While the amazing benefits of strength training and adding muscle mass are relatively well known, there are still misconceptions that continue to loom over the world of weightlifting.
One such misconception that continues to crop up, particularly among women, is that strength training will make you look "too bulky".
This is a dangerous misconception that makes women hesitant to incorporate strength training into their exercise routines due to fears of sculpting an undesirable body shape. And that's a hell of a shame since the benefits of strength training for the mind, body, immune system, bones, mood, longevity, and hormones are well-evidenced and overwhelming.
So, straight out of the gate, let me dispel this misconception:
"No, strength training won't turn you into the Incredible Hulk overnight. Building noticeable muscle mass requires specific and well-structured programming, a rigorous diet, and huge amounts of time and dedication."
You probably haven't been training long or hard enough
“Bulking up” requires substantial commitment and a rigorous and specific training regimen to gain enough muscle mass for it to be remarkable.
See those male or female bodybuilders who have a lot of muscle mass and you'd describe as "bulky"? They've almost certainly been training for years and attend the gym several times per week. And when they're there, they're pushing each of their muscle groups much harder than the average gymgoer to ensure they stimulate growth.
"Hell, I'd love to be described as bulky. But even after plenty of strength training, I am generally described as 'athletic' and "'lean'. Suffice it to say, bulky doesn't happen overnight, it happens over months and years."
You probably don't eat enough calories
If you wanted to bulk up, you'd need to radically shift your diet to a much higher daily caloric intake that includes a lot of protein.
This type of diet is often called a bulking diet (the opposite of “cutting”). The goal is to feed your body with a surplus of calories to provide it with more energy for protein synthesis, which is crucial for muscle growth.
If you aren't in a daily caloric surplus, the amount of mass you will gain while strength training will be limited. If you're in a daily caloric deficit, it may be difficult to even maintain muscle mass, let alone grow it.
You don't have as much testosterone
Men's bodies have higher levels of testosterone, which essentially “codes” their bodies to create more muscle mass. Because of the hormonal differences between male and female bodies and hormone levels, women’s bodies will respond very differently to the same routine.
Wondering how much? In men, testosterone levels typically range from 300–1,000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) of blood. In women, it's typically between 15 and 70 ng/dL. That's roughly a 175% difference.
Simply put, if a woman wanted to grow muscle mass at a similar rate to men, she'd have to make extreme changes to their exercise and diet, or resort to performance-enhancing drugs.
What strength training will do
Now that I've explained why you won't find yourself on the stage of Mrs Olympia after 1 week of strength training, let's look at the reasons why incorporating strength training into your exercise routine is an excellent idea.
Strength training is a highly effective calorie burner, making it an excellent choice for women who want to make changes in their physique.
Most exercises will catalyse change, but compound movements, which involve more than one joint and muscle group, with shorter rest times between sets will give you the best bang for your buck.
Strength training can help you maintain strong, healthy bones, which becomes more important as you get older. In addition, since you're performing low-impact training, it causes less stress to your joints and strengthens them too.
"Wolff's Law states that bone tissue adapts to the loads placed upon it, becoming stronger and denser in response to increased stress and weight-bearing activities."
This is especially relevant to menopausal women, whose oestrogen levels decrease leading to a much higher incidence of osteoporosis (a condition that weakens the bones).
Improves cardiovascular health
Strength training reduces the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. A 2019 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that individuals who did at least 1 hour of strength training per week had a 40–70% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who didn't.
Improves mood and well-being
Strength training provokes a certain mindset that stays with you long after your workout is finished—you feel powerful and that makes you feel like a badass.
Regular strength training provokes the release of beneficial hormones in the body and has also been linked to a significant reduction in symptoms of depression.
Women commonly produce less oestrogen as they grow older. Strength training has been shown to stimulate the production of these sex hormones and help rebalance them.
This is important as these sex hormones not only make conception and pregnancy possible, but also help burn body fat, improve your mood, and promote better-quality sleep.
So, don't stress about looking "bulky"
Strength training has many advantages that should far outweigh your fear of becoming bulky.
The truth is that you'll look in the mirror and feel the benefits of strength training far before you start thinking you have too much muscle. And even when you reach that point, you'll probably know so much more about training that you can easily adapt your lifestyle or perhaps your perception will have changed and you'll want more muscle because you like how it looks.
If you want to start strength training but don't know where to start, reach out to me. I have several female clients who I've helped start their journey to build beneficial lean muscle mass. Book a free 30-minute consultation with me where we can discuss your fitness journey to date and collaborate on clear and effective goals. If you'd like to receive a steady stream of free weekly advice, tips, and guides about fitness, consider subscribing to Root Fitness and following me on Instagram.