Dear Doctor Ninja,

I’m a trainer in California and one of my new clients is a trans-woman who has completed her surgical affirmation. She is dieting and wants to continue losing weight without gaining muscle and wants to “tone”. I’m wondering if any of the exercises we might use could mess up her hormones somehow, and in particular her testosterone?


H. Ormonal

The process of affirming one’s gender happens in stages, but I think the short answer to your question is no, none of the exercises you might use would “mess up” hormones, regardless of what stage your client could be in. If your client is following the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) process, then she would have had to been taking estrogen for at least a year before her surgeries, and depending on which surgeries she decided to have, may have had her testes removed, thereby essentially removing testosterone from the picture moving forward.

However, all of this is relatively moot.

From an aesthetic point of view, it sounds like your client would like to look thinner and leaner. “Tone”, as most trainers know, is achieved through having some muscle bulk, so that the “thin” doesn’t look “bony”, or starved; but also through body fat loss as well, so the fullness that covers the bony bits doesn’t look “soft”, which appears more fat-like to the eye.

It seems like you have the fat-loss part down. Your client is already losing weight and would like to continue. But you’re worried about how to build muscle mass without over-building it and somehow the trans- part of this client has your mind spinning in directions that you wouldn’t have if this client had been cis-gendered.

The arguments that some women have against progressive resistance training is that they will look too bulky. And perhaps, in some people, this could be an issue. But given the effort it takes for most cis-men (with typical male testosterone levels) to put on muscle mass, it’s unlikely that your client (even if they’ve retained their testes) is going to radically change her appearance within a period of time that you couldn’t adjust things in time. Even with the increases in testosterone that are seen with resistance training in cis-men, the time it takes to build enough muscle mass to make an aesthetic difference is high for most people.

Given that we know muscle mass is built by progressively increasing workload, and is lost by inactivity or decreasing workload, the solution is to respond to changes as they appear. There has to be enough muscle mass to hide things like ribs and sharp shoulder angles. So your client can’t just diet/train down to “thin” if she also wants “toned”. At some point, that muscle mass might start to look bulky. And regardless of what hormones are at play, the fix at that point would be to dial down the workload.

I suspect this is the approach that you would use for a cis-woman. You already have the tools to bring this client success. Don’t let the trans part get in your way here.