Good morning! I’m excited! Today we’re kicking off week one of my free January series called Don’t Fear the Weight Room.

Don't Fear the Weight Room

If you missed my announcement about it last week, make sure to check it out for the introductory information about what this series will entail:

Don’t Fear the Weight Room: Beyond Group Exercise and Cardio

To summarize, over the next four weeks I will be sharing my best tips and insight for those of you looking to get serious about strength training. There will be a blog post covering a general strength training topic that goes out every Monday, and there will be bonus supplemental material including how to videos and workouts provided to those who signed up to receive the Don’t Fear the Weight Room specific emails. If you missed the sign up, no worries! You can join in at any time.

Sign up link for BONUS Don’t Fear the Weight Room insider freebies 

Just click the link above to join before moving on to our first week’s topic: breaking the bulky myth! I’m starting with this because I think it’s important to get this message across and clear up any misconceptions before starting on your journey.

Don't Fear the Weight Room: Breaking the Bulky Myth

If I had to pinpoint some of the most common reasons that people are nervous to begin a strength training program, they would be not knowing if form is correct, not knowing how many sets and reps of each exercise to do, and not knowing the correct order to perform exercises in. However, beyond being unsure of proper execution, I truly believe that the other main thing holding people back from the weight room, especially women, is the fear of getting “too bulky.”

“I don’t want to get big and bulky. I just want to tone up.”

“I don’t want to look like a scary body builder.”

“Won’t lifting weights make me look like a man?”

I remember when I first started strength training, a few people would say to me, “don’t get too muscular.” Um, excuse me? I had, and still have, a few problems with this:

First of all, thanks (not) for the unsolicited advice. My body is MY body. My physique goals and how I want my body to look are nobody else’s business.

Workouts

Second of all, what does the phrase “don’t get too muscular” even mean? If you ask a room full of 100 people to describe what “too bulky” looks like, I am willing to bet that you’d get 100 different answers, and this is because the level of muscularity that constitutes bulkiness is completely subjective depending on who you ask. What one person finds “too bulky” someone else might find too slim. Someone else might find it just right. We really can’t define what getting too bulky really means, can we?

This brings me to my third point. I would argue that the thing most women who are afraid of “bulking up” actually fear is gaining muscle mass to an undesirable point (for them). To this I will say until I am blue in the face that picking up a dumbbell that weighs more than five pounds is NOT going to cause anyone to burst out of their clothes overnight and turn into the She Hulk.

However, there are a few things about muscle shape, muscle size, and the “you will not bulk up” argument that I want to point out.

ON MUSCLE SHAPE
There is a LOT of fitness marketing out there that promotes lifting a lighter load with higher repetitions because it will “tone and shape” your muscles. If this is the type of exercise you prefer to do, please know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This post and series are not meant to shoot down anyone’s preferred method of movement. I have had my ass kicked MANY times by super hard classes where I can really feel the burn of a three-pound dumbbell lifted in high repetition.

However, what IS wrong with these types of workouts is the promise of them being able to create long and lean muscles. To elongate your current body type into a ballerina one. No. Just no. Despite what any piece of marketing tells you, there is absolutely no training system that can change the shape of your muscles.

Plain and simple, what determines muscle shape is your genetics (thank you, Chuck and Georgia). So just as your muscles cannot shape themselves into some idealistic long and lean body from lifting two-pound weights, your muscles are not going to shape themselves into steroid mode either from trying out some barbell lifts. It’s clear to me why this type of women’s fitness marketing is another culprit of why people are afraid to lift heavy. “If lifting a light load at higher rep will make me long and lean, then the opposite must happen if I lift a heavier load at lower reps.” Oy!

ON MUSCLE SIZE
Muscle size is different from muscle shape. And I am going to be honest with you here. Some parts of your body WILL most likely get a little bigger after embarking on a strength training journey. But don’t let that scare you! When you start lifting weights, your muscles get stronger, and when your muscles get stronger, they get a little bigger. But strength training also makes some parts of your body smaller! Hear me out.

In my former cardio heavy days, by no means did I ever consider myself overweight. However, I didn’t consider myself very athletic or defined either. I wasn’t happy with my physique, and nothing on my body ever changed even though I would spend at least 45 miserable minutes on the elliptical when I wasn’t taking group ex classes up the wazoo. But when I started lifting weights, here’s what happened:

comparison 2

  • My glutes got bigger. Yeah! I always had flat bum, so it was pretty awesome to get a little rounder and perkier there.
  • My quads also got bigger. I struggled with this mentally a little bit at first. But because I was simultaneously losing body fat, even though my quad muscles were getting bigger, I was happier with the overall improved appearance of my legs and how I fit into my clothes.
  • My muscles in my shoulders, upper back, and arms became more defined.
  • I lost fat from my midsection. I could actually see my abs!
  • I lost fat from my face.

What’s my point? Even though lifting weights won’t make you “bulk up,” your muscles DO have the potential to get bigger… but only to an extent. Testosterone is the hormone primarily responsible for muscle gain, and women simply don’t have the required hormone balance to put on muscle mass in the ways men do. It would take a LOT of hard work (hours and hours in the gym) and a MAJOR nutrition underhaul to put on any significantly large amounts of muscle mass as a woman.

Muscle

Whether strength training can make women bulky is a topic that continues to get a lot of attention in the fitness industry, and honestly it would take many, many blog posts to cover all aspects of it. There’s SO much out there on how different body types can respond differently to different types of training, and everything depends around factors such as personal biochemistry, past training experience, the type of training, the frequency of training, etc. Nutrition also plays a HUGE part of any exercise program, and if you are someone whose caloric consumption inadvertently increases after beginning weight lifting, then you might actually mistaken increased body fat from food intake for muscle mass from lifting. This actually happened to me when I wasn’t honest with myself about how much food I was refueling my body with. “It’s okay to eat this and this and this and this… I work out!” Not so much.

However, if your nutrition is on point, your body will simply become much better at fat burning as your muscles get stronger. And even if certain muscles get bigger as they get stronger (refer back to my personal list above), the layer of fat around the muscles will shrink as well. Your end result? You’ll likely appear smaller OVERALL than before you started lifting.

Me and Liz

To summarize, only YOU get to choose what level of leanness or physique goals to shoot for, so don’t let anyone tell you that if you start lifting weights you will become too muscular. Everyone’s body is going to respond differently to training, but just trust the process and know that as you start navigating your way around the weight room, you simply are not going to get as “bulky” as you might fear. <3

For Don’t Fear the Weight Room insiders, keep your eyes out for today’s newsletter. Again, you must sign up here to receive the bonus info and action items. Just please be sure to check your spam folders if you do not receive the Week One email this morning!

Let’s chat! If you already follow a weight lifting program, were you afraid at first of becoming too bulky? What changes did you notice in your body after embarking on a program? For those who are newer to strength training, is getting too bulky something you fear? 

On deck for next week: the anatomy of the weight room! We’ll break down some of the most intimidating pieces of equipment and learn how to do things like load and deload a barbell, get set up in a squat rack, and more.

  1. Oh my gosh, Athena, this post is amazing. I love it. What a great topic to start out with in this series! As a fellow instructor, I hear it all the time, too: “I don’t want to get too bulky. I don’t want to look like a man.” THANK YOU for putting this out there and debunking the myth! I hope people, especially women, take it to heart.

    I, too, have had people very close to me ask me to “not get too bulky” and even go so far as saying they think I AM getting too bulky after a few years of strength training. My response is usually a giant eff you (more eloquently said) and it only fuels my strength training routine more. I love what you said about your body being YOUR body, and how you want it to look is nobody else’s business. So. Damn. True. Can’t wait to see the next post in this series! Happy New Year!

    • I can’t even believe someone said that you were getting too bulky! This stuff gets me so riled up. What you want to do with your body has nothing to do with them!

      Happy New Year, glad you’ve been enjoying this series so far. 🙂

  2. I’ve always been afraid of getting bulky since with my gymnastics background I was always self-conscious of my shoulders. I am also very competitive though, so ultimately, I like the feeling of being able to increase weight in my workouts. I’ve always read that it takes a lot to “bulk” up. I did the whole mostly cardio- then 30 min of random body weight/dumbbell exercises afterwards, but just got into too much of a routine and saw no results. I recently started Crossfit and was introduced to deadlifts, snatches, cleans, etc. I am loving it so far as it incorporates new strength workouts along with exercises I am familiar with (and it incorporates movements from my gymnastics background as well!)

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