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Does Weight Lifting Make Women Bulky?


woman being coached in lifting weights at afs


As you diet, exercise, and lose weight, the ultimate goal is to reach a healthy level of body fat. We all know the general health benefits from having a healthy body fat percentage and how aesthetically pleasing it can be. But what happens when you reach your healthy percentage? What happens when there is very little fat to lose? In most cases the next progression would be to address general muscular fitness and increase your total amount of lean mass through resistance training.

For most men, this concept is no issue. Curls for the girls? Count us in! But for women, it’s a different story. There is a preconceived notion by many women that lifting weights, to any degree, will make them “bulk up.”


Women tend to believe this based off of one or two things:

1. Pictures in popular magazines or television ads

2. Their own past experience with resistance training


1. Pictures in popular magazines or television ads: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “DO NOT underestimate the power of photoshop!”

Pictures you see in ads can be deceiving. Not only are fitness models paid to live a healthy lifestyle, their physical appearance is often altered in programs like Photoshop to achieve the exact look the company is trying to brand. The lighting is perfect, lines and shadows are air brushed in, and the model you see in the picture most likely has been working for years to achieve that level of fitness.

2. Womens’ past experience with resistance training: Ironically, most women tend to say, “I bulk up really quick. I can’t lift weights.” As I ask probing questions, I find out that, majority of the time, women have attempted a poorly designed, unsupervised, and unplanned resistance training program with unrealistic goals… creating the perfect storm.

Goals should be based on gaining muscle mass, NOT losing fat. Their bodies’ initial response to the new stimulus (whether this be swelling, soreness, or injury) sends them running from the weight room, with the notion that, if they keep lifting weights, they will get bigger and bigger or eventually get hurt.


The sudden increase in the size of a muscle as a result of resistance training is attributed to something called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.” For simplicity’s sake, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy essentially means swelling in the muscle. In order to adapt, our muscles will store more carbohydrates (to use as quick fuel), mitochondria (our “cellular power plants”), enzymes, and other fluids. All of these changes will allow the cells of our muscle to produce greater amounts of energy, which is required for muscle contraction. Swelling of the fibers, in part, occurs to house these new adaptations.

Along with this swelling, you will also experience increased blood flow to the muscle. This blood flow is essential in order to deliver nutrients to the working muscles as well as remove waste. At rest, approximately 20% of total blood volume will be circulating within skeletal muscles. During high volume, high intensity resistance training, this can reach 90%! Keep in mind that a great deal of the fluid retention fluctuates, so your increase in circumference only lasts for a short period of time.

Many times, women will mistake this inflammation and increased blood flow to skeletal muscle as “bulking up.” Skinny jeans or that new top from Lululemon most likely will feel tighter after starting a resistance training program, but this is not a bad thing. This sudden change in circumference is a normal response to the stimulus. It is important to understand that a female’s lower level of testosterone (one of our most anabolic hormones) will eventually limit her potential for further growth.

There’s More to Resistance Training Than Just Gaining Muscle for Looks!

This list could go on and on, but most people, especially women, should consider the following benefits from a well-designed resistance training program:

Metabolic Activity: Higher amounts of muscle equals higher amount of metabolic activity. Lean mass is our most metabolically active tissue. There is a direct correlation between lean mass and metabolism.

Injury Prevention: Stronger, well trained muscles equal stronger, more stable joints. Shoulders, knees, and lower back injuries are the most common orthopedic issues, especially in middle aged adults and senior citizens. Resistance training can significantly lower your chance of a major injury if PROPERLY performed with a planned progression.

Balance: Stronger joints and a stronger core equal balance. Maintaining muscular fitness late into life greatly reduces the risk of a debilitating fall.

Osteoporosis: Muscular strength gains, accompanied with direct loading of the bones, results in an increase in bone mineral density (BMD). Higher BMD equals a lower risk of osteoporosis, which is very important, especially for women approaching menopause.

Take Away Message

Worrying about bulking up seems misguided given all of the benefits WE KNOW come from a well-designed resistance training program. You should be less worried about the bulk and more focused on living a longer, healthier life… even if that means your favorite jeans are a little snug!

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