Women, Weightlifting and the Fear of Being Bulky

By: Sophia Erikson

Until a few years ago, I avoided strength training in the gym and did strictly cardio -convinced that I wasn’t getting in a good workout unless I spent hours on a treadmill. While cardio has its own benefits  -including an increase in cardiovascular health (Agarwal, 2012) – I quickly learned that strength training is just as important for any well-balanced workout routine. Incorporating just 3 days of strength training into my weekly workout routine allowed me to see noticeable changes in not just my body, but my performance as well (hello, pushups)!

I understand strength training can seem intimidating, but there are so many proven reasons why you should do it! From weight loss to better mental health, here are just a couple of benefits of strength training.

  1. Strength Training Builds and Maintains Muscle Mass

Strength training, otherwise known as resistance training, is dependent upon you lifting a weight heavier than what your body is used to encountering. When you add enough resistance against your own body weight, you are creating micro tears in your muscles that become repaired when you rest.  After a workout, the body replenishes itself by fusing “damaged” muscle fibers together to create a greater number of new and thicker strands (Hasan, 2019). 

The more you workout, the heavier the load you will be able to use –  you can actually feel yourself getting stronger. Simply, the increase in weight signals your muscles to adapt to the increasing demands and therefore grow bigger and stronger. 

  1. Strength Training Supports Weight Loss 

Like other exercises, strength training can help you burn calories and stored energy (a.k.a. fat) more efficiently. However, strength training increases your lean muscle mass, which in turn, helps your body use excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC (Elliot et al., 1992). This is commonly called the afterburn effect and simply means that after a workout your body is burning calories at rest rather than storing them as excess energy in the form of fat cells.

  1. Strength Training Positively Affects Mood and Mental Health 

Not only does strength training have physical benefits, it also has serious mental health benefits. In a study published by Harvard Medical School they found that “people with mild to moderate depression who performed resistance training two or more days a week saw ‘significant’ reductions in their symptoms, compared with people who did not” (Harvard Health, 2018). 

With that being said, any form of exercise can help boost your mood. This is because even just 20-30 minutes of exercise signals your body to release good chemicals called endorphins, which help the body deal with stress and pain (Daly, 2020). Exercise also releases chemicals called serotonin and dopamine which linger hours after your workout and promote a better mood (Daly, 2020). 

Now you may be wondering: “If strength training is so beneficial, why do so many women avoid it?”. Pervasive body-shaming culture has successfully conditioned women to believe  the common misconception that lifting heavy weights will make you look “big”, bulky or masculine. Because of this fear, many women steer clear of the testosterone-filled weight rooms and opt instead for the elliptical.  

To that I say – listen up ladies! Strength training can help you achieve your fitness goals, give you lean, functional muscles, improve your self confidence and I promise, will not make you bulky… and here’s why:

  1. Female Testosterone Levels 

Testosterone is the primary muscle-building hormone in the body, but women simply do not have the same amount of testosterone as men do (Tyagi et al., 2017). When it comes to building muscles, women do not typically acquire a masculine physique. This being said, plenty of female body builders desire that type of physique, but their results are usually accompanied by the use of steroids and supplements.

  1. Dietary Habits

If you are at all avoiding strength training for the fear of bulking up,  remember that dietary habits play a key role in any type of fitness goal. You can’t expect to lose weight without incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle, and you can’t expect to bulk up unless you are purposefully increasing the amount of the protein, carbs and fat that go into your daily meals (Leaf et al., 2017). And I don’t just mean having an extra snack or two; this means transitioning into larger, more frequent meals with an emphasis on higher protein intake. 

  1. Muscles Don’t Appear Overnight 

Finally, muscles take time to grow and adapt. It can take up to a couple of months to see noticeable progress. So – to get to a body-builder level of muscularity, you would have to make some serious lifestyle changes for an extended amount of time. This would include training and dieting in an excessive way but also doing so consistently for years on end. Think about it: an athlete’s literal job is to maintain their physique and stay in prime shape year round, which is something they work extremely hard to do. 

On the contrary,  you will also not lose muscle overnight. If you are trying to increase your strength, don’t forget to take time to rest and allow your body to recover by stretching, getting a good night’s rest and hydrating. 

Overall, just remember that lifting heavy weights makes you and your muscles get stronger, not bulkier. Your body was built to be challenged, so don’t be intimidated by heavy weights. You are much tougher, both mentally and physically, than you think!

Reference List:

Agarwal S. K. (2012). Cardiovascular benefits of exercise. International journal of general medicine, 5, 541–545. https://doi.org/10.2147/IJGM.S30113

Daly, A. (2020, June 17). 6 Reasons Exercise Makes You Happy. mindbodygreen. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-10798/6-reasons-why-exercise-makes-you-happy.html. 

Elliot, D. L., Goldberg, L & Kuehl, K. S. (1992). Effect of resistance training on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research

Hasan, T. (2019, January 25). (PDF) The Science of Muscle Growth: Making muscle. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335058366_The_Science_of_Muscle_Growth_Making_muscle. 

Leaf, A., & Antonio, J. (2017). The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. International journal of exercise science, 10(8), 1275–1296.

Publishing, H. H. (2018). Strengthen your mood with weight training. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/strengthen-your-mood-with-weight-training. 

Tyagi, V., Scordo, M., Yoon, R. S., Liporace, F. A., & Greene, L. W. (2017). Revisiting the role of testosterone: Are we missing something?. Reviews in urology, 19(1), 16–24. https://doi.org/10.3909/riu0716

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