It’s a (mostly) unspoken fear for many women: getting into weight training or a high-intensity interval training class will make them put on muscle. Lots of it. To the point that pretty soon they’ll look like a female version of The Rock or Chris Hemsworth – bulging arms and giant quads and all.
Well, it’s just not true. The idea that heavy weights + women = ‘bulky’ or ‘muscle bound’ is just plain false. But it’s a myth that persists throughout many circles of women, from those who don’t work out at all to those who exercise regularly.
So, we’ve decided to put an end to it once and for all. This article is all about why the women and weights equals ‘bulk’ myth is one you can safely ignore from now on. After reading this article, you’ll know:
- The reasons why lifting weights won’t make you bulky
- Why the myth about weights = bulk keeps coming up
- The very real health benefits that women who lift heavy weights get over those who don’t.
Curious? Let’s get into it.
Why Weights Don’t Automatically Equal Bulk for Women
The reason we can make this argument with confidence and certainty (which is a very high bar, especially for a site that prides itself on high-quality information, like us) is that there is not just one or two arguments that support it.
In fact, there are half a dozen high-quality, science-backed reasons why lifting weights won’t make you as ripped as those female bodybuilders that you might be thinking of when you think of ‘bulky’ women (more on those ladies later).
- Energy Requirements – if you’re on this website or working out with Maxine’s challenge inspired routines, you are already in the upper tier of fitness knowledge compared to the general population. So you know that all exercise requires energy. And the more intense the exercise, the steeper the energy requirement. That energy comes from our bodies, in the form of stored energy from the foods we eat.
There’s a fairly logical progression at work. A slow jog will take more energy than a gentle walk. An intense run with a few hills thrown in will trump that jog in terms of energy required. And a high-intensity interval run with timed sprints and ‘rest’ sections of moderate paced jogging to get your heart rate up and improve your cardiovascular fitness will take the most energy of the lot. That same ‘progression’ can apply to any type of exercise, from cardio, to boxing, rowing, and, you guessed it, lifting weights.
In fact, lifting weights is a type of exercise that requires huge amounts of energy. Think about it. You’re asking your body to lift and move mass that is well in excess of what it normally does on a day at work or a lazy Sunday. That requires energy. Lots of it. So an intense weight workout burns A LOT of your stored energy.
And to put on ‘bulk’, you need to be replacing ALL of that energy, plus more. So if you keep your food intake the same but start doing heavy weights workouts, it’s actually impossible (in terms of energy in versus energy out) to put on ‘bulk’.
- Metabolism Changes – we’ve all seen those (highly dubious and borderline misleading) ads on social media about teas, powders and drinks that will ‘burn’ our excess calories away without us needing to sweat, eat less or exercise. Yeah. Right. But there is a proven, science-backed way to burn more energy while ‘at rest’ and not working out. It’s boosting your metabolism. Your metabolism dictates just how much of your body’s stored energy is burned while you’re doing low-intensity things like enjoying Netflix or hanging out with friends.
You know what a proven way to boost that resting metabolism is? Lifting heavy weights and resistance training.
The beneficial side effects of that metabolism boost for women can be really interesting. On the most basic level, a metabolism that is humming along at a high rate can result in someone feeling like they have more energy throughout the day, with fewer ‘lulls’ around certain times like the dreaded 3:30 pm fadeout.
The increase in overall calories burned throughout the day can also increase the number of overall calories burned throughout the day. So if you’re trying to lose weight, that can be a benefit. Or, maybe you just want to be able to eat slightly more of your favourite foods or tasty meals. That additional calorie deficit that’s a result of a boosted metabolism can also be ‘spent’ on those things. Not bad!
- Training Focus Matters – you can adapt any type of exercise to meet certain goals. Training is not just a blunt tool with one set of results. For example, cardio can help boost heart health. It can also help people lose weight and improve endurance. What matters more than the type of exercise is the training routine that it’s used in and how that’s adapted.
It’s no different for weight training and women. Don’t want to put on excess muscle? That’s fine. Lifting weights will not automatically mean that happens. But if you have other goals in mind, like increasing muscle tone, losing fat or improving overall strength as you get older, then weight training can absolutely help with all of those things. And it’s not just us saying so: dozens of scientific studies say it too. As the title of the section suggests, what you choose to focus on in your training, and the type of training you do to meet those goals matters. Putting on muscle is hard. You won’t just do it ‘accidentally’ if you start lifting weights!
- Firmer, Tighter, Not Bigger – there’s a basic fact about muscle. It is tighter, more shaped and more defined than non-muscled areas. If your muscles are stronger and more functional, then they’re going to appear more prominent. It’s easy to visualise this – a toned arm with strong biceps and triceps will appear more defined than a ‘wobbly’ upper arm.
Lifting weights gets this toned and strong look and helps eliminate the ‘wobble’ that is the default state of an untoned muscle group. It’s a bit of a myth that you can ‘eliminate’ fat in one area and leave it in others. But what you can do is tone a specific area so that it contains stronger muscle and leaves less space for non-muscle. The net result is the same – the area appears tighter and firmer – not because it has magically shed all of its fat cells, but because muscle cells have taken their place.
- Diet and Nutrition Matters Way More – if you haven’t heard it before, then hear it now: diet and nutrition are just as important (if not more important) than anything you do in a gym, on a workout mat or in a class.
And putting on muscle requires a big dedication to diet and nutrition. That’s why the stereotypical ‘gym bro’ with his protein shake is based in reality. Muscle requires work at the food table. Lots of it.
First of all, it requires the person to be in a fairly significant calorie surplus. That means that people who need to ‘bulk up’ for sport like footballers are eating five to six meals per day, plus snacks. The Rock, who is known for his huge muscles and eye-popping workouts, has reported that he eats seven meals a day when he is in a ‘bulking’ phase.
And it’s not just the total quantity of food. Muscle growth requires protein. Lots of it. In fact, it requires more than a typical diet would deliver in a day. A ‘standard’ 8700 kilojoule day (around 2200 calories) is nowhere near enough to consistently add muscle bulk to a frame. Adding muscle requires consistent, focussed effort and a huge change in diet (for most people) to get the quantity of food and the right macronutrients to feed that growth. If you’re eating a balanced, standard, healthy diet, then the fact is you won’t be getting enough of those ‘excess nutrients’ to put on muscle sustainably anyway.
If it was possible to work out 3–4 times a week, eat ‘normally’ and put on stacks of muscle, there would be a lot more muscular people out there and far fewer dollars spent on muscle gaining powders, shakes and meals.
- Commitment and Time Matters – piggybacking off the last point about diet: commitment and time in the gym also matters. A day, a week or even a month of weight training is not going to result in observable muscle gain. The research shows that even with an optimised training plan, heaps of excess protein, and a much higher calorie intake, the best that people can hope for with muscle gain is 1kg a week, with 0.5kg being the more common result. And it’s worth repeating: that’s if you do EVERYTHING right in aiming for a goal of putting on muscle!
All that does is reinforce the point: you are not going to ‘accidentally’ put on rippling seas of muscle by committing to lifting weights for a few months.
- Gender Matters – there are physiological differences between men and women. For example, men are more likely to carry excess weight around the stomach, while women typically will carry that same excess weight around the thighs and buttocks. There are dozens of examples like this. But when it comes to muscle building, there is one that stands out above all of the rest: testosterone.
Testosterone is a part of the complicated chemical cocktail that our bodies naturally produce each day. But it is just a scientific fact that men produce more of it, on average. Lots more, in fact. And it turns out that testosterone is pretty key when it comes to putting on muscle. Men with high testosterone levels find it easier to put on muscle mass than men with lower levels. And that same logic is why women find it hard to put on muscle. Women do not produce anywhere near the same amount of testosterone as men. In fact, it’s as little as one-tenth to one-twentieth.
You might be thinking, ‘but what about those ripped female bodybuilders I’ve seen photos of?’ Well, it’s no secret that hormone and steroid supplementation is rife in bodybuilding. You have no idea what a particular person has taken, but it would be a safe bet that at least some of the women you’re thinking of have taken testosterone supplements to ‘bulk’ then ‘cut’ to get those results. In addition, those photos are the culmination of months of training and rigorous dieting. In the days leading up to competitions, participants even restrict their water intake to dangerously low levels so that their body will have very little water weight causing their veins and muscles to ‘pop’ as a result.
As with most things you see on the internet and in magazines, there’s a deeper story, and hopefully, these points help explain what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ and before those shots of bulging female biceps and quads are taken.
Hopefully in amongst all of that we’ve done enough to convince you that lifting weights won’t make you the next version of The Hulk. But that’s only half the story. Moving weights has some incredible benefits. If you want to learn them, you won’t want to miss the next part.
The Many Proven Health Benefits of Lifting Weights for Women
- Fat Burn – cardio is great for a lot of reasons. But high-intensity interval training, coupled with weights, is a proven and superior formula for burning fat. As we touched on earlier, these benefits partly come from the fact that your body starts to burn an increased amount of excess energy long after you put down the kettlebell or dumbbell.
It’s also because the sheer intensity of weights and HIIT workouts lends itself to huge commitments of energy to get through them. And the most ‘dense’ source of energy to tap for these intense workouts is the energy that is stored in our body as fat. So the logic is clear on that front = heavy weights + high intensity = more fat burned.
- Leaner Stomachs, More Toned Thighs – let’s restate a key point: you can’t ‘target’ an area to burn fat. Our bodies just don’t work that way. We burn fat from our energy stores when the energy required is more than the food we eat provides. But it’s a fact that women carry excess stores of fat in certain parts of our bodies. The hips, thighs and stomach are high on this list. It’s just how nature has built us. So picking up on the earlier point, any exercise that burns our fat stores is going to result in leaner, trimmer areas when it comes to where we store that fat.
- Mood – it’s no secret that we feel great after exercise. It’s no accident. After a suitably intense training period, our body rewards us by flooding it with a whole range of feel-good hormones. Weight training is a great route to this result that can be achieved in a relatively short amount of time.
- Bone and Muscle Strength – there is a powerful school of thought that states that it doesn’t matter what our bodies look like, but it matters a lot more what they can do. And as we get older, our muscles lose power, and our bones weaken. Perhaps the greatest benefit of weight and strength training is that we give our bodies the boost in muscle they need to look after us today and in the future. Stronger muscles and bones also help prevent injury and frailty. When it comes to quality of life, this single factor should be enough for all of us to want to reach for the dumbbell or kettlebell.
Strength training, paired with the right amount of protein and calcium, is part of a proven formula for getting your body in great shape and keeping it that way, so your health and mobility never stop you from taking any opportunities that come your way.
Hopefully, after reading this you:
- Will never think of the words ‘but lifting weights will make me bulky’ again.
- Will be able to turn to one of the many proven, scientific reasons that this is not true to set anyone who tells you that straight.
- Are more aware of the benefits of lifting weights for your body, mood and strength
For a whole range of high-quality fitness and nutrition content, including in-depth guides and plans, our website is your go-to resource.