Do you have someone in your life who is constantly following a new diet or fitness advice that falls a bit short on...evidence? One month, it could be cutting all forms of carbohydrates; the next month, it could be some drink concoction made from lemon and cayenne pepper.
I can’t blame them, though. In our modern age, we have two very strong opposing phenomena. We are constantly trying to “improve” and “optimise” ourselves through science. Whether it’s trying to live longer, run faster, or be more productive, we are obsessed with the idea that we can be better. As admirable as this constant betterment is, it’s tempered by an opposing force: a largely unregulated health and wellness industry that can propagate incorrect information globally via social media. It’s through these sources that myths become legends.
Today, I am busting my favourite myth: Lifting weights makes women bulky.
It’s particularly important to bust this because a woman’s health and quality of life can be improved vastly by including strength training in her exercise programme.
According to Nutrition For Bone Health, an article by Ryan Andrews published on Precision Nutrition’s website, women have a higher risk of developing osteopenia (softening of the bones) and osteoporosis (brittle and easily breakable bones) as they age. This gradual weakening comes from the natural physiological process of entering menopause and the changing hormones that help regulate bone density. At the same time, ageing women will also experience a gradual decline in muscle mass (sarcopenia). According to A. Ram Hong and Sang Wan Kim, authors of the 2018 analysis titled The Effects Of Resistance Exercise On Bone Health, strength training has proven to be a viable solution to both conditions by encouraging the remodelling of bone and strengthening muscle and connective tissue. The overall result is staying active, longer, and injury-free.
Despite the benefits, however, some women still shy away from the weights section in the gym for fear of bulging biceps and rippling back muscles.
In fairness, I don’t blame them. Since Crossfit emerged in the early 2000s, I have personally noticed an increase in the number of images of muscular women floating around the internet. Other images that support this myth are in almost every gym with ageing equipment. When you walk into these gyms, you will likely see light weights of 1-2kg in pretty pinks, greens and blues, and heavier weights in rugged rubber and rusted steel. The pictures that litter the walls are likely to be of big men flexing their muscles and women smiling, delicately holding their small weights. If you glance sideways at the cardio machines, most of the occupants are likely to be female. The grunting sounds in the back, mixed with the clanging clash of metal, are likely to be from men. With these associations, it’s not hard for someone to form a correlation between heavy weights and more powerful muscular frames.
How does the imagery stack up against reality, though? Some women will find putting on muscle a little easier than others but as a sweeping generalisation, it’s not as simple as people think. The reality of a woman’s biological makeup is that it’s challenging for a woman to put on muscle naturally. Achieving a large muscle volume on the female body has to be a single-minded goal that takes months, if not years.
The Phoenix, US-based International Sports Science Association (Issa) tells us two critical conditions for muscle gain. Putting on muscle may be more challenging for a woman because it requires higher testosterone levels (which men have in plenty) and a controlled calorie surplus (eating more calories than you expend during the day). Muscle growth requires extra fuel, but too much extra fuel can lead to fat.
I often see women strength-training without being mindful of their diet, and they are consuming more calories that feed the muscle rather than allowing them to lose fat. Ideally, the calorie surplus for muscle growth, according to Gary John Slater and his 2019 article Is An Energy Surplus Required To Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training?, in Frontiers In Nutrition, is 350-475 kcal a day. Consuming more may cause someone to maintain their fat stores or grow them.
This overindulgence can make some women feel “bulky”. If a woman isn’t achieving her desired aesthetic while strength-training, my first recommendation is a review of diet to see whether she is overconsuming calories. Some common sources of hidden calories may be alcohol, mindless snacking, or rushed eating at mealtimes.
Getting bulky through a specific strength-training programme takes a lot of time, effort and patience. Kourtney Thomas, a personal trainer, endurance running coach and writer for Girls Gone Strong, which offers evidence-based, women-specific education for health and fitness professionals, says that even with the best hypertrophy and nutrition plan, consistently applied, women should only expect to put on .25-.68kg of muscle per month.
So it all boils down to this: Women should engage in strength training through the week for the positive physical benefits of staying active and strong throughout their older years. From a physique point of view, a well-structured strength and nutrition programme will help you achieve the lean look you may desire. The intensity of your strength training (days in the week, weights used, rest between sets, etc.) will depend on your overall aesthetic goal, and a personal trainer can help you devise the correct course of action. You can work with your body weight, resistance bands, or suspension training—not just heavy weights.
As long as you adapt and continually challenge your muscles, you will improve your muscle strength and physique. At a minimum, give yourself 12 months of consistent strength training three-four times a week to see the pop of a tricep muscle or the line of quadriceps in the mirror.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women’s weight loss coach.