“I don’t want to get big and bulky. I just want to tone the muscle I already have.”
— Molly Galbraith, circa 2002
Yes, those words have actually come out of my own mouth in complete and utter seriousness.
I remember saying them to my former high school teacher who saw me working out at the YMCA and asked why I wasn’t using more than 90 pounds on the leg press machine.
To be fair, this was in 2002, a full two years before I became immersed in the world of strength training. I fully believed that lifting anything heavy would pack on the bulk and that I could “tone” the muscle I already had instead.
At the time that I was worried about heavy strength training packing on the pounds, I was actually over 35% body fat and terribly unhealthy. But that’s neither here nor there.
Today I want to tackle this idea — one that many would call a “myth” — about how lifting heavy weights makes women bulky. I want to lay it to rest once and for all.
Before I can discuss whether or not lifting heavy weights makes a woman bulky, I should first define what bulky is.
The problem? I can’t define it. “Bulky” is subjective.
In 2009, Leigh Peele took a poll of over 2000 women, and in that poll, she asked them a number of questions about weightlifting, women, and what they perceive as bulky. Interestingly, over ⅓ of the women polled (36%) said that of the women listed, Jessica Biel was the body that came to mind when answering questions about a muscular/bulky body for this poll.
Of course, this poll was taken in 2009. It seems that a lot has changed since then in terms of our culture’s perception of women and muscles, but my point here is this:
“Bulky” is completely subjective. When it comes to our bodies, it’s up to us to decide what level of muscularity we desire for ourselves.
I, for one, love having muscles and looking and feeling strong, but there is absolutely a body type and level of leanness that is beyond what I’d want for myself. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that body type. It’s just not for me.
Similarly, my body type might not be someone else’s preference. It might be considered too bulky, too lean, too curvy, too soft, or too firm for someone else. That’s all OK. We don’t determine what someone else should want their body to look like.
Generally, when women talk about getting “bulky,” the one thing that word has in common for all of them is that it’s usually an undesirable appearance. However, the actual definition of what “bulky” looks like to each of them can be very different. What one woman finds bulky, another might find still too slim or just right or perhaps downright beautiful.
Therefore, it’s impossible to define what “too bulky” means.
Many women are afraid to lift weights because they are afraid of getting bulky, and by that, they generally mean gaining a significant amount of muscle mass. The argument here is always that "women don’t have the same hormone profile as men, and therefore cannot gain enough lean mass to look bulky.”
While the gist of this statement as applied to the general population is correct, there are two major things to consider:
1. Some women are capable of gaining appreciable amounts of muscle mass.
2. It’s not up to us to determine what “bulky” looks like for someone else. They might feel bulky if they add just five pounds of lean mass.
While it’s true that gaining significant amounts of mass doesn’t happen overnight, if a woman prefers a lightly muscled look, at some point, she may have gained enough lean mass for her personal preference, and transitioning to a maintenance plan with both her training and her nutrition would be a good idea.
When trying to find exact numbers regarding how much lean mass a woman can expect to gain when she starts a "proper" strength training program, every single expert I asked said the same thing: "It depends."
And it's true. It does depend. It depends on the woman, her individual biochemistry, body type, previous training history, what type of strength training she is doing, how often she is training, how much she is eating, etc.
Because most of the studies done on hypertrophy have been on men, post-menopausal women, or women with health conditions, it's impossible to state with certainty how much lean mass a woman can expect to gain when she starts strength training.
What I can tell you is that not a single expert guessed that it was greater than 0.5 to 1 pound a month for the first 6–12 months, and that it slows considerably the longer you've been training. And this is in women who are making a conscious effort to gain lean mass and eating to support these goals.
Point being? It's doesn't happen overnight, and women who carry a lot of muscle have likely worked very hard for it. In a moment, I’ll discuss more about what types of training work well for lean mass gains.
Take a look at these three women. Which of them do you think lifts heavy weights?
The one in the middle, maybe? The one on the right? Surely not the one on the left?
The answer? All of them.
The woman on the left is Melissa Hartwig, co-founder of Whole9 and Whole30, and co-author of the New York Times Bestseller It Starts With Food.
The woman in the middle is me, Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong.
The woman on the right is Cara Turnquist, co-founder of Movement Duets.
As you can see, all three of us lift heavy weights. And all three of us have very different body types and respond differently to training.
Melissa is very tall and lean and has a harder time gaining strength and mass. I have a curvy, athletic build. I gain muscle, strength, and fat more easily than Melissa. Cara has a curvier athletic build as well. She also gains muscle, strength, and fat more easily than Melissa.
What about these three women? Any heavy lifters here?
The one on the right? Or possibly the middle? Foiled again! They all lift heavy things.
The woman on the left is Melody Schoenfeld, owner of Flawless Fitness.
The woman in the middle is Amber Leonard Thome, founder of AllFit Lifestyle Solutions.
The woman on the right is Neghar Fonooni, owner of Eat, Lift, and Be Happy.
Three more women. Three different body types. All of them rockin’ sexy, strong bodies that have responded differently to heavy strength training.
I’m not even going to ask the question again because I think you know the answer.
Yes. All of these women lift heavy things.
The woman on the left is Nia Shanks, leader of the Lift Like A Girl Revolution.
The woman in the middle is Jen Sinkler, owner of Unapologetically Strong.
The woman on the right is Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake (JVB), owner of Strong Is Fun.
Three more women with different body types and shapes, who all lift heavy, and who all respond differently to strength training.
Sure, we have different athletic backgrounds and training histories, and it’s unlikely that we have trained exactly the same, but we have all lifted heavy weights with gaining strength as our goal. Check out these stats:
Of these 9 women:
I think it’s safe to say that we have all been successful in our quest for strength.
Another important factor that is often ignored in the “bulky” discussion is body fat.
Over the years I’ve had a number of female clients who started strength training for the first time when they began working with me. Within just a few weeks, they would complain about feeling “bulky.”
They’d report that their clothes were fitting more snugly, and that the number on the scale was going up instead of down. When I asked about their nutrition, they would admit that it hadn’t been great, and that they’d actually been eating more because the training had increased their appetite.
In this instance, of course they were going to gain size. They were eating more calories and gaining something without losing anything else.
What’s generally happening in this type of situation is that the client is gaining some muscle as well as some fat, increasing their glycogen stores, and holding onto more water as well. Yes, their overall size has increased. I promise, however, that they are not “hulking out” of their clothes within a few short weeks because of muscle gain! Instead, their caloric surplus is the reason they are getting bigger, and that's a very simple fix.
To be clear, this is quite rare in my experience. More often than not, when a client starts strength training, that activity in combination with the increase in lean mass over time raises caloric expenditure enough to encourage body fat loss. So even though the client is gaining muscle, she is also losing body fat (not simultaneously, but within the same time period). She ends up leaner, firmer, and smaller, even if she hasn’t altered her diet much.
That experience and the experience I had personally are much more common. Below are two pictures of me taken 10 years apart. On the left (when I was afraid that heavy lifting would make me “bulky”), I weighed 185 pounds and wore a size 12. On the right, after 10 years of heavy lifting, I weigh 162 pounds and wear a size 6–8.
As you can see, what was making me “bulky” in the first picture was excess body fat, not too much muscle. In fact, in the photo on the right, I am carrying approximately 10–15 pounds more muscle than in the photo on the left.
It’s also important to note that one pound of lean mass takes up approximately 20% less space than one pound of fat. So if you lose 5 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle, the scale will look the same, but you will be smaller.
As I mentioned earlier, muscle mass gains do not happen overnight. Training for strength gains and training for lean mass gains are different. There is overlap, of course, but it’s entirely possible to train for strength while keeping muscle gain to a minimum.
If you’re happy with the amount of muscle mass you have, you can still train heavy and train for strength gain and muscle maintenance as opposed to muscle gain. Your nutrition will play a big role here. Eating at or slightly below maintenance calories will also be very beneficial here.
There are more schools of thought on gaining mass and gaining strength than I can cover in this article, but here are a few basic principles of training for hypertrophy (muscle gain) and strength.
Again, neither list is exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive. There can be plenty of overlap between training for size and training for strength, but if you’re satisfied with the amount of muscle mass you have, stick with strength training 3–4 days a week with heavy weights, in lower reps ranges, with longer rest periods, avoid training to failure, and keep your calories at or slightly below maintenance most of the time.
Now that I have cleared up any misconceptions about heavy strength training and gaining 50 pounds of muscle overnight, let me quickly remind you why heavy strength training for women is such a good idea.
• Major confidence boost. Every single woman I've ever spoken with about the benefits of strength training has mentioned improved confidence as a side effect. There's just something about picking a heavy weight up off ground that makes you feel like you can tackle anything!
• You can focus positive, performance-based goals. If your main focus at the gym is constantly on not being enough, not lean enough, not thin enough, not small enough, you're going to have a consistent negative dialogue playing in your head. However, if your focus is on positive, performance-based goals like adding 10 pounds to your squat, or nailing 5 chin-ups, your focus and self-talk will be much more positive.
• Gaining lean mass. Gaining lean mass is beneficial in maintaining a healthy body weight and body fat levels because muscle is metabolically expensive tissue (read: it burns a lot of calories). In addition, because we lose muscle mass as we get older (a condition known as sarcopenia), gaining lean mass puts you "ahead of the game" so to speak. Sarcopenia can lead to loss of strength and mobility as we age. If you have more lean mass to begin with and continue with strength training, you can greatly reduce the negative side effects associated with sarcopenia and stay strong, mobile, and healthy for a long time.
• Increased bone density. Heavy strength training also increases bone density and prevents bone loss as we age. In fact, I had a Dexa scan done in 2012, and it shows that my bone density is more than three standard deviations above average — yay! Low bone mass increases your chance of breaking or fracturing your bones, which is no fun when you're young and can be devastating as you get older.
• Improved patience. Ask anyone who has been strength training for more than a couple of years. Lifting heavy weights and reaching strength goals over the long haul takes patience. When you first start strength training, you'll likely notice somewhat rapid gains in strength as your body figures out how to perform movements more efficiently. After a while, those gains will be smaller, and you'll likely experience some plateaus. This is all part of the journey. Use it as an opportunity to practice patience.
• Remove self-imposed limitations. This is similar to #1 (improved confidence) but slightly different. Often times women categorize themselves as "un-athletic" or "weak" or "clumsy" before they start strength training. Once they get started, they begin to realize that they aren't any of those things at all! In fact, they realize that they are strong, athletic, and move beautifully. Then they start to wonder, "What other self-limiting beliefs am I holding?"
• Promotes fat loss. As I mentioned above, the lean mass gain that comes from heavy lifting increases your metabolism. That, in turn, promotes fat loss if your nutrition is on point. In addition, the heavy strength training itself burns a significant amount of calories not just while you're training, but afterwards as well, as the body slowly returns to homeostasis.
• To take care of others. As wives, mothers, business owners, sisters, nieces, doctors, grandmothers, and teachers... we wear so many hats and take care of so many other people in our lives. Unfortunately, we often sacrifice our own health and well-being to do so. Lifting heavy things not only allows you to be physically capable of caring for others, but it allows you to be mentally and emotionally capable as well. Plus, because it's super effective, you don't have to slave away at the gym for hours every day, which means more free time to spend with loved ones.
• Because it's awesome. Yes. Lifting heavy stuff off the ground, pulling yourself up over a Chin-up bar, pressing something heavy over your head, hoisting your 70 pound black lab into your car, changing the 5-gallon water jug at work, and moving your own furniture without asking for help? All of this is awesome, and it's all a side effect of heavy lifting.
Ultimately, I hope this article has solidified these truths for you and given you a number of reasons to start lifting heavy if you aren't doing it already. All of us at GGS encourage you to dismiss any fear you may have of getting bulky and step into the gym with confidence and respect for your body — and all bodies.
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