The Real Truth About Lifting and Bulking for Women

Muscle is beautiful. Muscle is powerful. And muscle is darn right magical when you think about it! A muscle contracts or releases in order to pull our bones closer together or farther apart, which creates movement. But muscle also makes us look hot as hell and enables us to do really cool things at the gym. And carry our bottles of wine home from Trader Joe’s.

Muscle gives us a fit, lean look especially when eating a fit, lean diet. Yet so many women still cringe at the word “muscle.” While I do believe the conversation is changing drastically for the better and lifting is thankfully becoming less taboo, many women are still terrified by the common misconception that lifting weights will make them look “bulky” or “man-like.”

Even worse, I think there is a bit of shaming going on when fitness professionals quickly retort, “Lifting won’t make you bulk, that’s impossible. You’re a woman, you don’t have enough testosterone for that. Shut up and go lift.” Or something similar to that. So now we have a population of women who are not only afraid to lift, but afraid to admit they are afraid to lift. Womp womp.

I think the best way to remedy this fear is to educate – teach women how muscle is built, ways to maximize their training for lean goals, and how to eat for lean goals. This is something I am dedicated to as a trainer myself, and hopefully this post can serve as a tipping point for anyone who’s questioned the efficacy of lifting, but especially for all my ladies out there.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Yes, it is true that lifting weights is scientifically proven to be one of the most efficient ways to promote fat loss while retaining muscle, which is a critical combination to looking lean or “toned.” Adding resistance to our workouts imposes (good) stress on the muscle, forcing it to adapt to the stress or load. The more we force our body to adapt, the stronger and fitter we get in the process, and the leaner we can get when supported by a healthy, lean diet.

Now, I say “toned” in quotations because “toned” is a phrase that the fitness industry and media made up as a catchier synonym to actually mean “lean.”  Tone, or muscle tonus as per the textbook definition, actually describes the muscle fibers and the rate of muscle contraction at an internal, nearly microscopic level. This has little to nothing to do directly with your six pack.

If someone says they want a “toned” look, what they most often mean is that they want to be lean. When you’re lean, you have a lower body fat percentage. A lower body fat percentage implies that you’ve removed the excess layer of fat that sits on top of the muscle, exposing the beautiful musculature underneath, including making visible that highly coveted six-pack! We are all born with a six-pack; it’s called the rectus abdominus. It’s just a matter of getting lean enough to unveil it.

Now, when I said musculature, did that word scare anyone? If it did, you’re not alone. We fear what we don’t know. This is why some women have a hard time trusting that lifting won’t create Hulk-like muscles, and it isn’t your fault! This misconception is due to misinformation, lack of information, dismissal, and/or perception.

Let’s debunk some of these common misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Lifting makes you bulky

Is it possible for some people to put on muscle mass faster than others? Yes! These body types are classified as “mesomorphs,” meaning that genetically they are predisposed to building muscle faster and easier than others.

The other two types are ectomorph (thin build, difficult to acquire and maintain mass) and endomorph (those who naturally tend to hold on to more body fat and have trouble losing weight).

Before you immediately dive into classifying yourself as a meso, I want you to understand some things about muscle mass first to avoid misinformation.

While it’s true that we all put on muscle at different rates due to genetics, metabolism, activity levels, etc, it takes a helluva lot of effort even for men, who have significantly higher amounts of testosterone to support muscle growth, to amass. Even with that extra testosterone, it takes weeks and sometimes months for most men to put on even one pound of muscle. This requires eating a lot, and lifting a lot.

So if muscle itself is no longer the enemy, what makes women feel “bulky”?

The answer is two-fold: nutrition and inflammation.

Let’s cover nutrition first.

Lifting + Eating a Surplus of Calories = Bulking

Lifting + Eating a Deficit of Calories = Leaning

That’s about as simple as I can put it. If you eat for lean goals (lean protein, nutrient dense carbs, plenty of veggies and fruits, and healthy fats), lifting will produce “sculpted,” “toned” (read: “lean”) muscle.

However, if you believe that lifting negates the entire box of donuts you had this morning, well then, you will bulk. Remember, you cannot out train your diet. But you certainly can overeat your training.

At the end of the day, fat and muscle loss/gains are a matter of thermodynamics. If you are eating a surplus of calories, then some of those calories will go to energy expenditure when eating, breathing, and lifting, and some of those calories will be stored on your body and produce mass. Some of this mass will be muscle, some of this mass will be fat.

Keep in mind that muscle itself is quite dense and does not take up much space. So if you’re feeling as though your muscles are “growing” rapidly while following a lifting program, it is more likely the layer of fat tissue on top of the muscle that hasn’t yet been shed.

Following a strength and conditioning regimen consistently coupled with a lean diet will help decrease body fat and maintain muscle, two crucial elements for looking lean and fit as hell.

So, if you’re lifting while eating a deficit (slightly less calories than maintenance in order to promote fat loss), you will achieve a leaner look.

Adding actual muscle mass takes weeks if not months, so if you’re feeling bulky while lifting, the first place to look is your nutrition. The kitchen is likely the culprit, not the barbell.

Misconception #2: You’re “larger” or “thicker” directly after lifting because your clothes fit a little tighter.

If there’s one reason women abandon their lifting regimens, I think this is it. This factor personally scared me away from lifting back in the day, until I truly understood what was going on.

Until you understand how muscle is created, it’s easy to mistake that post-workout pump as actual muscle mass. So what’s really going on here?

Let me start by saying that if you’ve ever felt as though your clothes fit tighter after a workout, you are not crazy. The reason you may feel “bulky” after a workout is because YOU ARE SWOLLEN.

Let’s rewind and talk about how strength and lean muscle is built.

When we push, pull, lift, or carry with resistance, we are creating microtrauma to the muscle. This is how we build strength  The muscle tissue experiences tiny “tears” under tension. When our body repairs this muscle during recovery, our body has grown in strength and eventually mass. This is quite literally what it means to build muscle.

Now, how does the body heal from injury? Inflammation. So what do you think happens to the microtears in your muscles post-lifting session? The muscle holds onto water and swells in order to heal.

This is the post-workout pump that men love, and the same pump that sends most women into a panic thinking they will resemble Arnold in a week flat. Which leads them to falsely think that lifting = bulking; they retreat from weights and continue to do what they have always done, seeking results they still don’t yet have.  And remain befuddled and frustrated (myself included!  This was totally me 5 years ago!)

So the next time you lift, just remember the pumped up look you have is not actual muscle mass, you’re just swollen! You are healing and getting stronger. With proper nutrition, plenty of water, and healthy amounts of sodium this water retention will be flushed out, leaving you lean and lovely.

Misconception #3: You’re supposed to look like the bodybuilders and Crossfit athletes in your Instagram feed.

Please keep in mind that when you see photos of Crossfit athletes or figure competitors and bodybuilders, these people are living, breathing, eating, and training every single day for these goals. This muscle isn’t happening by accident or even as a result of a full body strength and conditioning program. These people are training around the clock and eating very specifically for these goals.

Why? They need a certain amount of muscle mass to compete at a high level of performance.

However, I think it’s easy for everyone, but especially for women, to see these photos and automatically reduce their thinking to weights = lots of extra muscle.

Again, these athletes work very hard to put on this muscle to achieve their goals. But unless you follow their same regimen for years, adding resistance training into your routine will not produce similar results unless you want to and you’re committed to working for it, day in and day out!

Misconception #4: “Bulky” is an objective term.

This might be one of the most important points to drive home. Everyone’s idea of “fit,” “toned,” “sculpted,” “lean,” “bulky,” “ideal,” “muscular,” “too muscular,” “athletic,” and “thin” is different.

We must learn to acknowledge and respect the beautiful variety of body types out there, whether it’s willowy and thin, powerful and muscular, bodacious and curvy. And we must be mindful that what one woman deems as “too muscular” or “bulky” might very well be beautiful and ideal to the next.

Before we judge someone for their lack or excess of muscle, remember that we have not walked, run or lifted in her shoes. That “thin waify” girl might be totally self-conscious that she can’t gain muscle mass easily. And that “muscular girl with the crazy quads” might have been working really hard for three years to make her legs look that shapely.

At the end of the day, it’s nice to always feel comfortable in our own skin and love the reflection we see staring back at us in the mirror, but it’s also crucial to love and respect the incredible movement, strength, power, and athleticism our bodies are capable of on the path to becoming fit, toned, lean, thin, muscular, and HAPPY.

So get out there, lift some heavy shit, eat with intention, and know that by doing this, you are educating and empowering everyone in your circle to do the same.

A version of this article originally appeared on E. Stace’s baller UpStrength Fitness blog in May 2016.

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Elizabeth Stacey is a Certified Functional Strength and Conditioning Coach, former Ninja Trainer, and creator of Upstrength Fitness. She trains clients online, one-on-one, and in groups from her home in Orlando, FL. She’s also a StrongFirst Certified Kettlebell Instructor and a marathon finisher. You can find her online, on Instagram, and on Facebook at Upstrength Fitness.

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