Woman will not bulk up just from lifting weights.
The simple answer is strength training alone will not make you bulky. There are so many factors that go into it other than lifting some weights. Unless your goal is to become a bodybuilder, you’re most likely just going to end up with a leaner, more toned body assuming your diet is in line with this goal.
This is something that I believed for the longest time as well. I was the girl on the treadmill or elliptical for hours, seeing very little results and feeling discouraged.
Strength training was something that looked enjoyable but I was deathly afraid of getting big muscular, bulky looking arms.
I thought that I would wake up one day with the body of a bodybuilder which is just not true. Bodybuilders are working day in and day out to maintain this physique.
Now, I’ve been following a strength training program for almost a year and my muscles are nowhere near that of a man. I’ve actually started to look leaner! Personally, my muscles aren’t even that ‘toned’ per se.. I have a long way to go! I honestly wish I started strength training earlier in life.
Jacque Crockford, CSCS, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise told Shape that the key to getting a toned body is to create a strong muscular base, not just burn the fat on top of your muscles.
What I like about strength training is that it is so much easier to see progress by lifting more weight, moving better through the movements, or being able to do more reps. Also, I feel pretty badass lifting things that used to seem unachievable before I started training. It really is empowering and gives you a big confidence boost.
If you want to read my seven tips about tackling a strength training routine if you’re just starting your strength training journey, check out this article.
What is Bulky?
Now, the word bulky is subjective since what I consider bulky and what you consider bulky could be completely different. Maybe you want to have strong muscular arms or big quad muscles. It is all about preference and what you find aesthetically pleasing.
So to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m referring to it as looking ‘manly’, not feminine or a look that is considered undesirable according to society’s standards. I could go into how diet culture created the term bulky but that’s for another day.
Most women aim to be more ‘toned’ but not bulky. When we say tone, in most cases, women are referring to losing some body fat so you can see some muscle definition. This is exactly what weighting lifting does! Strength training will not make you bulky but instead toned.
Our genetics dictates what our muscles look like so weight lifting or cardio isn’t going to change that. For example, I have always had larger legs, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to have a thigh gap but I can create legs that have some muscle definition and look leaner.
You 100% will not gain a significant amount of muscle mass to bulk up if you are not eating in a caloric surplus.
It is physically impossible to grow muscle out of nothing so you have to be eating above your caloric maintenance level. In other words, a calorie surplus. This is the only way your body has something to store and grow. You also have to be eating adequate protein to maintain muscle mass, which is about 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of your body weight.
That saying that abs are made in the kitchen comes into play here. I know, I wish it wasn’t true either.
In the diet culture we live in today, most women aren’t eating enough as it is especially not that much protein. I’ve actually tried to eat this much protein and believe me, it is HARD. You have to eat protein for every meal and then some.
For example, a serving size (4 ounces) of chicken breast is 25 grams of protein. An egg has about 6 grams of protein. That’s a whopping 31 grams and that’s nowhere near an adult’s body weight. If you’re trying to eat 1,200 calories like diet culture tells us all is what we need to consume to lose weight, you most likely aren’t going to hit this protein goal.
Calorie maintenance levels are different for everyone so it’s hard to know if you are eating above yours if you aren’t tracking.
If calorie counting is your worst nightmare, I suggest weighing yourself daily for a month to see how your weight fluctuates. If you stay around the same weight, you’re eating around your maintenance.
Like I said before, diet culture has women believing that our maintenance is waaayyyy lower than it is so it may be surprising what this number is. Which is a good sign for all you wine or pizza lovers out there (in moderation of course).
Now there are a number of factors that play into how much we can eat. Height is a big one which is why men can typically eat more than women. Genetics comes into play a lot when it comes to our muscle size so of course, it comes into play with how much we can eat. We all have that one friend that has an extremely high metabolism.
This just shows you that women building muscle mass are consciously eating and training to achieve this.
Another reason you won’t automatically bulk up when you begin weight lifting is that muscle mass burns about 30-50 more calories a day compared to fat so physics is working against you. Now that’s 30-50 calories per pound of muscle so it’s not going to cancel out that slice of pizza.
Building a pound of muscle takes a lot of time to achieve no matter who you are.
Going back to my strength training journey, I’ve lost more weight lifting weights than when I was training for a half marathon. Sure, running burns more calories in the moment, but strength training helps our bodies burn more calories at rest.
Granted, when I was training for the half marathon, I was 25 and didn’t watch what I ate but I’ve had a much easier time dropping a few pounds incorporating strength training into my routine. I definitely had the mentality that I could eat more because of all the running I was doing but I digress.
It takes years to build a significant amount of muscle mass for both men and women. You have to be strength training consistently and often to build muscle. Once you learn the science behind it, it is really impressive the women that have achieved such muscle growth so kudos to them.
Women are not shaped like men
I’m stating the obvious but the same goes for how we build our muscle. The reason why men typically gain so much more muscle mass and bulk up is because of their higher levels of testosterone. Testosterone is a hormone responsible for muscle growth. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning by Bill Kreamer, women on average have about 15-20 times less testosterone than their male counterparts.
Even if you’re above average, you’re still not producing anywhere near the amount of the guys. Genetics wise, men are designed to be bigger and more muscular than women. If my boyfriend and I followed the same strength training program, I guarantee he would be able to bulk up faster than me.
For most women, eating at your caloric maintenance and working on body recomposition is your best bet. This type of strength training will not make you bulky.
Since muscle per pound is a lot denser than a pound of fat, you may realize that you look thinner even when the scale hasn’t moved after starting a strength training routine. This is known as body recomposition; losing body fat while simultaneously building muscle.
With body recomposition, you aren’t gaining or losing any weight. So if you’re 150 pounds, it’s just changing how much of that weight is fat and how much is muscle. This happens when you eat at your caloric maintenance. Body recomposition is much more attainable when you start lifting weights, your feminine curves actually begin to be more defined since you’ll lose the body fat on top of your muscles.
For example, if you start building up your latissimus dorsi muscles (also known as ‘lats’ which are located on your back), you can actually create the hourglass shape. If you deadlift, squat, or hip thrust, this could build your gluteal muscles (your butt!) which will give you a rounder, perkier bottom. These are examples that will give you that toned look you’re after!
Growing muscle mass takes years of consistency and hard work
You aren’t going to get bulky unless that is your goal; it doesn’t happen by chance. Going back to genetics, even though all males have more testosterone, not all men are ripped. The men and women, that have the huge muscles you are trying to avoid, have been trying to build muscle mass for years. They have been working hard to achieve this look. They are lifting weights 4-6 times a week. They’re eating all the protein and eating in a caloric surplus.
Many women in the competitive lifting realm have to take anabolic androgenic steroids and/or testosterone to achieve this kind of muscle mass.
Let’s get into training
If it’s a goal of yours to build muscle, you have to be weight lifting 4-6 times a week. Your nutrition is also going to have a huge impact on this. Two people could do the same training program but if one is in a calorie deficit and one is in a calorie surplus, the one in surplus is going to gain more muscle mass than the one losing weight since you’re likely losing some muscle mass along with fat. It just depends on your goals how much you should eat!
I will say that if you’re afraid of lifting heavy and stick to the light weights that don’t feel challenging to you, you are wasting your time. In order for strength training to provide the many benefits, and there’s A LOT of benefits, you need to challenge your muscles. This means what is challenging to you; it’s all relative.
I’m not telling you to go into the gym for your first training session with weights and try to load a barbell with a ton of weight.
Focus on form first then add weight and of course, consult with a doctor or a trainer if you’re completely new. I follow a program where I get form feedback from a certified trainer. When I first started, I practiced the movements with just the barbell or using just dumbbells. It’s all about the process and you are only trying to be stronger than yourself.
Following a program will help you on this journey and I highly recommend it.
Find a program that you enjoy and stick with it. I know I programmed hopped a bunch when I first started until I found one that fit my goals and my schedule.
Starting a weight lifting program was the best decision for me. I enjoy lifting weights more than being a cardio bunny. I know lots of people who love running and you should definitely keep doing that if it is something that makes you happy. Runners can also benefit from adding a few strength training sessions into their routine. Anyone can benefit from strength training a few times a week. So for the last time, strength training will not make you bulky, If you’re afraid that weights will bulk you up, rest assure that they won’t so give it a try.
Until next time,
No, Strength Training will not make you bulky