Ladies, I am only going to say this one more time: you will not, when venturing into a new weightlifting regimen, suddenly wake up one morning looking like a man. “Bulking up”, for lack of a better term. A fear perpetuated by subcultures of female bodybuilders, fitness competitors, and the occasional meaty biker chick. The perfect excuse to continue on with your little pink and purple Barbie weights. The reason so many of you would prefer to ignore half of the gym and head right over to the magazine rack so you can trod for miles on a stationary cardio machine. Let’s settle the score once and for all so we can move on with our lives and break out of our fitness plateaus, okay?
Muscles have a genetically predetermined shape. Where we build more muscle is also influenced by our genetics. Notice that I said “influenced by”, and not “controlled by”. All is not lost to the destiny of looking like our parents. Other factors weigh in such as age, sex, and how heavily you are actually hitting the weight room. What we sometimes fail to realize is how much control we do have with regards to our physical condition.
Hormones play probably the biggest role in hypertrophy, or muscle-building. Women simply do not naturally have the necessary levels of testosterone needed to build substantial muscle mass. It takes a lot of work. Those women you see with an exaggerated, masculine-looking physique? They follow strict hormone replacement therapy designed for such results. Putting on muscle never happens by accident.
“Toning” is a glossy, non-threatening word you see often in women’s fitness and health magazines. It has permeated our language to describe the shaping of muscles without the bulk. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. In order to see shape in any muscle, it has to get bigger. In the most basic language, muscles break down during our workout, and repair and rebuild to be stronger during the recovery period.
Here’s the irony in all of this: muscle hypertrophy will actually help you lose more weight than any of that cardio business. Say you are jogging steadily on the treadmill for 45 minutes and your heart rate monitor graces you with the excellent news of having just burned 375 calories. Guess what? As soon as you step foot off of that treadmill the calorie burn halts to a stop. In the other corner, we have a 45-minute strength training program that has you lifting real weight, while tossing in a couple of short, explosive cardiovascular intervals. While your heart rate monitor may suggest that the effort you just gave yielded a measly 250 calorie burn, your body will continue to zap away as the muscles begin their healing process. Simply possessing lean muscle mass requires your body to use more energy in order to maintain the newly acquired muscle. By not stepping out of your fitness comfort zone, you are missing out on a huge opportunity not just for fat loss, but for overall fitness and physical ability.
Now, what about those of you who are thinking, “Wait, I really do get bulky after a hard workout. It must be genetic“? Here’s what happens in our muscles during the recovery process after lifting weights: our clever body, in response to the stress of creating micro-tears and inflammation in our muscles, will retain fluids- sometimes 3-5 pounds’ worth- to protect the muscle as it heals. Depending on which muscles took the brunt of it, expect to weigh more the next morning. It is temporary, of course, and a natural immune response to any level of trauma. The bulk you are seeing could also be fat residing on top of your lean muscle. While muscle does weigh more than fat, remember: muscle takes up far less space. Your new strength training mantra: I am here to get smaller; not lighter.
So get in there, pick up some iron, and stop this “I don’t want to get bulky” madness. It’s not gonna happen. We can be feminine and fit.
Jodilyn Stuart is the owner of Moda Body Fitness and has been a fitness professional since 1997. She currently contributes to 303 Magazine as a Fitness and Health writer.