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Do women get bulky lifting weights?

In at least 75% of the consultations I do with women I will either get asked:

Will I get really bulky?

or told:

I don’t want to get huge and manly though.

It’s such a common theme that I see over and over again and something that we are only really starting to move away from as weight training has become more popular with the female population. In all of these consultations I have fervently assured my clients that no - just because you are lifting weights does not mean that you are going to become the hulk in a few weeks. Or even a few months/years. And that is true of most of the general population.

Part of the issue is that we are generally only ever exposed to the extremes. Social media usually shows us one of two things: the super shredded instagram influencers (many of which are likely at such a low body fat % that they’ve lost their periods OR they are part of a small part of the population that can naturally maintain such low body fat %) or the bodybuilders whose main goal for their training is to build as much muscle as possible and occasionally shred down to super low body fat percentages either to compete or just because they enjoy the challenge.

Unfortunately when we are exposed to these extreme ends of the spectrum it can cloud our view of what is a realistic expectation for most women that start weight training. Yes, those new to training can expect if they train regularly and with some kind of structure, to see some (often significant) muscle gain in a very short space of time. However in order to build the level of muscle mass and a physique that they may consider to be ‘bulky’ takes years and years of consistent weight training. Women simply don’t have the testosterone levels to build as much muscle (naturally) as a man either so the chances of you looking like Dwayne Johnson 3 years down the line are so slim it’s not worth considering.

What is more likely to happen when someone sticks to a weight training programme is their measurements will go down. It should be common knowledge by now but I’ll reiterate it here - muscle takes up less space than fat. I’ve had a few clients recently tell me that their weight hasn’t changed at all but their waist and hip measurements have gone down or belts are on a tighter notch and they are confused as to how! This is because they have simultaneously gained muscle and lost body fat - resulting in a smaller overall physique. Why? Because muscle takes up less space than fat. This increased muscle mass then results in more calories being burnt during the day just to maintain that muscle and generally better mobility, increased bone density (as a result of the resistance training) and an overall lower risk of injury. All pretty compelling reasons to train with weights if you ask me.

But here’s the crux for me and it’s something I’ve thought about more and more over the last few months. What is so wrong with women that are muscular? So what if you look a little ‘bulkier’ than you did before? We are so consumed with this idea that women should always aim to be the smallest versions of themselves but for whose benefit? It’s certainly not for my benefit if I suffer through months and years of restrictive dieting only to ultimately be unhappy with my body. Or the benefit of the young woman that is so convinced she has to have visible abs in order to have value that she loses her period and her hair thins. Nor is it for any woman’s benefit to be deprived of the physical and mental strength that can be gained from weight training.

Social media plays a huge role in this and I’ve read hundreds of disgusting comments on the physiques of women. Comments shaming women for being too muscular, too thin, for having cosmetic surgery etc. The long and short of it is if you don’t like it, scroll past it. Comments like that can and do have a negative effect on those on the receiving end. The same goes for comments made in person. At school I played lots of rugby and as a result I had fairly muscular legs (in hindsight they were SMALL compared to now). Boys at school took it upon themselves to make comments and one of my close friends actually stopped playing sport altogether for a number of years because she was told repeatedly that her physique was ‘manly’. How many other women have been wrongfully shamed out of reaching their true potential?

I’ll be honest here, I am just ranting a bit because I don’t have a solution to the issues around the female form and society’s expectation of it. I have my own insecurities, I won’t deny that, but I am not going to be shamed for the body I have built through hard work in the gym, rehabbing injuries and years playing rugby. Perhaps instead of assuring women that they won’t turn into the hulk from a few weeks of lifting heavy weights, we as coaches can focus more on what they will turn into. Strong, empowered and confident women. Yes, you will put on muscle and your body will change but training should be more than just about how your body looks. What can you achieve in a year of training? You won’t know until you take that first step. And if someone tells you your arms are more muscular than they would like a woman’s arms to be? Tell them to keep their opinions to themselves.

If you want to see what your body can achieve in a year of training, drop me an email at or fill in the contact form on this website. I have online sessions available and can take bookings for when the gyms reopen!

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