One of the most sinister and limiting myths that women must overcome in order to incorporate a significant amount of weight-training into their fitness routine, is the belief that they’ll end up looking like a cheap cross-dressing version of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a floral skirt and fanny-pack. Whilst the data around cellular metabolism and body composition slips this belief into the same category as the boogieman and scientology, we still have so many women who are terrified of lifting weights and becoming bulky. We need to do more to educate ladies about how muscle is actually built. With knowledge comes power. Sexy, smooth, aesthetically pleasing power.

As someone who has spent the better part of their life trying to put on as much muscle as possible, and working with many competitors who wish to do the same, allow me to divulge something which is heartbreakingly true:

“Muscle is the hardest thing imaginable to grow, and to even maintain, and the easiest thing to lose.”

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Don’t believe me? Go find some dude wearing American flag spandex and a bandana with a lifetime gym membership, and ask him how easy it is to get bulky… After you’ve consoled a weeping man-child for about five minutes, it would be safe to say that even you’ve forsaken your career, relationships and any other interests to gain muscle, it’s still painfully hard to do. So why then do so many women feel like they will be confused for a female bodybuilder just by looking at a dumbbell? The reality is that they have never trained with weights for long enough to know the truth.

THREE MAIN REASONS WHY YOU MAY THINK YOU’RE GETTING “BULKY”:

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  1. You are carrying more body fat then they realise. That fat makes you feel bulky.
  2. There is a temporary inflammation and nitrogen increase in muscle stores when you first start lifting weights. This will give you a very brief “pumped” feeling initially, and many ladies might fear that they’ve doubled their size, so they stop.
  3. Idiot friends. There are lots of people who know nothing about the human body, but have very loud opinions. Sometimes people will tell you that you look bulky simply because they know you are doing weights, or they are jealous. Unfortunately the power of other’s perception confuses many people. Stay strong and keep squatting.

THE NUMBER ONE REASON WHY YOU WON’T GET “BULKY”: HORMONES 

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The reason women have such a significant structural difference to men isn’t just due to high quality moisturiser and great styling. Obviously, the two genders have something very different going on internally to create this divide. And the answer lies in the hormonal profiles.

Now whilst there is somewhat of a hormonal spectrum, with “manlier men” and “girlier girls”, the dividing line between the genders is due to specific hormones. Many hormones are at play here: growth hormone, progesterone, oestrogen, but the most “muscle-building” of them all is testosterone. The average male will produce around 6-10mg of testosterone per day. The average female will produce around 0.5mg per day. So without even considering what kind of exercise, or what nutrients you ingest, hormonally women are already somewhere at a 12x to 20x disadvantage when looking at an ability to build muscle. If it were “that easy” to build muscle, every guy would be walking around with 20 inch arms and a barrel-chest. The guys who disagree are lying or have given up.

So when you see an image of a woman with enormous bulging muscles, almost zero body fat and facial hair, trust that along with decades of very specific training and diet, they have most probably used synthetic hormones to get that look.

MUSCLE VS FAT:

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Keeping things nice and simple, let’s just get one thing clear: muscle and fat are two completely different things. You cannot “turn fat into muscle” or “muscle into fat” anymore than you can turn a pair of 2 dollar flip-flops into Louboutins… It. Cannot. Ever. Happen. Think of muscle as your body’s engine. It is metabolically active tissue, which requires nutrients to sustain itself, and a very specific environment in order to grow. It provides function to the body so you can move and groove. Fat, on the other hand, is stored fuel. It is a dumping ground for all those cheeky daiquiris and afternoon raids of the office pantry. The excess nutrients your body didn’t need to sustain itself go here, and until you increase the use of muscle and give your body somewhat less energy than it needs, the fat’s here to stay.

And what’s the best way to increase the use of muscle? Add weight and do stuff!

GOOD MUSCLE VS BAD MUSCLE

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Bad (or ‘unsightly’) muscle:
Whilst I am firmly of the belief there is no such thing as bad muscle, I appreciate that cannon-ball shoulders and arms that split shirtsleeves might not be what most women want – and I agree. The only time a female will find that they have increased a significant amount of muscle tissue in a certain body part is due to one or some of these reasons.

  1. They do the same training movements. Think of it this way: If you only ever did overhead pressing movements, and did these very often, eventually you may find that your shoulders look big. No brownie points for guessing why.
  2. Genetics. If you were dealt a strong genetic hand like Serena Williams, then yes, after training you may find you look “bulky”. However rest assured that these genetic beasts are about 1/10,000 of the population at the absolute most and if you are reading this article, you’re probably not one of them.
  3. A lot of sport in formative years. If you were a competitive swimmer, rower, gymnast or the like while going through puberty, then you may find your body tends to respond in muscle growth relative to that sport. That is due to high demands on the body while you were in a hormonal symphony of “weird things happening” for a few years. Never fear, by avoiding a few movements done too frequently you can avoid adding slabs of beef to your back. The further away you are from that period, the less effect it has. And let’s be honest sister, it’s been many a full moon since you were cheerleading captain.

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Good muscle:
Creating fuller muscle bellies will ALWAYS give the body better shape. Michelangelo’s David doesn’t resemble a malnourished hipster for a reason. And women are no different! Strong is sexy, and it’s so refreshing to see the shift of women’s health moving away from eating carrot sticks and any exercise apart from walking, to popular trends now glorifying nutrient-dense food and throwing steel around!

Your calves will sit higher, your hamstrings will have a sweep, your butt will be perky and your arms won’t flap around in a strong breeze. Functional muscle looks great on everyone. And forgetting the aesthetic component for a second, let’s not overlook the greatest benefit to building “good muscle” – the health benefits! By strengthening your frame you will improve core strength, and provide balance for life. Of course softer approaches like yoga and pilates are fantastic, but they are essentially using the similar forces of resistance. Putting weights on your back and turning the music up loud is just a “beefed-up” way to do it.

WHAT TYPES OF WEIGHT TRAINING SHOULD YOU BE DOING?

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Athletic:
Athletic workouts are usually relating to performance. They can be full-body workouts designed to create a huge metabolic increase and minimise nervous system stress. As long as the workout is well designed and well supervised, these are fantastic! Think kettle bells, power ropes, medicine balls, suspension training.

Aesthetic:
What woman doesn’t want a well-sculpted ass? There is certainly a time-and-place for very specific body part workouts, where the general idea is to keep tension in a certain muscle or group of muscle as long as possible. Gym equipment is fantastic for this, however, you can mimic the movements with free weights and know-how.

The best training system for an all-rounded approach is to incorporate both. Athletic workouts will increase overall fitness and function, while aesthetic workouts will target certain muscle groups and focus on creating better muscle activation, balance and shape in the body.

WHY WEIGHT TRAINING WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE:

Think of all exercise as a “means to an ends”. Of course having fun and enjoying your training is a massive bonus, but essentially we are looking for a tangible return on your energy investment. And “how” we force the body to make changes (get stronger/burn body fat/build functional muscle) is by causing a stress. That stress stimulus requires in adaptation.

The simplified reason as to why weight training trumps any other form of exercise in terms of “best possible results”, is that there are more variables to play with. Simply the act of adding weight means that every time you change rep scheme, amount of sets, tempo or workout routine – you can multiply the variables by an exponential amount by varying the weight also. This means it’s easier to cause a new stress and forces the body to change, faster.

In addition, here’s but a few of the other awesome benefits of weight training:

  • Fix structural imbalances and improve posture
  • Increase metabolism
  • Burn body fat
  • Optimise hormone regulation
  • Improve libido
  • Make you stronger – and feeling strong is an amazing feeling.
  • Make you live longer
  • Improve heart-health & respiratory system
  • Increase bone density and avoid osteoporosis.

To wrap up, whether women should be incorporating weight training into their regime isn’t debatable, it’s simply a fact!

The details of what movements, how much weight, how often is of course something you want some guidance on, seek the counsel of a qualified professional who has a good track-record and learn some basics.

Trust me that in next to no time you will look back on the days you had distorted views on weight training and mumble “what was I thinking?!”. I’m yet to meet anyone who has adopted a well-planned weight-training program and not fallen in love with both the way you look, and feel!

Ditch the stair master machine and lift something!