Will I Get 'Bulky' If I Lift Weights?

bulky Jul 28, 2014

And any excessive energy intake really…

No doubt you may have guessed by now that I’m a big fan of weight training. 

And not in the lift five pounds, fifteen times to get ‘toned,’ kind of way either…

Quite simply put there isn’t a form of exercise out there that has so many upsides and so few downsides when you learn how to do it properly.

Weight training is the bees knees in this respect, though you still can’t and shouldn’t ONLY lift weights either.

There is still mobility work and energy system work that needs doing, DON’T misconstrue what I’m saying.

Unfortunately one of those downsides for women is the fear of getting ‘bulky’ and so I often find myself fielding questions like this one:

Hi Darren,

I’ve been reading your blog lately and I noticed that you’re a big advocate for people to lift weights and often with heavier loads. I tried weight training a few times in the past but each time found myself getting an undesirable bulky look very quickly. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must bulk very easily and have avoided weight training for a few years now as a result. Is there any way to get the benefits of weight training without the bulk?

~ Jane Doe, purposely left anonymous…

I say ‘fear of getting bulky‘ because it generally doesn’t happen the way most women expect.

This is one of the most level headed inquires I’ve gotten in recent memory, actually.

I’ve gotten flat out nasty emails and comments from people saying that weight training is everything from dangerous to you should never lift beyond 10 lbs or you’ll get bulky and everything in between.

I’m a dude and in being a dude, I probably couldn’t fully understand or relate to the challenges of being a woman in modern times where the media encourages disordered eating, rail-thinness and quick fix solutions.

Afterall, it’s sexy for me (as a man) to be at least a little muscled and a little more on the bulky side.

Big chest and shoulders, wide V shaped lats and a glutes that can split any pair of jeans on a bad day.

That’s the masculine look.

Not so sexy for women to have defined shoulders or arms, right?

And yet, half of my clientele are still women…

A meme made by a Man?

Most of them don’t look like the women even on the right though, despite resistance training 1-3 times a week.

As a man, many women surely still have a difficult time relating to me, this blog, and the recommendations I make with regards to resistance training, particularly for them.

The reality (because believe it or not, I’ve lived with a woman for the last seven-plus years, and she told me so) is that most men think the women in the pictures on the right are hot (or the PC version: physically attractive) and a lot of women think that women on the right are still bulky and too masculine looking.

There is an obvious disconnect in what the two sexes view as ‘attractive.’

And as a result, a lot of skepticism surrounding any recommendations men might make to women (who don’t know them that well at least) in regards to strength, weight or resistance training.

You’re probably much more likely to take the advice of a woman right?

In which case, you should definitely check out a little underground movement (a group of female bloggers really, who are trying to raise awareness of the benefits of resistance training for women) called Girls Gone Strong.

If you’re still interested in my point of view though, read on…

How I Can Relate

While I may not have have direct experience as a woman, I feel I’m fairly decent in empathizing with women, based on my own training experiences.

As an athlete, it’s not really an advantage to be bulkier in many non-contact sports — particularly the sports I was most involved with.

Bulkiness, leads to more mass to move, which often results in slowness, if you can’t increase your power output to match.

There becomes a fine line of how heavy you want to be, versus how much force you can output.

This is why you don’t see basketball players that look like football linemen, very often.

If your force output can’t match your mass, you won’t be able to perform as well as people who can produce more force but with similar mass.

So yes, I wanted to be as big as I could maintain, so you have some mass to throw around, but I needed to have as much strength and explosive power at that weight too.

Turns out for me that weight to power ratio is generally around 185 lbs.

At 6’1″ that doesn’t make me a behemoth, but once upon a time I could dunk a basketball with 2 hands from a standstill and that was a good thing.

Any heavier and that may have been really challenging.

This I believe is a similar situation many women find themselves in, because there is an equal amount of social and media pressure for men to be overly muscular and ‘jacked.’

By that standard, many people expect me to be 200 or 205 at my height…

An Honest Look

I can actually understand why many women may not want to look like the women on the right above.

However, that’s only ONE example, so take a look at another one:

This can also happen…

Notice the obvious changes in the thighs, hips, waist and even chest area, despite actually getting heavier.

Unfortunately, what you can’t see is this woman’s shoulders.

Having taken a lot of measurements over the last eight or so years of training, I’d be willing to bet that while her lower body got considerably and quite noticeably smaller, but her shoulders probably did get a little larger.

I’ll be honest with you, nine times out of ten, women do put on a little circumference in the shoulder region after a few months of strength training.

Typically 0.5 centimetres to 2 cm’s max.

Can you handle that? 

If you can, then strength training is probably still one of the easiest ways for you to manage your physique and will keep bulk off your waist, hips and thighs.

Bit of give and take?

Given that most women are in the 90+ cm range of total shoulder girth, this actually represents a very small change (less than a 2% change in the largest examples) that most people often can’t even notice.

However, they also often reach a plateau in this regard, significantly faster than men, and then stay there almost indefinitely.

In many respects, the question in my mind becomes:

Is it worth it for you, as a woman, to have slightly broader shoulders (that most people other than you generally don’t notice), in exchange for a healthier looking physique, a smaller/narrower lower half, and an easier time maintaining your physique?

In many cases, I hope yes, and if no, read on.

Unless you are actually a runway model, or otherwise make a living from looking a very specific way (and congratulations you probably won a little bit of a genetic lottery!) then you really don’t have to look a highly specific way.

You also probably are well aware of the trade offs between your job and your health.

If you don’t rely on your looks to make a living, then I hope you focus on health, rather than relatively tiny changes in your look.

I blame our shallow culture…

Here are the real reasons I believe women believe they bulk quicker than they actually do and avoid healthful resistance training and what you can do to overcome the problem:

#1 Too Much Focus on Scale Weight

Women tend to get drawn into focusing too heavily on weight, more so than men.

As you can see though from the photo above, weight correlates really poorly with appearance.

I am actually quite heavy myself despite how I might look to many (thin), because I’m dense.

Muscle and lean tissues like bone, tendon, etc… are more dense than fat tissue, so they take up less volume or space but weigh more on a scale.

It’s deceiving because women often get heavier on a scale, despite looking more how they want to look.

To them, this is ‘bulk’ but if you take the appropriate measurements — and if you’re only measuring your weight in your training process, you’re going to be disappointed with the results — you may notice that pictures tell a different story, girth measurements tell a different story and body fat percentage measurements tell a different story.

Moral? Take pictures and girth measurements!

If you’re measuring what’s important, you’ll often discover that with your increased density, comes a decreased total volume, less body fat, and a smaller looking body.

In all my years of taking measurements, I’ve never not seen this happen, despite in some cases scale weight going up.

Don’t let yourself become too focused on measurements that don’t really matter, like weight.

#2 Self Perception

I came across this on the internet recently.

That is a MRI picture of the cross sectional area of your typical female leg.

The white around the leg is fat (adipose) and the dark dense area is muscle.

Notice how much fat tissue the typical woman has in their leg vs muscle?

Still think muscle is a problem related to the size of your leg?

We don’t realize just how much adipose (fat) tissue we have because we haven’t seen it, so most of us have a false perception of the situation.

Self perception, is how you look at yourself and view yourself.

Generally speaking the advantage of hiring any coach is feedback.

Why?

It’s because many people are terrible at self-analysis.

They can’t remove themselves from the bias’ they have towards themselves.

We’re all typically terrible judges of ourselves, because we are trapped within our own lives and can’t view our situation, objectively.

Many women express a worry of feeling bulky when they start training, but when we get an external point of view from friends, family or a coach and you’ll often get a very different answer.

That 0.5 cm of extra shoulder girth, will often go unnoticed by others, but they’ll notice that you dropped a few pant sizes because the percentage of change will be more dramatic where you want it.

This is where documentation is needed, and unfortunately many people avoid it.

They don’t want to measure themselves for fear of knowing.

If you want to know for sure though, numbers don’t lie and pictures tell a better story then the one you’re crafting in your mind.

If you started training and your total circumference measurements go down 5 cm’s despite a slight increase in shoulder girth, you know you’re on the right path.

If your weight stays the same, but you drop 3% body fat, trust me, you’re going to notice it in photos documenting your journey.

Assess, then reassess a few months later to see the changes and KNOW FOR SURE.

Not too frequently either, once a week or once every two weeks is more than enough.

Typically the most lasting changes, need a few weeks to take root, so I like longer intervals between assessments for better snapshots of progress (for instance I won’t test body fat % any more frequently than every two or three months).

If you don’t measure, then you’re just guessing, and your lack of progress is purely psychological.

#3 Fluid Retention

Many women don’t think of this one.

In the early stages of training, you get inflammation during the recovery process and the muscles draw in a lot of glycogen and water.

This creates a ‘puffy’ somewhat ‘bulky’ look, that many women perceive as muscle mass.

It’s really fluid.

It’s really not unlike that time of the month when you feel bloated or fat, only if you’re training all your muscles it’s happening everywhere in your body at the same time.

Resistance training causes damage on a cellular level, and the physiological response is not unlike when you sprain something and the area swells, just all over your body.

Muscle is hard to build, even for Men.

So while you might find yourself weighing more on a scale, or looking/feeling puffy, this isn’t actually ‘bulking’ up in the sense that you haven’t really put on muscle mass yet.

Water changes happen more rapidly and more dramatically and can throw you off an otherwise good path of training.

Another reason to measure in longer intervals.

When you’re new to resistance training, the first adaptations are primarily neurological, so your nervous system becomes more efficient those first few weeks before any muscle is really built.

It takes weeks for real muscle changes to take root and often you won’t be able to fully notice and appreciate the changes until month two or three of training (which is another reason I generally require all the people I work with to sign on for a minimum 3 month commitment).

If you measure and you get significantly larger muscles, OK, you’re probably one of the rare human genetic specimens that can easily gain muscle — FYI, this is less than 1/10th of a single percent of the population, so you’re a very rare breed.
However, if you measure often and notice changes, it’s most likely fluid retention, at least in the first few weeks, maybe even the first month or so.
Be aware of this.

#4 Energy Intake (AKA Food)

Another overlooked concept.

You can’t gain muscle or get bulky if you’re not eating more food than your body needs for maintenance.

In other words, if you’re eating an energy balanced diet, the laws of physics state that you can’t miraculously gain new tissues.

You need to be eating in excess to grow muscle, bone, and even to store fat; Often a lot more than you might think.

If you’ve taken care of everything above, and you’re still getting ‘bulky,’ it’s most likely because your food intake is not balanced.

It’s not the training in this case, it’s your eating.

Many people unconsciously or even consciously eat more to compensate for increased physical activity.

Naturally, this leads to a caloric surplus that allows for new tissues to be created.

With weight training, you may notice an increase in your hunger levels.

Unlike cardiovascular training (that many women tend to do in excess, sorry ladies…) where you burn more calories actually doing the activity, with weight training, your energy is expended significantly more during recovery.

Meaning, you start to burn more energy at rest due to a metabolic increase as compared to cardiovascular exercise.

This means you’re more likely to feel a greater sense of hunger during that recovery phase, because your body is using more energy to recover.

Thus, many people unknowingly start eating more.

Some people do it deliberately though too, they eat more because they believe they need more to support their training regime or they want to be able to perform better in their training.

A valid assumption in some cases, but not if you’re worried about ‘bulk.’

More food = more mass, but it doesn’t necessarily mean muscle.

Could be fat, most likely still water if it happens in the short term.

Even I can’t break the laws of physics though…

#5 Eventually you might gain some muscle.

But you’ll be healthier, stronger, be able to manage any pain more effectively and do more of the things you love!

Not really that bad if you stop to think about it for a moment.

You might want to think about it like this; What’s the lesser of two evils?

An extra centimeter around your shoulders (that might not have been there when you were 22…), or Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia is something that afflicts everyone, but even more so women because you don’t have as much muscle mass to start.

It’s muscle mass loss that starts around the age of 35 and continues at a slow rate until death and the only way to really mitigate it is with resistance training.

Loss of muscle actually shortens your estimated life span and decreases your independence and quality of life as you age; Also making you far more likely to fall and hurt yourself.

Women are also far more likely to experience osteo degeneration too, so combine that with muscle loss and you have a recipe for broken hips.

Not-So-Funny-Thought: You’re more likely to die after falling and breaking your hip, than you are after being diagnosed with cancer.

 

You don’t get any real protection from this with the typical high rep, low weight approach.

You want to focus on getting stronger to improve your nervous system response and yes, eventually even build a little muscle for health.

Bottomline

Beyond the fact that women don’t have enough natural testosterone to get as big as many female bodybuilders, I’m really asking you to reconsider your picture of female health.

That’s a big step.

I think it’s important to focus on getting strong, keeping your bones dense and at least maintaining your muscle mass.

If you get strong, don’t train to failure, don’t overeat, get through the initial water retention hump of a resistance training program, throw your scale out and change your outlook on muscle this should be easy to do.

If you’re a competent female resistance trainee, you probably want to do 1-4 compound lifts in a 3-6 rep range zone at least once a week.

If you’re not that comfortable, focus on improving your skill using a 6-8 rep range.

At a minimum I tend to advise one session that focuses on heavier weights 3-8 and one session that pushes the mitochondria a little bit further in the 12+ rep range.

That’s only 2 resistance training sessions a week to see a big benefit.

If you’ve got more time, and need a little more muscle mass introduce a third training session in the 8-12 rep range.

Otherwise, if you want to train 3x a week you can just alternate between a high intensity day and a low intensity high volume day with great success.

If you have questions or comments, leave one below…

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Darren Beattie

A former University Strength & Conditioning Coach. Now aspiring tech entrepreneur and developer exploring fitness and nutrition to deep specific levels.

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