Weight training for women: The “too bulky” myth and how to tone

Photo credit: younganddraw.com

Photo credit: younganddraw.com

By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor

Myth of “getting too bulky”

There is a troublingly popular – though fortunately its debunking is becoming more and more mainstream – sentiment out there that lifting weights will put women at risk of becoming “too bulky.”  All questions of preferable look aside (yes, some women prefer to look more muscular than others, and trying to convince someone to desire to look some other way is a pointless or else losing battle), I think this poses a very real concern to many women who have hopes of getting in shape.

Even those who may have heard it dispelled may have had the idea ingrained long enough that it becomes a legitimate source of worry for them when considering picking up lifting.  And so, as a necessary part to this series on weight training for women, I want to briefly cover this notion and put to rest any unfounded fears my readers may have about this.

Compare natural female physique competitors to enhanced

Here is how I would go about making this argument clear as day right from the get-go.  I encourage you to look up natural female physique contest athletes.  In the world of natural physique competitions, “bodybuilding” is generally not a category for the female athletes, as this pertains more to the supraphysiological levels of muscularity and leanness achievable only by enhanced women, if you catch my drift.

Instead, the most muscular category of women are the physique competitors; then come the figure competitors, judged primarily for their leanness and model-like stature; and then finally, bikini competitors, a group I have the utmost respect for yet cannot honestly get into the judgment qualifications of appropriately – I will leave the rest to your imagination there.

So, I want you to compare these natural competitors (all three categories of which are comprised of women going for different looks, as I have mentioned) with their enhanced/non-drug tested counterparts (i.e. look up “female bodybuilding”).  Now, there is obviously nothing objectively worse about the way these latter athletes look, and bringing the difference in aesthetics to your attention is certainly not meant to imply this; for many women, the latter look is the desirable look.  However, for those who are intimidated by the prospect of naturally attaining this look by lifting weights heavier than the pink 6 lb. dumbbell, I use this illustration to prove to you this simply will not happen.

And even within this group of drug-tested female athletes, we are still talking about women who eat, sleep, and breathe this lifestyle (not to mention, “cheating,” in terms of which banned substances are taken, is highly prevalent in natural physique competitions, so do not assume these looks were all obtained naturally just because they were drug tested).

The science

Here is the actual hard science behind the matter:

  • According to the empirically based estimations of Perform-360, only about 5-10% of women will have the genetics necessary to put on muscle relatively easily. Even still, we are not talking about mass monsters here; that simply does not happen naturally.
  • Women have up to 50% smaller muscle cross sections than men (Miller, MacDougall, Tarnopolsky, & Sale, 1993)
  • Male levels of testosterone are around 7-8 times greater than females’ (Torjesen & Sandnes, 2004)

“But what if I just want to get toned?”

The idea of getting “toned” through lifting is an offshoot of the “too bulky” myth, which misses the mark when we consider that being “toned” is just a description of leanness, which is determined exclusively through caloric restriction.

On this note, though you have likely heard this one plenty of times as well, “spot reduction” – aiming to burn fat in specific areas by locally isolating exercise to those areas – does not work (Ramírez-Campillo et al., 2013).  The intramuscular triglycerides (IMTGs) found in the muscles recruited cannot be directly mobilized, let alone oxidized, for local force production (not to mention, IMTGs are not usually the areas we are trying to target).  However, any form of intensive exercise (or dietary restriction) will lead to generalized mobilization of fat cells.

How to actually get the “toned” look:

None of this is to say the “toned” look is not achievable.  What it really is, though, is the culmination of adequate leanness and muscularity; the two combined form this “toned” look we are accustomed to identifying without actually understanding.  So then, how you lose it amounts to:

  • If overweight, restricting calories to acquire the lean look
  • If lean to begin with, putting oneself into a slight caloric surplus (with adequate protein intake) to build a base of muscle

Next week

I have now used up two entire installments of the series on women and weight training specifically to deal with introductory background information.  So, in next week’s [final] edition (of the semester, at least), I will do my best to construct a foolproof, user-friendly template for creating your own programming/scheduling for weight training.  I will go over all relevant aspects, but since this is such an unbelievably broad topic, it will not be the ultra-specific, detailed style of writing you may be used to seeing from me.  Stay tuned!


Print Friendly

Author: Ari Snaevarsson

Ari Snaevarsson '17 is a Health Sciences major and Religious Studies minor, and he is the Features Editor of The Gettysburgian. He competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting and has an immense passion for dissecting the habit psychology at play in people's dieting attempts. Outside of reading and bedroom DJ-ing, he has previously maintained a health/fitness blog that also followed nutrition news, No Fluff Strength.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *