InForm Fitness: Will Women Bulk Up From Weight Training

The number of women clients who express their fear of “bulking up” from doing strength training with me grows every day. I rarely come across a woman who wants to build a lot of muscle, almost all the people who train with me want to ‘tone up’ and create “long and lean” muscles- you’ve undoubtedly heard the same claims. The fact is most women won’t “bulk up” from weight lifting. You can’t change the length of your muscles, and certain exercises will not “tone” more than others.

All you’ve heard to the contrary in countless fitness magazines, on social media pages, and on every daytime talk show on air is wrong. Marketers in the fitness world know how to use buzz words to their advantage. That’s right, ‘toned, long, and lean’ muscles are just the same as those scary, “big, bulky, and manly” muscles that most women shy away from.

Debunking the Myths

Let’s start with the word “toned.” The dictionary tells us that the term toned “implies leanness in the body, noticeable muscle definition and shape, but not significant muscle size.”

By popular definition, muscle tone equals defined musculature, but not significant muscle size. We want our muscles to show, but we don’t want them to be big. We achieve that by removing the substance that covers our muscles; body fat. The only way to allow your muscles to show without increasing their size is to reduce our body fat level.

Tone is the fitness buzz word that refuses to leave the vocabulary of millions of Lulu Lemon wearers everywhere. There is not one type of exercise that will “tone” your muscles. Lifting light weights at high repetitions is not a proven method of specifically lowering body fat, nor is lifting heavy weights. The amount of weight you use does not matter.

“But what about cardio?” you might ask. That is a whole other topic on its own. In short one pound of fat is made up of 3,500 calories. According to myriad fitness websites, here are a few ways to burn 500 calories per day, which will amount to a one pound loss after 7 days:

You can jog for one hour every day.
You can swim for one hour every day.
You can mow the lawn for 2 hours every day (side business?).
You can cycle for 75 minutes every day.
You can climb stairs for 50 minutes every day.

You get the point. Losing a pound of fat with any of those methods is a lot of work. And then you’re really hungry, which is even worse.

To circle back around, toning really means a loss in body fat. How do you achieve this? Take a careful look at your diet. What you do in the gym to promote fat loss does not even come close to what you can do in the kitchen to achieve the same results. Try cutting out sugar, processed carbohydrates, and pre-made/packaged foods for a few weeks. You’ll be amazed at the amount of ‘toning that occurs.


I often hear of Pilates and yoga enthusiasts aiming for a “longer” look. Women deserve to know how to weed through false claims that certain exercise methods lengthen muscles.

The bad news is that you cannot change the length of your muscles. Every muscle in your body has a point of origin and a point of insertion. They start and they stop at very fixed points. This is something that cannot change unless you surgically detach your tendons and reset them a little differently.

The good news is that you can sort of look longer if you stop slouching and stand up straighter. Trust me, being mindful of your posture does wonders to your overall appearance. Try it for a day. I bet people will notice the difference.

My advice is to stop slouching.


Ah, yes. My favorite. I have never met a female client who has not made it clear that she does not want to “bulk up.” Most actually spend the first few months of their strength training fearing the bulk before they realize that it’s just not going to happen. There are a few main reasons why.

First and foremost, women do not have nearly enough testosterone in their bodies to ‘bulk up’. In fact, the average female has about 15-20 times less testosterone than men do. Testosterone aids in muscle building. Since men have more of this hormone, they build muscle at a quicker and easier rate than women do. Just as women do not have the same amount of body hair or the same Adam’s apple as men, they do not have the same amount of musculature.

Many women also tell tales of other female friends who have lifted weights before and “gotten bigger.” My initial response is to ask if they looked like female body builders, or did they simply look bigger? If the latter is more accurate, I advised them to ask about their friend’s diet? Did she start lifting weights and use it as an excuse to eat more? That would put on additional body fat. This is probably more likely. To produce aesthetic results weight lifting and healthy eating go hand in hand. One without the other is not likely to give you the results you’re looking for.

Women with aesthetically large muscles do exist. Let me reassure you that this does not happen by accident. Female body builders or aesthetic competitors have the rare genetic profiles that predispose them for large bulky muscles regardless of the type of workout they use. It’s also typical for an athlete like this to weigh every bite of food that she eats and dehydrate herself to the point of visible muscle striation right before a competition or photo shoot. The fitness models you see on the cover of Shape did not stumble out of bed and onto set. They spent months preparing, measuring, and calculating every minute aspect of their lives for it.

Since you are not about to turn weight lifting into your job, I strongly suggest that you push those “I might become a female body-builder” fears out of your mind. It absolutely will not happen unless you are among the .001 percent of the world’s female population that possesses the body-builder genes.

Proper, high-intensity strength training, safely applied, is one of the most important things that a woman can do to ensure an overall better quality of life. You will absolutely reap the benefits of increased lean muscle mass, improved bone density and cardiovascular health, better insulin control, fat loss, and better athletic performance. Rest assured, the notorious bulk will not happen, and remember – anyone touting claims of being able to “tone and lengthen” are simply misleading you.


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