But… will I get bulky?
This is the million dollar question when it comes to women and strength training, isn’t it?
I recently started teaching a new small group class for women called Learn to Lift, and it’s a seven week series geared toward ladies of any age who want to confidently learn how to use the equipment in the weight room and perform bigger lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, but aren’t sure where to start. The goal is that by the end of the series, participants will have a solid foundation of the basic movement patterns necessary for an effective strength training program: squat, hinge, pull, push, lunge, carry, and rotation.
Ever since the promo for this class went out, I’ve been stopped in the gym by probably a dozen intrigued women. Most of the conversations have been exactly the same: we chit-chat about the logistics, the interested gal tells me she really wants to do it, and then… the million dollar question hits.
“But Athena, will I get bulky?”
“Should I be nervous that I’ll get too big?”
“I don’t want to look like a man. Will I??”
As a trainer who is extremely passionate about strength training and empowering women to lift heavy weights to achieve a lean physique, I obviously have a lot to say about this topic and could talk about it all day. However, when interacting with women who intimate to me the fear of what they will look like if they pick up anything that weighs more than ten pounds, I am very careful with my approach and the words I choose to use when responding. Many trainers and strength training enthusiasts out there are quick to blurt out, “oh that’s just a myth” without providing any reasoning or asking any questions to get a better understanding of where the nervous client is coming from. My approach is a little different!
How I Address the “But Will I Get Bulky?” Question
First, I ask the client to define what bulky means to her.
The problem with the word bulky is that it is completely subjective, and every woman probably has a different opinion about what being too bulky actually looks like.
After embarking on my personal strength training journey years ago, I remember being at a work event where I saw some co-workers I hadn’t seen in a while. One co-worker said “yikes, don’t go getting too big now” to me, and about three hours later, another co-worker told me she thought I needed to eat more. Yes, I received these two comments IN THE SAME DAY. The unsolicited comments about my body are a topic for another day (rage), but this example shows how bigness and muscularity preference is unique and different from one person to the next. Some women might feel like they’ve put on bulk if they put on five pounds of lean muscle mass whereas for others it would take a lot more for them to feel like their muscle mass is at an undesirable level. For example, one of my best friends is someone who actually doesn’t love to lift because she doesn’t like how her body has responded to it in the past. She chooses to train in different ways than I do, and this is totally okay because that’s what she wants for her body!
Since bulk has no global definition, I like to ask my fearful clients to give me an example or show me a picture of someone they consider too bulky for them. Validating the client’s feelings, saying something like “I understand why you feel this way, many women do,” and having this conversation off the bat before just blurting out “no, of COURSE you won’t get bulky” makes the client feel like I am really listening to her concerns, and it builds trust that I will be able to help her reach HER specific physique goals.
Then I assess whether providing more information will be helpful or not.
Honestly, I don’t always like to go into my entire strength training/bulky shpeel right off the bat. I never want to come off as overwhelming or preachy, and often times going through the process of having a client describe their own definition of bulky and just hearing them out is all it takes for a small mindset shift. However, I do like to gauge where the conversation is going and weave in the below points, if appropriate and fitting for that point in time and for that specific person’s questions.
The Role of Testosterone
Testosterone is the hormone most widely associated with the development of muscle mass, but even though it’s often referred to as the male sex hormone, women produce testosterone as well. However, us gals only produce something like 1/15th the amount of testosterone that men do, so we simply don’t have the right hormonal makeup to “bulk up” that easily. Can it happen? Yes. I will never lie and say that it can’t. However! The likelihood of a woman turning into the She Hulk by just lifting a little heavier? Astonishing low. It actually would take years of not only lifting heavy weights, but following a ridiculously strict diet (think: rigid eating schedule and portions, supplements, and maybe even steroids) to achieve the look that the majority of women I work with fear the most. Explaining this genetic makeup and what it really takes for a woman to put on a significant amount of muscle mass usually eases the bulk up fears!
What Lifting Heavy Entails
A common reason women fear getting bulky is the assumption that lifting heavier means an immediate shift from using five-pound dumbbells to loading a barbell with hundreds of pounds… and somehow subsequently also putting on that much muscle mass overnight. Nope! Lifting heavy is completely and 100% relative to the person who is lifting. For a beginner exerciser, doing bodyweight exercises is lifting heavy. For someone who hasn’t ventured beyond 5-10 pound dumbbells, trying out 12-15 pound dumbbells instead is lifting heavy. Once that load becomes easy, adding anywhere from 2.5-10 pounds at a time to lifts and slowly and safely progressing from there is lifting heavier. At the beginning of a strength training program, it’s pretty typical to see frequent gains in terms of weight used and muscle built, but as time goes on, it becomes increasingly more difficult to add load, PRs are not as frequent, and those muscle gains take a looooong time. I’ve been lifting for over three years now and regularly perform squats, deadlifts, chest presses, hip thrusts, and rows… and I still would like to build more muscle (#glutegoals!) and get stronger. And I don’t think I’m bulky!
How Body Composition Shifts
Finally, it’s important to address body composition as it relates to muscle size and body fat. When we start lifting weights, our muscles get stronger, and when our muscles get stronger, they will get a little bigger. Bigger doesn’t necessarily equate to bulk though. You may notice muscle size changing in ways such as the glutes becoming a little perkier, the shoulders becoming more defined, or legs becoming more shapely. Remember, this happens slowly! But while it’s happening, as long as nutrition is on point, the body will simultaneously lose fat, and that’s when you may notice other parts of the body getting smaller: the face, midsection, arms, breasts (sad), etc. The phenomenon of muscles getting bigger while fat loss also occurs is actually exactly what so many women REALLY mean when they say they want to look toned! Making sure a client understands this shift in body composition is essential for her to buy in to strength training as a means to a leaner physique.
And there you have it. Asking a client to provide me with her definition of bulky, and educating as needed about testosterone, what it actually means to lift heavy, and body composition are my MAIN strategies for answering the never-ending “but will I get bulky?” questions. Oh, and of course making sure to always be talking about the amazing endless benefits: increased metabolism, reduced risk of injury, looking and more importantly FEELING amazing in our jeans/bathing suits/dresses, increased confidence, more positive goals, reduced stress, being a badass all around… the list goes on. But I’ll be quiet… for now. 😉
Thoughts on the “but will I get bulky?” question and/or how I address it? Leave me a comment!
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