PT on the Net Research

Pear Shaped Female Runners Part 1


I have two female, pear shaped, marathon running clients want to gain muscle in the upper body and lose size in the lower body. I have not changed their diets. Should pear type women train differently? Is lowering cardio workouts cause for my clients to get bigger legs? Would increasing cardio decrease the chance of gaining muscle in the upper body?


What a dilemma. It is always a challenge when people want two separate goals in different parts of their bodies. We have dealt with this situation on many occasions. Let us break this question into parts and then put it all together.

You have to assess everyone as an individual, but there are certain characteristics that seem to be consistent with people who continually participate in the same endeavors. We would not be going out on a limb to say that many long distance runners pronate. Pronation broken down is a chain reaction that starts at the foot and ankle and goes up the kinetic chain. It starts at impact of the foot. The arch of the foot collapses, causing the ankle to also collapse inward. This inward motion puts a medial rotation at the lower leg that also puts a medial rotation on the upper leg, causing an effect at the hip. That effect is the external rotators of the hip, piriformis and gluteus medius especially, get stretched. After constantly being stretched, they become aggravated and inflamed. The muscles being stretched cannot perform their functions very well. They have other muscles, namely the tensor fascia latae, do their work for them. Because the TFL is not meant to do the work of the piriformis or glute medius, it calls upon other muscles and other structures to share in the load disbursement. One of the sure signs of pronation is the appearance of wide hips and big legs, or a pear shape.

Among the other muscles that aren’t working very efficiently is the gluteus maximus. Although it may appear to be big, it does not mean it is working efficiently or even that it is muscular. Now you are asking yourself, "How do I know if all this stuff is happening to my client?" The first thing you should do is a quick assessment. One easy assessment is to ask your client to stand on one leg. It is a better indicator if you have her take off her shoes. Observe the ability to balance on one foot, especially noting any movement at the ankle joint. A real pronator will have constant motion at the ankle, even when the client is trying to stand still. The next step, provided the first one did not cause any pain, is to ask her to do a one legged squat. If she is a pronator, the first move at the knee will be to cave in towards the center past the side of the foot. The knee should track over the second and third toe. The inward tracking is a good sign your client is a pronator and does not have good neuromuscular control of her lower body. It would then be in your best interest to add into your style of workout a "corrective exercise" routine to help alleviate the muscular imbalances. I like the way you have them on a continuous circuit, but you may not want to have them stretch in between sets. Unless you are very advanced in your training techniques, you may be resetting the muscle spindles incorrectly. By asking them to then do their resistance training right afterward, you could be taking away from the benefits of the training or worse. This can take its toll on the neuromuscular system. I am not saying all stretching between sets is wrong. I am just advocating stretching between sets only be done by the most astute trainers who have had years of proper training and guidance. Instead of having your clients stretch in between sets, have them do balance activities like standing on one leg, a balance board, etc. or just take them from one exercise to the other with no rest breaks for one big superset. This type of training and a slight adjustment to their eating will help burn the glycogen reserves and start to deflate their back ends.

If pronation is occurring, the muscular system is not supporting the load the way it should. The trauma of running has pounded their joints, and inflammation has occurred. This tissue trauma will lead to less blood flow to that area. Less blood flow to that area will cause less healing capability. Less healing capability will cause more inflammation and the cycle continues. A question to ask your clients is if their behinds seem to get cold when it is only 60 degrees out. What I mean is that they will say that their glutes seem to be cold even if it doesn’t seem to be cold to the rest of their body. This is another indicator of restricted circulation to that body part. The hip flexors are probably quite shortened and are stopping the glutes from working properly even when they are trying to contract. This phenomena is called reciprocal inhibition. It states when the antagonist is tight, the agonist will be less able to contract. Try stretching the hip flexors before you start your training routine. Check out the stretching library for some suggestions.

You also noted that their diets have not changed. I don’t know for sure what type of food they were eating before, but one would assume it was high in carbohydrate. I assume this because you mentioned they did so much running. Their glycogen stores would have to be high to sustain such low-intensity, high-duration type workouts. The first thing you may do is cut the total carbohydrates. If they are already on a lower calorie diet, make up the deficit with protein and high quality fats. If they are not on a calorie restricted food strategy, then just cut the carbs slightly to bring the other percentages back into focus. I don’t recommend anything absurd. The popular 40-30-30 is the most radical I could ever put someone on and I don’t agree with that strategy for any extended period of time.

To recap your questions, do I think pear shaped women should train differently? I think that people who have trouble with pronation should train differently. They should focus on stretching their hip flexors and working their hip extensors, glutes. They should concentrate on the neural system first, which means a lot of balance and one-legged exercises to gain control of those body parts. Is lowering their cardio going to cause bigger legs? Indirectly, if they are taking in the same amount of carbohydrates as they did when they ran, it could show up as bigger anything they working on. The one lady you measured after a step class, who is eating a high carb diet, would be full of glycogen and completely "pumped up" in that area. The measurements would show a temporary increase in size due to increased blood flow and glycogen restoring. Finally, size is about calories. If you increase calorie expenditure and don’t increase calorie consumption, the chance of getting any body part larger is very low. I really like the fact you changed their training to a circuit type workout three days a week. My only suggestion with that is to knock off the stretching in between sets and focus on neuromuscular adaptation in the lower extremities. This type of client is very common. When you stop to think about it, it doesn’t make sense that anyone who runs long distances has big anything. The size is a protective mechanism masking the problems of the neural system. It is the body’s way of protecting itself. The lower body is taking such a pounding it has to accumulate fat, inflammation or anything it can to protect itself. The upper body is much more indicative to the way the whole body would look if it were to be "wired" right. If you drop the amount of cardio, you probably need to drop the amount of carbohydrate proportionately to offset the amount of glycogen that is not being used when the running is being cut back. I hope some of these suggestions help out. Some of the training suggestions indicated here are different than many you have seen in other readings. We understand you are bombarded with opposing views on things. All I can tell you is that we use this type of approach in our clinic and advocate this type of training to trainers across the country that have had nothing but kind words to say about the results their clients have seen.