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Why women don’t need to worry about bulking up

Fitness expert James Fell dispels the myth that if women lift heavy weights they’ll get too bulky. Here, he tells us what will happen, and how it benefits your overall health.

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A young woman flips a tractor tire while performing CrossFit exercises in an indoor climbing gym.

Don’t be afraid to take on lots of weight during your workouts. You won’t get bulky (Photo by Getty Images).

“I just want to get toned.”

I hear this all the time, but what does “toned” really mean? Well, it’s largely an aesthetic term, because what I think women are really after is nice-looking muscles that are firm instead of flabby — muscles with some definition. This involves two processes: adding a bit of muscle mass, and removing the fat that covers it.

Notice that I said a bit of muscle mass. Many women fear gaining a lot. They worry that if they lift weights that are too heavy they’ll transform into female Schwarzeneggers and lose their femininity. Well, unless you trip and fall into a vat of anabolic steroids, that isn’t going to happen.

“One of the main reasons to lift weights is that it’s a great way for women to increase self-confidence,” Nia Shanks, a strength and conditioning coach in Kentucky tells me. “It’s not a perk that comes to mind when they first start strength training. And it absolutely spills over into the rest of their lives.”

She continues: “I encourage them to use a challenging load of weight. None of this soup can for 500 reps crap. Women greatly underestimate their strength capabilities.”

Fitness expert Jen Sinkler says, “It ends up changing everything. You might start to get a rounder ass or be able to pick up groceries, but you stick with it because you realize the potential of you. Your emotional and mental strength increases in tandem with your physical strength.”

“Loss of femininity is a horrible myth that scares women away from lifting weights,” Shanks says. “It’s not going to happen. When clients tell me what they want to look like, the images they point to are women who’ve achieved it with a challenging lifting routine.”

“No one ever became a bodybuilder by accident,” Minneapolis-based Sinkler continues. She gets the question from women about bulking up all the time and the main reason there is nothing to worry about is testosterone.

“Muscle bulk is dependent largely upon testosterone production,” says Dr. Sue Pedersen, a specialist in endocrinology and metabolism in Calgary. “But no woman makes nearly as much testosterone as a man. It really is a hormonal issue. Men have an average of 15-20 times more testosterone than women.”

As a general rule, men who lift weights are going to push harder than women and intense lifting, with heavier weights, is what makes muscles grow. Even with a hardcore regimen women gain muscle much more slowly.

For post-menopausal women, whose testosterone levels are even lower, it’s even harder to develop muscular size, Dr. Pedersen explains, “And if you do gain some bulk it means you’re doing good things for your health. It’s beneficial from a weight management perspective as well.”

Dr. Pedersen explains that having extra muscle mass also helps with injury prevention because the added strength reduces your risk of accidents or falls. And even if you do fall, heavier weightlifting is proven to dramatically increase bone strength to reduce the risk of fractures.

“There are metabolic benefits as well. Heavier weightlifting improves insulin sensitivity so you’re less likely to get type 2 diabetes,” and it’s good for blood pressure control, she says.

Beyond these benefits, just imagine the simple benefits of being strong. It means fewer trips from the trunk of the car to the kitchen because you can handle more grocery bags. (My apologies if you read this as gender biased – I’m the grocery shopper in the family and try to carry as many bags as possible in one go.) You can lift children up easier, open your own jars, shovel more snow, move heavier furniture — there are myriad everyday benefits from training your muscles towards getting more out of them.

What to lift
Don’t be afraid to go heavier. Ease your way into it, but start trying to lift heavier weights in the lower repetition ranges. Lifting in the 6-12 rep range is more about muscular size with some strength, and in the 1-5 rep range is more about strength with some size. Again, don’t be afraid of that word size, because your lower testosterone levels (compared to a man’s) means it’s going to be a slow and challenging process to build appreciable muscle volume.

It’s important to note that, when lifting in these repetition ranges, at the end of a set you should not be able to lift another rep (with good technique). The weight has to be heavy enough so you can’t do any more without a rest period. The heavier the weight (and therefore the fewer the number of reps), the longer the rest period between sets needs to be.

So get on it, Iron Woman. Go lift something heavy.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. His syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune runs in dozens of major newspapers across the U.S., and he also interviews celebrities about their fitness regimens for the Los Angeles Times. Calgery-based Fell is also the senior fitness columnist for AskMen.com. He’s an avid runner, cyclist and weightlifter, and wishes he had more opportunities to go downhill skiing with his wife and two children. You can look for his first book out in early 2014. Visit his site for a free metabolism report.