That’s what the prospective client told me.
She wanted to get stronger, lose body fat, and feel more confident, but she was afraid of getting “too big.”
According to her, resistance training, and especially weight lifting, were out of the question.
I sighed to myself. Not again.
If you coach or train women, these are common client requests. Lots of women want to train, get fit, and maybe “tone up,” but they’re wary of gaining “too much muscle.”
As a result, they may hesitate — or flat out refuse — to lift heavy weights or do any kind of resistance training, for fear of turning into the Incredible Hulk.
If you’re a coach and an advocate of resistance training, this can be super frustrating. And if you’re starting to bristle just thinking about it, you’re not alone.
When speaking at events to a group of fitness professionals, I often ask the folks in attendance to put their hands up if they’ve encountered such a scenario. Inevitably, every single hand goes up, usually along with some groans of frustrations or laughs of acknowledgment.
I used to struggle with this, too. I know that resistance training has so many benefits for women, ranging from physical strength to a sense of personal empowerment, not to mention many of the aesthetic goals my clients were looking for.
I used to feel a strong urge to just tell my clients or prospects they were wrong. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops: “Strength training won’t make you big and bulky!” (And short of actually climbing onto the roof with a megaphone, I basically did.)
Of course, this was frustrating for my clients and prospects, too.
After all, women are looking for people who will help them achieve the results they’re looking for (whether those results are aesthetic, performance, or lifestyle- or health-related).
They’re not looking for someone to argue with them or tell them they’re wrong. And they’re definitely not looking to be scolded or shamed over perfectly reasonable goals, questions, and concerns.
So what’s the answer? How do you stop all the frustration and actually help women who are afraid of getting big and bulky?
In this article, we will:
One of the most common (and unfortunate) misconceptions about resistance training is that women should stay away from lifting heavy weights because they might get “big and bulky.”
Terms like “bulky,” “sculpting,” and “toning” are commonly used to describe physical appearance, especially for women, but these terms are frequently misunderstood.
First of all, it’s important to remember that “bulky” is completely subjective. What “bulky” means, exactly, can vary greatly from woman to woman. What one might consider bulky and undesirable, another might consider too slim, or just right, or perhaps downright beautiful and “#goals.”
It’s up to every woman to decide what aesthetic she desires for herself, or if aesthetics are even something she cares about at all.
Meanwhile, advertising and other forms of media frequently promote results such as “toned” or “long and lean” muscles, while suggesting that getting “bulky” is a bad thing. Muscle on women is often portrayed as unfeminine and unattractive. For example, women are encouraged to get “curves in all the right places” but avoid “looking like a dude.”
The general message is that whether it’s fat or muscle, being bigger is bad — something to be avoided at all costs if you’re a woman.
And once upon a time… I was one of them.
In fact, a few years before I fell in love with strength training, I thought my body needed to be smaller and “more toned” in order for it to be attractive and for me to feel accepted. I steered clear of anything that I’d been told could make my muscles grow. It was all light weight and high reps for me!
During one workout, someone asked why I was using such light weight on the leg press machine, and I replied:
“I don’t want to get big and bulky. I just want to tone the muscle I already have.”
While those days are long behind me, I understand firsthand the fears your clients have. And I’ve heard countless women express the same concerns, even as activities such as CrossFit and powerlifting continue to gain popularity among women.
So before we get into how to help your clients, let’s first set the record straight. When it comes to getting bulky or achieving “long, lean muscles,” what’s really possible for women?
Is it even true? Can certain exercises build long, lean muscles while other exercises make women “bulky?”
Here’s the real deal.
There’s a misconception that muscles can be “lengthened,” creating a sleek and lean appearance that won’t look “bulky.” Fitness companies and well-intentioned but ill-informed coaches may suggest that women do certain types of activities (such as Pilates, yoga, or light-weight/high-repetition resistance training) because they will lengthen muscles and won’t make them look “bulky.”
These types of activities certainly have their own merits, but the notion of lengthening muscles is a huge misconception.
Contrary to these common beliefs, there are no exercises capable of lengthening muscles.
We mean no disrespect to Pilates, yoga, barre, or any other practice. If your clients love what they’re doing, and they feel energized, fit, and happy when they’re engaging in these practices, that’s still time well spent.
Muscles have a point of origin (where they start) and a point of insertion (where they attach). At both of these points, tendons connect muscles to bones. Without undergoing surgery for a limb-lengthening procedure (and yes, that’s a real thing!), these are fixed points.
Stretching does increase range of motion (which might explain why muscles might feel longer after doing Pilates or yoga), but as a growing body of research shows, this has little to do with actual lengthening of the muscles. Instead, the change takes place in your nervous system.
Given the evidence, while there isn’t any exercise that will make muscles longer, there are exercises that will make them stronger — and getting stronger can help with getting leaner.
Despite what many women have been led to believe about strength training, performing endless repetitions of exercises using very light weight will not yield “long and lean muscles” or strength gains.
For the woman who simply wants to be strong enough to move furniture without help and be healthy enough to live a vibrant, active life — but who doesn’t want to see a significant increase in muscle size — focusing on progressive overload of a few primary movement patterns (push, pull, squat, hinge, carry, rotation, anti-rotation) while keeping overall volume in check (fewer than ~10-20 sets per muscle per week) will likely do the trick.
Progressively overloading the muscles to get stronger means continuing to challenge the muscles as strength increases by doing any of the following:
Progressive resistance training can also result in a leaner appearance. The more muscle mass, the higher the calorie burn during exercise and during recovery from exercise. That means when combined with nutrient-dense foods, a caloric deficit, and enough quality sleep, progressive resistance training can help reduce body fat.
Because most of the participants in hypertrophy studies to date have been men, postmenopausal women, or women with health conditions, it’s impossible to state with certainty how much muscle a woman can expect to gain when she starts a resistance training program — although we can make some educated guesses based on what we know about men.
When we surveyed nearly a dozen women’s fitness experts about the amount of muscle a woman can expect to gain, every single one offered the same response: “It depends.”
It’s true. It does depend. It depends on factors including, but not limited to:
That said, not one expert estimated that it was realistic to expect an average woman to gain more than half a pound to a pound per month for the first six to twelve months. What’s more, all experts stated that muscle gains slow down considerably the longer a person has been training.
To be clear, these are estimates based on women who are making a conscious effort to build muscle and who are eating in a way that supports that goal.
Gaining muscle doesn’t happen overnight, and women who carry a lot of muscle have likely worked very hard for it.
Once again, keep in mind that every woman will have her own notion of what “bulky” means. As discussed earlier, one woman’s “bulky” is another woman’s “lean” or “athletic” or “just right.”
At this point, you might be feeling excited to set the record straight about women and muscle gain. You might feel the urge to tell your female clients to stop obsessing over those “long and lean” muscles, and quit worrying about getting “bulky.”
I promise you, that strategy will backfire.
No matter how much you may know about physiology and exercise science, and how well-meaning you are in your response, you will make a big mistake — and miss a huge opportunity — if you don’t make sure that your client feels heard and understood.
Let’s be honest. You’ve probably already had (or witnessed) a conversation like this before...
A client says she’s freaked out about getting big and bulky. The coach or trainer (maybe you) responds with facts, citing scientific research and hyping up the benefits of resistance training, or says something like:
Perhaps you’ve even punctuated your exasperation with a deep sigh or an eye roll to emphasize how ridiculous you think those ideas are.
I admit I’ve done this myself. (Though I’ve certainly learned my lesson!) I've been in the fitness industry for more than 15 years now and still hear a lot of these comments.
I totally get both sides of it, and I know it can be exhausting to have to constantly respond to the same comments and overcome the same objections, sometimes several times a day.
Think about it. If you’ve had that type of conversation before, how did it go? Was it an effective, positive coaching session? Did you learn more about your client’s wants, needs, and concerns? Did your client’s worries and hesitations disappear? Did she express trust in you afterward?
And while you’re reflecting on that, consider this…
Even if you mean well (and I’m sure you do!), mishandling this very common concern could leave your client feeling mocked or shamed — and that could cost you.
We surveyed women about their experiences with personal trainers, and one of the top reasons why women fired their trainer or stopped going to the gym was because they felt shamed or misunderstood by their trainer.
Now, let’s give these trainers the benefit of the doubt and assume those remarks weren’t meant to be hurtful. But here’s the problem: the results sure were.
Of the clients who said they felt embarrassed or shamed by their trainers, 97 percent eventually fired their trainer, and 16 percent left their gym altogether to avoid running into the trainer again.
And here’s the really shocking part: only 3.5 percent told their trainer the truth about why they left.
Clients hire fitness professionals for their guidance and expertise, sure. But one thing many fit pros forget is that their clients are not just bodies. They’re people.
Facts and science are often not the best response to a person’s lived experiences and how those experiences influence their perception of the world around them, what they fear, and what they believe.
Shutting your client down when it comes to her body and her preferences is never a good move. Even if your intention is to help her become more comfortable with resistance training or muscle gain, you must remember: it’s her body, and she gets to decide what she does with it.
Dismissing your client’s concerns and pressuring her to lift heavier weights (or to lift weights at all) when she’s telling you she’s not sure about it robs her of the opportunity to decide what she wants for her own body.
Don’t assume that you know what a client wants or that you know what’s right for her.
That’s what happened to me with the prospective client I mentioned earlier. She shared her concerns about not wanting to get “bulky” from strength training, and in an attempt to reassure her, I told her she had nothing to worry about.
“Gaining muscle doesn’t happen overnight,” I explained, telling her she probably didn’t even have the genetics or hormone profile to get “big” in the first place.
I meant well, but I totally missed the mark in addressing her concerns.
Her response? She ditched me before we even had a chance to work together.
So, what should I have done instead? (And what can you do?)
If quoting from your favorite studies or showing annoyance when a client shares her concerns aren’t the most effective strategies for helping your client, what can you do instead? Here’s a 5-step approach.
The number one thing you can do for a client who feels apprehensive about getting “bulky” with resistance training is to help her feel heard, validated, and understood. Don’t dismiss her concerns. Instead, use the opportunity to open up a conversation.
Remember that you may not actually know what’s “bulky” to her, so you have no idea if you’re even on the same page. Are her ideas coming from media, personal experiences, or someone else who told her about their own experience with a resistance training program?
Try saying something like this:
"You know what? I totally hear where you're coming from. That's a really common concern for a lot of my clients. What about lifting weights makes you feel nervous? Have you had this experience in the past?"
As the conversation continues, pay attention to your client’s concerns, motivations, and what she values about exercise.
Every conversation is an opportunity for you to understand, connect with, and support her a little more.
Your client’s concerns about getting bulky could actually be an opportunity for you to learn more about what she really wants to achieve, and why.
As you continue the conversation with your client, try asking questions such as:
Throughout the conversation, remain mindful and connected to her responses. Some difficult conversations may arise that require your compassion and support.
Now that you better understand the root of your client’s apprehension and you’ve helped her feel heard and understood, you may choose to clear up some of the misinformation and share your point of view on resistance training and muscle gain.
Before sharing your own thoughts, you may also say something like:
“Would you like to hear my perspective as an alternative viewpoint you might want to consider?”
If she says yes, explain why you see the question of muscle gain a bit differently. This may be an appropriate time to explain the science behind your recommendations.
Try not to go overboard, though!
Share only the information that will be most helpful to your client — not everything you know.
You may say something like:
“I know you have some concerns about strength training and I understand. I will tell you that in my experience coaching women over the last ___ years, I’ve found that it generally takes women upwards of 6 months to a year to gain more than a few pounds of muscle, and many of them lose fat in that time period too, resulting in an overall loss of body size.
Further, strength training has incredible health benefits like building strong bones, reducing your risk of injury, and helping prevent age-related decline in your metabolism. Pretty cool, huh?”
Remind your client that she’s always in charge of her body. She gets to decide how she moves, and the choice is always hers. With that understanding, work with her to determine how you will move forward together.
This gives you the opportunity to show her why lifting progressively heavier weights can help her reach her goal of “toning” or fat loss. Reassure her that if she decides that she doesn’t like the results she’s seeing, she can always choose to change her training program.
While she gives your method a try, make sure to include some of the exercises she enjoys.
Don’t ask her to give up what she loves about exercise in favor of something she’s apprehensive about. Instead, show her ways that she can include both methods to work toward her goals. For example, if she’s convinced that running is the key to reaching her goals, include sprint drills at the end of her workout. Or, if she thinks bodyweight-only moves are the way to “tighten and tone” her muscles, include plenty of bodyweight-only resistance exercises like bodyweight squats, inverted rows, lunges, step-ups, and push-up variations in her program.
If your client tells you that she’s feeling “too bulky” for her preference while following the training program you’ve designed for her, take her seriously.
Together, take a look at whether the “bulk” is due to muscle growth or increased body fat — or a bit of both. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about how lifting weights tends to increase metabolism and hunger. Your client may choose to make some changes to her nutrition and see what happens.
If she does and finds that she’s still getting a bit more “muscle-y” than she wants to be, work with her to adjust her resistance training and continue to focus on maintaining a caloric deficit through her nutrition.
Knowing how to handle situations like this with your clients can be tricky, and finding your coaching groove takes practice.
As you’ve seen in this article, being a great coach isn’t just about having all the facts and knowing all the science. When you coach women, you also need to:
In other words, being a great coach requires more than knowing how to design training and nutrition programs.
To stand apart in your field and provide your clients with an unmatched experience, you must understand the coaching and psychology elements of successful, rewarding client-coach relationships. Developing these skills takes time and requires practice and ongoing education.
The next time a client expresses concern about getting “big and bulky,” embrace the situation as a learning opportunity. By seeking to understand where your clients are coming from, you’ll broaden your perspective of what it means to work effectively with women, and you’ll grow as a coach.
When you commit to your ongoing learning and growth, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who “gets it” — a coach who truly understands how to work with women.
Your clients will thank you.
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