No, You Won’t Get Bulky from Strength Training
It’s 2017, so – in some ways – I feel that I shouldn’t need to write another blog post about not getting bulky from strength training (aren’t we past this by now?). But, on the other hand, the dread of “bulking up” from lifting heavier weights continues to be a perennial fear for some of my newer female clients, so I think it warrants an occasional redux.
My first disclaimer is that I am not making fun of my clients who want to stay “long and lean” – I get it, actually! I am myself a petite person, both in height and in build. I am the quintessential “toned” woman. So even though those phrases “long and lean” and “toned” are misused and misunderstood, I get the image that my clients are trying to describe.
But I lift heavy (or at least heavier than average). And this is what I look like when I incorporate weight training into my consistent routine. So if you are worried that lifting heavy weights will make you pop out of your jeans or rip the shoulders of your favorite dress, please read on and let your fears be settled.
Here’s the bottom line:
Under regular circumstances, you can only “bulk up” within the spectrum of your genetic potential.
I am small and “toned” because it is my genetic blueprint to either be small and overweight, or small and toned. When I lift heavy weights, I just… tone up. I don’t get big. Getting huge is just not in my genes. The amount of work (and food and supplementation) that I would have to put into my fitness in order to achieve large muscle gains would be far outside the scope I’m willing to invest.
In other words, it’s unlikely that you will “bulk up” if you are already built small, unless you really, really tried. If you have a slim build (smaller ankles, wrists, neck, etc.), you will stay slim when you add weights to your routine.
So it’s not about doing more cardio or doing higher reps with less weight – it’s about who you already are.
The irony is that most of my clients who are worried about bulking up look something like this:
… So yeah, not going to happen.
For example, celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Scarlett Johansson, and Kate Upton have been noted for their heavy weightlifting routines, yet have tight, “toned” physiques.
To think that a certain exercise will cause you to look like someone else is part of the problem with women’s magazines. When you get really fit, you will look like the best version of you, not someone else.
For example, Gigi Hadid is popularizing boxing right now, but doesn’t look like Ronda Rousey. Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams both play a powerful tennis game (and neither have a lifting routine), but they have extremely different body types.
My point is that your genetics will play a huge role in your appearance in terms of build and the appearance of your muscle size – a much bigger role than your workout. Your workout routine will (hopefully) increase your fitness and improve your aesthetics over time, but it won’t transform you into someone else.
However, here’s what no one ever wants to hear….
The Tough Truth
Want to know what does make you “bulky?” Overeating.
Most women mistake fat for out-of-control muscle gain. When you start an intense new exercise routine, it’s easy to unconsciously overeat to “keep up” with the new energy demands you’re putting on your body.
The reality is that even high-intensity weight lifting only warrants an extra healthy snack per day. However, mentally, it can feel like you earned the entire nacho plate because it’s “legs day,” when really an extra Siggi’s would have done just fine to help replenish your energy.
Also, it’s true that when you start vigorously exercising, your muscles will grow in size. Especially at the beginning of a new weightlifting plan, your fat loss may not be on the same pace as your muscle gains. If you don’t lose the fat that’s on top of the muscle, you will get bigger. But it’s not the muscle that you need to worry about.
Contrary to what women’s magazines proclaim, exercise and muscle do not “melt fat.” Yes, muscle is more metabolically active than fat, but it’s not magic. What does “melt fat” is a mindful, consistently healthy way of eating paired with regular exercise, because this creates a caloric deficit that will cause your body to use its fat storage for energy.
It takes, patience, consistency, and diligence to create this energy balance, however, so a fad diet, crazy-intense exercise challenge, or detox will not create the lasting results that you want.
So if your jeans aren’t buttoning, do this before you quit your new weightlifting routine:
- Calculate your BMR using the Harris-Benedict equation [BMR = 655.1 + ( 4.35 × weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 × height in inches ) – ( 4.7 × age in years )].
- Multiply the resulting number by 1.55 if you work out 3-5 times per week (or 1.2 if not at all, 1.375 if a little, or 1.725 if you work out at the level of a professional athlete).
- Download My Fitness Pal and track your food diligently for a week, using the number that you got from the above calculations as your calorie goal.
- After a week of diligent tracking, see where you stand. If you discovered that you normally overeat quite a bit, all you need to do is keep yourself at your personal calorie goal, and you will probably lose weight. Tracking your food can teach you a great deal about the way you eat and what your personal pitfalls are.
- If you want to lose weight, subtract between 250-500 calories from the original calorie goal, and that is your deficit. Your body will use its own fat storage to make up the difference until you “level out” at your new weight, and your metabolism will reach a new equilibrium at a new weight.
However, the most important thing to remember is to only measure your progress against yourself and against your own goals and to put your health first – not to compare yourself to others. We’re all different – our genetics, routines, and priorities make us who we are, with unique, individual blueprints. These differences allow some women to have visible abs but cellulite on their thighs, and other women to have the legs of a goddess but a “muffin top.”
I would have my head in the sand if proclaimed that exercise should only be for cardiovascular health, strength, and endurance. Of course we want to look better, too – aesthetics is a huge motivator. But looking better starts with feeling better and thinking better, and it’s important that you have your mindset right before you start working on physique goals.