posted on October 22, 2018
Tools for building the body you want, no matter what that means.
When I talk about Union Fitness, one of my absolute favorite things to bring up is the huge number of women we have lifting along side the guys in the Strength Lab. And even more-so, how many of those women are very new to training with barbells. Our #powerful (women)’s class has been moving along steadily since it first began over a year ago, and many of the women that dipped their toe into lifting in that class have moved on to doing their own thing now! This has always been my number one goal as a trainer at UF, and I’m so proud of our women every day.
For many of us, when we first start lifting we realize that we’re doing something that’s not the norm. It can bring up a lot of anxieties that we weren’t even fully aware we had. Sometimes that’s related to injury, sometimes it’s just doubting that we’re strong enough to move the 45lb barbell to begin with, but usually it comes down to how we look.
“Won’t lifting weights make me too big? I don’t want to look bulky!”
Let’s break this down.
First and foremost, we need to define what “bulkiness” means in this context, and that’s not easy to do! There are thousands of articles floating around on the internet right now that mock women for having these fears. “You can’t accidentally get too big, it’s like assuming that learning how to drive means you’ll immediately turn into a Nascar driver.” Of course that’s true, but that’s not the point. There is no clear line in the sand demarcating what is “just right” and what is “too big.” That’s different for every single person, regardless of gender.
For many men in the fitness industry, there is an assumption that when women voice this fear, they’re saying they are afraid they’re going to turn into a pro bodybuilder like Iris Kyle without meaning to (and an aside, the actual women’s bodybuilding category has been all but eliminated because of lack of popularity, so think about that juxtaposition for a minute before spouting this line off). That’s usually not the case. Women who strength train have all kinds of bodies, and not all of them are #goals for every single woman who comes through the gym. This is where I wish this industry had a little more patience and compassion for new lifters. Aesthetic goals are highly individual and also tend to change with time. Slow down and listen.
If you, reader, are worried about getting too big, that’s ok! Build the body you want, not the one someone else thinks you should have, no matter who they are or where they’re coming from. It’s your body and you have complete agency over it. My only caveat that is to make sure you have all the tools at your disposal to understand what’s going on when you start resistance training. I’m going to help out with that a bit here.
Muscle Building, Strength Building
Generally speaking, men and women can train exactly the same way in the weight room. There are some minor differences (which I’ll get into below) but we don’t need to do different exercises or train at different rep ranges to build strength and get results. You can choose to alter your program for your specific goals, and you should!
The primary difference, especially in this context, is the rate at which men vs women build muscle. Surprise, men can build more and do it faster, thanks to testosterone. We don’t have much – around 1/10th of what men have on average (but that’s not always a bad thing). Without supplementing testosterone, women with hormonal profiles within normal ranges will never get that big. Our biology simply doesn’t permit it. This isn’t to say that women can never build lots of muscle, just that it takes a lot longer than you’d think!
Keep in mind that there is a difference between muscle gain and strength gain. Yes, because of their larger body size and proportionally higher percentage of muscle vs fat, males will typically always be stronger than females of equal size, but the rate at which we build strength is actually quite similar! Strength building is about much more than just growing bigger muscles: there are a lot of neurological adaptations that take place as well. As you practice movements more, your body gets more efficient at performing them, and learns to recruit more muscle tissue to help with time.
We have some advantages too. While women’s absolute 1 rep max (the most you can lift) is usually little lower than would be predicted because we typically have fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones that let us move something really quickly one time) than men, we are typically able to handle a lot more volume and variety than men. That means you can train a little more than the men around you do and you’ll have the ability to recover and get right back to it. We typically have better metabolic health due to our fat distribution, our increased amount of estrogen, and our proportionally smaller size. All pretty awesome things! It’s a trade-off, but not a terrible one.
Above we talked about the difference between building muscle and strength, but not the how or the why. Let’s start with the practical bits, which means we’re talking rep ranges.
There are three general rep ranges that we use when lifting – low reps (5 or fewer) to build strength, medium reps (6 to 12) to build muscle (hypertrophy), and very high reps (13+) to build endurance. The lower the reps, the more weight you can use. For some reason, that low rep range, where we build the most strength, is the one that many women shy away from in fears of getting too big. But that doesn’t make much sense does it? A lot of women’s programs tend to work in the higher rep ranges, which may actually be more muscle-building!
All of these rep ranges are important, and we use all of them in our programs and classes for a reason. But if you’re goal is specifically to get stronger without adding size, skip that middle hypertrophy tier for the most part and focus on increasing the weight you can use for a few reps.
The last and most important thing to think about when it comes to gaining (or losing) size: how you’re eating. You can do as much work in that hypertrophy range as you want, but if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning each day, you will not get bigger. Your body needs fuel to build your muscles, and if you’re not providing it, your body can’t’ build it. You will gain some of those neuromuscular adaptations we talked about above, so it’s not that you’re working out in vain, but the results will not be bigger muscles. This is just another tool at your disposal: eat the right amounts for the size you want to be. Everything else is just extra.
One final aside on the practical: this is purely anecdotal but I’ve experienced it and heard it form countless other women. When you change your training program, like beginning to lift or starting a new intense HIIT program, you’ll feel some water retention. You’re using your muscles in a new way, causing microtears and inflammation that need to be healed for you to get stronger. Part of that healing response is your body holding on to more water. It’s necessary but can be uncomfortable for the first few weeks of lifting. I always called the the “stuffed sausage” phase. It’s temporary, I promise. I will gladly commiserate with you if you’re dealing with this.
Why build strength? First, for the physical benefits. Getting stronger doesn’t just apply to your muscles, it also applies to your bones. If you want to avoid osteoporosis and osteopenia later in life, resistance training is key. That doesn’t mean you need to squat huge weights, just that you need to resist some kind of force – your own bodyweight, bands, fatbells, barbells. Walking and running and jumping and playing all apply too, just move your body and resist the forces of everyday life!
Muscle is also more metabolically demanding than fat, meaning that the more muscle mass you have, the more you’ll need to eat to fuel your body. Same goes for activity – more active, more food, meaning more opportunity to get important nutrients in your system. That’s all a win.
Strength training can also help you achieve better posture! Ever wonder why we have everyone doing 5000 band pullaparts and face pulls a week? To build a stronger upper back, which will definitely make you a better lifter, but will also help you stand and sit up straighter and decrease back and neck pain.
Building strength also means building mental strength. And in many ways, that’s super personal. I can list a million reasons why getting stronger was so life changing for me, and most of them have absolutely nothing to do with the way I look. As a young(er) woman I let other people dictate how I should live. I didn’t feel like my needs or wants were important enough to override anyone else’s. Lifting was the first thing I really did just for myself, and I came to love it. Lifting taught me to take care of myself, that I didn’t need anyone to do that for me. Lifting was my coming of age story.
It comes out in practical ways – I don’t need help walking my groceries home from Giant Eagle (it’s a half mile uphill, can’t wait to share that with my kids someday). I don’t need someone to move my furniture for me. I can carry my 55lb dog around when he’s too hot/cold/wet/dry/lazy to walk anymore (something that occurs more frequently than it should, wonder why).
A lot of my blogs come back to “figuring out the why” and this one is no different. Your why may be to look a certain way, and that s fine! Hopefully now you have some guidelines for reaching those goals, no matter what they are. Maybe your why is to avoid bone density loss later in life, or to be able to hike longer and avoid knee injuries on the trail. Whatever it is, please feel free to share it with us. What makes our community so great is that we support each other in reaching our goals, no matter what they are.
If this is a topic that interests you, there is a ton of information out there that goes into much more detail than I could here.
This is the article that tends to change a lot of women’s minds about strength training:
Staci is a fantastic lifter that you can follow on Instagram as well:
For more information on males vs females with regards to metabolism and strength training: