We’ve heard the story before, person walks into a gym wanting to commence or recommence training as they know it is good for their health. They know that resistance training is often a big part of most programs prescribed by Coaches or Personal Trainers, and after an extended time off they are ready to start back up. Whilst they have resistance trained in the past, there is one big concern looming over their head:
“I don’t want to get bulky”.
I recently reconnected with an old female acquaintance who is no stranger to lifting weights, having tried strength and conditioning programs in the past. And after a long time away from the gym, whilst she enjoyed and missed the way training made her felt, her biggest hesitation was her belief that she puts on muscle very quickly whenever she lifted weights.
I actually wish it was that simple. It would make my life easier as I personally have been working damn hard for years to pack on muscle. It may even give us all a little more clarity when discussing the other hot topic of if “women should train differently to men”, assuming men want to look hulk-like and women want to look slender, also assuming “man-style training” equals lifting weights to pack on muscle and “female-style training” is your stereotypical cardio bunny sessions and high rep lightweight movements to emphasise “long and lean muscles”.
Now although this phenomenon applies across both genders, for arguments sake I will focus on females, mainly due to the fact that “bulky” although very subjective is an idea of how a woman should not look according to the crap we are fed by mainstream media and social media channels.
First things first – you are entitled to look however you want, and aspire to improve or even maintain where you are. Adding fitness and strength training to your life is just a bit of sweet sweet frosting that we all love to lick off the top of a cupcake, after all why wouldn’t everyone want a life that’s just a bit healthier with energy to do the things we love?
The thing is, I’m actually still amazed that this phrase is still a thing. As a society we are more and more educated, have more access to better quality information, we are taking more interest in our health and fitness for the value it provides to our quality of life, and also the steady incline of body–image positive culture (not to mention more women in particular gaining interest in strength training).
With all of this considered, I still have not given you a super simple answer.
Q – “If I lift weights, will I get bulky?”
Here’s your answer: It depends. It is actually not impossible to gain significant amounts of muscle as a female. But as with most things in life, it all “depends”.
Here are a few points for your consideration:
- Are you lifting weights in the gym more than 4 or 5 times a week?
- Are you following a specific muscle building (hypertrophy) programme?
- Does this program involve a high volume of reps and time under tension?
- Does this program contain a chunk of isolation exercises?
- Are you eating in a caloric surplus to support your hypertrophy program?
- Do you have the genetic profile to allow for optimum muscle growth?
If you answered yes to a few of these, chances are that building some solid muscle is your goal, and you will know the dedication this requires.
If you want to be a fit and healthy human who uses fitness to complement a lifestyle, here is what I believe to be a sound guide:
- Resistance train 2 – 4 times per week
- Add some cardiovascular fitness in 1 – 2 times a week
- Add in some mental health care: nature walks, yoga, playing with your dog/kids, ocean swims, binge watching TV etc.
- Eat predominantly a well-balanced diet, but don’t forget to enjoy when you treat yourself
- Good quality sleep
As you can see there is quite a bit of difference between fitness for hypertrophy and fitness for complementing your lifestyle.
But what’s wrong with gaining muscle?
A simple Google search will tell you of all the amazing benefits that resistance training will provide:
- Increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat
- Increase metabolism (hello more food!)
- Increase bone density
- Increase strength (for opening your own jam jars 😉)
- Injury prevention and management
- And so on…
“But I’m sure that I get bulky every time I lift weights…..”
Your observations of your own body based on past experience is absolutely valid, after all you live in it. And you may be right about getting “bulkier” at the beginner stages of a resistance training program. But considering how hard muscle is to gain, I think you may be pointing your finger in the wrong direction. There’s a chance you may be experiencing a little more water retention due to your muscles being used more than they are used to, or even due to your menstrual cycle. You might also be experiencing a bigger appetite, and if you are not keeping your caloric intake in check, this “bulk” may actually be a gain in body fat. But remember what we learnt above about more muscle equals higher metabolism?
My suggestion, why not stick it out, eat a few extra veggies every day and see where this resistance training thing takes you? You never know, you might start to shift your goals from aesthetics to performance goals 😉
Ellen Wong, ION Community Manager and Senior Performance Coach