‘lifting heavy weights can’t make women bulky!'
You’ve probably heard this statement before. I’ve also said it numerous times on different social media platforms along the years, and whenever I get a chance to talk to women who haven’t been properly introduced to the iron and are truly afraid of lifting more than 5 lbs because they “don’t want to bulk up”. However, I’ve recently come to the realization that women can, in fact, get bulky from lifting heavy weights. You’re probably shaking your head in disagreement (or not), but let me explain my reasoning.
In recent years, there has been a shift in mainstream perception of the ‘ideal female body’. More women work out in the once-male-dominant, free-weights section. More women lift weights, and push themselves to become stronger in every workout. And more women recognize the positive impact strength training has on their health and body, that no amount of cardio in the world can provide or come close to. This new phenomenon has been beautiful to witness, and I’m thrilled that more women choose to embrace their strength.
As I mentioned in my previous articles, I started strength training at ~17. I knew I couldn’t grow big, bulgy muscles like Arnold because I lack the amount of testosterone that men have. However, and this is a HUGE however —I liked the way a fit body looked. I wasn’t afraid of gaining size in my shoulders; I loved the look of capped deltoids. I wasn’t afraid of getting a sexy tear drop in my quads; I wanted to see more quad definition. I wanted my lats to grow so I can have that nice v-taper with a tiny little waist. So I trained hard, and I trained heavy for years. Based on my personal perception– I had a fit, feminine-looking body. That was (and still is) my ideal physique.
I represent women in group A. Group A is composed of women who love the ‘fit chick’ look. We know, the more muscle we (naturally) have, the sexier and the more empowered we feel. We also make sure to keep our body fat levels in check because we like to look defined and muscular.
I’m including pictures of myself along the years. This will give you a better understanding of how a natural, muscular physique looks like during low and higher body fat percentage periods.
2011, ~150, my first time leaning out, after 6 years of heavy lifting.
2011, flexing in the mirror :)
2013, at my leanest, after 8 years of heavy strength training. ~142lbs
2013, 142lbs, The big difference between this picture and that one above is that I’m flexing my muscles, post workout, so my muscles look fuller and bigger.
August of 2016, ~160. Body fat:23%. Most women are in this body fat percentage or higher.
This year, ~153
Two points I want to emphasize:
1.I look ‘bigger and bulkier’ when carrying more body fat on my frame.
2.I look ‘bigger and bulkier’ when I flex my muscles, even when I am fairly lean.
Now, back to the article.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have group B. The women in group B do not want to look like they lift weights, at all. They want to have a slender, ‘toned’, lean look; think Jessica Alba body type. They do not want a ripped back; they couldn’t care less about 3-D shoulders; and they certainly don’t want their quads to pop; however, they do want a nice plumped derrière (don’t we all?). The women in group B most certainly will benefit from strength training. However, the type, intensity, and frequency of training has to support their physique goals. This means, for lower body training, heavy squats or heavy quad emphasized exercises shouldn’t be utilized; the focus of training should be on exercises that specifically target the glutes and hamstrings, like hip thrusts, deadlifts, banded hip abduction, hip extension etc. For upper body training, lighter weights for higher reps should be included, think 15-30+ repetitions ‘body-pump’ style training, body weight exercises, and cardio-kickboxing-high intensity training. Weight used in specific exercises should be increased (progressive overload principle) until the goal of ‘just enough muscle tone’ has been achieved.
It’s important to mention that building quality muscle takes time; it takes years. It’s not like you can get up one morning and horrifically notice the added size on your frame. Therefore, tapering training according to your specific body conditioning is pretty much straight forward, all while keeping your body fat levels and body weight in check.
The next group is Group C, women who are the very fortunate ones, in my eyes. They can grow muscle fairly easily (mind you, a very small percentage of women are actually in this group), and are genetically blessed in certain areas such as the quads, arms, shoulders, glutes etc. They, as well, do not want to get ‘too big’ in those (blessed) areas. Therefore, their training should accommodate their goals. Same recommendations mentioned for the women in Group B apply to the women in Group C as well. Thus, if a woman is genetically prone to gaining muscle in her quads, which is not to her liking, she should not be training in a way that supports quads hypertrophy.
Last group of women is the vast majority of the female population, group D. The women in this group have too much body fat covering their hard earned muscles, which gives them the appearance of a ‘bulky physique’ (muscle and fat= bulk). Essentially, if they lowered their body fat, they’d look slimmer and more toned. Since most women mistake their fat for muscle, they put the blame on strength training for resulting their ‘bulkiness'. Unfortunately, they stop training all together because they never saw the changes they wanted to see in their physiques.
The wonderful thing is that with more knowledge, this group of women will become smaller and smaller. My long term goal is to get to the point where strength training is so mainstream that there are as many women training with free weights as there are men :)
Now that we've covered all 4 groups of women, which group do you belong to? Do you like a muscular, well defined physique? Or, you think Jessica Alba’s body is the ideal physique? Maybe you are one of those who are genetically gifted and want to keep your muscle mass in check? Or, you were simply unaware of the importance of body fat percentage while strength training?
All in all, I hope this article shed some light on the topic of women, bulkiness, and heavy strength training. You now know that ‘bulkiness’ can be interpreted differently by different people. So, at the end of the day, you do what’s best for you. As long as you’re happy and healthy, don’t let anyone dictate how you should or shouldn’t look, or how you should or shouldn’t train. You are a strong and powerful individual, let yourself shine through, and embrace your body.
Happy Women’s Day to All of My Ladies!
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