I have trained a crazy number of women throughout my career. One of the first questions that I ask a new client is “What do you want your body to look like?” I would say that ninety-nine percent of the time I hear “toned muscles but not bulky.” The second most common phrase I hear from girls -“in the past when I lifted heavy weights I felt like I bulked up”. Let me repeat this statistic again, I hear this from women about ninety-nine percent of the time I ask this question or even discuss it with other girls. Yet some how, some way, science, men, and every article that you read in the media will continue to tell women to put heavy weights in their hands. In fact, they will tell you that as a woman you do not have the hormones necessary to build muscle mass. I want to be clear that when I say heavy weights, I mean the type of heavy that you truly struggle through six to ten reps with; the deadlifts that you can barely lift off the ground, and the bench press that you may need a spotter for. I am not talking about the fifteen pounds that you add to your lunges to make it a bit tougher. I want to first tell you my personal experience with lifting heavy weights and then lets explore the simple disconnect between the world and those of us girls who feel we GET BIG from lifting heavy weights.
My Rapid Muscle Gain: In December of 2012, I started training for an NPC Bikini Fitness Competition. I had an athletic/thin build to start with but my coach told me that I needed to build a lot more muscle so that I did not look skinny and frail on stage. My starting weight was 127 lbs., 18% body fat. In March of 2013 (exactly 3 months later), I weighed in the week before my competition at 136lbs, 15% body fat. This means that in three months, I gained about 8-10lbs of muscle (factoring water weight in). Was this lean muscle? Absolutely, but isn’t lean muscle still muscle mass? I was on a natural bulking training program and a natural bulking nutrition program. Most educated fitness professionals will read this and say that the rapid gain was because of the surplus of calories that I was eating and indeed, this is partly true. I was by no means going crazy with my meals just eating a bit more carbohydrates and a bit more protein then normal. During this building phase I was doing a five-day a week lifting program of weights that included six to eight repetitions of multiple exercises for each muscle group. My cardio was sprints twice a week. Knowing my own body pretty darn well, I know that if I had been doing a different combination of exercises (higher reps, faster pace, more days of cardio) and kept my diet the same; I would have ended the three months with a completely different look. My point being, I lifted heavy because I wanted to gain muscle for a show, not because I was going for a lean, toned look that ninety-nine percent of the female population is going for.
The Pain: I must mention that during these three months I pulled two muscles in my leg, spent hundreds of dollars on necessary weekly full body massages, and I started taking natural supplements to stop the aching of every joint in my body. I was twenty-six years old and felt sixty. I barely had energy to train my own clients, I was in pain, and my jeans were fitting tighter.
Toned versus Thick: I did the show in March and like most girls became obsessed with the unrealistic image of my body on the day of the competition. Losing around 8-10lbs of water the week of the show, I could see every muscle pop out beautifully and I felt tiny, really tan (ha), and perfect. FOR ONE DAY. So what happened after I ate real food and was off of the chicken and broccoli diet? I had a lot more muscle mass, and a necessary layer or two of body fat on top of it, leaving me feeling THICK or should I say BULKY? My point here is that sure, women can lift heavy weights and eat a perfect diet and won’t look or feel bulky at all. But wait, who do you know that really eats a perfect diet a hundred percent of the time? If you are going to put muscle mass on, you have to make sure to keep your body fat extra, extra low!
My experience being told, lets look at the simple explanation of why the world feels women do not bulk up from lifting heavy. The science: muscle fibers either increase or decrease in size, there is no way around this fact. The difference between a toned muscle and an un-toned muscle is the amount of body fat that is layered on top of the muscle. When women say they want to tone up- what they are really asking for is a little bit more size in their muscles and to shed some extra body fat. I want to be clear that science does say there is no difference between muscle tone and muscle bulk. Here is the culprit: the disconnect lies between the amount of mass a women is comfortable gaining for the “toned look” and how efficiently she can burn fat during this process. The in-between line of just a bit too much muscle and not enough fat loss is where the problem of feeling bulky exists. In my opinion, getting a lean and toned look still will never require a woman picking up an extremely heavy weight. It will never require a six-rep exercise with a sixty-pound dumbbell, nor will it ever make someone sacrifice one repetition of bad form because of an excessive, weighted load. Mind you I am talking on behalf of “the look” that these ninety-nine percent of girls I know are going for (and I do live in Los Angeles). A more muscular look is desired for many and is absolutely beautiful. I just want to voice that the concept of ‘lifting heavy weights’ is thrown at women way too easily. If done without a proper fat loss plan it can and will cause an undesired “bulky” look.
A Woman’s Body: In my opinion sculpting a woman’s body takes finesse. A half-inch difference in a woman’s jeans is completely different than a half inch in a mans. Swollen muscles just do not feel sexy to us, and too much impact on our delicate bodies can easily set us up for a triad of hormonal dysfunction. Mastering muscle tone without a day of feeling muscle bulk is an art that comes with fully understanding the science of exercise and the complexity of the human body. Added weight is such a wonderful tool in moderation but girls, don’t stack on the weights unless you truly know what you are doing.
Stay tuned for more blogs on how to train for the body you want.