Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Muscle is beautiful. Muscle is powerful. And muscle is darn right magical when you think about it!
A muscle contracts or releases in order to pull our bones closer or farther together, which creates movement. But muscle also makes us look hot as hell and enables us to do really cool things at the gym. And carry our bottles of wine home from Trader Joe's.
Muscle gives us a fit, lean look especially when eating a fit, lean diet.
Yet, so many women still cringe at the word "muscle". While I do believe the conversation is changing drastically for the better and lifting is thankfully becoming less taboo, many women are still terrified by the common misconception that lifting weights will make them look "bulky" or "man-like". And even worse, I think there is a bit of shaming going on when fitness professionals quickly retort, "Lifting won't make you bulk, that's impossible. You're a woman, you don't have enough testosterone for that. Stop whining and go lift." So now we have a population of women who are not only afraid to lift, but afraid to admit they are afraid to lift. Womp womp.
I think the best way to remedy this fear is to educate: teach women how muscle is built, ways to maximize their training for lean goals, and how to eat for lean goals. This is something I am dedicated to as a trainer myself, and hopefully this blog post can serve as a tipping point for any woman who's questioned the efficacy of lifting, woman to woman.
Lean vs Toned
Yes, it is true that lifting weights is scientifically proven to be one of the most efficient ways to promote fat loss while retaining muscle, which is a critical combination to looking lean or..."toned". Adding resistance to our workouts imposes (good) stress on the muscle, forcing it to adapt to the stress or load. The more we force our body to adapt, the stronger and fitter we get in the process. And, the leaner we can also get, when supported by a healthy lean diet.
Now, I say "toned" in quotations because “toned” is a phrase that the media/fitness industry made up as a catchier synonym to actually mean "lean". Tone, or muscle tonus as per the textbook definition, actually describes the muscle fibers and the rate of muscle contraction at an internal, nearly microscopic level, and has little to nothing to do directly with your six pack.
If someone says they want a “toned” look, what they most often mean is they want to be lean. When you are lean, you have a lower body fat percentage. A lower body fat percentage implies that you've removed the excess layer of fat that sits on top of the muscle, exposing the beautiful musculature underneath. Including making visible that highly coveted six-pack! After all, we are all already born with a six pack: it's called the rectus abdominus. It's just a matter of getting lean enough to unveil it.
Now, when I said musculature, did that word scare anyone? If it did, you’re not alone. We fear what we don’t know. This is why some women have a hard time trusting that lifting won't create Hulk-like muscles, and it isn't their fault! This misconception is due to MISINFORMATION, LACK OF INFORMATION, DISMISSAL and PERCEPTION.
Debunking the Myth
She’s heard in the past that lifting makes you bulky.
Is it possible for some people put on muscle mass faster than others? Yes! These body types are classified as "mesomorphs", meaning that genetically they are predisposed to building muscle faster and easier than others. The other two types or ectomorph (thin build, difficult to acquire and maintain mass) and endomorph (those who naturally tend to hold on to more body fat and have trouble losing). But before you immediately dive into classifying yourself as a meso, I want you to understand some things about muscle mass first to avoid misinformation.
While it’s true that we all put on muscle at different rates due to genetics, metabolism, activity levels, etc, it takes a helluva lot of effort for even men, who have significantly higher amounts of testosterone to support muscle growth, to amass. Even with that extra testosterone, it takes weeks and sometimes months for most men to put on even 1 pound of muscle. And this requires eating a lot, and lifting a lot.
So if muscle itself is no longer the enemy, what makes women feel "bulky"?
The answer is two-fold: nutrition and inflammation.
Let's first cover nutrition.
Lifting + eating a surplus of calories = bulking.
Lifting + eating maintenance or a deficit of calories = leaning.
That's about as simple as anyone could put it. If you eat for lean goals (lean protein, nutrient dense carbs, plenty of veggies and fruits, and healthy fats) lifting will produce "sculpted" "toned" (read) LEAN muscle. However, if you believe that lifting negates the entire box of donuts you had this morning, well then, you will bulk. Remember, you cannot out train your diet. But you certainly can overeat your training.
At the end of the day, fat/muscle loss/gains is a matter of thermodynamics. If you are eating a surplus of calories, then some of those calories will go to energy expenditure when eating, breathing, lifting, and some of those calories will be stored on your body, and produce mass. Some of this mass will be muscle, some of this mass will be fat.
Keep in mind that muscle itself is quite dense and does not take up much space. So if you are feeling as though your muscles are “growing” rapidly while following a lifting program, it is more likely the layer of fat tissue on top of the muscle that hasn’t yet been shed.
Continuing to follow a strength and conditioning regimen consistently along with a lean diet will help to decrease body fat and maintain muscle, two crucial elements to looking lean and fit as hell.
If you are lifting while eating maintenance calories (exactly what your body needs calorically in order to survive and exercise while maintaining weight) or in a deficit (slightly less calories than maintenance in order to promote fat loss) you will achieve a lean look. Adding actual muscle mass takes weeks if not months, so if you are feeling bulky while lifting, the first place to look is your nutrition. The kitchen is likely the culprit, not the barbell.
She’s noticed after lifting that she looks "larger" or "thicker" and her clothes fit a little tighter not looser directly following a session.
If there was one reason women abandon their lifting regimens, I think this is it. This factor personally scared me away from lifting back in the day, until I truly understood what was going on. Until you understand how muscle is created, it's easy to mistake that post-workout pump as actual muscle mass. So what is really going on here? First of all, let me start by saying that if you've ever felt as though your clothes fit tighter after a workout, you are NOT crazy. The reason you may feel “bulky” after a workout is because YOU ARE SWOLLEN.
Let’s rewind and talk about how strength and lean muscle is built.
When we push, pull, lift, carry resistance, we are creating microtrauma to the muscle. This is how we build strength. The muscle tissue experiences tiny “tears” under tension. When our body repairs this muscle during recovery, our body has grown in strength and eventually mass. This is quite literally what it means to build muscle.
Now. How does the body heal from injury? Inflammation. So what do you think happens to the microtears in your muscles post-lifting session? The muscle holds onto water and swells in order to heal. THEREFORE! That is the post-workout pump that men love, and the same pump that send most women into a panic thinking they will resemble Arnold in a week flat. Which leads them to falsely think that lifting = bulking. So they run back to the cardio machines, and continue to do what they have always done and continue to seek the results they don't yet have.
So the next time you lift, just remember, the pumped up look you have is not actual muscle mass, you’re just swollen! You are healing and getting stronger. With proper nutrition, plenty of water, and healthy amounts of sodium this water retention will be flushed out leaving you lean and lovely.
She sees instagram feeds full of bodybuilders or crossfit athletes and immediately thinks that she will look the same after a few deadlifts.
Please keep in mind that when you see photos of female Crossfit athletes or figure competitors/bodybuilders, these women are living, breathing, eating and training every single day for these goals. This muscle isn’t happening by accident or even as a result of a full body strength and conditioning program. These women are training around the clock and eating very specifically for these goals. Why? They need a certain amount of muscle mass to compete at a high level of performance. However, I think it’s easy for women to see these photos and automatically reduce their thinking to weights = lots of extra muscle.
Again, these women work very hard to put on this muscle to achieve their goals. Unless you follow their same regimen for years and years, I promise that you will not appear like them unless you want to! And you're brave enough to work for it, day in and day out!
Bulky is in the eye of the beholder.
This might be one of the most important points to drive home, because everyone’s idea of “fit”, “toned”, “sculpted”, “lean”, “bulky”, “ideal”, "muscular", "too muscular", "athletic", "thin" is different. So we must learn to acknowledge and respect the beautiful variety of body types out there, whether it’s willowy and thin, powerful and muscular, bodacious and curvy. And we must be mindful that what one woman deems as “too muscular” or “bulky” might very well be beautiful and ideal to the next. Before we judge someone for their lack or excess of muscle, remember that we have not walked, or run, or sprinted, or lifted in her shoes. That "thin waify" girl might actually be totally self-conscious that she can't gain muscle mass easily; that "muscular girl with the crazy quads" might actually have been working really hard for three years to make her stick legs look that shapely.
At the end of the day, yes, it’s nice to feel comfortable in our own skin and love the reflection we see staring back at us in the mirror, but it’s also crucial that we love and respect the incredible movement, strength, power and athleticism our bodies are capable of on the path to fit/toned/lean/thin/muscular/HAPPY.
So get out there, lift some heavy sh#t, eat with intention, and know that by doing this, you are educating and empowering more women everywhere to do the same.
xo + protein puffs,
*this blog was originally published in May 2016, and has been republished at Mark Fisher Fitness.
UPSTRENGTH STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAM FOR FEMALES
Here is an awesome full body program to try at the gym to get “toned” AF:
A1 Deadlifts 3 x 8
A2 Pushups 3 x 10-12
B1 Goblet Squats 3 x 8
B2 Bent Over Rows 3 x 8
B3 Plank Hold 3 x 1:00*
C1 Split Squats 2 x 8 R/L
C2 Hollow Hangs 2 x 0:30*
C3 Bear Crawls 2 x 1:00*
Pick a Cardio Machine (Treadmill, Stairmaster, Elliptical, Stationary Bike)
1:00 HARD, balls to the wall, pace
1:00 Recover, EASY pace
Repeat 3 - 8x
*or as long as you can beautifully with good form