Woman to Woman: The REAL TRUTH about lifting and bulking

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. Shut up and go lift." Or something similar to that. 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.

Let's start at the beginning.

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.

Let's debunk some of these common misconceptions.

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.

In summary:

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 per