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“Ugh, I hate my thighs.”
“I hate seeing this flab on my stomach.”
“I need to work out more because I hate how my arms look in tank tops.”
Ask almost any woman if there’s a part of her body she’d like to change or improve and you’ll likely receive an immediate reply. Perhaps you’ve said something similar to the comments above about your body at some point (or even today).
Do you want less fat, more muscle definition, to fit into that favorite pair of jeans?
Start by disliking your body a little bit less. Sounds crazy, I know. But it works.
To build a better-looking body, or one you simply feel great occupying, the magic happens when you change your perspective from what most people do to something that’s actually helpful.
When you transition from thinking things like this: “Ugh, I have to work out more and eat better because I hate how my body looks.”
To thinking like this: “I’m going to work out and eat well to feel incredible, to get stronger, and to invest in my health.”
Transitioning from the former mindset to the latter makes the process of building a healthier, better-looking body enjoyable. Working out and eating well becomes something you get to do and is no longer something you have to do. What you do to feel good instead of what you do because you dislike your body.
Many women dive headfirst into a bottomless pool of body hatred — they think hating the fat on their butt or thighs is useful fuel to transform their body. But it’s not. Trying to “hate your way” to a better body turns exercise into punishment and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food from trying to avoid “bad foods” and vowing to eat only “diet-friendly,” good foods.
Self-improvement is good. Trying to hate your way there is not.
You’re entitled to feel good about yourself. Reaching a particular body shape, size, appearance you desire isn’t a prerequisite.
Remove all disgust and dislike from the equation. Rephrase the statements you make about your body.
Go from this: “I’m very weak.” To this: “I’ve got great potential to get a lot stronger.”
From this: “I need to lose a lot of fat.” To this: “There are a couple changes I can make that will lead me in the direction I want to go.”
From this: “My genetics suck and make achieving any results extremely hard.” To this: “I know it’s tougher for me to get the results I want, but knowing that is good so I can take action. With patience and persistence I can make excellent progress.”
Think about the self-talk you engage in. What do you frequently say to yourself about yourself? How can you rephrase those comments into something helpful and productive? If you’re accustomed to the not-so-nice self-talk, meaning, you’ve been saying unkind things about your body for years, or decades, this isn’t a quick fix. Be vigilant in catching these comments, and immediately rephrase them.
If you feel like you’ve been fighting against your body, adjust your perspective so you can more effectively get positive results. Forget about trying to get rid of the fat on your stomach or legs or other parts you may dislike and focus on doing things that are enjoyable, or at the very least, empowering.
Go to the gym to get stronger, not to burn calories.
Eat more of the foods that make you feel great and give you energy and help you recover from workouts; don’t obsess over foods you should eat less of or vow to avoid foods that can be enjoyed in moderate amounts.
Ditch the avoidance mindset that accompanies most diets (“I shouldn’t eat that”) and choose to focus on eating more lean-protein sources, more lower-calorie, high-volume foods like veggies, fruits, and whole grains.
Celebrate all victories along the way instead of glossing over them and obsessing over how far you still feel like you have to go.
You’ve likely discovered how ineffective fighting against your body can be. Why not try something different? Something empowering.
They’re all about weight loss—someone was “bigger” in the before photo, and they’re smaller (or at least leaner) in the after.
Not that there’s anything wrong with people wanting to lose weight to improve their health, feel more confident, or to look a certain way. As I always say, it’s your body, so do what you want with it.
Women, however, are led to believe that fat loss is the only goal they can have. The only reason to eat healthy is to lose weight; the only reason to work out is to burn fat. Their sole purpose for doing these things is to chase a smaller number on the bathroom scale.
Problems arise when women obsess over fat loss year after year, after year. Scrutinizing every food choice based on its ability to help them lose fat becomes exhausting. Making every workout a punishment for eating something “bad” or an attempt to whittle away parts of their body they dislike doesn’t provide lasting motivation.
Fat loss is a fine goal short-term, but if you know what it’s like to revolve every action in the gym and kitchen around losing fat for long stretches of time, you know how mentally exhausting, and defeating, it can be.
Or perhaps you just want to reap benefits from your workout and eating efforts that deliver something more meaningful than a smaller number on the scale–to make fat loss a byproduct of a more enjoyable focus.
This is why I’m not a fan of traditional “before and after” photos. Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful when people drop excess weight and keep it off long term, but there are additional benefits to be gained from changing your eating and workout habits for the better.
Health and fitness shouldn’t just about how you look in your “after”; it should be about how you feel and the lifestyle you’ve created to ensure you maintain the “after” well into the future.
Remarkable Before & Afters
I asked some of my coaching members and other women to share what fitness was to them before they approached training and nutrition the Lift Like a Girl way, and after they did so. What did they discover that was more valuable than losing weight or shrinking down?
Here’s what they had to say, and their experiences reveal incredible results you’d never see in a photo:
My before: Deafening self-doubt, chronic depression, and the never-ending cycle of binge eating and over exercising.
My after: Confident in my body and my choices regarding fitness and nutrition. Seeing exercise as an extra bonus in treating my depression. Now I don’t see “good food” or “bad food”—it’s just food and I can enjoy it!
Before: Convinced I would always be the chubby girl never below 200 pounds.
After: Convinced I will always be the badass, strong girl never above 200.
My personal “before” was being too afraid, self-conscious to go exercise in a gym. The mere though brought on anxiety.
My personal “after” is walking into that same gym like I own it…badass style.
Before: Too many different exercises and too many reps. Now: Mostly old school barbell training, fewer reps, focus on strength! Several years ago, at age 48, I could not even hold onto the bar; now at 54 I can do 5-6 dead hang pull-ups, no kipping.
Before, I was your typical unsporty kid. I hated most movement, felt it wasn’t for me.
After starting lifting, I’m constantly curious about what my body can accomplish. I genuinely love my body for what it can do, and I’m excited about what I’ll manage in the future. I feel more united with my body than I have just about ever. I feel like this is for me.
Before: I regularly confused quantity with quality. I set my goals vis-à-vis an arbitrary number (the number on the scale). I despaired of ever being truly and properly strong because “I didn’t have that kind of time.”
After: I focus on quality, as measured by the exactitude of my form and the slow progression of my sets. I set my goals based on a concept (strength) and a physical challenge (deadlift 1.5x my weight). I no longer despair of being strong. I am strong.
Before: Look at model in fitness magazine, set goal to look just like her, work out two hours a day. I actually felt happy when things were going my way, but the emotional swing when the scale didn’t go the way I needed it to, was unbearable. I felt like if I didn’t look a certain way as a trainer, no one would trust me, and my business would suffer. I felt like I didn’t have value if I didn’t have abs.
After: IDGAF. And I feel strong enough that I don’t have to. I have freedom from the bondage of trying to “live up” to others’ unreasonable, unrealistic, and unnecessary expectations. I have peace and joy even while eating a cooking or pumpkin-flavored treats this time of year. I no longer feel the need to apologize.
My personal before was thinking I had to be completely exhausted, lying on the floor, in a puddle of sweat after exercising, to have a good workout. I’m much kinder to myself now, with better results!
- Weighed and measured all my food to the gram
- Weighed myself daily, on two scales
- Watched my family eat while I abstained so that I could eat my food at home
- Compulsive exercise and undervalued recovery
- Food no longer controls me
- I have so much more time to enjoy life away from obsessive weighing and measuring
- I exercise to feel well and respect my limitations
- I work with my body, instead of against it
- I eat with my family
- Overall, I am so much more relaxed!
- I take many more rest days
- I sleep better
Before: Got winded walking up the hill to my home, struggled to get up off the floor, and high cholesterol.
After: More energy, confidence, and a much higher sense of self!
As I dove deeper into my own health, I found a woman I was really freaking proud to be. I learned how to communicate with, rather than dictate to, my body and started treating my health as an expansion rather than a never-ending (maddening) exercise in shrinking.
I guess I’m an inbetweener.
Before: Compulsive eating, no exercise, morbidly obese and unhappy.
Later: Compulsive dieting, excessive exercise, significant weight loss and unhappy.
Now: Balancing the art of eating and exercising for enjoyment without it tripping over into compulsion. Learning to look at my body for the amazing things it can do while living in a world where we are judged on the external.
I can’t say I’m “after” yet. After years I’m still battling to get relaxed around food, exercise and my body, but at least I now know what “healthy” actually looks like in terms of physical and mental goals.
My before is yo-yo dieting and struggling with boring exercises not sure if they did any good, and eventually gave up. My after is FINALLY finding something I LOVE doing (weight lifting/cycling) and counting calories only as a guide. Not a “good girl/bad girl” mind trap for me.
I dropped in to comment after re-reading the intro to the Beautiful Badass Mini Course, “the journey is the destination.” It hit me like a ton of bricks in reference to my other-than-health-fitness life. This isn’t something to get over, or finish, or wait out. No “after” for me. THIS IS IT! I embrace it NOW! I’m learning and growing and becoming. I’m not going to short change today rushing past it toward tomorrow. Thank you, Nia, every day, for perspective.
If you’re tired of always focusing on fat loss, then demand more. Choose other goals to focus on, and other great reasons for eating well and moving your body. See for yourself what can happen to your body, and mind, when you make getting strong a priority. Make health and fitness a process that enhances and fits into your life, not something that dominates it.
Want guidance creating your own remarkable before and after? Grab the new book Lift Like a Girl on Amazon.
Browse the health section at your local bookstore, scroll through social media feeds of fitness professionals, glance at fitness magazines in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. It’s abundantly clear what modern health and fitness is about: losing fat, getting into a smaller clothing size, fixing flaws, and building “perfect” body parts. Physical endowments like a defined midsection and sculpted butt are highlighted, while tips to reduce cellulite and the newest fat-scorching workout are plastered on magazine covers and littered across social media.
You can finally love your body and be happy once you attain these goals, or so we’re led to believe. Happiness, it seems, is just a couple of smaller pant sizes or one perfectly sculpted body part away.
Look around much of the health and fitness world, and the underlying themes become abundantly clear. The effectiveness of a workout is determined by how exhausted you were at the end or how sore you felt the next day. And when it comes to food, you need to be on a rigid, restrictive diet, and you must follow it perfectly, without deviation.
Behind these messages is a fundamental principle that saturates the health and fitness industry: your priority, as a woman, is to build a leaner, more attractive body free from flaws, at any cost necessary. Once you achieve a goal, it’s time to move on to the next thing on your body that you can improve.
Is it any wonder so many women dislike not just their bodies, but themselves?
Health and fitness has been relegated to the lowest possible denominator: the superficial has replaced the substantive. “Health” and “fitness” nowadays really aren’t so much about health or fitness as they are about achieving superficial standards, at any cost necessary, and with a blatant disregard for other more important components of what truly defines health and fitness.
In other words, it’s not about how healthy or fit you are; it’s about how healthy and fit you look.
The superficial focus has ushered in obsessive eating habits, negative self-image, frustration, guilt, dissatisfaction, determining self-worth by numbers (e.g., the scale, pant size, etc.), and a surplus of costly gimmicks and worthless supplements.
And it’s nonsense.
Health and fitness is a multibillion-dollar industry—per year. It will incessantly poke your insecurities and gladly create new ones just to sell you a “solution.” Intelligent marketers know how impatient humans are, and they’re happy to play to our innate desire for instant gratification. They point out a “flaw” (You have unsightly cellulite!) that makes us self-conscious and present us with tantalizing products and programs that promise to deliver quick results (You can be more beautiful within a short time with our revolutionary product.). They know which buttons to push so we reach right over our common sense to whip out the credit card if we believe their solution just might work.
This brings up another problem with fad diets, fitness programs, and “hacks” that promise drastic results in a few short weeks. We’re told if we “go all in” and do the program or diet perfectly, we’ll achieve results that provide overwhelming happiness. Not only is “perfectly” following such a thing an extreme challenge, but we never stop and ask, “What will I do once this is over?”
Instead of yet another extreme, strict regimen, why not try something different? Something that truly works so you not only achieve great results, but you can maintain them without a tremendous amount of effort—and you can do it for the rest of your life.
I want to make sure that, come next year, you don’t find yourself saying, “I gained a bunch of weight. Help me get my body back.” I love training people, but I do not love helping people get their bodies “back” year in and year out. Rather, my goal is to help you develop a sustainable lifestyle so you can maintain the results you achieve into the next year, and the year after.
That’s only possible if you enjoy the process (at least most of the time) and it fits into your life (instead of dominating it).
If you hate the process or feel like your life must revolve around it, you know you won’t keep doing it.
Health and fitness should be about gaining strength that makes your life easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable. It’s about eating well, not just for the goal of looking better, but to nourish yourself so you can grow stronger and more resilient. It’s about building a body that serves you and allows you to live your life to the fullest.
It’s about creating a sustainable lifestyle. All the things you do for your health—strength training, eating well, harnessing an empowered mindset—become things you do because they’re part of who you are.
This article is an excerpt from Lift Like a Girl: Be More, Not Less. This book is for women who want a simple, no nonsense plan free from obsessive eating habits and exhausting workout programs. Get strong, get results, and get on with the rest of your life. Get your copy of the book here.
Goblet squats are my go-to exercise for teaching the squatting movement to strength training beginners. Once a trainee gets quite strong with goblet squats, however, their one glaring drawback is revealed–the awkwardness of progressively loading the movement. Anyone who has shimmied a dumbbell weighing half their bodyweight, or more, into position knows how true this is.
Or what about those who work out at home with limited equipment and don’t have a whole row of dumbbells or kettlebells at their disposal? What about trainees who don’t enjoy doing squats with a barbell but still want to train the squatting movement progressively?
Improving your performance is mandatory with any strength training exercise if you want to get stronger, lose fat, or build muscle. This begs the question: How can goblet squats be made more challenging beyond simply increasing the weight, since this can be an issue (or not an option for those with limited equipment) for many trainees?
You perform more challenging goblet squat variations, of course. Below are video demonstrations of six goblet squat variations you can use to increase the challenge and intensity of goblet squats that don’t require the addition of more weight.
Goblet Squat Variations
The Goblet Squat
If you’re not sure what a goblet squat is or how to correctly perform the movement, watch this video first.
Constant Tension Goblet Squats
As shown in the demonstration, constant tension goblet squats are performed in a piston-like fashion. Don’t rest or pause at any point in the set, until you’re done. Whereas you can perform several additional reps in a set when you rest a few seconds in the top standing position, performing constant tension reps will fatigue your muscles quicker. This is a simple way to increase the difficulty of a set of goblet squats without adding more weight.
Tempo Goblet Squats
Tempo goblet squats are somewhat like constant tension reps, with the exception being the time taken to lower down and squat back up being intentionally slower. A general rule of thumb is to take approximately three seconds to lower down and squat back up.
Not only is this challenging on your muscles due to accumulating fatigue as the set progresses, but this is an excellent variation for those who need help mastering the squatting movement pattern, because the slower speed allows you to focus on your form at all points of the movement.
Slow Eccentric + Explosive Concentric
With this goblet squat variation, the eccentric (i.e., lowering phase of the movement) should take about three seconds. As soon as the bottom position is reached, the goal is to squat back up as explosively as possible (while maintaining control and proper form, of course). Stop the set when your speed slows down noticeably when squatting back up.
Goblet Pause Squats
When performing a goblet squat the traditional way–squatting down and immediately reversing the motion once the bottom position is reached–there’s a nice natural “rebound” from the muscles, courtesy of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). When you pause for two seconds or so in the bottom position, however, much of the SSC is eliminated, making the concentric (i.e., squatting back up) more challenging.
Goblet Squats with Isometric Hold
This is more of a “finisher” added to the end of a set of goblet squats. Any type of goblet squat can be performed for a set–regular goblet squats, tempo, constant tension, etc.–and that set is concluded with an isometric hold, in the bottom position, for ten to twenty seconds. A good target is to hold the bottom position until your legs feel like they’re being jabbed repeatedly with a hot poker.
Goblet Squat Workouts
It’s time to put those goblet squat variations to use.
The “Squat Faster!” Workout
With this workout, use the slow eccentric + explosive concentric goblet squat variation demonstrated above.
- Reps: 3-6
- Rest: 30 seconds
- Sets: 8-10
- Note: the number of reps performed for each set depends on the weight of the ‘bell: if it’s heavier, perform 3 reps; if it’s lighter, perform 6 reps.
This goblet squat workout could also be called the “Nia, I hate you,” squat workout.
This is one long, extended set that is just as much a mental challenge as it is physical. Begin by performing one all-out set of 15+ reps (depending on the weight of the ‘bell used), rest 15 seconds, crank out as many additional reps as possible, rest 15 seconds, crank out as many additional reps as possible, rest 15 seconds, and crank out as many reps as possible one last time. Then have fun breathing fire and cursing me under muddled breaths.
The rest/pause method is excellent when you’re short on time but still want to have a productive workout, and that’s why it’s included in the Minimalist Workout Routines.
- Do not let your form break down as the sets progress. It’ll be a challenge, but stay focused and make sure every rep is performed correctly.
- You can use any goblet squat variation demonstrated above; I prefer the constant tension style where you simply crank out as many as possible. You can also rest a few seconds in the standing position toward the last reps of a set, if you really want to squeeze out as many reps as possible and take this to a sadistic level.
- I recommend resting the ‘bell on the ground between mini-sets and taking a few deep breaths.
- You’ll know you did this correctly if, after resting a few minutes, you know you couldn’t possibly repeat another rest/pause set of squats.
The Goblet Squat Ladder
This one looks deceptively simple: Perform 1 rep, rest a few seconds, perform 2 reps, rest a few seconds, and repeat all the way up to 10 reps. Then, work your way back down starting at 9 reps, rest a few seconds, perform 8 reps, all the way down to a single rep.
Again, you can use any goblet squat variation, and I recommend resting the ‘bell on the ground between sets.
On the Minute
This workout depends on how heavy of a ‘bell you have to squat with. The heavier the ‘bell, the fewer reps you should perform for each set; the lighter the ‘bell, the more reps you should perform.
Set a timer and perform 5-10 reps at the top of every minute, for 10 minutes. The first few minutes will feel deceptively easy–the last few, not so much, thanks to accumulating fatigue.
100 Total Reps
Choose a goblet squat variation and perform 100 total reps in the shortest time you can muster.
It doesn’t matter how many reps you perform in each set or how many sets it takes–just perform 100 reps.
Keep a stopwatch handy to track your time–when you repeat the workout, aim to perform 100 reps in less time. (Be sure to use the same goblet squat variation and weight when you repeat the workout.)
Try one of those workouts for the leg work in your next workout, and see for yourself how challenging goblet squats can be without having to pile on more weight.
“I don’t have ‘guilty pleasures,’” I retorted before continuing, “I refuse to experience guilt or shame from eating food.” My answer was received with a stunned silence. Clearly this wasn’t a response she’d ever received to the common, playful question. And I had just sucked all the fun out of it.
This wasn’t always the case. Over a decade ago any food that I didn’t deem “clean” was labeled as a guilty pleasure. And my list was lengthy. Guilty pleasure is a phrase I refuse to use, unless it’s to say how stupid and harmful that term can be, and why we should banish it from our health and fitness vocabulary.
Guilt begets guilt. Someone who labels food good and bad unintentionally gives food the ability to affect their mood and sense of self. If they eat something good then they think of themselves as good; eat something bad and they consider themselves to be bad and reflexively pile on guilt and shame.
This can lead to many unforeseen consequences such as (a) using exercise as punishment to “make up” for the transgression, (b) vowing to restrict food intake the rest of the day, or into the following day, to “make up” for the offense, or (c) exacerbating disordered/binge eatinghabits from reinforcing a deeply ingrained habit (e.g., telling oneself she “screwed up” from eating a guilty-pleasure food and responding in an unhealthy manner).
Have you experienced any of those? I’ve done all three of them, more times than I can recall, and it causes the ugly side of health and fitness to rear its grotesque head. And that is why I refuse to have guilty-pleasure foods. That is why I’m encouraging you to purge that term from your food-choices vocabulary.
Food should just be food — it shouldn’t have moral implications attached to it. Munching on an apple you grew from the tree in your backyard doesn’t make you innocent/good just as enjoying your favorite candy bar that’s been buried in your purse for three months doesn’t make you guilty/bad.
Choice, Not Guilt
If you want to improve your eating habits, here’s a simple pragmatic guideline that’s void of unnecessary moral implications: Be choosy with the not-the-most-healthy foods and beverages you happily, unapologetically indulge in, absolutely guilt free. This is the difference between snacking on the candy dish at work throughout the day, just because it’s there, even though you don’t really enjoy that food, and choosing instead to wait to eat a dessert you truly enjoy and savoring every delectable mouthful.
Here’s another way to look at this choice, not guilt solution.
Consider two kids who each receive a ten-dollar allowance every week. One kid immediately blows his newfound riches on the first item he sees at the first presented opportunity. But the other kid knows that just because she has ten dollars to spend doesn’t mean she needs to part with it on the first opportunity that comes along. She will take her time and intentionally choose what she really wants.
Be like the latter child when it comes to the favorite not-the-most-healthy foods you choose to eat and enjoy. Choose to eat more of the foods that nourish and satisfy you, and consciously eat less of the other stuff. Not banning it or branding it with harmful labels but being selective about what you choose to indulge in, free from the monstrous weight of guilt that accompanies a good food/bad food dichotomy.
So the next time someone asks you what your favorite guilty-pleasure foods are, perhaps you’ll respond that you no longer have any, because you refuse to feel guilty from eating food.
This unrelenting, long-term focus on fat loss is brutally effective for one thing: making women chronically dissatisfied with their bodies.
The Deep-Rooted Fat Loss Mindset
If you’ve spent more than several months, or years, constantly thinking about shedding fat, it’s time to terminate the fat loss mindset, and take a new approach.
Tons of women vow to more closely “watch what they eat” or to work out more frequently, lamenting the pounds that have packed on gradually over the years. The only goal a woman can have is slimming down; her actions in the gym and kitchen must be offered as a sacrifice to the fat loss gods. At least, that’s how it seems for women who, for years, have been focusing on losing fat, whether it’s the “last few stubborn pounds” or those that have always seemed to live on their frame.
Women are barraged with social media advertisements for products and programs that promise rapid fat loss with their revolutionary, one-of-a-kind system. (Or to sell products that make you look like you lost fat — body wraps, anyone?) And so it goes month after month, year after year; women try different diets and workouts and everything else possible to burn off stubborn body fat, embedding the fat-loss-matters-most mindset further.
Screw fat loss.
You can set health and fitness goals that don’t have a thing to do with losing fat.
The reason you eat a chicken salad doesn’t have to be I’m trying to lose weight. You can eat a slice of pizza without declaring you’re cheating on your diet or, even worse, bemoaning I’m going to get fat from this, while indulging in what’s been labeled a guilty-pleasure food.
The reason you perform a workout doesn’t need to revolve around the desire to incinerate fat stores or because you overindulged at last night’s dinner and think you have to go into damage control to minimize the effects of your food choices.
Screw fat loss.
Slimming down your waistline doesn’t have to be the dominate thought prodding your return to the gym each week. You can choose to move your body and eat well because, oh, I don’t know, you’d like to feel good about yourself instead of hating your body and relentlessly berating yourself until you can get the button on that smaller pair of jeans to clasp. Because you want to discover what your body can do, and then do more for no reason other than because you can.
Screw fat loss. Exercise should not be punishment.
You don’t have to go on the latest diet that promises to be “the one” or think about torching calories or turn to quick-fixes that use misleading marketing messages like “lose up to ten pounds in one week” or revolve every waking moment around a nonsensical regimen that’s too impractical to be sustained more than a couple weeks. (While we’re at it, screw you too, quick-fix fads and cleanses that have been proven repeatedly to be utterly useless.)
You don’t have to hate parts of your body, loathe so called “flaws,” or proclaim to be happy once the Fat Loss Fairy flutters by sprinkling her butt-blasting, calorie-torching, cellulite-incinerating, age-defying magical dust upon you.
Screw fat loss and the hate-your-way-skinny mindset it often encourages.
What if I don’t care about getting crazy strong or improving my performance and just want to look great naked; what if I need to lose fat to alleviate achy joints or for health reasons? you may be wondering. Wouldn’t choosing to embrace the screw-fat-loss mindset while flipping the double-bird salute to the rampant nonsense in the health and fitness world be stupid or irresponsible?
Nope. In fact, if the only thought that has pulsed through your mind for countless months or years when you see yourself naked or when you look at your reflection in a full-length mirror as you slide on your jeans or when deciding what to eat, or what not to eat, is fatlossfatlossfatlossfatlossfatloss then you should swat fat loss off the why-I-will-work-out-and-eat-well pedestal.
Examining the Dark Side of Fat Loss
Confused or have lingering questions about eradicating thoughts of losing fat from your mind? This will help.
How many diets have you tried because of their tantalized promises of fast, almost effortless fat loss? Have you been sucked in by a confusing, rigid diet thinking it had to work because it was so complicated? Have you ever stated, “This time will be different. This time I’m finally going to shed these lingering stubborn pounds,” as you examined the lengthy list of do-not-eat foods and other unbreakable rules of the new diet? And … and … how long did you practice the diet before quitting and reverting to previous eating habits?
Your answers exposed the dark side — the ugly side — of the relentless pursuit of fat loss.
If indelible fat loss obsession worked — i.e., working out and eating well and trying diets with the sole intention of losing fat for a span of many months or years — then that’s what I’d tell you to do. Over the past decade I’ve worked with too many women who developed eating and binge eating disorders, obsessive eating habits, and a ballooning negative body image from the relentless pursuit of fat loss spurred on by the belief they would finally be happy and beautiful if they gutted it out and adhered to the miserable diet long enough.
One glaring truth emerged from these synonymous stories.
Obsessing over fat loss for an extended time — dictating your choices in the kitchen and actions in the gym based on their ability to maximize fat loss — is brutally effective for one thing: making women chronically dissatisfied with their bodies. Developing disordered eating habits and using exercise as punishment (until eventually not even doing that because who wants to punish themselves nonstop) comes in a close second and third.
People tend to get carried away with a fat loss plan. I repeat: The goal of fat loss isn’t (usually) the problem. It’s the mindset that often evolves from a seemingly never-ending fat loss pursuit. Fat loss isn’t executed as a simple objective, structured process that lasts for a designated time; it gradually morphs into a definitive, emotionally-fueled, all-consuming infinite lifestyle.
And that is why I encourage those who have been riding the fat loss rollercoaster with no end in sight to break away from that mindset. To choose other goals and actions to focus on.
How to Break Away from the Fat Loss Mindset
It’s not uncommon for people to assume that choosing to stop thinking about fat loss every time they stab a forkful of food or load up a barbell means they’ll compromise the results they wish to achieve. They assume they can’t build a better, stronger, healthier body if thoughts of fat loss don’t loom in their mind.
If you’ve been obsessing over fat loss for so long you can’t recall when you weren’t always thinking about losing fat — or you’ve simply never considered reasons for eating well and working out for any reason other than fat loss — then it’s time to break away from that mindset.
What should you do instead? I’m so glad you asked.
What must be done? Focus on the answer to this. Hone your attention on what you must do to achieve results. Schedule three strength training workouts per week in your calendar and a 30-minute walk or other body-moving activity the other days of the week. These are actions; define them, clearly, and practice them consistently. Checking off actions taken is superior to obsessing over an outcome because you know exactly what must be done to achieve results. Obsession and intent don’t produce results, but action does. Furthermore, actions create habits. (And sometimes our actions create bad habits, like those developed from a life ruled by the fat loss mindset. That is why we’re replacing the habits we don’t want with empowering, positive habits we do want; those that serve us.)
Revolve workouts and eating habits around a positive, measurable purpose. Working out because you hate the fat on your thighs isn’t a positive purpose. Lambasting yourself because of less-than-ideal food choices isn’t productive. Learning how to correctly squatand deadlift and press a barbell is a purpose. Building your strength to see how strong you can truly be is productive, and measurable. Improving your performance from last week’s workouts is a positive purpose, as is eating foods that satisfy and nourish you.
Screw fat loss — get strong. Be more, not less.
Ditching the Fat Loss Mindset in Action:
“I went from constantly thinking about food and how much (or little) I could eat. From stressing about what my body fat percentage was and what size pants I could fit into. I started to care about how much weight I could load onto my barbell. I started to care about the fact I can now do push-ups and prior I couldn’t do one to save my life. I started feeling proud, strong and energized. And guess what happened when I changed my mindset to being MORE and not LESS? I fit into smaller pants. My muffin top faded. My arms became gorgeously toned … read this book. You won’t regret it.”
– Erin K. Amazon review of Lift Like a Girl: Be More, Not Less
Don’t be misled. This isn’t about fat loss even though Erin lost fat when she said, “Screw fat loss!” It’s about what happened when she chose to focus on actions (changing her mindset to focusing on more) and revolving her workouts around a measurable purpose (adding weight to the barbell). Building muscle and shedding fat was simply a side effect. A change in performance and body composition quite often accompanies a preceding change in mindset; I think it’s because the process becomes more enjoyable, and when you enjoy something, you’re likely to keep doing it.
Set yourself up for success. Attempting to follow a diet or workout program that’s too strenuous, time consuming, or rigid is why people often fail to reach their goals. It’s why people who go “all in” on a diet and demanding workout schedule quickly abandon it — it dominated their life. They either do “all” (I’m not going to miss a workout or cheat on my diet!) or do nothing (I cheated on my diet so I might as well eat whatever I want the rest of the day … and weekend). Set yourself up for success. Can you realistically commit to no more than three trips to the gym each week because you’re a busy woman? Then don’t vow to go four or more! Follow a three-day per week program if that’s best for you, right now. In addition, work on making sustainable changes to your eating habits.
The way you eat and move your body must fit into your life, accommodate your schedule, and have built-in flexibility. Don’t underestimate this truth. Choose the most important actions, practice them consistently for several months, have a positive and measurable purpose with your workouts, and set yourself up for success.
Why, you may be wondering, is this more effective than a typical fat loss obsessed approach most people are accustomed to? Because you can actually feel great about yourself, for a start, instead of physically and mentally punishing yourself for having fat on your body or missing a workout or eating a donut. Because you can have a social life and enjoy your favorite foods with a dose of flexibility and responsibility. Because working out with a positive purpose builds you up instead of tears you down. Because a crazy diet or quick-fix program isn’t necessary when you take the time to turn guidelines into sustainable habits. Because what you think affects what you do and what you will become.
Screw fat loss. Choose to get strong. Or choose to become more awesome.
I only added 5 pounds to the bar! Why does it feel so heavy?
Maybe you’ve done it — added a mere 5 pounds to the bar, lifted it for a few reps, racked the bar and immediately checked the plates. Surely you did the math wrong and added more to the bar than just 5 pounds.
Nope. The math was right. You added a 2.5-pound plate on both sleeves of the barbell. Why did that 5 pounds feel more like 15?
Putting 5 Pounds in Perspective
Most gyms have weight plates in the following amounts: 45, 35, 25, 10, 5, and 2.5 pounds. That means the smallest increase possible for a barbell exercise is 5 pounds (a 2.5-pound plate on each side). This 5-pound jump isn’t usually drastic for a squat or deadlift, since these two exercises can handle a lot of weight and can grow substantially. For example, a beginner may start out squatting an empty 45-pound barbell, but she can quickly progress to squatting 125 pounds or more in a few months.
The problem with this minimum 5-pound increase becomes evident with upper body exercises like the bench press, and especially the standing barbell press. Here’s a question from an amazing woman who has tackled the Building the Beautiful Badass Course and is currently on Phase 2 of Lift Like a Girl:
“Nia, one exercise that never seems to get easier or show much improvement is my overhead press. Could you expound on why this is?”
Deadlift, squat, bench press, press — that is the order of the major barbell lifts from strongest and heaviest loading potential to the least. As you can see, the press has the lowest strength and loading potential. Whereas a woman may progress to bench pressing 115 pounds for numerous reps, she may have to fight her way to attain an 85-pound press. Strong woman competitors and powerlifters aside, the average female trainee will have a difficult time pressing 95+ pounds overhead and getting close would require specialized programming.
Do you see the problem with 5-pound weight increases yet, particularly for upper body exercises? This is where fractional plates become exceptionally beneficial.
Why are Fractional Plates Beneficial for Women?
Because you can add a more manageable weight increase to the bar than standard weight sets allow. Instead of a 5-pound increase, fractional plates give you the ability to add 1 pound to the bar, or less.
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t want to add a single pound to the bar! That’s pathetic!
That, my well-meaning friend, is your ego talking. That has been my ego’s words too. Shut her up; she doesn’t serve your short- or long-term training interests. Your ego has no place in the weight room if you want to make the best progress possible.
Let’s bring this to life with an example.
A woman is on Phase 2 of Lift Like a Girl and she performs the standing press with a standard 45-pound barbell for 4×7 (4 sets, 7 reps); she’s ready to add weight to the bar to build more strength. She uses the smallest weight increase possible at the gym: a 2.5-pound plate on each side, for a 5-pound increase.
But she could barely squeeze out 3 reps despite “only” increasing the weight 5 pounds. What the heck happened?
We need to put this 5-pound jump in perspective: those 5 additional pounds increased the weight by more than 10%. Now you see how significant that increase is. And that is a perfect example why women must use fractional plates with barbell exercises, especially as they get stronger.
When Smaller is Better
When you look at a weight increase by a percentage instead of pounds, you immediately see the benefit of fractional plates: Increasing the weight by 2% is significantly more manageable than 10%.
Let’s compare two trainees on Phase 2 of Lift Like a Girl. That program focuses on building strength with the double-progression method. The goal is to perform 4×5-7 (4 sets, 5-7 reps). Once the trainee performs 4×7 with the same weight for all sets, she is to increase the weight slightly. Trainee A makes a 5-pound jump, since the smallest plates at her gym weigh 2.5 pounds. Trainee B makes her own fractional plates (details to follow) so she can increase the weight by 2% instead of a mandatory 5 pounds.
- Week 1: 45x4x7 (45 pounds, 4 sets, 7 reps)
- Week 2: 50x4x3 (50 pounds, 4 sets, 3 reps — she missed the target of 5 reps because the load was too heavy)
- Week 3: 50x4x3 (she was unable to perform more reps)
- Week 4: 50x1x4, 3×3 (she was able to perform 1 additional rep on the first set only)
- Week 1: 45x4x7
- Week 2: 46x4x7 (she increased the weight approximately 2% and was able to perform 7 reps)
- Week 3: 47x4x5 (an approximate 2% increase in weight)
- Week 4: 47x4x7
Trainee B stayed in the 5-7 rep range and improved her performance every week by adding weight or performing more reps for each set. This is why I say in Lift Like a Girl to use fractional plates. It makes a tremendous difference.
But 50 pounds has to be better, because it’s heavier, you may think. In this context, it is not when you look at total training volume (i.e., total weight lifted when you multiple the weight by the total number of reps performed).
- Trainee A Week 2: 50x4x3 (50 pounds, 4 sets, 3 reps)
- Total training volume = 600 pounds (50 pounds lifted for 12 total reps)
- Trainee B Week 2: 46x4x7 (increased the weight approximately 2%)
- Total training volume = 1,288 pounds (46 pounds lifted for 28 total reps)
That is a difference of 688 pounds!
Let’s say Trainee B increased the weight to 46 pounds on Week 2 and performed 4×5 instead of 4×7:
- Total training volume = 920 pounds
Even if Trainee B added a single pound on Week 2 and performed 4×5, that total training volume is over 300 pounds more than Trainee A who used 50 pounds.
Smaller weight increases — even a single pound — are, in fact, much better in this example.
I use fractional plates in my own training. I’m currently running a muscle-building program and, for example, bench press for 5 sets of 8-15 reps. Last week I benched 115 pounds for 8 reps and increased the weight to 117.5 (approximately 2%) this week.
The fractional plates aren’t visible because they blend in (but can be heard rattling at 0.13): 117.5 x 8
I performed 8 reps with the heavier load. (I would’ve been happy with 7 reps, and would’ve stuck with that weight the following week with goal of hitting 8.) Because I hit my goal of 8 reps, I’ll increase the weight 2% again, to 120 pounds, the next workout.
Get Fractional Plates and Make Better Progress
You’ve got two options: make your own fractional plates or buy a set.
Save Money and Make Your Own
I had no idea you could make your own fractional plates when I purchased mine over a decade ago. Do yourself a favor and make your own; you’ll save quite a bit of money.
Go to your local hardware store and buy 2-inch washers (standard barbell sleeves are 2 inches in diameter). Weigh them into 1-, .50-, and .25-pound stacks and glue them together (a kitchen scale works well for this). Voila! You have fractional plates for a fraction (cheap joke, but I don’t care) of the cost.
Buy a Set of Fractional Plates
Don’t want to bother buying, weighing, and gluing washers together? Buy a ready-made set.
I bought a set years ago that has a pair of 1-, .75-, .50-, and .25-pound plates. I can add just one-half pound to the bar if I want to.
If you’d rather get a made-for-you set, you can check out the sets from Micro Gainz and Ader Fitness; they got rated well, but I’ve never used them so I have no personal opinion. (The set I bought over a decade ago is no longer available.) You can no doubt find more options online.
What Percentage Increase Is Best?
In the beginner stage of strength training, most women can add 5 pounds to the bench press, and maybe even the standing press, for the first several weeks to first couple months; and likely 10 pounds for squats and deadlifts the first several weeks. After the first couple months of training and initial quick strength gains, it can be helpful to increase the weight of barbell exercises by a percentage instead of a fixed 5 pounds.
An increase of 2-5% is a good target. Someone in the earlier stages of training can likely increase the weight 5%, whereas someone with a year or more of consistent training experience and strength may do better with a 2% increase.
Once you’ve been strength training for a couple months, start using fractional plates, especially for upper body exercises, so you can milk out all additional strength gains and achieve the best possible results.
A patient taking part in an experiment is told her new medication may have symptoms such as nausea, stomach pains, and loss of appetite. Four weeks later when she revisits her doctor for a checkup she complains of nausea, stomach pains, and loss of appetite. “The side effects from this medication are terrible,” she groaned.
When the doctor reports that the “medication” she’s been taking are just sugar pills, she’s silent in disbelief.
How can someone experience side effects from a medication when they weren’t actually taking a medication?
This is the nocebo effect. It’s what occurs when negative expectations of a medication lead to a more negative effect than it would have otherwise. As you’ll see, the nocebo effect is not limited to medical treatments and drugs. Most of us, at one time or another, have likely had our own nocebo experiences with health and fitness. I know I have.
3 Common Ways People Nocebo Their Way to Failure
I’ll bet you can recognize yourself in at least one of these examples.
Lack of Sleep
Did you know getting at least seven hours of sleep every night has been demonstrated to boost fat loss, build muscle, and provide a host of other health benefits? Of course you do. Coaches and health professionals love touting the benefits of sufficient sleep, and I’m no exception. Sleep should be a priority. (And you better have a great mattress.)
It’s one element of your health and fitness regimen that requires you to literally do nothingbut can positively affect the results from your nutrition and workout efforts.
What does your day look like that was preceded by five hours of sleep or less? There’s no way I’m going to have a good workout today, you may have thought. And, chances are, you probably did have a terrible workout.
It may not have been due to lack of sufficient sleep, however. Your negative expectations of having a bad workout because of getting less-than-ideal sleep could be responsible for the bad workout. You noceboed your way straight to a crappy workout because of the negative expectations going into it.
What would happen if you just shrugged off the situation and didn’t give any merit to the night of less than ideal sleep? What if you approached your workout the same way you would have if you’d gotten a solid eight hours of sleep?
Circumstances can affect us (and in this example, our workout performance), but oftentimes it’s our perception of those circumstances, and the attitude we choose to embrace in response, that’s even more powerful.
I quite like the placebo effect. It occurs when someone experiences an improvement or beneficial outcome due to their positive expectations, despite receiving an inactive substance or no actual treatment.
Using the example from earlier, a patient taking part in an experiment is told the medication may give her greater energy and lead to deeper, more restful sleep. Four weeks later when she gets a checkup she reports having higher energy levels and getting more quality sleep. “It’s working!” she boasts. When told she’s been taking sugar pills, she’s perplexed as to how she’s been experiencing those positive side effects.
If your belief in something makes it have a positive effect (or even greater effect), what’s not to love? The power of placebo has been demonstrated repeatedly in research. One such study showed trained individuals increased their strength by over 300% simply because they thought they were taking steroids.
When it comes to pre-workout supplements, many include ingredients proven to boost performance (e.g., caffeine), but no doubt someone’s expectations of its affects make it more effective. The ensuing holy-crap-I-could-flip-a-tractor feeling they get after ingesting the caffeine-fueled mixture boosts their positive expectations of the product, so they may be more likely to have a great workout.
On the flip-side is the nocebo effect that can happen when someone can’t have their usual pre-workout supplement or caffeinated beverage of choice. “This workout isn’t going to be great — I ran out of my pre-workout mix,” I’ve heard people say. And when they have a lackluster training session, their previous belief about not being able to have a good workout without their pre-workout aid is solidified by the experience.
If you like to drink a cup of coffee or take a pre-workout supplement before your training sessions (especially one including squats and deadlifts), that’s great. I’m not saying not to use those things; nor am I saying they’re not effective apart from a placebo effect. But don’t be so reliant on them that if you run out or can’t have your usual pre-workout beverage/supplement that you allow negative expectations of a less-than-stellar workout cause you to actually have one.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys her routine, this one no doubt has affected you. Let’s say your routine got interrupted and you had to work out much earlier, or later, in the day than usual, or you had to work out on a different day of the week. Did you go into that workout thinking This is gonna be terrible because you weren’t able to work out at your preferred day or time?
Hopefully you’re starting to see how your mindset can greatly affect your performance, and results. This isn’t to suggest you can simply positively think your way out of extreme exhaustion or circumstances. If you’ve been operating on very little sleep for an extended period, for instance, it will eventually affect you. Or if you just got over the flu you can’t have an I’m-going-to-set-a-personal-record! expectation the first time you get back in the gym and simply will it to happen. But hopefully you see the importance of mindset when facing common, every-day situations.
There are countless other scenarios when you could be succumbing to the power of the nocebo effect. Regardless of the situation or circumstances, the takeaway is the same: Don’t make situations worse than they really are by piling negative expectations on top of them.
What you think has a powerful effect on your actions and outcomes. Your mindset can be a potent force of construction, or destruction. It’s your choice how it will be used.
She went on to perform a set of barbell squats and my initial assumption was correct: she wasn’t squatting correctly. That is why she thinks “squats don’t build glutes.” It wasn’t the exercise that was the problem; it was her execution of the movement that was at fault.
Saying squats performed correctly don’t work the glutes is like saying chin-ups performed correctly don’t work the biceps. If an exercise is performed properly through an appropriate range of motion, the muscle groups that perform the movement will “work.” And if performance is improved (e.g., perform more reps, add weight) consistently for weeks and months, muscle will be built.
How do you know if you’re performing squats correctly so they work your glutes? You need to (a) have a proper stance and (b) perform the exercise through a sufficient range of motion. Individuals who think squats don’t work the glutes typically fail to meet these criteria and have too narrow of a stance and don’t squat low enough.
The glutes are directly involved in the squatting movement, be it barbell squats or goblet squats; the main functions of the gluteus maximus (the largest part of the buttock) are hip extension and external rotation.
It stands to reason if we want to maximize the involvement of the glutes in an exercise we need to use them for their designed purposes. That means the stance and squat depth must be appropriate.
Some people squat with their feet close together and toes pointed straight ahead. This doesn’t mean the glutes won’t be involved in the movement, but it’s not putting them in an ideal position for maximum involvement since the glutes are responsible for hip external rotation.
This would be a great stance for a deadlift or Romanian deadlift, but it’s not ideal for squatting. The feet should be wider, about shoulder width apart, and toes pointed out to the sides, anywhere from 5-30 degrees. Everyone is different; play around with the stance and foot position to find what’s most comfortable for your knees, hips, and back.
What is the purpose of the wider stance and pointing the toes out? To make the glutes perform one of their main functions: to externally rotate the hip. This will be accomplished by keeping the knees out when squatting and making sure they track in-line with the feet at all times (i.e., don’t let them “cave in,” which is a common squat mistake).
The wider toes-out stance also engages the adductors (i.e., inner thighs) to a greater extent too, compared to the narrow stance with feet pointed straight ahead. When you use a shoulder-width stance and point your toes out a bit, don’t be surprised when your glutes and adductors are sore the next day.
The proper depth for a squat is lowering down to the point where the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees. Put another way, the tops of the thighs should be parallel to the ground, or a little lower.
Stopping short of this depth as many commonly and mistakenly do on every rep or as a set progresses and fatigue accumulates and each rep is increasingly shallow, means most of the work is being done with the quadriceps, since the glutes aren’t moving through an appropriate range of motion.
To use your glutes effectively when squatting, they need to be worked through an appropriate range of motion, which is achieved when reaching the depth mentioned above (this way the glutes do one of their main jobs — extending the hips).
If you want to work your glutes, you need to attain the proper range of motion. Aim for the point where the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees. (You can squat lower as long as you can maintain a neutral, rigid spine, but it isn’t necessary.)
Notice the squat depth — the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees in both the goblet squat (left) and back squat (right).
Are Squats All You Need for Maximum Glute-Building Results?
If squats are the main lower-body exercise in your training program — and you perform them properly and consistently improve your performance — they will build muscle on your glutes. If you’re a beginner strength trainee, a squat variation should be the main lower-body exercise in your program so you can (a) learn how to correctly perform this basic movement pattern, (b) build a solid foundation of strength, and (c) practice it frequently thus reinforcing the correct movement pattern and building strength and muscle quickly. This is why the goblet squat is the main lower-body exercise in Phase 1 of Lift Like a Girl and back squats in Phase 2; both are performed with a high frequency of two to three times per week.
This isn’t to say other exercises don’t work the glutes just as well or more directly, or other exercises can’t be used to maximize hypertrophy of the glutes. Using the chin-up example again: you can build a great pair of biceps if bodyweight and weighted chin-ups are the main upper-body pulling movement. But other exercises — palms-up grip rows, dumbbell curls, barbell curls — can be useful for maximizing hypertrophy.
The answer to the Are squats all you need? question is: it depends on your goals and training experience. Let’s look at two trainees.
Trainee A: She’s been squatting correctly and progressively (steadily adding more weight to the bar or performing more reps with the same weight) for over a year. She’s built her glutes using squats as the primary lower-body exercise, but she wants to make them grow more. She can achieve this goal by (a) squatting more frequently, (b) adding additional exercises like reverse lunges from a deficit, single-leg hip thrusts, and single-leg Romanian deadlifts to her training, or (c) modifying her training program and increasing training volume or changing the set and rep schemes (more on this one in a moment).
Trainee B: She’s been squatting correctly and progressively for over a year. She’s built her glutes using squats as the primary lower-body exercise (starting first with goblet squats to learn the movement and then progressing to barbell squats), and she has no desire to increase their size and shape further.
We’re in the midst of the build-a-bigger-butt era and tons of women want maximum glute hypertrophy. If that’s your goal too, that’s awesome. If you don’t care about attaining maximum glute size and shape, that’s awesome too. It’s your body and you should do whatever the heck you want to do with it.
Guidelines for Glute Building
What is your strength training experience? is the first question and What is your main goal? is the second, briefly address above, that need to be answered.
Strength training beginners, trainees more concerned with building strength and training efficiency (they don’t want to spend more time in the gym than necessary to achieve most of the results they’re after, or they’re very busy), and trainees not interested in maximum glute hypertrophy can focus mostly on squats, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts for most of their lower-body work. Tons of women have built strong, amazing bodies on a steady diet of squats, deadlifts, rows and chin-ups, bench presses and standing presses.
Intermediate strength trainees or those interested in maximizing their glute-building potential can focus mostly on squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts and include exercises like rear foot elevated split squats, reverse lunges, single-leg hip thrusts, and additional glute-specific exercises.
And let’s not forget that every body is different. Some people may reach maximum glute hypertrophy with just squats and deadlifts. Some people may need a hefty volume of squats, lunges, and hip-thrust variations to maximize theirs.
Different Rep Ranges for Best Glute-Building Results
The benefit to using a wide range of reps? It allows you to work the fast-twitch muscle fibers with the heavy, low-rep sets and the slow-twitch fibers with the somewhat lighter, higher-rep sets.
If squats are your primary lower-body exercise, use a wide rep range for best glute- and leg-building results. First, get strong in a 5-8 rep range. Once you’d built a solid strength foundation (when you have trouble adding more weight in the 5-8 rep range) you can start including sets of 10-15 reps. There’s muscle-building value in 20-rep sets too, but don’t venture into that range until you’ve been strength training for many months. Twenty-rep squats aren’t as beneficial if the heaviest weight you can use is an empty 45-pound barbell. Get strong first and then include higher-rep sets when you can use a more challenging weight.
What You Should Do Next
Analyze your current squat stance and depth. How does it compare to the information above? You can test the new stance and depth, right now, with bodyweight squats: perform a set of 20 reps and you should immediately feel the difference. Or next time you’re at the gym, perform squats or goblet squats with the stance and depth guidelines above and experience the difference for yourself.
When you have your new stance identified (you may want to play around a bit with stance width and the angle you point your toes to find what feels best), get stronger in the 5-8 rep range. After several weeks of progressive training, you can then include sets of 10-15 reps. You’ll no doubt be stronger and have more muscle within a few months of consistent training.
Squats work your glutes. Squats will build your glutes. You just have to squat correctly.