Bulky Is a Lie: Why Women Need to Lift Weights

It’s time to move past the outdated fear that weight training makes women unfeminine.

Charles is here on a weekly basis to help you cut through the B.S. and get some real perspective regarding health and training. Please post feedback or questions to Charles directly in the comments below this article.

Many women fear they will become too muscular as a result of strength training. While this fear is on the decline, you might be surprised how common it still is. Unfortunately, many high profile “celeb” trainers perpetuate the misinformation.

Trainers such as Tracy Anderson warn that lifting anything heavier than 3lb dumbbells will cause the following problems (these are verbatim quotes):

“The stronger one muscle gets, the more it shuts up all the other things.”

“As you age, the stronger you make your bicep, the worse your skin (under your arm) is going to sag. You can’t ever get to it because the bicep is too overbearing.”

“It’s like your muscles get in an abusive relationship with themselves. The strong ones say ‘go to sleep’ to the smaller ones.”

I’m not sure if Anderson makes comments like this because she’s uneducated, because she’s a charlatan, or some combination of both. The end result is that the consumer becomes disempowered, and her followers are no closer to their goals by following her advice.

Anderson’s statements and methods aren’t just outdated; they’re absolute nonsense. 

Some celebrity “trainers” would say this athlete will get too bulky from lifting weights. Doesn’t seem to be the case.

“What if I Get Too Big?”

What follows is a conversation between me and Lisa, a hypothetical, 39-year-old prospective client. If you’re a female who’s new to strength training, I think you’ll find clarity in this conversation. If you’re a trainer who works with beginner females, I think you’ll find this useful as well.

Me: “So Lisa, I want you to think back to when you were in the best shape of your life. How old were you then?”

Lisa: “Mmm, let’s see, probably when I was nineteen. I was doing track in college and was really happy with how I looked. I’d love to get back in that kind of shape.”

Me: “The reason I asked was to point out something that you might not have considered. The reason you were in your best shape ever at nineteen is because that’s when you had the most muscle. As we age, for a whole lot of reasons, we tend to lose muscle. Muscle is a big driver of metabolism, so losing it sets up a negative cycle. You lose muscle, which causes a drop in metabolism, which causes you to gain body fat, which further lowers your activity levels, which causes more muscle loss, and so on and so forth.”

Lisa: “Interesting. You’re right, that would have never occurred to me.”

Me: “What I do with clients is to help them interrupt this vicious cycle, and I happen to be partial to strength training.”

Lisa: “You mean like lifting weights? I never wanted to lift weights because I don’t want to be all bulky. I actually want to be smaller, not bigger. I’d really like to sculpt…”

Me: “Here’s the deal: there really is no such thing as toning, or sculpting, or contouring. Muscles can get bigger through training, or smaller through disuse. That’s it. A lot of trainers won’t tell you that because they think their female clients will become disinterested and leave.

That’s why I started off by asking you when you were in your best shape ever. I wanted to provide you with a different context with which to view muscle. We’re not trying to “gain muscle,” per se. We’re just trying to re-establish the level of muscle you had when you were nineteen. When we’ve achieved that, you’ll have a faster metabolism, which means you’ll be leaner, which is your ultimate goal.”

Brooke Ence developed her physique with a very specific diet, and training at a volume and intensity most people can’t contemplate.

Lisa: “Okay, but what if I do get too big? Maybe I’m an outlier or something.”

Me: “Well I’ll tell you something: there are no women who feel they have too much muscle. None.”

Lisa: “Come on… What do you mean?”

Me: “Any muscle you do gain happens very slowly, and if at any point you feel you’re getting too muscular, all you have to do is reduce your training, or maybe even discontinue it temporarily until you lose it. Muscle isn’t permanent, believe me, It’s much easier to lose than it is to gain.”

Lisa: “Okay, that makes sense. I guess I was concerned because I always see these super-bulky chicks on magazine covers, and there no way I want to look like that.”

Me: “Yup, I totally get it. The thing to keep in mind is that the media promotes the most extreme examples, not the typical. And most of the super muscular women were kinda that way to start with, so when they started bodybuilding or powerlifting or whatever, they happened into an activity that they were good at and where they didn’t feel like a freak for being bigger than typical women.

Think of it this way. When you watch NBA basketball players, those guys aren’t tall because they play basketball. They’re good at basketball because they’re so tall. Make sense?”

Lisa: “Yup totally. But is lifting totally necessary?”

Me: “Nope, not at all. It just happens to be something I’m very passionate about. By the way, lots of women whose aesthetics you admire are big-time lifters. Figure skaters, volleyball players, dancers; many or all of them do weight training as part of their sport. But if you end up not liking weight training, there are many roads to Rome, and the main thing is to find safe, effective activities that resonate with you.

Tell you what, though. How about you give me a month, and I’m betting I can win you over. Deal?”

samson lunge

Chances are, the best shape you’ve ever been in was also when you had the most muscle.

This Week’s Training:

Volume: 96,090lb (Last Week: 97,256lb)

Significant Lifts:

  • Safety Squat: 175lb x 10
  • Bench Press: 195lb x 10
  • Trap Bar Deadlift: 340lb x 10

I have no real changes to report from last week. Which, when you think about it, is how training really ought to be: smooth, predictable, and unremarkable. I often quip that the training of novices is often characterized by its drama, unpredictability, and brevity, so I’m glad my own efforts in the gym seem to be pretty much the opposite of that.

I’m looking at doing a powerlifting meet on October 15th, at the Phoenix Europa Fitness Expo. I’ll keep you in the loop as things develop. Thanks for dropping by, and as always comments and questions are appreciated!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bodyweight: 201.6lb

Volume: 30,510lb

Goblet Squat

  • Set 1: 35lb × 10
  • Set 2: 35lb × 10
  • Set 3: 35lb × 10

Safety Squat

  • Set 1: 65lb × 10
  • Set 2: 115lb × 6
  • Set 3: 155lb × 2
  • Set 4: 175lb × 10
  • Set 5: 175lb × 10
  • Set 6: 175lb × 10
  • Set 7: 175lb × 10

Leg Press

  • Set 1: 90lb × 10
  • Set 2: 180lb × 8
  • Set 3: 270lb × 6
  • Set 4: 360lb × 10
  • Set 5: 360lb × 10

Trap Bar Deadlift

  • Set 1: 135lb × 10
  • Set 2: 185lb × 5
  • Set 3: 225lb × 5
  • Set 4: 275lb × 2
  • Set 5: 300lb × 5
  • Set 6: 300lb × 5

Seated Calf Raise

  • Set 1: 90lb × 10
  • Set 2: 90lb × 10
  • Set 3: 90lb × 10

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bodyweight: 199lb

Volume: 24,395lb

Bench Press

  • Set 1: 45lb × 10
  • Set 2: 95lb × 8
  • Set 3: 135lb × 6
  • Set 4: 175lb × 4
  • Set 5: 195lb × 10
  • Set 6: 195lb × 10
  • Set 7: 195lb × 10
  • Set 8: 195lb × 8

Chin Up

  • Set 1: 5 reps
  • Set 2: +25lb × 5
  • Set 3: +25lb × 5
  • Set 4: +25lb × 5

Hammer Iso-Lateral Incline press

  • Set 1: 90lb × 8
  • Set 2: 155lb × 8
  • Set 3: 155lb × 8
  • Set 4: 155lb × 6

Hammer Iso-Lateral Shoulder Press

  • Set 1: 50lb × 10
  • Set 2: 95lb × 8
  • Set 3: 95lb × 8
  • Set 4: 95lb × 8

Dual Cable Low Cable Curl

  • Set 1: 100lb × 10
  • Set 2: 100lb × 10
  • Set 3: 100lb × 10

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bodyweight: 200lb

Volume: 26,405lb

Trap Bar Deadlift

  • Set 1: 135lb × 10
  • Set 2: 185lb × 5
  • Set 3: 245lb × 5
  • Set 4: 295lb × 3
  • Set 5: 340lb × 9
  • Set 6: 340lb × 10
  • Set 7: 340lb × 10

Hack Squat

  • Set 1: 90lb × 8
  • Set 2: 140lb × 8
  • Set 3: 205lb × 8
  • Set 4: 205lb × 8
  • Set 5: 205lb × 8

Leg Press Calf Raise

  • Set 1: 180lb × 10
  • Set 2: 180lb × 10
  • Set 3: 180lb × 10

Friday, March 18, 2016

Bodyweight: 199.4lb

Volume: 14,780lb

Bench Press (Dumbbell)

  • Set 1: 100lb × 10
  • Set 2: 140lb × 8
  • Set 3: 170lb × 8
  • Set 4: 190lb × 8
  • Set 5: 190lb × 8

Seated Row

  • Set 1: 135lb × 8
  • Set 2: 180lb × 8
  • Set 3: 180lb × 8

Chest Press Machine 

  • Set 1: 60lb × 8
  • Set 2: 60lb × 8

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

  • Set 1: 60lb × 8
  • Set 2: 70lb × 8
  • Set 3: 70lb × 8

Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extension

  • Set 1: 60lb × 8
  • Set 2: 70lb × 8
  • Set 3: 70lb × 10

More on the Myths About Women and Weights

Photos 1 and 3 courtesy of Crossfit Empirical.

Photo 2 courtesy of CrossFit.

Leave a Comment