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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Strength Training,Ladies, Lifting heavy wont make you bulk up!

Does Lifting Weights Make Women Bulky?

Reading Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds


DATE: 2021-12-09

It’s a sad scene when you walk into many gyms. Oftentimes, you see almost all the weights taken up by men and the majority of cardio equipment claimed by the women. If you’ve never noticed, check it out next time. It’s invariably the case. 

As a personal trainer, you know how vital it is for women to engage in weightlifting. Not just any weight lifting either, but lifting heavy. In addition to building stronger muscles, lifting heavy weights is one of the only ways to increase bone density. 

Many female clients are so afraid of “bulking up” and building big muscles if they lift weights. As a result, they stay away from resistance training altogether. But fear not! 

It’s Good for Your Bones and Body, and It Won’t Result in Big Bulky Muscles

Women are at the highest risk of osteoporosis as time goes on. Taking calcium supplements is helpful but nothing improves bone mass like lifting weights. In fact, there is a specific biological process that makes your body lay down more bone material in response to the kind of stress that women only get from heavy weight training.

Check out this ISSA blog to learn more about increasing bone density.

What Do We Mean By “Lifting Heavy”?

Here we’re referring to keeping your reps in the 6-10 range. This also involves reaching muscle failure—being unable to perform another complete repetition—by the final rep of the set. 

When lifting heavy resistance and keeping reps lower, rest periods need to be increased. This helps fully regenerate ATP to its highest potential. 

When lifting a lighter resistance for more reps (around 40-50% of your 1-rep max for 20 reps), rest periods can be kept to around 20-30 seconds. 

When lifting 75-90% of your 1RM, rest periods need to be extended to 2-5 minutes. If they aren’t, your strength will be heavily compromised during the next set attempt.

No Testosterone, No Bulky Muscle

Okay, maybe no testosterone is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps it would be more precise to say, “less testosterone, less muscle growth.”

Testosterone and human growth hormone are the two major hormones involved in building lean muscle. Everyone has them both, but men have way more testosterone than women. In general, women have about a 15-20% lower concentration of testosterone in their bodies than men. 

Does lifting weights increase testosterone in women? Maybe but not a lot. One study found that serum testosterone only increased significantly in men after strength training. And it only increased significantly when this training involved the use of heavier weight. 

Here’s the bottom line. Without that extra testosterone, we ladies simply can’t –as in we are biologically unable to – build big muscles like guys. Science confirms this. So, it’s time for us to stop worrying about excessive muscle mass when weight training.

Sports scientists have known for a long time that it is possible to manipulate (to an extent) the body’s hormonal response with different training protocols. For instance, as found in the study mentioned, heavy training increases serum testosterone concentration.

T levels increase in all genders following a heavy resistance training session. Yet, females are unable to build the type of muscle men do because of our genetic makeup. Males utilize their testosterone to achieve greater levels of muscle gain. Females can't grow muscle tissue to the same degree since we have lower levels of testosterone. Plus, we have higher levels of estrogen and progesterone.

What About Female Bodybuilders?

Isn’t this an example of heavy weightlifting leading to bulk?

Most of these examples are usually of professional female bodybuilders. But the women’s muscle size isn’t obtained through lifting alone.

To become a professional woman bodybuilder, many take anabolic androgenic steroids, testosterone, and other ergogenic aids to achieve a body worthy of that title. Research shows that using these substances can help increase muscle mass and strength at a much faster pace than can be achieved naturally. 

So yes, some women can create large muscles. But that degree of lean mass doesn't come by just lifting heavy weights.

Lifting Weights and Muscle Tone

The word that most women use to describe their fitness goals is “toning.” They say, “I want to tone my arms” or “make my stomach more tone.” 

Muscle tone, also known as muscle tonus or residual muscle tension, is an unconscious low-level contraction of the muscle while it is at rest. Put another way, muscle tone is what makes your muscles feel somewhat firm when you’re not intentionally tensing them.

In reality, there is no such thing as toning a specific muscle or area of the body. No one can change the shape of their muscles; that’s determined by genetics. Instead, when someone says they want to “tone” something up, what they actually mean is something else. Maybe they want to lose excess body fat. Or perhaps they want to build some muscle and get tighter and firmer. 

Any personal trainer knows that the major key to achieving a tight, firm physique is sound nutritional practices. A six-pack is made in the kitchen, not in the gym, so to speak. Furthermore, to build muscle, resistance training loads need to be heavy. Rest periods must also be 60-90 seconds and the rep range for each exercise around 6 to 12.

Using light weights and performing higher reps will not help gain muscle definition and strength. That type of training is good for increasing muscle endurance. It’s also good for increasing Type I muscle fibers (the muscle fiber also known as “slow twitch”). But it’s not useful for building more muscle and getting stronger.

So…Does Lifting Weights Make Women Bulky?

Don’t think that just because you lift heavy and exercise hard that you’ll end up looking like a professional woman bodybuilder because 99.9% of the time, you won’t. Remaining a natural athlete while utilizing a healthy, nutrient-dense diet, proper supplementation, proper exercise programs, and recovery techniques are how you achieve a lean, firm, tight, athletic body. 

If body fat is a concern, weight training can also help with weight loss. Usually, burning calories is associated with a cardio workout. However, muscle burns more calories than body fat—even when you are at rest. This helps create a calorie deficit, leading to greater fat loss. This can leave you with increased confidence, cognitive clarity, elevated mood, attractive curves, and a new outlook in the weight room!

Ready to take your love for working out to the next level and start making money? Get certified as a trainer and share your love for fitness with clients by helping them meet their health goals. Check out the ISSA’s personal trainer course and start building your new career today!

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