Will Lifting Weights Make Me Bulky? Women’s Weightlifting Myths Debunked

Are you a woman who knows about the many benefits of weight training but is afraid that she will get too bulky or muscular? If so, you are not alone. This a super common concern among women (and men too), and if you’re scared of becoming muscly or “manly,” you are undermining your potential to be lean and toned. Too many women avoid all but the lightest hand weights, and by doing so will never reap the full benefits of weight training (like increased strength, definition, and fat burning). Fortunately, you do not have to worry about building too much muscle. Hopefully this will make it clear why this is not a real-world concern for 99.99% of women out there.
“Toning” is a very common term in the context of fitness.
I have always been fascinated when I hear, or get to participate in, a conversation about it. When I ask what they are talking about, I invariably hear that they want “tone up” the body, or in other words, lose body fat and get more defined. That’s fantastic. I think that’s a great goal for most people. The problem with the myth lies in how to achieve that look. What I’m about to say is not new. It’s been around for as long as the toning myth has existed. But the fact that people still buy into it means that I am still going to write about it.
What is the “Toning” myth? Basically, it says that sets of high repetitions coupled with light weights are the best way to improve a physique. A common thought from women is that lifting heavy weights will make them “bulky,” or masculine. Many men, too, do not want to be “big, just defined.” This theory of toning seems to maintain that heavy weights and lower repetitions are not only not good, but bad. Especially for women, whom it seems will become the Hulk overnight if they lift too much.

What is Bulky Muscle Anyway?

Bulky means taking up a lot of space. Woman are scared that by building muscle, they will look bulky, but if the ultimate goal is getting lean and toned and you’re not eating too many calories, it is virtually impossible to get big or bulky. Muscle is denser than fat, meaning a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. Therefore, if you build 3 pounds of muscle (which is exceedingly difficult for reasons I will explain below) but lose 5 pounds of fat, you will be less bulky, not more. More muscle tends to mean decreased bodyfat, increased strength, a “toned” look, and better metabolic health.

The perpetuation of the “toning” myth has without a doubt hurt the efforts of many exercisers in their goal pursuing. Here is the deal: There is no such thing as toning. Muscles can either get bigger, smaller, or stay the same size. If they do more work than they are accustomed to, they get bigger. If they do less, they get smaller. If they do the same, they stay the same. It’s not complicated. Lifting light weights may cause some positive changes in the beginning, but they will soon stop, as once the muscle is accustomed to the work, it has no reason to grow. A lot of you are saying, “I don’t want it to grow, I just want it to get defined.” I am saying back, “You have to make a muscle grow to get it ‘defined.’” Muscles simply cannot get “defined.” I guess it’s tough to grasp how slowly the body works, and what five pounds of muscle, which is a lot, actually looks like.
Let’s look at an overweight woman with average genetics, meaning she has average muscle mass, and ability to respond to exercise. Lack of activity has caused her to gain 30 pounds She decides to start a physique revolution. At the start, she wears a size _X_ dress. She takes up a weight training and cardiovascular exercise program. She trains consistently 4-5 days-per-week, and three times per week, she engages in 20 minutes of extremely intense resistance training (reps 4-20) employing a variety of bodybuilding principles. She works out with the focused intensity of a bodybuilder, directing all force to the target muscle. She fills in her exercise time with cardiovascular exercise. Since this woman has average genetics and is working out incredibly hard, let’s say she puts on 8 pounds of muscle in two years. That’s a lot of muscle weight for a woman, whose low testosterone levels make it very hard to increase muscle size appreciably. Additionally, muscle is more dense than fat, so replacing fat with an equal amount of muscle will actually make you smaller, not bigger.

Gaining Muscle Mass as a Woman

The process of muscle building is very slow. An experienced male weight trainer would be lucky to gain 2 or 3 pounds of muscle in a year, and this would require consistent training, good sleep and a sound nutrition and supplement plan. Testosterone is the primary hormone that increases muscle mass. Women have much less testosterone than men, which makes building muscle that much harder. Muscle building also happens much more significantly when there is a calorie surplus. If you’re trying to lose weight and are in a calorie deficit, muscle building becomes very challenging or even close to impossible. In this setting, heavy weight training will allow you to keep the muscle that you have, and maybe build some too, but the likelihood of getting bulky in this scenario is essentially zero. And even if you’re the 1 in 1,000 exception to this, muscle growth is still very slow, even in the most ideal of settings. It is not like you’re going to do some squats and bench presses and wake up the next day looking like Lou Ferrigno. At any point, if you do see muscle size increases that are bordering on too much, simply back off.

Heavy, intense resistance training offers a host of benefits. It increases strength, burns calories, and decreases the risk of fractures, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It can make you look lean and strong (but will NOT make you look bulky) and will help to decrease body fat.

If you’re looking for a lean, strong, feminine look, you should include weight training as part of your exercise routine. The goal of your weight training should be to get stronger. If your nutrition is sound, progressive strength increases are an objective way of measuring muscle development. If you are not stronger than you were 2 months ago (or if you don’t know that you are, you should try a different program. If you are not progressing in your training (in other words, if you’ve been doing the same 3 sets of 10 with 5-pound hand weights for the past 6 months), your muscles will not change.

To sum this up, lift smart and hard, using weights as heavy as you can handle safely and with good form, and keep your nutrition sound. Be consistent, get as much sleep as you can, and you will see great things happen.

If all this seems like overkill, it probably is, but I still can’t stress enough that you need to lift hard. The harder you lift, the faster your progress and the sooner you will achieve your ideal physique. It is the key to changing your body. Follow your routine. Do the cardio (if you want to or have to). And before you know it, you’ll be inside the body of your dreams.

Do you have more questions about this blog post or Dr. Charlie Seltzer’s weight loss program? Contact Us and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours. 

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