I’ve heard some version of this sentiment from women in every phase of my career as a personal trainer: I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to get bulky. The word “bulky” in general sends shivers down my spine, because somehow it’s become a catch-all term for everything a (conventionally) feminine physique “should not” be. More specific than fat and somehow more insidious than muscular, bulky holds an infamous place in the female fitness vernacular as the absolute, ultimate embodiment of all things physically undesirable.
As a personal trainer and athlete, I have three (usually unpopular) stances on women getting “bulky.” First, the feared “bulky” physique is rarely one that comes from excess muscle and almost always one that comes with excess body fat. Second, it is extremely difficult to actually achieve a “bulky” physique with a weight-loss focused weight training and nutrition program (which is what 90% of my clientele request), since hypertrophy demands a caloric excess and heavy weight training to develop in any significant way. And finally – perhaps my most controversial view – if a woman was to achieve what is known in the industry as muscular “gains” – exactly why would that be a bad thing?
It is well documented that increasing lean mass comes with a host of long-term health benefits. Women who carry more muscle have reduced risks of osteoporosis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. A higher proportion of muscle mass increases the ability to burn fat at rest by boosting resting metabolism. A 2019 study even found that women with low appendicular (arm and leg) muscle mass were 63 times more likely to die early than those carrying adequate muscle.
While it’s true that women tend to take a more balanced approach to fitness than do men, integrating a mix of approaches in terms of cardio, resistance work, and flexibility/mobility workouts, still the strength training tends to take the back burner to big “calorie burning” exercises like running or cycling or “long and lean” formats like barre or Pilates. And when women do get into the weight room, they often don’t choose weights heavy enough to actually stimulate the kind of muscle growth that would lead to the benefits listed above.
And so, I still struggle to “sell” the power of muscle building to female clients at all ages.
Some straight women in their twenties and early thirties still subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that potential male partners are repelled by muscular female bodies. Those in their later thirties and forties, usually after childbearing or perimenopausal weight gain, may be fearful of lifting weights because they think it will impede the path to leanness and lightness. And women in their later forties and beyond often feel that it’s too late to get started, or they’ll aggravate existing chronic conditions or injuries.
To all of these women – and you! – I say this: every body benefits from regular strength training. It does not matter whether your goals are to lose weight, get leaner, improve metabolic performance, rediscover physical functionality, relieve pain, manage stress, age better, or a combination of all of the above. Moving your joints properly through an optimal range of motion while bearing weight against your major muscle groups is healthy for all women – point blank.
Worry not, though: if you are not doing this now, it is never, ever too late to get started.
My own mother, who is (self-proclaimed) “sweat-averse” and who worked hard raising us and serving as a third grade teacher, vowed that she would start a weight training regimen as soon as she retired – and at age 60, she did just that. She is now 72, over 20 pounds lighter than she was at 42, and hikes, bikes, walks, lifts weights, and does Zumba nearly every day. She has never suffered a major injury, has remarkable bone density, and takes zero medications – and again, all this after having only started a real strength training program at age 60. It is never too late.
Getting started – or beating the inertia, as is most often the case – can be the hardest part of the whole game, especially if you’ve never picked up a dumbbell or pushed a leg press. I recommend doing at least 3 sessions with a certified personal trainer, who can design safe, effective exercises, recommend proper resistance loads, and supervise your range of motion and alignment. Committed exercisers would then want to engage a trainer at least twice per week with the intention of developing a periodized, progressive weight training program customised to specific physical and wellness goals.
If a trainer is too far out of reach financially or with your current schedule or lifestyle, it doesn’t take a complete wellness overhaul to achieve modest gains in muscular fitness. Eating a larger proportion of calories from protein, making sure not to drop carbohydrates too low, and keeping daily calories close to maintenance will encourage early muscle growth alongside a weight training program. A fundamental movement focus including squats, hip hinges, push and pull movements, and rotations can even start at home and progress to a gym or class setting once ready. Small steps can snowball into big results when applied consistently and progressively over time.
To summarise: you, yes you, should be lifting weights regularly, those weights should be as heavy as you can safely handle, and the outcome of those efforts will support any and all fitness goals you have for yourself. Drop the “bulky” myths fed to you by a patriarchal and archaic cultural relic so you can harness the mental, physical, and emotional power that comes from creating your own strongest physique.