By Alex Kain
As a trainer, this is quite possibly the number one concern I hear from women when it comes to lifting weights, “I don’t want to get bulky.” When I am talking to a woman about lifting weights and exercising, the first thing I like to do is find out what “bulky” means to them. Every individual’s perception is different and what one might consider skinny, another might consider fit. So the first thing we need to establish is a common theme, what does one woman consider to be bulky. I like to show women pictures or point out members within our family to gain an idea of what this individual considers bulky. Now honestly, I actually love it when they point out a member that is a part of our family. The reason why I like this so much is because I know that individual and I know what that person’s goals are, therefore I also know their diet, their exercise frequency (times a week), how heavy they lift, and how long they’ve been working out (months, and/or years).
Three big things to consider when talking about “getting bulky” are time, nutrition, and hormones. Let’s start with time. Now why would this be important? Have you ever heard “Rome was not built overnight,” well that same saying can be applied to anyone who is big, or strong, or bulky, or whatever other descriptive word you would like to use. Anyone who might be considered bulky by another, has invested a very large and significant amount of time into working out and lifting weights. Not only have they invested a large amount of time on a weekly basis, but also on a yearly basis. It has taken that individual many hours and most likely many years to get to that point. I often have to explain to many new members that getting “bulky” requires a very large amount of dedication to training by the individual. Even for an individual who is working out 2 to 4 times a week, they most likely won’t ever have to worry about getting “bulky.”
The next big item to consider when it comes to getting “bulky” is nutrition. This quite often plays a much larger role in the equation than the previous paragraph. I often hear that women are interested in building lean muscle. Well the good news is that all muscle is in fact lean muscle, we just might have fat surrounding that muscle. All muscle built is lean muscle and you cannot physically build muscle that is not lean. You can however build fat while building muscle which may play a greater role in the image of “bulky.” If our nutrition isn’t correct we might be building muscle and fat together which is going to increase the size or circumference of our legs, or arms, or other body parts. Thus adding to the whole image of “bulky.” Or perhaps we are slightly overweight when we begin to workout. As we get into a training regime we will most likely start building muscle that we didn’t previously have. This is great because that is what we are looking to accomplish, but if our nutrition doesn’t change also we will be building muscle under our already existing layer of fat. Imagine putting on a life vest under a shirt or sweater. As we start to inflate the life vest we will grow in size under the layer of clothing. This is basically what will happen if we start lifting weights and building muscle without doing anything to change our eating habits. Now you could very easily say… “well doesn’t muscle burn more calories?” and you would be correct in saying that. The bad news is that an extra 1 pound of muscle only burns maybe an extra 10 calories a day. That means that if you are trying to justify a steak dinner with your workout, you would need to build an additional 100 pounds of muscle to burn off a steak dinner and then I can guarantee you will look bulky. So you really should not use exercise to justify a meal. Which means that nutrition plays an enormous role in our size and physique and whether we look bulky or not… no pun intended.
The last item to consider when it comes to women and concern over getting or looking bulky is hormones. Women stand a very small chance of ever looking bulky because they don’t have testosterone. Testosterone plays a HUGE role in muscle building and muscle size more than anything. Therefore it becomes nearly impossible to build BIG muscle without testosterone. The good news is that any muscle women are building is lean “sexy” muscle. I’m sure everyone has heard of steroids and their use in sport. Well, every single steroid out there is a derivative of testosterone, the male hormone. Therefore in order for a woman to “look like a man,” she would have to take a steroid in order to increase the amount of testosterone she has in her body and therefore build “larger” muscle. But wait… there’s more! She would not only have to take a steroid, but also dedicate an insane amount of time and energy to lifting weights religiously for a period of several years. Because, unfortunately steroids don’t automatically make you strong or good at sport or whatever else you might think. An average person who takes a steroid is still going to be average. They are now an average person with more testosterone in their body. If they aren’t dedicating time to training or lifting weights, they aren’t automatically going to be bigger, faster, and/or stronger.
So let’s recap a bit. In order for a female to look “bulky” we first have to get a frame of reference. Bulky is very subjective, and therefore we have to see what bulky is in the eye of the beholder. Once we have established what is bulky, a trained professional can help guide you towards or away from that image through the use of diet and exercise. But lastly, for most women, “bulky” is not attainable without a very significant amount of time and HEAVY lifting and a VERY consistent routine. Add to that equation the fact that women do not have much testosterone in their body and therefore they won’t be able to achieve too bulky of an image. Now if bulky also takes into consideration size, then nutrition will be a key factor. A lot of training with a bad diet will increase our size. However, at the end of the day when most women are looking to build lean sexy muscle, this will not be possible without the use of weights. Either way, if you are unsure about what you are doing, it is best to consult a fitness professional who can help guide you with diet and exercise to the image you’re looking for with realistic expectations.