It’s the myth that just never seems to go away.
Every few months I come across an article that works to debunk this myth: That women shouldn’t lift weights because if they do they will spontaneously transform into a bodybuilder.
That if a woman were to venture out from the TRX-bootcamp-yoga-pilates world and pick up something heavy, she would fly right past ‘sexy muscle’ and onto ‘awkward muscle.’
Nothing could be further from the truth.
And many of us in the fitness business are guilty of thinking that by now everyone surely knows the simple truth that women will not build big bulky muscles by weightlifting. Right?
And yes, I have a personal anecdote!
Recently, I was reminded by one of my close friends that there is still a very real misconception out there about women lifting weights. She is a ballet dancer and I found myself making a case for her to consider doing some squats and deadlifts to help round out her training.
“But I don’t want to build bigger legs!” she exclaimed.
Suffice it to say, I dove into a mini thesis of sorts to help her understand the facts, but her comment also got me thinking about my own bias.
In other words, one of the reasons I think it’s easy for us strength trainers to just assume that everyone understands building new muscle isn’t easy is because of our own background. If you have been lifting for a number of years then you probably measure your strength gains in small increments.
For instance, if I can add 30 lbs to my max bench in a year then I’m a happy lifter. Some guys may even be brushing right up against their genetic limits and for them, maybe 15 lbs a year is enough to make them smile.
Basically, it becomes very, very challenging for us to bust through those plateaus.
And if you have been lifting for any considerable amount of time then you’ll also know that you’re not going to wake up one morning with another inch on your arms! Although that would be nice.
Regardless, with this post I wanted to touch on a few supporting arguments that will help to alleviate any concerns you may have as a woman about bulking up.
Simply put, your body doesn’t really want to grow muscle. Metabolically speaking, muscle is expensive. You have to argue a case to your body that you even need it in the first place! That’s why we lift weights – to impose a demand on our system thereby stimulating new muscle growth. But all this muscle takes a lot of effort to maintain.
That’s why in order to build muscle we need to impose a demand and do so effectively with a progressive program. Otherwise, you may see some initial results, but nothing long term. And you certainly won’t build huge muscles.
Both men and women have estrogen and testosterone. These hormones are necessary for a number of biological functions, but the key one for muscle building is, you guessed it, testosterone. As we all know, men have high levels of the hormone and are thus more inclined to growing muscle. Women, on the other hand, have around 20 times less testosterone than men.
In order for women to augment their testosterone to levels that would aid the manufacturing of large amounts of muscle mass, you’d have to have some pharmaceutical help.
To get big you’re going to have to train big. And that means volume. Lots of it.
There’s a reason bodybuilders have such impressive hypertrophy. They aren’t just working out (3) days a week. Many are in the gym (5) and (6) days a week. Sometimes even twice in the same day! Does this sound like your workout program? I didn’t think so. And high volume implies effective programming and nutritional know-how.
Suzanne Digre of Workout Nirvana has trained hundreds of women. Here’s what she has to say:
…building new muscle is a slow and arduous process. Even building a small amount of new muscle mass requires pushing hard, lifting heavy, and utter consistency. Women who use a natural means of building muscle – good old-fashioned hard work – have a lean, athletic-looking body, not mountains of muscle.
You probably aren’t lifting enough weight to build size
Even as a guy I have noticed that in many of the glossy health and fitness magazines on the newsstand, women are shown holding tiny little weights. Suzanne sums this messaging up nicely:
Women’s fear of bulking up persists because it’s only been relatively recently that weightlifting has become “mainstream.” It doesn’t help that magazines show women holding tiny pink weights and celebrity trainers warn women against lifting anything more than three pounds.
Now, opinions vary a little, but the general rules of the road are these:
Do you want to build strength endurance?
Go light, but increase the reps.
Do you want to build muscle size, aka hypertrophy?
Then lift moderately heavy with reps around 8 – 12.
Do you want to build strength?
Then lift heavy with fewer reps. About 85% or greater of your max.
One of the reasons we see this distribution is that when the weight gets really heavy your central nervous system starts having to put in a lot more work to fire all of those motor units in your muscles. From your muscle’s perspective, it’s all hands on deck when it comes to moving big weight.
Consequently, you’re training your CNS to operate more efficiently and effectively versus building new muscle cells, i.e. getting bulky.
So what’s the takeaway?
That if you’re concerned about building muscle size the truth is that you probably aren’t lifting enough weight because of the popular thinking that women should only lift light weights.
And the idea I want to plant is that lifting heavy is also OK. That for you to build strength but not necessarily size (what many women are training for in the first place) you need to move some heavier weight.
A well rounded lifting program is essential for success, but don’t feel pigeonholed into only lifting the pastel colored dumbbells.
If you’re a woman who is on the fence about weightlifting then I hope this article will help you to take the leap. Without the aid of anabolic steroids and other drugs, women just don’t have the hormone levels required to build large muscle. However, shaping a toned and lean physique is very doable.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a new broscience vocab word :).
Tongue in cheek, this is the only ‘bulking’ you may experience. You see, with all the demand placed on your muscles your body is sending tons of blood into their cells. This has a tendency to make your muscles appear swollen – it’s what Arnold called ‘the pump.’
But give it a couple hours and you’ll go back to your normal size :).
By Ryan Wagner
Suzanne Digre: Women’s lifting
Elizabeth Quinn: Why women should lift weightsThe biggest myth in women's fitness by Ryan Wagner