The Beauty of Strong Women [Rachel Cosgrove Experiment Results are in!]

by Charlotte on January 2, 2011 · 24 comments

Click picture to enlarge. I wish I had a source for this, it’s hilarious!

Fragile. Tiny. Vulnerable. Weak. I’ll admit it: I liked being those things. For a long time (most of my life?), I enjoyed people grabbing my arm and cooing “Oh, I’ve never seen such a tiny wrist!” I liked that men got things down from high shelves for me without me even having to ask. I liked how boyfriends stood protectively around me, their arms a barrier between me and everything that was scary. I liked how I could punch a male friend on the arm and he’d just laugh. I liked being the damsel in distress, liked being carried over mud puddles and -heaven help me – liked being rescued. (Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this now.)

Muscles did not fit in with that image I held of myself. In fact, muscles made it hard to fit into all the uber-girly dresses that defined my image. I was one of those girls who would look at Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby and think, “I would never want to look like that, she’s way too muscular.” I used to covet the spaghetti-like arms of starlets and catwalk models, arms that are widest at the elbow. Besides, female bodybuilders are widely ridiculed in our society; childish women are still the ideal.
Then something inside me began to change. Maybe it was the realization, courtesy of my abusive ex-boyfriend, that the same arms that held me up could also be used to hold me down. I learned that my softness could be used against me. Or maybe it was discovering, as a teacher, that people don’t listen to a shrinking violet. Or perhaps it was the epiphany after so many times of falling on my face that there is no one to rescue me. No one but me.
Moreover, now that I’m a mother, I’m the rescuer. I’m the one that has to be strong and steady. I’m the one carrying tiny bodies up six flights of stairs. I’m the one encircling my arms protectively against the harsh realities that fly at my children with alarming force. It’s impossible for me to be needy in the face of their bottomless need.
This shift has caused me considerable consternation. If I am not the princess then who am I? A cross-dressing knight with the wrong genitalia? I’m pretty sure there weren’t any of those at King Arthur’s round table. An Amazon woman in a culture where “amazonian” is generally not a compliment? This ambivalence about being “strong” translated into a strange love-hate relationship with my muscles. I wanted to be strong but I didn’t want to look like it and while there are many ways for women to be strong, having distinct muscles is an obvious way to proclaim your strength.
For years I have lived with this competing notion of always wanting to be ever smaller and yet needing to be ever stronger. I’d bemoan a few pounds gained on the scale but rejoice in the pull-ups that new muscle let me do. (Think pull-ups aren’t a life skill? Once in college I locked myself out of my apartment with the only way in being through a second story balcony. I enlisted the help of the guy next door. He promptly jumped, pulled himself up and climbed over the railing. I’d been locked out for an hour. He was in in 30 seconds. A feat he and his roommates later repeated to relocate all our furniture to their garage but that’s another story. Being able to do a pull-up would have been useful, is all I’m saying.) I’d cry about a dress not fitting but be ecstatic that I could heft the 50-lb bag of flour into my cart at Costco.
Then kickboxing and karate came into my life and the martial arts showed me that not only are muscles handy, they’re life-saving. There was something so deeply satisfying, healing even, about punching and kicking. Sure it’s not always the strongest one who wins – karate taught me the value of using my weaknesses – but muscles certainly don’t hurt.
And that’s the beauty of and the problem with strong women: we’re immensely powerful. Even more powerful, perhaps, than we know.
All of this is a prelude to telling you about the conclusion of my Great Rachel Cosgrove’s The Female Body Breakthrough Fitness Experiment. In a nutshell: I put on some serious muscle. And I think I like it. In the past 4 years of doing fitness Experiments, I’ve liked a lot of things. I’ve enjoyed doing the vast majority of the programs I’ve tried but there are only a few I have loved. CrossFit. Karate. And now this one. This program certainly ranks in my top 3 and is possibly number 1! I know!
What I liked
1. It lives up to its promises. I significantly changed my body composition. Dropping nearly all my steady state cardio (I kept 1-2 days/week of TurboKick) and really lifting heavy made a huge difference. Despite the fact that it flaunts the conventional wisdom that cardio is the all-mighty fat burner, over the past two months I’ve dropped 1.5 pants sizes (I know, half of a pants size makes no sense but I’m down at least a whole size and in some brands two whole sizes so I averaged that to 1.5.)
2. Real, measurable results. I’m down 5% body fat. (Yes, this month the calipers showed a 5% drop although I think that was probably spread across the two months and the trainer who did my body fat last month was off.) I’ve lost 1.5 inches off of my waist, 1 inch off each thigh and and half an inch off my hips. I didn’t think to measure my shoulders but judging from the way my shirts fit, I’m betting they went up quite a bit. My biceps, chest and calves remained the same. The nice thing about not weighing myself during this Experiment is that I’m pretty sure all this new muscle added up on the scale but seeing as I don’t know, I don’t care! Seriously, people keep stopping the Gym Buddies and I at the gym to ask what we’re doing because we look so different.
3. Nice variety. There are a lot of different weight routines so we didn’t get bored. Often I find myself complaining that workouts aren’t challenging enough but this one with its four phases had routines basic enough for the total beginner and yet also had workouts that kicked our been-there-bought-the-t-shirt butts. (Hello “complexes” – my butt’s been sore for 2 months straight!)
4. The post-workout shakes. I should clarify: I didn’t like the smoothies themselves. I never could get past the “chew” factor. (All of you that told me to put chia seeds in there to give it texture? I literally dry heaved on the stretching mats. That’s like trying to drink tapioca! Gah, even typing that makes me shudder. Sorry you guys but I detest pudding – even creme brulee reminds me of snot once I get past the sugar shell.) However, I did like the effect the smoothies had. It was so nice to not be all shaky from low blood sugar while trying to collect my children, drive home, and shower before getting time to make myself lunch.
What I Didn’t Like
1. Too easy interval training. While I adore high intensity interval (HIIT) workouts, Cosgrove’s got boring. We also had a really hard time getting our heart rate up doing them. So after the first month, we switched them out for puketastic Tabata sprints on the treadmill and some harder intervals from
2. The foam rolling. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong (if I posted a video would you guys critique it for me? Deb Roby??) but despite doing it religiously I never saw a difference from it. Never even felt so much as a twinge doing it. Gym Buddy Megan however liked it so much she bought her own roller for home.
3. Big training jump between phases. Gym Buddy Krista pointed out that the transition from Phase I to Phase II in the workouts was a huge leap and that beginners might need to spend a lot more time than one month in Phase I to be comfortable enough to move on. Of course we skipped Phase I entirely so, yeah.
4. The hilarious warm-up. (Although I need to clarify: I love that she has a dynamic warm-up. We are totally on board with dynamic warm-ups. We just felt kinda silly doing a maypole dance in the middle of the weight floor.)
I loved this. I want more of it! I’m actually sad to move on from this Experiment because I’ve enjoyed it so much. Plus? I love looking in the mirror when I punch and seeing rippling muscles. Maybe I’m finally coming into my own power. And I think we still look like girls:
PS. I tried to take some pics to show you guys my super duper new muscles up close but apparently I have vampire muscles – they disappear on film. Sigh. I don’t know if it’s because I’m so pale that porcelain gets jealous or if it’s because that while the change is major to me it’s actually pretty minor to everyone else. But, hey, at least you’re spared more grainy pics of my messy bathroom!
How about you guys – I know a lot of you were trying it with us! What did you think? What kind of results have you seen so far? What do you think about muscular women – do you think “manly” or “beautiful”? Anyone else grow up equating femininity with fragility?

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

annie January 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I got your name from kara thom. I am currently doing the female body breakthrough workout and do not understand the fine tune phase. What does “workout 1-6″ mean? I don’t get it at all…driving me crazy! HELP!!! LOVE THE WORKOUT SO MUCH. DON’T WANT TO STOP AFTER WEEK 12 CUZ I DON’T GET IT. ANNIE


Charlotte January 29, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Hi Annie! I’m so bummed all the comments on this thread got deleted when I moved to WordPress because you are def. not the only person confused by it!! Basically you’re doing the same two workouts (A and B) for the final phase but each time you do them you are changing the number of sets and reps. So the first time you do A (workout 1) it’s 2 sets of 15 reps. The next workout will be B with the same. Workout 3 are the exact same exercises as workout 1 but this time you’re doing 4 sets of 5 reps (allowing you to use heavier weights). Does that make sense? SAME two workouts alternated for the entire last phase, only thing changing from week to week are the sets and reps. Good luck – I LOVED the last phase!


Dusker February 7, 2012 at 10:16 am

I would like to thank you for all these experiments and especially for your “oversharing”–which has helped me more than you can know. I am just finishing Month 1 of the Rachel Cosgrove plan and you are the reason I decided to give it a try. I was deathly afraid–and I mean terrified–of dropping steady state cardio. If I ran less than 6 miles I thought it was a lame workout and I’d run AND do a cardio class on most days. After reading your blog I thought, well, I’m sort of crazy about exercise but I’m not as crazy as HER (no offense), and if she did it then it’s worth a try. So thanks! I am a convert! Dropping steady state cardio did not result in a 10lb. weight gain–actually, I haven’t weighed myself (so who knows) but my clothes fit so much better that I don’t care. Major difference in butt and thighs even after just Phase 1. I do the weight plan 3 days a week and do Tabata sprints on two of the off days and I still do my kickbox/bootcamp class 2x week on off days as well.
I also swtiched my eating up to incorporate some of Mark Sisson’s ideas, but I would say my plan is basically, “eat more of what Mark Sisson says to eat but don’t forbid my favorites”. I still eat Gummy Bears once a week. So far this has been very satisfying and seems sustainable–unlike my previous plan of starve for 2 months, look great for 2 weeks and then slowily gain the weight back over the next 2 months and . . . repeat cycle. . .. all the while increasing the amount of cardio I was doing and the time I spent at the gym which means less time with my kids.
It took your example of taking this leap to give me the courage to try it and I am fairly certain that it was probably harder for you to take this leap than most people. So thanks again.


Charlotte February 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Yayay! I’m so happy! This comment made my whole day! I’m so glad that it worked so well for you too. I always hesitate a little in telling people what worked for me because I know it won’t automatically work for everyone else in the same way so it’s really great to see that it is not only working but having such a positive impact on your life! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me about your own experiment!!!


Kale February 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Hi Charlotte,
I feel I am about as die-hard/really into exercise as you are. I stumbled across your blog because I recently moved, started a new job and have gained 15 lbs and no matter how much exercising I was doing have not been able to lose the weight. I have tried all kinds of things, Paleo, yoga and major cardio increases with only more weight gain. This post gave me tremendous inspiration. I went out and bought The Female Body Breakthrough and just started week 2. I already do CrossFit 2 days a week and consider myself pretty darn strong already so I am worried that the Base Phase is not pushing me enough but I know Rachel says to start with it no matter what. Do you have any tips/suggestions for me. I am very determined to lose the weight and I really have loved dropping my psychotic cardio schedule (although it is terrifying at the same time and I haven’t been able to give up Saturday spinning) I would love any advice you have to offer, I want to fit back into my jeans!


Charlotte March 1, 2012 at 12:04 am

First, huge hugs to you for all those life changes at once! It’s tough!! And huge kudos to you for being willing to try something new. Second, I think I mentioned in my post starting this experiment that we did the base phase for… 1 week. Yes, I ignored her advice. It felt wussy. I admit it! So while I’m sure she’d disagree, I’ll tell you that we pretty much skipped it and we still got great results. And yay for cutting back on the crazy cardio – it really frees up a lot of time doesn’t it? Keep me posted on your progress!


Dusker April 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

I’m just starting the final month and I am loving it–I have visible abs (!!!) and, more importantly, I am so much stronger. But what happens when it’s all over? I’m starting to get panicky about how I am going to continue strength training without having the comfort of a 16 week plan to follow. I know you loved this program and have continued to lift–how do you come up with weight workouts? I have considered going back to the beginning and starting again but there are only a few exercises from the first two phases that would still challenge me (Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts! Bulgarian Split Squats!). Like you, I need some variety–I’ve found my sweet spot to be 3-4 months before I have to switch my entire routine up. Any advice about how to plan out strength training workouts? Any good sources you’ve found? I can’t justify the expense of a trainer.


Charlotte April 12, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Oooh such a good question!!! And one I am constantly trying to answer. As you know FBB has been one of my all-time fave workouts and now I kind of hold everything else up to that standard. It’s been hard to find something that’s as effective and as varied as Rachel’s workouts. She says she’s coming out with a new book soon (yay!) but in the meantime I think it helps to keep her format (of supersets, complexes, ordering etc) but just know some different moves to sub out for each body part. Men’s Health has a “big book of exercises” that is an excellent resource for, say, finding 20 different ways to work your glutes. Another good resource is Alwyn Cosgrove’s (rachel’s husband!) New Rules of Lifting. There is a NRoL for Women that is really popular but having read – and experimented on both – I actually prefer the men’s version. More variety. Keep me posted on how your experiment goes!


Dusker April 13, 2012 at 9:12 am

Thanks once again for sharing your experiences! I”ve got NRoL for Women but I think I’ll check out the men’s version for my next experiment instead based upon your comments. And I’ll def. check out the Big Book–I’m still not quite sure what muscles some exercises are supposed to be working. That was my biggest quandry about planning routines–how do I make sure I don’t unwittingly overload a musle group?

But I’m toying with the idea of taking a month off the gym strength training and focusing on my kettlebells before starting NRoL. I didn’t have access to a gym the entire week of Spring Break so I brought my mid-sized KB along and did a 40 min. full body KB routine in place of my gym workouts. I noticed a huge increase in strength on all of my lifts when I got back to the gym–especially my shoulders/back(presses) which are my biggest weakness.

I found a good resource –probably through a link on your site or a commenter’s website so you may already know about it. It’s Girls Gone Strong. It’s on Facebook–don’t Google or you’ll get some sketchy (possibly X rated) site. It’s a group of women who each have their own independent blog that links back to GGS. They post a lot of workout logs/routines that have given me a ton of ideas.

You’re the best! My goals have changed completely–the number on the scale is out. Short term goal is 2 unassisted chin ups, long term goal is a pull-up and a pistol squat. “Appearance is a consequence of fitness”–I read that somewhere and I wish I remembered where so I could give credit. And thanks to your candor I am much happier with eating in general. Sometimes it’s just a phrase that clicks even though you’ve heard the substance a million times before. Something you wrote aboud food not being a reward or a punishment–it’s just FOOD–has struck a chord. True–more calories will make me heavier than I like to be and I can’t deny that. But if the kids’ mac and cheese looks good one night I’ve started putting some in a bowl and eating it with them iinstead of thinking that I don’t “deserve” to eat it –and then shoveling their leftovers into my mouth over the trashcan and probably eating twice as much.


Sara April 24, 2012 at 8:31 am

Hi Charlotte!
Because of your glowing review I just started the FBB. I skipped the base phase (birds of a feather! ;) ) and am two weeks into the define yourself phase. I’m loving it, BUT I think her explanations and tables are confusing. For instance, in the table she lists exercise 1A and 60 seconds of rest. 1B is listed below with also 60 second of rest. Does that mean I do 1A, immediately follow with 1B and then 60 seconds of rest and do that two more times? (superset it) Or do I do 1A, rest, 1B, rest, 1A, rest, etc?! Help! :) I’ve been doing it like a superset. Also, I’m just curious: because you guys had such great results does that mean some of you followed the diet plan in her book?

Thanks a bunch!!


Sarah May 29, 2012 at 12:06 am

I have the same question, Charlotte! I just bought this book because you gave it such rave reviews (and I need someone to tell me what to do in my workouts at the moment because my brain is fried from my PhD…ha!), but I think the description of the workouts is confusing! Since I’ve been lifting weights for 15 years, I am feeling like an idiot because I don’t get it :-/


Sara June 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Hi Sarah,
Just wanted to let you know that since I didn’t hear back from Charlotte that I went ahead and did the workouts like a superset. 1A immediately followed by 1B then the 60 seconds of rest. Repeat for two more sets. I hope this helps you!! I’m now starting the Fine-Tune phase and that table is a doozy!


Charlotte June 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Hi Sara and Sarah!
I’m so sorry – I thought I replied to this but apparently it either got eaten or I have a bad memory (either is totally possible at this point!). Yes, in the first 3 phases do everything in each letter group as a superset with the rest between supersets, not between each exercise. The final phase table is SOOOO confusing! See my explanation to Annie (about 5 comments up) on how to read that table. Good luck to both of you and let me know how it goes and how you are liking it!

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