Let’s End This Debate: Does Lifting Weights Make Women Bulky?

With the incredible growth of CrossFit and women’s weightlifting in the last few years, the topic of whether or not it’s “okay” for women to be muscular is starting to become a thing of the past (at least in my crowd of people). Every now and then, in more mainstream conversations, you’ll still hear girls say they don’t want to lift weights because they don’t want to look big and bulky.

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Where did this idea come from? Maybe it was some man that decided a little muscle mass on a woman was unattractive. If so, he needs to grow a pair or hit the gym, because obviously she’s just working harder than you. Or, maybe it was some woman that believes roided up Helga really happened from lifting weights alone.

But for those of you who are still genuinely concerned, I’ll break this myth for you.

By now, fitness should be a household chore. The health benefits are endless, and the argument for psychological and physical improvements could stand on its own. To be clear, I am not telling people that they should quit their jobs to train 3x a day, make a run at the CrossFit Games, or look like a bikini model. Personally, I love the way these athletes look, but I understand that the sub 10% body fat and 8 pack abs on women isn’t everyone’s version of ideal. The difference is, I don’t use these athletes as an excuse not to exercise.

The majority of these elite athletes treat fitness as a job. They dedicate themselves to 2-3 training session a day, 6-7 days/ week. After training, they finish the day with some form or cold/hot contrast baths or 25 minutes of ROMWOD. They monitor sleeping hours to promote recovery and count macronutrients for every meal. On top of that, they are genetically gifted beyond belief.

Meanwhile, the average person starts the week off with a double espresso, a cream cheese bagel and would rather Netflix and Chill than spend 3 hours a week in the gym. They don’t produce anything close to the training effect required to elicit the “bulky” results of an elite female athlete. 

Let’s look at it from a more scientific standpoint. Psychology Today says men are “physically stronger than women, who have, on average, less total muscle mass, both in absolute terms and relative to total body mass. The greater muscle mass of men is the result of testosterone-induced muscular hypertrophy.” (Men, don’t let this get to your head. It says nothing about being mentally stronger. Ha-ha!)

The article, “How Much More Muscle Mass does a Male have than a Female?” explains that in the average adult male, the body comprises “approximately 43 percent muscle and 15 percent fat. In comparison, the average adult female contains 36 percent muscle and 26 percent fat. Though women have a higher percentage overall of body fat, 15 percent of their body fat is regarded as essential, meaning it is necessary to the healthy functioning of the body.

Remember, these are just averages, not the extremes. Other sources go further to specify the extra fat is essential in the proper functioning of the menstrual cycle.

In addition to having more muscle mass, men produce higher levels of testosterone than women. The article “Can lifting heavy weights make you bulky?” explains that “men elicit – minimum – 10 times more anabolic hormones than females do, particularly testosterone, which is what actually encourages muscle growth. Even though females can train just as hard and put in the effort to eat, their actual response is much slower and smaller.

Women tend to enter the fitness world attempting to “tone up” by choosing light weights and performing 12-15 repetitions. In reality, all this does is build size, also known as hypertrophy. Bodybuilders use high repetition hypertrophy training to build mass when they train. Women looking to tone up should probably not go the same route. They’d be better off doing heavy, one repetition training.

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“The Basics of Training for Size or Strength” says the “simplest difference between building size and boosting strength is training volume.” The article explains that athletes attempting to build size, such as bodybuilders, are still going to use the heaviest weights possible, but due to the high volume repetition their programs call for, the weights are lighter in comparison to athletes training to build 1 rep max strength.

For example, let’s say a bodybuilder’s max is 300lbs. They may chose a weight around 75% (225lbs) that they can lift for a set of 10, and while it may feel heavy, it is still not a maximum weight. The goal behind this is to get as many sets of 10 as possible to force the muscles to grow bigger. If your goal is not to make your muscles grow bigger, then you would be better off lifting the 300lbs barbell for one rep rather than the 225 pound barbell for 10. Individuals with the goal of improving strength should could follow a similar hypertrophy (bulking) program like the bodybuilder, but they would drastically cut the repetitions while they increase the weight being lifted.

In addition to program differences, you will also find drastically different eating habits for bodybuilders and elite CrossFitters compared to the average fitness client. Elite athletes pay considerable attention to their nutrition to make sure they are consuming enough to allow for their desired muscle growth. They are more or less eating their weight in steamed chicken and vegetables in a well choreographed fashion to prompt their gains. Any time you see CrossFit athletes eating dessert, it’s probably meticulously planned and weighed. The traditional fitness mom sipping on a Starbucks mocha latte in the carpool line or indulging in mimosas during her PTA meeting will not come anywhere close to the caloric intake or macro balance necessary to maintain this body composition. 

Basically, you’re not going to look like Annie Thorisdottir if you don’t train and eat like Annie Thorisdottir. Building strength can and will improve muscle tone, but without significant change in diet and programming, you will not come out looking like she hulk or even these 8% body fat elite CrossFitters.  A proper strength program, though, will allow you to carry more groceries in a single trip, or have more energy while chasing toddlers around the playground. Of course, if your goal is to look like she hulk (and that’s okay, too!), that can also be accomplished with an unrivaled dedication to programming and nutrition.

Featured Image: Mattie Rogers (@mattiecakesssss)

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.