“I don’t want to lift weights, it will make me bulk up!” This is a common mindset in women wary of starting a new training routine. Even a quick Google search will reveal that it's an incredibly popular area of interest on bodybuilding blogs and fitness forums. Women enter the gym to improve a healthy inside and outside, and, sometimes, building a bulky exterior doesn’t align with their goals.
The truth is, merely taking the next step in your gym routine won’t automatically result in bigger muscles. And yet, this misconception can unfortunately impede women from entering the weight room. But in fact, the body of research showing resistance training's diverse benefits (particularly in women) continues to grow. So before you shy away from the weight room, here are some science-supported facts about weight lifting for women.
What will happen when you lift weights
One of the most significant benefits of resistance training is an increased fat burn rate – quite the opposite of bulking up! So don't shy away from weight training in lieu of hours on the treadmill, which can actually burn muscle as well as fat. Building and maintaining lean muscle mass will help you burn extra calories, and implementing some weights into any interval training can increase the heart health benefit compared to simple cardio machines like the elliptical.
As women age, maintaining muscle mass becomes increasingly important for overall health – think bone strength, heart health, cognition, blood glucose control, and more.1 It’s normal for muscle mass to decrease during older age, though, so maintaining it can literally add years to your life. In women, resistance training can reverse signs of osteoporosis by increasing bone density and improving growth hormone levels, improve balance and agility (thereby decreasing injury risk), and even improve long-term cognition and memory.2,3
What likely won’t happen when you lift weights
Now, let's debunk some of the misconceptions we hear about how you might get “bulky.”
First, be assured that women on magazine covers, bodybuilders, and competitive athletes represent a small minority of the general population. These athletes center their entire lifestyle around their sport and professions. They’re often extremely calculated in what they eat, spend several hours in the gym, and optimize their entire lives around training. This also takes years to develop and most certainly doesn’t happen by accident.
Next, when it comes to bulking, nutrition plays more of a role than weight training does. In order to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than you burn – particularly more protein. Most research shows that women require at least 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day (far higher than the recommended base daily protein requirement of ~0.4 g/lb) to gain significant lean muscle mass.4,5
Lastly, women’s hormone levels, specifically testosterone, make muscle building particularly difficult. Testosterone is extremely important for muscle protein synthesis and repairing muscle damage from weight training. Since a woman’s body has 10-20 times less testosterone than a man, muscle gain is not as easy as you might think.6
What’s most important to remember
Now, if you’re someone who wants to put on muscle mass, does so with natural ease, or is striving to build a healthy, strong body that is primed to perform, know that bulking up is perfectly normal, healthy, and beautiful! Performance training can do amazing things for your body and mind, and can give you a new found confidence, perspective, and appreciation for what you are capable of. But don’t just take our word for it – see what a professional athlete has to say about her experience:
“For almost my entire life I have struggled with body image issues. Growing up a gymnast, I always had muscle when I really wanted to be skinny. I spent my high school and college years stepping on scales, getting body fat tested, and struggling with disordered eating. I only ran on the treadmill and did the bike and elliptical – cardio was king. I joined my new gym, and the first thing I told my coach was that I didn’t want to get bulky, I only wanted to lose weight. He didn’t say anything, but instead directed me to a video called showing women lifting weights. They were strong and muscular and looked amazing. I decided I would give it a try.
CrossFit was the turning point in my life, showing me that anything is possible. I stopped worrying so much about what my body looked liked. I wanted to be stronger, to be fitter and most of all, healthier. In the short time I have been doing CrossFit, it has helped correct my negative body image and unhealthy relationship with food. It has helped me to feel beautiful in my own skin and proud of the hard work I put in to make my body healthy and strong!
A reminder to women everywhere: You can be whoever you want to be. You can look however you want to look. Set goals. Embrace the journey. And find the greatness inside of you!”
-Tasia Percevecz, Team CrossFit Mayhem Freedom
The key takeaway
Lifting weights will help increase muscle while shedding fat, which can ultimately lead to a lean, 'toned,' and fit look that many women hope to achieve in the gym. It can also prime you for a healthy, strong body at any age. Looking and feeling strong is definitely not a bad thing! So next time you’re at the gym, swap the stationary bike for a barbell – and maybe even get to your goals faster.
Some other blog posts we think you'll love:
- The Health Advice We Always Hear but Continue to Ignore
- The Anatomy of Female Nutrition
- Why HIIT Isn't Just for Elite Athletes
- Optimizing Training Around Your Menstrual Cycle
- Liu, Y., Ye, W., Chen, Q., Zhang, Y., Kuo, C. H., & Korivi, M. (2019). Resistance Exercise Intensity is Correlated with Attenuation of HbA1c and Insulin in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(1), 140.
- Muir JM, Ye C, Bhandari M, Adachi JD, Thabane L. The effect of regular physical activity on bone mineral density in post-menopausal women aged 75 and over: a retrospective analysis from the Canadian multicentre osteoporosis study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2013. 14:253
- Best, J. R., Chiu, B. K., Hsu, C. L., Nagamatsu, L. S., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2015). Long-term effects of resistance exercise training on cognition and brain volume in older women: results from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the international neuropsychological society, 21(10), 745-756.
- Campbell B, Aguilar D, Vargas A, Conlin A, Sanders A, Fink-Irizarry P, Norton L, Perry R, McCallum R, Wynn MR, and Lenton J. Effects of a high (2.4 g/kg) vs. low/moderate (1.2 g/kg) protein intake on body composition in aspiring female physique athletes engaging in an 8-week resistance training program. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018. 28(6):580-585
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press
- Torjesen PA, Sandnes L. "Serum testosterone in women as measured by an automated immunoassay and a RIA". Clinical Chemistry. 2004. 50(3):678