Strength Training For Women: Why Women Don’t Bulk Up From Strength Training

It’s one of the most infamous questions that personal trainers and fitness coaches receive from women again and again:

Will strength training build large muscles and make me look bulky?

Well, the answer to that question is that it depends – on a lot of things. However, in almost all cases – no, strength training does not build large, bulky muscles in women. That might be enough of an answer to satisfy some, but there’s more to the story, and we’re going to cover all of the main considerations in this article.

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Female Heavy Bodybuilder
Photo Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/sscusp/
Female Figure Competitor
Photo Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/charlesbaxter/
Female Physique
Photo Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/targophoto/

Note: I had my wife help me select these models to help me get a better perspective of what would be considered desirable versus undesirable. Click each image for larger version (if you dare).

Before we get started, let’s clear up some confusion concerning those photos.

On the left, we have the drugged diva, whom is clearly taking some form of steroid drugs, probably lives at the gym, and definitely eats like a horse. This is an example of a female professional bodybuilder. This type of physique is NOT the norm, and incredibly difficult to develop. Is it impressive? Absolutely. Is it admirable? Not-so-much. Is it horrifying, disgusting and utterly repulsive? No comment.

In the middle, we have a lady who is most likely not on steroids, but extremely regimented with training, nutrition, and lifestyle choices. Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between figure competitors and natural female bodybuilders, but I would imagine that this lady is one or the other. She certainly has some distinct muscle definition, but not nearly as much as the pro bodybuilder. For the record, my wife thinks she looks like a man from the shoulders down.

On the right, we have plain Jane who represents what a balanced diet and active lifestyle can probably do for most women (obviously dependent on body type).

You know what’s funny: each of these physiques represent what can be achieved through strength training.

strength training – (n) the use of resistance to a force to adapt the muscles, bones, and connective tissues of the body.

Types of strength training: lifting free weights (ie barbells, dumbbells, etc.), bodyweight exercise, weight swinging (ie clubbell and kettlebell training), weight machines, etc.

Note: the body only knows resistance, not where that resistance comes from. So, the body will adapt to whatever stress you impose upon it, whether that stress comes from free weights, your own bodyweight, or any other form of resistance. Many different types of activities can be used for strength training (not limited to the list above).

I know you’re probably just dying to know exactly how to build a physique like that pro bodybuilder on the left, aren’t you? Well, since you asked…

First, you would need a very rare set of genetics. This disqualifies 99.9% of all men and women right there. Seriously, almost all professional athletes have certain genetic predispositions that enhance their ability to compete in their sport. For example, you’d have a hard time finding professional basketball players that are short. In the same way, you’d have a hard time finding a professional female bodybuilder who wasn’t naturally well-muscled to begin with. That’s just how professional sports go.

On top of ideal genetics, you’d also need access to some very powerful anabolic/androgenic steroid drugs. These are synthetic forms of testosterone – the male sex hormone. While these do have some legitimate medical purposes, they are often used and abused for their muscle-enhancing effects. Prescriptions are hard to come by. Good luck getting an adequate, recurring supply – at least legally!

Then there’s the lifestyle aspect – or lack thereof. Basically, you need to live in the gym and consume a LOT of calories – both from real foods and supplements. We’re talking a minimum of 5 or 6 full meals a day, and eight daily meals is not uncommon during the “bulking phase” either. Gym training is extremely rigorous and periodized (again, just like any pro athlete). It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’d be using a body part split routine to maximize the damage you can do to the muscles each session. You also need plenty of rest, in the form of sleep, and “off days.” Forget about extra physical activity because that would interfere with your recovery.

Basically, you need to live and act just like a professional bodybuilder – for years. It’s not something that can just happen accidentally from a few workouts at the gym during the week. You need a rigorously planned regime – just like any other professional athlete. If you don’t know exactly what that would entail and aren’t willing to hire coaches and advisers who have successfully worked with pro’s, then you won’t achieve anything even remotely similar in results. Even then, it takes years of practice and training to achieve professional status. Many bodybuilders compete for decades without ever getting their “pro card.”

So, in essence, what I’m trying to say is that a physique like the one on the left certainly doesn’t happen by accident. You won’t wake up and find a behemoth staring back at you in the mirror. If you got the genetics for it and you employ the above strategies for 3-5 years, you might have a chance at approximating the drugged diva. So, I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you.

Yes, but what about the lady in the middle? Some would argue that she STILL looks like a man from the shoulders down.

OK, ok – you got me. I would venture a guess that the lady in the middle does NOT use steroids. She might not even be in the top 0.1% of those who are genetically “gifted” for muscle gain. But allow me to elaborate on that lifestyle component I hinted at before…

Without artificial drugs, it is very difficult to build a well-muscled physique. Let me repeat that. Without artificial drugs, it is VERY difficult to build a well-muscled physique (like the one in the middle photo above). It just doesn’t happen by accident. It only happens by design and years of pre-planned, focused effort. Of course, some results may vary, but we’re talking about the vast majority of women here.

That said, most women could probably approximate this amount of muscle development if they wanted to. You would definitely need to be genetically gifted to win a pro bodybuilding competition, but you don’t need special genetics to maximize your muscle potential.

The key word in that last sentence is maximize. This is a term we throw around in the fitness industry that requires something called specialization. When you want to maximize your results in anything, you need to become a specialist of some particular trade that will assist you in achieving those results.

If you don’t become a specialist, it’s unlikely that you’ll maximize your results in any endeavor. So, if you become a specialist of natural, drug-free muscle building, you might just start to build some significant muscle. Here are just a few of the things that would be involved:

1) A rigorous physical training program designed around the goal of muscle gain – Building muscle, while simple in principle, is not an easy goal to accomplish. It requires that some very specific training strategies be employed over a long period of time. One of those strategies is an exercise program that emphasizes hypertrophy-specific training. To ensure ongoing gains, this program will need to be individualized and periodized – probably by a professional who works with women who compete in fitness or figure competitions. If you don’t do this, you won’t experience excessive muscle gain.

2) A rigorous nutritional program designed around the goal of muscle gain – In order for the body to build muscle, it needs to be in a state of anabolism. Part of creating that state involves eating a caloric surplus. If you’re looking to gain muscle over an extended period of time, you’ll need to be eating a LOT of food almost every day. In fact, you’ll be eating more food than your body really needs, and so this means you probably won’t be hungry for every meal. You may even need to force feed yourself when you’re not hungry just to keep up with your calorie needs. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy – especially when done for several weeks or months. This gets right back to the point that you need to specialize in order to maximize. Food types, amounts, and meal timing all come into play in order to specialize in muscle building. If you thought going on a diet was hard, then wait until you try eating for a muscle building goal for any length of time.

3) A stringent set of lifestyle habits designed around the goal of muscle gain – For sake of brevity, I’m lumping the rest of the elements that go into muscle gain into this single category. Suffice to say, your entire lifestyle will need to change in order to specialize in muscle building. Just like if you wanted to specialize in rock climbing, dance, real estate investing, or anything else for that matter. The extent in which you desire the maximization of your genetic potential will determine the extent at which your lifestyle is affected. If you want to truly maximize your potential for muscle growth, then you’ll need to make some major changes to your day-to-day lifestyle.

So, you see, building muscle is not easy – not by a long shot. It certainly never happens by accident, and actually involves a lot of planning, preparation, and months upon months of hard work. Women who don’t strictly adhere to the above strategies just won’t build bulky muscles. This brings me to my final point.

Women cannot build an excessive amount of muscle even if they wanted to! You just don’t have the necessary physiological building blocks to do so.

According to Bill Kreamer in Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning – 3rd Edition, it’s estimated that women have around 15 to 20 times less natural testosterone than men, and other sources have reported even greater differences than that. Since testosterone is the primary muscle building hormone, it could be reasoned that women have 15-20 times less of a chance of building muscle than men. Since women do not naturally produce nearly as much testosterone as men do, it’s practically impossible for women to build large, bulky muscles (or grow full beards, sing extremely low notes, or grasp the intellectual complexity and cultural value of The Three Stooges – nyuk nuk nuk).

Men, on the other hand, have an adequate supply of natural testosterone to build large muscular frames. But here’s the thing, most men still have trouble building a significant amount of muscle. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve run into that have struggled for years trying to do it. This is where the term “hard-gainer” comes from. It’s just not easy to build muscle no matter who you are, even for those guys who have the natural ability to do so. Do you know why? Because they’re not specialists!

So, now hopefully you understand how difficult it is for women to “bulk up,” and also how irrational the fear of bulking up really is. Not only would you need to employ some drastic lifestyle changes, you would actually have to work against your own physical nature.

Why Strength Training is The Essential Element For Women With Specific Physique Goals

It’s ironic that the very thing women need most to help them achieve their goals is also what they tend to fear the most. We have this stigma in our society that women who lift weights or do any form of strength training will transform into a big, bulky bodybuilder. As you now know, this is simply not true. Strength training is actually the exact activity that is most appropriate for women who have specific physique goals. Let me explain.

When asked what kind of physique they would like to achieve from a fitness program, most women describe a goal of building long, lean muscles. They would rather be toned, than bulky. The good news is that your genetics, body type, and hormonal profile are all designed to develop this lean, toned physique. It’s in your physiology.

Strength training is also one of the healthiest things anyone can do – especially women. Here is just a sampling of the benefits of strength training for women:

  • increases lean muscle tissue, which builds strength and endurance
  • burns bodyfat – belly fat, cellulite, etc.
  • strengthens your metabolism, so you naturally burn more calories throughout the day
  • improves your posture
  • strengthens your bones reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis
  • reduces your risk of many other conditions including diabetes and some forms of cancer

Health benefits aside, every woman with specific physique goals needs to start strength training. Now, almost any form of strength training is going to be productive towards this end, but I think there are a few methods that work exceptionally well.

The Best Method of Strength Training For Women

You probably think that I forgot about the young lady pictured on the right. This is just one example of a preferable feminine physique that can be built with strength training. Of course, there are a lot of different ways to perform strength training, and some are more appropriate than others for women with specific physique goals.

You see, the traditional bodybuilding model of training is used to create large, bulky (and somewhat “chunky”) muscles. Barbells, dumbbells, and machines are used, almost always in a body part split routine – training one or two body parts on one day, and another body part on the next. The details will always vary, but that’s the gist of it. Bodybuilders use this because it’s the most effective method for developing the physique they’re aiming for.

That said, there are other types of strength training that are quite different, and much more appropriate for building lean muscle that results in a more toned look. Training styles that emphasize whole body training instead of body part split routines and compound exercises (multi-joint) instead of isolation exercises (single joint) will be the most beneficial. These types of methods work because they focus on the entire body at once, instead of trying to maximize the development of a particular body part. There are also program design considerations as well. For example, circuit training is generally more appropriate than doing straight sets.

That’s why I prefer training styles and tools that integrate and emphasize these qualities in their traditional application. Methods such as bodyweight exercise and clubbell training (among many others) are traditionally used for whole body training, which is the best strategy for building that lean, toned physique. It’s true that a training tool is NOT the same as a training method. However, some tools are commonly used for certain methods of training.

That doesn’t mean you couldn’t also use barbells, dumbbells, machines, etc. Many women use those tools and build the physique they’re seeking (just check out the physiques of any female Olympic weightlifter if you doubt it). However, to simplify the process, I think it’s best to use the most appropriate tools and strategies that will yield the best results from the simplest application.

There are a lot of options out there, but I think one of the best ones is any good bodyweight training program. This is the type of training that ties everything together, and 9 times out of 10 results in exactly what most women are looking for. If you’re new to bodyweight training or any form of strength training, and would like to learn more, there’s a wealth of information already here on Physical Living. Feel free to search around the archives. If you’d like to know what I recommend, here are a couple of places to get you started…

More Information:

TACFIT Commando – If you’re looking for a complete workout program that burns fat and builds lean muscle, but won’t bulk you up, then TACFIT Commando is one of the best ways to go. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though – this one is not for the faint of heart.

Bodyweight Exercise Revolution – a good all-around bodyweight training program.

Bodyweight Blueprint For Fat Loss – another good program that is meant specifically for those with fat loss goals.

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CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional

27 Responses

  1. Men struggle like hell to put on half a pound of muscle while losing 1% bodyfat, and women seem to think they can accidentally turn into the steroid princess if they do any kind of workout that involves lifting something heavier than a smoothie. Maybe this article will help to convince a few of them otherwise.

    • I hope so, Andy. Our culture has bombarded women with false ideals and preconceptions, and it’s not just limited to bodybuilding either. It’s time for that to change.

  2. Great article John. On the same page and been communicating this to females for years also.
    BTW I think both the woman in the middle and the right have gorgeous very female physiques. Not the one on the left however.

  3. I just wrote about this exact thing about a week ago on my blog. Conclusion as you probably can guess is pretty much the same.

    • Thanks for your comments, Joe and Eric. While guys do have their own faults when it comes to training, working hard with strength training usually isn’t one of them. Guys get this stuff. But rather than toot our horns and say “I told ya so,” I’d rather remind women that they can be fit and strong without losing an ounce of what makes them women.

      What we really need is more role models, which is why I appreciate professionals like Rachel Cosgrove and Valerie Waters, among others, whom represent what strength training can do for the physique and who also teach good strength training practices for women.

  4. Great article, John!
    One of the things I heard from friends when I started to lift heavy weights was, “Just don’t get too big. That’s disgusting!”
    Almost two years later, I’ve yet to see any “getting too big.” But I’m smaller and leaner instead. I hope a lot of other women read this article.

  5. Aquatic Panda

    Jon,

    I looked at the pictures before even reading the article. Right pic is definitely the fairest. :-D

    This article is also applicable for males. Basically, women (in my country anyway) definitely prefer toned men than gym-pumped bodies.

    On a related note: Can’t imagine myself doing parkour with all those excess baggage.

    Tim

  6. I prefer the woman in the middle. The woman on the right just looks young and thin, blah. Woman on the left way too muscular.

  7. The late Dan Duchaine noted that most national-class women’s fitness competitors are on steroids and he’d probably know since he provided drugs and nutritional coaching to many of them. The reason being is with their training routines–extended weight training, acrobatics, endurance, etc.–it would be nearly impossible for the average woman to retain much muscle mass. Made sense at the time and information has leaked out since then from former competitors validating Duchaine’s statements.

  8. Great post John! I, too, know many women who are “worried” about getting bulky if they become active (or, spend their gym time pumping 3 lb pink weights). Sadly, what they’ll get if they don’t train for strength is osteoporosis. Thanks for raising some awareness here.

  9. P.s. – John, you don’t know this, but last week I saw your post (from a few years ago I believe) about at-home parallel bar exercises using a walker. Totally inspired me to build myself a set of PVC paralletes which I did this morning. L-sits to handstands, here I come!

    • That’s awesome, Anna! I’ve been meaning to build some parallettes – not quite as far to fall off of :-)

  10. This is a REALLY important subject that just doesn’t get talked about enough. It can be really tough to get women in the gym and strength training because of the whole “bulking up” bias. Unless they’re injecting steroids, strength training for women will do nothing but improve their physique. Well done for approaching this subject and debunking some of the myths of strength training for women.

    My only critique of this article is that your conclusion (do bodyweight training instead of lifting weights) seems contradictory to the rest of your article. Women can’t get too muscular without steroids and that’s WHY it’s okay and even good for women to use traditional strength training equipment (barbells, dumbbells, etc). If, as a woman, you feel you’re getting “bulky”, that’s a matter of body fat levels, not of muscle gained. Body fat levels are going to be the biggest decider in whether a woman feels she’s bulky or not. You can’t gain too much muscle as a female (without steroids).

    A side note – this is also why the lady in middle photo might be getting a bit too much criticism. In her case she’s actually dieted down significantly for her competition and so it distorts what she would look like normally. Bring her up to a more normal body fat level (any photo of her in the off-season) and she’ll look a lot more like the lady on the far right except the lady in the middle would be a bit more “toned”.

    Anyways, this is an important topic and I’m glad you wrote this article. Gender bias doesn’t belong in the gym!

  11. Great article! I’ve been lifting for a few years now, and like Ana haven’t gotten bulky at all. I first started because I picked up the book “The New Rules of Lifting for Women” by Lou Schuler, before which I had been using 5-10 lb dumbells (what he calls “Barbie” weights :) because that’s all I knew how to do. He recommends full-body workouts as well, and most of the exercises in the book work multiple muscles at once rather than isolating single ones. I’m so glad I found his book and get further confirmation from articles like this that I won’t bulk up from lifting. Thanks!

  12. I think the only thing with the article that I wish was mentioned was the fact that, yes the first two photos the ladies are ripped..but they are also in contest mode. They don’t look like that year round. Most ladies in the second photo, non-contest look wonderful and would be admired more so if people saw that.

  13. Hi John!

    I must say I disagree with your comment about the woman in the middle, I don’t think she looks like a man, she looks like a woman who does natural body building (i.e. without steroids/drugs). Also on this picture she is obviously posing and she most probably doesn’t look as muscular when she is at rest. A good example of what a female natural bodybuilder looks like is Ernestine Shepherd, who at 75 looks very feminine when at rest, or course during contests (or posing for a photo) she shows and accentuates her muscles. These women are strong, without looking masculine like the woman in the first picture.

    Also, some women do indeed gain muscles and are strong naturally (i.e. without bodybuilding or strength building regiment), but it probably happens especially in certain situations, my friend’s mother for example, lived on a farm where they grew potatoes, and she had to lift big potatoe bags as a kid (helping on the farm) and she was surprisingly strong (she didn’t look like a man tho nor like the woman in the first picture).

    I agree with you about the woman on the first picture tho, she is obviously using steroids, and looks pretty masculine (she most likely doesn’t think so tho). Definitely not the look I would be aiming for. I noticed how the steroids not only helps them build bigger muscles then usual and/or natural (on a woman) but also gives them masculine facial traits, and that when they stop using the steroids their face gets back to normal with feminine traits.

  14. Beautiful dog by the way.

  15. Hi John,

    Great article. I linked you and used you as a source on my site for my post about women overcoming their fear of having huge muscles when they’re trying to tone up. This is very well-written and your photos illustrate a clear picture of what your readers needn’t worry about. I look forward to reading more of your articles!

    Jenna

  16. Excess testosterone in the body is converted into estrogen. And vice-versa. How do pro bodybuilders manage to fight the conversion if they “abuse” T? Do they use it to their advantage somehow?

  17. I am part of the .01 percent of women. When in college went into a weight room for the 1st time sat down at the leg press some guy had it on 375 lbs. got up moved it up to 720 lbs. that was about right for 1st. time. I can unload about a ton of mulch and stack it no problem… and I am 62 now.

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