisely for Reason 3, and when the tits came off I discovered that I was still downright concave, like unto a nerdy prepubescent boy.


Rookie mistake #2: not lifting heavy enough.

This is one of the main differences between men's training regimens and women's. Since most cis women aren't interested in putting on muscle mass, their routines are oriented toward lighter weights at more reps. (And if you've seen a trainer before, or gotten exercise advice from female relatives or women's magazines, that's probably what they tried to steer you to.) But that is never going to get you real muscles, so let's lift like men.

For every exercise you do -- shoulder presses, deltoid rows, etc etc -- you need to do three consecutive sets of ~10 reps apiece. That means lift it ten times, take a 30 sec ~ 1 min break, lift ten more times, another break, and then lift ten more times. This is supposed to be hard. You have to choose a weight such that by the tenth rep your arms are giving out. If you finish ten reps and feel like you could do ten more, you're wasting your time.

Because you can skimp on time spent working out, but you can't skimp on intensity. It's not long, easy workouts that get you results, it is short bursts of intense strain. A good way to truly measure your strength, and figure out what weight you should be using, is by lifting "to failure" -- which means that on your third-and-final set, you don't stop at 10 reps, but instead keep going for as many reps as you [safely and with good form] can lift. If your "to failure" set reaches 15, 20 reps, you should be lifting heavier.

So choose a weight that really pushes your muscles to their limits, don't let yourself rest for more than a minute between sets, and do your sets consecutively (rather than wandering off to do a different exercise in between).

TL;DR -- 3 sets of each exercise, 10 reps per set, each set should be hard to finish.


Historically, the way to do cardio was to dog along on the treadmill at the same monotonous pace for an hour or four, what's known as LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) training. Fortunately, current science says that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is better -- this means that you alternate between periods of very intense exercise and periods of recovery. What researchers have found is that the benefits of exercise come from an elevated heart rate, which you get from high-intensity, balls-to-the-wall sprinting, not a sustained jog. Interval training gives you better results in less time, and I daresay it's more fun.

This is good news for lazy people!

When you're doing interval cardio correctly, then you don't need to do it every day -- in fact, you shouldn't. Assuming that you're actually pushing your muscles to their limit during the high-intensity periods, then they're going to need time to recover. If you try to do high-intensity cardio every day, you're actually going to get results that are not as good or as quick, because your muscles are never getting the chance to rebuild themselves.

In any event, it doesn't matter what type of cardio you choose to do (jogging, cycling, jumping rope, skiing, rowing, elliptical machines, swimming, stair-stepping, etc), the timing is going to be the same. I found a page that had the exact number of minutes you should spend sprinting then recovering, but frankly, who wants to be compulsively checking their watch for all that? So I made a 28 minute long .mp3 file that changes to faster/slower paced songs at the correct time for you to be stepping up or stepping down your activity level. Free for the taking.

IntervalSongIntensity Level
0:00 - 3:00
(~ 3 min)
"Clubbed to Death"
Rob D
Walking warm-up
3:00 - 5:50
(~ 3 min)
"Moi... Lolita"
Light jog
5:50 - 9:35
(~ 4 min)
"Du Reichst So Gut"
9:35 - 11:25
(~ 2 min)
Recovery: walk
11:30 - 15:33
(~ 4 min)
Violin cover of "Alejandro"
Lady Gaga and Nick Kwas
15:33 - 17:40
(~ 2 min)
"Hey Pretty"
Recovery: walk
17:40 - 21:40
(~ 4 min)
21:40 - 24:53
(~ 3 min)
The Fratellis
Recovery: walk
24:53 - 27:52
(~ 4 min)
"River" (Live in Clubhouse Montjuic)
Walking cool-down

And then when I couldn't be bothered to do cardio for even 28 minutes, I went for an even shorter and more intense workout: ten minute HIIT, the international queer hipster playlist:

IntervalSongIntensity Level
0:00 - 1:00"The Witching Hour"
Jesse Cook
Walking warm-up
1:00 - 2:00"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" (pipe organ cover)
Bioshock Infinite OST
Light jog
2:00 - 3:00"Om Du Möter Varg"
Medium jog
3:00 - 4:00"Moon Trance"
Lindsey Sterling
4:00 - 4:30"Em Tornes a Buscar"
Nelson Poblete
Recovery: walk or stop
4:30 - 5:30"Regin Smiður"
5:30 - 6:00"Zeit Nach Dem Sturm"
Recovery: walk or stop
6:00 - 7:00"You Don't Know Love"
7:00 - 7:30"All is Full of Love"
Recovery: walk or stop
7:30 - 8:30"Can You Forgive Her"
Petshop Boys
8:30 - 9:00"Running Up That Hill"
Recovery: walk or stop
9:00 - 10:00"Hey Brother"
10:00 - 15:00"Instant Crush"
Daft Punk
Walking cool-down


Current wisdom on pre-workout routines says that a warm-up is necessary to get your muscles ready for the main event, both aiding performance and decreasing risk of injury, but traditional stretches are better saved for after your workout, when you've already been loosened up. What we commonly think of as stretches, the touch-your-toes and hold it variety, are called "static stretches" because they don't incorporate movement. Trainers these days discourage static stretches before running, and instead recommend "dynamic stretches," because the movement makes it a combination stretch/warm-up in one.

Here is a good little video that demonstrates some dynamic stretches that are good for runners.

Recap: Putting it all together

- 1-2 hours before your workout, have a snack that gets you ~25g whole grain carbohydrates and ~25g protein.
- For each workout, focus on one muscle group.
- Choose 4-5 exercises that utilize those muscles, and 2-3 exercises for abs or deltoids.
- For each exercise, do three sets of ten reps, with no more than a minute break in between.
- Pick a weight heavy enough that the tenth rep is HARD.
- Do high-intensity interval cardio.
- Drink a protein shake immediately after your workout.

Workout schedule a la Me:

Day 1: Chest and triceps
- Front deltoid: Shoulder press
- Rear deltoid: Rear lateral raise
- Triceps: pick two (preferably from the bolded exercises)
- Chest: pick two (reduce to one or skip altogether if you've already got most chest than you know what to do with)
- Abs: pick one
- Cardio

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: Back and biceps
- Medial deltoid: Upright row
- Medial deltoid: Lateral raise
- Biceps: pick two
- Abs: pick two
- Back: pick one
- Cardio

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Rest. Cardio if you want to.

Day 6: See Day 1.


And that is all there is to it. If you want to know more, go hang out around bodybuilding.com because they are staffed by a team of professionals and fact-checked by a horde of dedicated amateurs, all tripping over themselves to be more knowledgeable than each other. In particular, they have two useful articles for bulking up female bodies, by Shannon Clark and Pauline Nordin. (If they contradict anything I've said, take their side not mine.)

Go forth and conquer!

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