If you lift big, you get big, right? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not.


It’s long been female gym folklore that to get lean you do high repetitions with a light load to “tone and shape,” while at the same time telling those looking to get bigger that they need to lift heavy. Let’s look at a few misconceptions around this advice.


Myth #1: Tone and Shape


Breaking Muscle Shop

women's fitness, women and lifting, women and strength training, bulky womenFirst, that whole “tone and shape” thing needs to be put to bed once and for all. Despite what any piece of marketing tells you there is no training system, method, or tool that will change the shape of a muscle. That is genetically determined. Pilates won’t do it, nor yoga, kettlebells, weightlifting, swimming, or any other thing you care to name. Your parents ultimately have more to do with your possible physique than just about anything else does.


So while muscle size and body fat levels can be changed with training, ultimately the shape you end up with is a genetic lottery. What people really mean, in my experience, when they say “tone and shape” is that they want to lose some body fat and make their muscles firmer. They hope that by doing so they change the shape of their body from couch potato round to more muscular and athletic.


Ultimately, when it comes to losing body fat the most important thing is diet. So if you’re looking to shed body fat - and let’s make that distinction over senseless worrying what the scales say, because remember, your shape is what it is, so best just to be as lean as you can be - then you need to worry first and foremost about what goes in your mouth. The number one exercise to help you stay lean is not eating crap in the first place. A typical cheeseburger has 308 calories in it - that equates to about 45 minutes on a rower for most women, or half an hour running at 13km/h (8.1mp/h). Easier to just not eat that in the first place. As the saying goes - you can’t out run a bad diet.


Myth #2: High Reps and Light Weights


But there’s still that myth out there that to get lean you need high reps and light weights. Women often comment that they’re worried about bulking up, and that they “put on muscle if they look at a weight.” Uh huh. Let’s talk some simple math for a moment. A single kilogram of muscle takes a calorie surplus of 9000 calories to be created. That’s thirty cheeseburgers extra you need to eat above your maintenance calories to even think about growing some extra muscle.


And not only do you need to eat those extra burgers, but you need to train specifically to put on size. While you can make muscles bigger from weight training, that’s not a necessary side effect. My entire life has been dedicated to making myself as strong as possible while staying as light as possible. For evidence think of rock climbers, gymnasts, track and field athletes like sprinters and jumpers, and dancers who all possess incredible levels of strength while staying light. So how do they do that?


women's fitness, women and lifting, women and strength training, bulky womenWeight training has two different types of effect. One is on what we can call the neural component of training and the other is on what we could call the metabolic effect. The short version is that the neural effects are those that improve the connection of the mind to the muscle. They increase both the size and strength of the message from the brain to the muscle allowing it to contract harder and faster. Think of this like upgrading your muscle software from dial-up to cable Internet. It’s entirely possible to enhance this capacity and not see any increases in muscle size. The opposite is true for the metabolic changes. At certain rep ranges you will see increases in muscle size brought about via an array of mechanisms.


The funny part to me is that it is low rep training that changes the neural component and higher rep training that has more of an effect on the metabolic changes. In other words, lifting weights only for a few reps is less likely to cause size gains than lifting weights for more reps. Please note there are other factors here, such as eating all those burgers and how many total sets you do, as it is still possible to lift for only a few reps at a time, but do many, many sets and still cause metabolic changes to the muscle. So if you do many total sets and overeat you will likely still grow. 


Strong and Lean


The funny thing is that out of the females I know it’s the ones who are the strongest who are also the leanest. My buddy, female fat loss guru Josh Hillis, shared with me the following that he’s witnessed in his fat loss training, “When girls can do three chin ups and deadlift body weight for three reps they are usually around the 19-21% body fat range.” Despite what most people will tell you, a female at the 19% range is in rock star shape. (And given sixty percent of the world is overweight or obese these women will really stand out as having fantastic bodies.) He even added that, “Vanessa Hudgens has deadlifted 180lbs as well as using kettlebells in her training and Jena Malone has done 235.” 



Clearly how much weight you lift doesn’t make you big and bulky, and it’s about time that women stopped fearing that it will. The main things to focus on, if looking to get lean, are the following:


  1. Don’t over eat. If you’re not keeping a food diary that is your biggest problem with losing weight.
  2. Lift heavy for a few reps. A sample deadlift workout might be three sets of three reps with a two to three minute rest between sets. These need to be hard, near all-out sets for them to be useful.
  3. For the rest of your workout do only whole-body exercises such as loaded carries and sled pushing, and bodyweight exercises such as burpees, lunges, squats, and pull-ups.
  4. Ignore the “friends” who try to derail you by telling you that despite all evidence to the contrary you’re training incorrectly. You paid for a trainer for his or her expert help, don’t go off reservation and start listening to someone who gets workout advice off Biggest Loser.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.