Strong Curves: Women, Muscles, Bulk, and BS

“I don’t want to get big and bulky, I just want to be lean”.

If you are female, and in the fitness industry, you’ve heard someone say it.  You’ve seen women turn time and again to the cardio machines, instead of the weight room.  You’ve seen women lifting those pink 3 lb dumbbells so they don’t turn into some raging muscle-bound hulk.  You’ve maybe even been told (hopefully back in the mists of time) that you needed really high reps and really low weights to make sure you stay lean.

You’ve also likely seen the backlash – the Strong is the New Skinny campaign, Women and Weights classes at big box gyms, groups like Girls Gone Strong telling women it’s not only okay to lift heavy – it’s awesome.

Here’s the thing – some of us do think it’s awesome to lift heavy, to be able to see the definition in our muscles, and to train “like the guys do”.

There are a ton of benefits to lifting, not the least of which is fat loss.  Most people get into fitness because they want to feel better about themselves and look better naked.  Simple as that.  Want the most dramatic results?  Lift weights.  Aerobic training just doesn’t cut it if you want to change your body.  The more muscle you carry around, the more energy you need just to sustain life and maintain that muscle mass.  The more energy you need, the more calories you burn, even at complete rest.  Therefore, more muscle means a more efficient machine.

Women have been told for years that in order to “stay lean” and lose weight, they need light weights, high reps, and more aerobics.  Aerobic training (and tiny pink dumbbells) being the best tool for fat loss may be one of the greatest lies ever sold.  I could rail about how fitness marketing misleads and confuses people into buying items they don’t need, and following programs that are based on questionable (read: made-up or massively lacking) science, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make here.  If you want to read more about that, JC Deen has a pretty great article about the way fitness marketers talk to women.

But fitness marketers aren’t the only ones who should be on the hook.  As a trainer, I say to my female clients, “lifting weights won’t make you bulky”.  I assume they’re talking about body-builders bodies, and assure them that figures like that take tons of dedicated work, and incredibly restrictive diet and training programs – neither of which they’re engaged in.  I tell them that the she-hulk they’re imagining they’ll become doesn’t happen by accident, and not to worry.  I tell them about the various health benefits of lifting, and how it will help them move in their day-to-day lives.

But I don’t know what “bulky” looks like to them.

I only know what it looks like to me.  Leigh Peele wrote a brilliant post about this disconnect.  Long, riveting read short, according to the 2000 women she polled online:

  • The majority of women don’t like the look of muscle on themselves or others.
  • The majority of women think that men prefer the look of a lack  of muscle on a woman’s body.
  • The majority felt that Jessica Biel and Hilary Swank (in Million Dollar Baby) define “bulky.”
  • The majority of the women expressed little interest in lifting weight, even if it didn’t result in a “bulking” effect.
  • A large majority of women would rather be too thin than either too fat or too muscular.
  • More women would choose to be fat over muscular.
  • Based on the actresses’ looks, women prefer softer and trim over too lean or too muscular.

Here’s my arm:

Here’s my stomach:

I’m practically The Situation.

Here’s my back:

Ask me now, and I’ll tell you I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve put into my body.  I love lifting and I love the way it helps me look.

If you’d asked me five years ago, and I’d have told you that girl looks kind of, well, bulky.  My idea of what is healthy and hot has changed over time. I’ve gotten used to the way that my body has changed over the years, and as a result my ideas about what’s sexy and what I want myself to look like have changed.  It’s important to understand that “sexy” looks different to each and every person.  And on that note, to know that “healthy” feels different to each and every person.

Yes, there’s lots of science to back up the benefits of weight training and building muscle.  Yes, I love to lift heavy and hit PR’s.  I love that there are groups like Girls Gone Strong that encourage women to rock it in the weight room.  I love going to a gym where I can do more pull-ups than a dude. But, as trainers, we have to make people fall in love with fitness first.

If women feel like they’re getting conflicting messages about what works, and they don’t love what they’re doing, they won’t keep doing it.  More than anything, I think it comes down to listening, and meeting people where they’re at.  Will their opinions change over time?  Maybe.  But finger-pointing, name-calling, and self-righteousness don’t make people fall in love with anything.  If you’re a fitness enthusiast, no matter what level, find something you love to do, and rock the hell out of it.  If you’re a trainer, help your clients find something they love and encourage the heck out of them.  In my (limited) experience, once a woman realizes how strong she can be, she’ll fall hard and fast for that feeling – but she has to come to it herself.

Your body is your own.  Only you should choose what it should look like, feel like, and do.  Just because some folks still say you should lift tiny dumbbells for a million reps, that doesn’t mean you should.  Just because lifting heavy for women is in vogue (read: finally being encouraged) right now, that doesn’t mean you should either.  You should find the thing that makes you feel awesome, that makes you feel accomplished, that makes you feel like you are owning your body – and do that thing.  A lot.

If you want to learn more about lifting heavy, I’d suggest you start here.  Nia has some amazing tips for “lifting like a girl”.

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2 Comments

  1. If I remember correctly, women typically have far less free testosterone but the same number of receptor sites as men. Thus the disproportionate affect of external testosterone in female bodybuilders.
    With regard to training regular clients, I think the spread of goals and motivations for regular folks is far too broad for there to be one ‘solution’. Some people are training because they have a specific set of goals (reach X weight, do X pullups, run 10k), others are looking to avoid something (getting too fat, too big, too skinny, etc), and some are just looking for some activity to do. My thought is that it’s probably best to figure out which type you prefer to train and direct your efforts towards that group.

    • I agree. In fitness (and diet, and derby), it’s easy to become so attached to one methodology, that you begin to overlook what the client is actually saying about their goals and interests.

      Far better to, as you say, try to work with those similarly-minded, stay open to new ideas, and listen.

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