Myth Busted: Lifting Weights Makes Women Bulky
I can’t tell you enough times how much it means to hear, “Strong is the new sexy” or “Strong, not skinny.” Public opinion and societal pressure from events like the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, have long since pushed on impressionable female youth and adolescents that skinny is synonymous with attractive. While that’s not to say that any one body shape is more “attractive” than another, it does lend to a huge desire to be, first and foremost, skinny.
Waif-like models, like Kate Moss, were hugely popular in the 90s. Stick-thin figures with no muscle mass, the most important thing back then was to consistently starve your way into a pair of size 00 Calvins. Thank God that we’ve realized that women come in all different shapes and sizes and that being healthy is more important than being skinny.
But somehow, even though this new era of women lifting and being strong is emerging, there seems to be endless myth that strength training will immediately cause women to shift into the Hulk.
What is “bulky?”
First off, let’s define bulky. I really, seriously hate this term. As someone who has dabbled in a variety of different weight training regimens, I feel that I can speak to this truth. When I was doing Crossfit consistently (1-2 hours per day, 5-6 days a week), I was much heavier than I am currently. In fact, in my Crossfit days, I weighed on average between 132-138 lbs. On my 5’3” frame, some might consider that bulky.
But here’s the thing about “bulky.” What exactly IS bulky? If I showed you a side by side comparison of myself at my “heavier” weight versus my current weight now, you likely won’t see any difference. (I personally don’t.) In fact, I still fit into my clothes almost exactly the same as I did prior to losing almost 10 pounds of muscle. Depending on your height, a slight difference in weight might have almost no difference at all.
Let me put it another way. Which is heavier? One pound of muscle or one pound of fat? Well, it’s a trick question: they both weigh one pound. The difference is that 1 pound of lean mass takes up approximately 20% less space than 1 pound of fat. Ever heard of the term, “skinny fat”? Well, that comes into play here - and is one of the reasons that I HATE the scale. The amount that you weight has no effect on how healthy you are.
Everyone’s body shape is different. Because of this, as women strength train, they might find it’s easier (and harder) to gain or lose weight in certain areas. Some women might have to work harder than others to see noticeable gains in their biceps. Regardless, if these gains incite confidence in the woman who is training, then we should applaud this confidence, instead of tearing that woman down for being “bulky.”
But now let’s get to some facts about women and strength training!
more lean muscle = more calories burned
Let’s first talk about how muscle is gained. You are able to gain muscle mass through a combination of heavy weight training + excess calories. If you aren’t eating to support the muscle that you are trying to grow, you’re not going to see any growth.
So what do I mean by caloric excess? This idea, essentially, has two parts. First, the majority of women who strength train will likely say that they are doing so to “tone up.” I absolutely hate this term. I know WHAT you mean. But, the idea that muscle is “toned,” is false. And let’s talk about why.
You either have muscle or you don’t. Muscle isn’t “toned” or “not toned.” If you feel that you don’t have a “toned” physique, you simply don’t have the muscle mass of someone that you are comparing yourself to or your body fat percentage is higher. What people are trying to ask for when they say “tone up,” is an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat. This leaner physique is going to allow you to see muscle more clearly.
Here’s another example. Your abs. Everyone wants the six-pack. It might surprise you, but everyone has abs. The difference is that not everyone has visible abs because of the variation in body fat percentage. So, this classic adage - “Abs are made in the kitchen” - is so true. No matter HOW MANY crunches or sit-ups you do, you will not make your abs appear if you’re not counting macros alongside your exercise program. If you could just crunch your way into incredible cheese-grater abs, we’d all be walking around like fitness models. But, last time I checked, that’s not the case. The same goes for the idea of spot correcting trouble areas - but that’s a post for another time! (It’s on the list, I promise.)
So, this leads me into my next point. You have to actively eat to actively gain muscle. If you work out every day, but you’re not eating enough calories in excess of your bodily needs, then you’ll be unable to “gain mass” or “get bulky.” The American Council of Exercise states that one pound of muscle burns 7-10 calories per day, whereas the same amount of fat only burns 2-3 calories. So, this means that the more that you strength train, and the more lean muscle mass you create, the more calories that your body burns at rest. To continue gaining mass, you need to eat in excess of this increased calorie burn. I’ll say this again - it is incredibly hard to “unintentionally” eat enough calories to be in an excess large enough to gain large amounts muscle.
This is also to say that the size comparison between one pound of muscle is much different than the same amount of fat. I’m sure that you’ve seen the plastic side by side comparisons. One pound of fat takes up much more space than muscle. So, as you build muscle, your overall measurements will continue to shrink, even if the number on the scale doesn’t move or goes up.
Consistency is key
Let’s talk hormones for a minute. If you were intentionally eating excess calories with the pure intention of gaining muscles, you still have to wrangle with the fact that women just simply do not have the same amount of testosterone as men. Testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for muscle growth and women have approximently 1/20th the level of testosterone that men do. Therefore, genetically, it’s incredibly difficult for women to achieve the same muscularity as their male counterparts. Female bodybuilders are working incredibly hard to achieve a very specific look and likely, have used artificial means (such as steroids) to achieve them.
Consistency is also key here. The key to muscle hypertrophy is adaptation to a progressive tension overload aka “damaging” the muscle fibers with increasingly heavy loads so that, with proper rest and recovery, rebuild bigger and stronger.
Female bodybuilders are spending 6-7 days in the gym, doing multiple 2-3 hour sessions per day. The average woman looking to add strength training into her routine just simply does not work out that much. Even if you were thinking about adding 4-5 weight training sessions to your regimen each week, it would not be enough stimulus to create this “bulky” Hulk-esque fear.
So does that settle it? Do you think that you’re going to get bulky? If you have any questions, leave them below and let’s chat!