Most often the answer for women is no you won't get bulky if you lift weights, it’s an age old question and fear, so let's analyse it together and if we can come up with a reasonable answer.
Let me delve into this topic and elaborate on all of the factors you should be aware of before heading to the weights room.
It might help if we define the term 'bulky'
BULKY - adjective
- Taking up much space; large and unwieldy. "a bulky carrier bag"
- (of a person) heavily built. "a bulky, overcoat-clad figure"
Bulky by definition seems to refer to a general wide-ness or heaviness. However, I think bulky is somewhat subjective and if I were to term a thing or person bulky someone else may disagree. Moreover, the term bulky could be insulting to one and a compliment to another.
I personally think everyone is beautiful in their own unique way and is allowed to exercise in whichever fashion they choose. (So long as they are looking after their health.) Everyone is uniquely made and therefore I think idealising any particular body shape or glorifying one over another doesn't do any good.
My aim in this article is to show how female bodies respond to different training and educate women on how to achieve the goals they desire while respecting the body they are given.
There are many factors that will determine how your body will look and function and some specific ways to achieve it. All of the variables I will list and explain in this point are controlled variables meaning you can control them and gear them towards the goals you desire.
- How many sets and reps you perform.
- How much weight you lift.
- How long your rest period is.
- How much time your muscle is under tension.
- Eccentric and concentric loading.
- Volume and frequency of training.
- Use of plyometrics.
- Fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibres.
- Aerobic or anaerobic cardiovascular fitness.
- Targeting and overloading of specific muscle groupings.
- Flexibility and mobility. (Which will affect your weight lifting capabilities.)
- What you eat and how much you eat.
...and this is really just skimming the surface
This point can be explained by using the example of olympic athletes.
If you look at all of the athletes' body types who compete at the Olympics they all appear very different. They all train differently for an optimal outcome that is specific to their sport. While certain genetic traits and anatomical designs will be favourable for different sports, the athletes still have complete control as to how they train their bodies to become a better athlete. Athlete's conditioning coaches manipulate all of the training variables so that the athletes body becomes like a high functioning specifically engineered piece of machinery with a specific task in mind to complete.
Athletes aren't worried how they look so much as how they function. But you can see the drastic difference between the look of a sprinter versus the look of a long distance runner.
For this reason it's possible (with a few parameters) for an individual to determine how they want to look and design their function to achieve said goal.
A little segue here, but physical muscle size does not have a direct correlation to strength but this is another topic entirely which I will get into another day.
Now let's look at the factors that you have no control over,
Everything from your ethnicity to family traits will determine your physical responses. Genetically you may be hard wired toward being a better sprinter, jumper or wrestler etc. While we can make drastic changes with our bodies and athletic capacity we can't alter let's say our height or bone structure (without surgery of course.) These predetermined outcomes are hard wired into our genetic coding which we have no control over.
Three body types you should be aware of are depicted in the image below.
Ectomorph: An ectomorph is typically tall and lean with fragile bones and joints. Ecto's find it hard to put on fat and muscle and their frame is generally narrow in their shoulders and hips. Ectomorphs have a fast metabolism.
Mesomorph: A mesomorph has a wider frame and typically puts on muscle with ease. They still have fast metabolisms and don't carry much body fat. A mesomorph has an athletic look and strong bones and joints.
Endomorph: An endomorph is typically short with a wider frame. They find it easy to put on muscle and fat. Endomorphs appear more square and soft. They will still have a good baseline of strength but their metabolism is much slower than an 'ecto' or 'meso' hence why gaining fat is easier.
In this case a mesomorph would put on muscle much faster than an ectomorph and you should be aware of this as an ectomorph will need to train differently to a mesomorph to reach the same destination. You will not necessarily be one singular body type but perhaps a mixture of two.
Anatomical design / anomalies:
This obviously ties into the factors above i.e. your genetics but every detail of your anatomical design will either help or hinder your ability to lift weights safely. For example someone who has knock knees is going to have trouble squatting without injury from the pressure loading into the knees especially on the medial ligaments. Someone with poor dorsiflexion (foot flexion) will have limited range of motion in their squat and therefore find recruiting gluteal muscles harder. Lifting weights is much more technical in relation to your own body and its structure or limitations.
--This factor is in the grey zone as it can be classified as both controllable and uncontrollable. I.E. You can't change what's happened in the past however you did control it at the outset and you can control your training regime in the future.--
Let's look at this in terms of what you have done in the past now being out of your control.
If you have never performed resistance training and are completely new to lifting weights you will experience 'newbie gains' meaning, once you have established good motor control and movement patterns you can expect quick muscle adaptation and a surge of strength gains. Anything you do will have a great effect on your body composition and muscle fibre structure. However after a year these adaptations will begin to plateau and programming your weight sessions becomes a more useful tool to overcome plateaus.
Men produce more testosterone than females who produce more oestrogen. While both are anabolic (muscle building) they create different looks. Females will find it much harder to put on muscle because of this hormonal difference.
Furthermore, some males who have created a 'bulky' physique may have been injecting themselves with anabolic steroids to achieve this size. The natural bodybuilder takes years to put on noticeable muscle mass.
Perhaps this point is somewhat obvious, however it is worth stating. A part of the undesirable 'bulky' shape may be body fat and this should be helped through nutrition and cardiovascular exercise rather than fearing weights. Depending how your body is composed i.e. muscle mass vs body fat % weight training alone may not strip away body fat and despite being stronger and growing muscle mass you may not be able to see the defined muscle until you reach a certain level of body fat %. In this case goal prioritising will make a difference as to how you use weights to achieve the outcome of fat loss. Whether you are gaining muscle or losing weight will largely depend on how much you eat. Neither goal is more effective done simultaneously (unless you have been in the gym less than a year.) However lifting weights won't hinder fat loss if programmed into your weekly routine optimally. I hope everyone knows that muscle weighs more than fat so losing 'weight' or measuring success on the scales is completely useless if you are gaining muscle and losing body fat as the scales won't be able to measure body composition - what your body is made up of.
Benefits of weight training
Some women take the fear of getting 'bulky' too far and will avoid lifting weights altogether. This is neglecting a very important aspect of your health. If you are of the mindset that lifting weights is only for men then let me politely try to educate you.
Some of the benefits of engaging in resistance training are:
- Stronger muscles,
- Stronger joints and bones - reduced risk of osteoporosis.
- Increases BMR (basal metabolic rate) which helps weight management.
- Improves insulin sensitivity.
- Improved posture.
- Prevention or control of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, back pain, depression and obesity.
- Improved coordination and stability.
- Fall related injury prevention.
- Safer at lifting objects on an everyday basis.
- Stronger core and lower back.
- Mitigates the ill health effects from a sedentary job or lifestyle.
- Improved confidence and self esteem.
Societal opinions of femininity
If the real reason a woman doesn’t want to look ‘bulky’ is because this is considered ‘unfeminine’ then that is an opinion entrenched from years of societal conditioning that women should look a particular way to be considered feminine. This conversation topic is huge so I will merely state that, as a woman, it is ok to embrace strength both mentally and physically. It is ok to enjoy lifting weights.
Saying “I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to look bulky is like saying”,
“I don't want to go for a bike ride because I don’t want to win the tour de france.’
The fact of the matter is that ‘bulky’ women spend years training and eating to purposefully accomplish their muscle gain. It’s genetically much harder for women to put on muscle mass than their male equivalents so arguably they will have to work harder and longer to achieve the same result. There is a massive distance between being a recreational gym goer and a competing bodybuilder. There is no reason to fear being bulky, it’ll take a very long and concerted effort to achieve that.
To wrap this all up I hope women are not afraid of getting 'bulky' in the gym. lifting weights in addition to other forms of exercise can really enhance your health, appearance and life. My best advice is to train for enjoyment, functionality and with a little prior education. Remember that you are given one body and it is unique and wonderful. Work within your own parameters and exercise for you. Don't just copy others because chances are your body may respond differently.
If you are serious about your health and fitness goals enlist the support of experts and save yourself the time and confusion.
If you have any more questions on this matter don't hesitate to reach out for help.