Why women should not be scared of turning into The Hulk by lifting weights

Love to get fitter but worried that you might turn into The Hulk if you lift weights? Aroosha Nekonam, Certified Personal Trainer at Ultimate Performance reveals how to work out without bulking up.

“I want to be toned; I don’t want to look too bulky”, is a statement we hear women make time and time again.

Unfortunately, too many women believe they’re going to turn into The Hulk if they dare look at a dumbbell, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While resistance training has health benefits for everyone, it’s particularly important for women for several reasons.

Let’s dispel the myth once and for all that resistance training makes women bulky, and explore exactly why and how you should incorporate weights into your fitness regime.

What does ‘bulky’ mean?

Part of the problem with the myth that weight training makes women bulky is that it is highly subjective; what is ‘bulky’ for one woman may not be so for another.

One poll found that 41% of women thought muscles never look good on women, with only 26% saying they look good in small amounts. Participants rated Jessica Biel as ‘most muscular’ or ‘bulky’ of a selection of female celebrities, including Jessica Alba, Madonna and Hilary Swank.

Of course, most of us would not consider Jessica Biel as bulky, but see a woman with good body composition and a strong, powerful physique. While this poll was not an academic study, it demonstrates how subjective the term ‘bulky’ can be. Holding yourself against this benchmark sets an impossibly high standard that doesn’t consider health, function or your unique body type.

How easy is it for women to become ‘bulky’?

Although strength training has become more popular among women in recent decades, the association between lifting weights and appearing masculine still holds some women back from participating. And often, women who do train hold back from lifting heavy because they are focused on increasing ‘muscle tone’ due to fears of excessive muscle hypertrophy.

However, there are several reasons why these fears are unfounded. The results of several studies indicate that many women often do not train to sufficient relative intensities or effort to maximise strength and hypertrophy adaptations from resistance training.

And while the research shows that relative size gains are pretty similar in both men and women after training when intensity is matched, it takes a lot of time, effort and solid know-how to achieve significant gains.

Yes, there may be women in the gym whose physique you don’t want to emulate. But their physique is likely built on a lot of time, dedication and effort. Fearing you will turn into a muscle-laden Amazonian after several weeks’ training is, therefore, a bit like starting jogging and worrying you’re going to end up like Usain Bolt in a month.

The biggest risk factor for appearing ‘bulky’ is not changing your body composition. If you increase the size of your musculature without reducing your body fat stores, your surface area inevitably increases. And while changing up your training may naturally induce a degree of body recomposition, generally, what is required is a combination of resistance training alongside a calorie deficit, which normally involves fat loss.

What are the benefits of weight training for women?

If you’re still not convinced about resistance training, here are several reasons that should give you pause for thought.

1) Improved muscle mass and strength

Not only does being stronger make day-to-day life easier, reduced muscular strength is one of the biggest predictors of mortality in older adults. Age-related decreases in muscle mass are particularly important for women as menopause-related shifts in hormones significantly increase the risk of sarcopenia. Resistance training is pretty much the only mode of exercise that can enhance muscular strength and hypertrophy.

2) Reduced risk for osteoporosis

Women are more likely to experience age-related losses in bone mineral density, increasing the risk of fractures and breaks, which seriously impact quality of life. Resistance training is widely recognised as being a powerful tool in preventing osteoporosis.

4) Psychological benefits

A 2013 study applied a 24-week resistance training program with middle-aged and elderly women. At the end of the study, participants reported significant improvements in self-efficacy, socialisation and health scores.

This finding appears to be true across age groups. A 2014 research study on postpartum women found that resistance training improved ratings of self-efficacy, depression and activity. So, if you want to become a more independent, confident, kick-ass version of yourself, start lifting weights.

5) Reduced risk of metabolic disease

Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions that include type 2 diabetes, cholesterol, and hypertension, which significantly increase the risk of all-cause mortality. The biggest risk factor for all of these diseases is poor body composition, and having a BMI of 30 and over has the highest level of risk. Resistance training is one of the most important tools for maintaining a healthy body composition.

5) Neural adaptations

Heavy resistance training triggers neural adaptations that occur as your body becomes more efficient at performing the movements. Being more agile and stronger at day-to-day movements not only reduces your risk of injury, it also makes life a whole lot easier.

6) Improved aesthetics

Many women cite that they want to become more ‘toned’ rather than grow muscle. In clinical terms, muscle ‘tone’ refers to the continuous and passive contraction of a muscle. So, if you’re alive and moving, you’ve already nailed this!

What many women mean by ‘toned’ is having a bit less body fat and more definition, which involves improving your body composition. Alongside adequate protein intake, resistance training is pretty much one of the only ways we can achieve this. Weight training is also particularly effective at improving the appearance of lower body fat through its positive effects on hormonal balance.

7) Improved adaptations to stress

Acute stress is a severe but short-term stressor which enhances our ability to perform under conditions involving threats, challenges or opportunities. Resistance training is a great example of this mechanism in action.

Strength training interventions have been found to improve self-reported life stress, coping strategies, cardiovascular reactivity and recovery from stress. Weight training therefore has benefits that cross over into all aspects of life, not only health and fitness.

8) Improved hormonal health

PCOS, a hormonal imbalance that often causes infertility, affects 6-20% of women and around 44% of obese women. Sufferers are also at a three-fold risk of developing thyroid disease (especially Hashimoto’s). Resistance training is a crucial mechanism that can assist with weight loss, improve fertility and improve symptoms of insulin resistance, one of the hallmarks of PCOS.

What’s the answer?

Here are four things you can do to weight train without bulking up.

1) Set a clear goal based on what YOU want

‘Bulky’ will look different on everyone, and your body is unique. Therefore, it’s important to set a goal based on becoming the best version of yourself.

2) Work with a trainer

Research studies have found that women who trained with a personal trainer self-selected greater loads and worked at a higher RPE than women who trained alone. A trainer can also help you set clear goals, whether your focus is body composition, performance or health.

3) Use moderate-heavy loads

Plenty of evidence suggests that women can use moderate to heavy loads to promote strength and hypertrophic adaptations without inducing a bulky appearance. And remember that change takes time – no one ever woke up too jacked by accident!

4) Improve your body composition

Remember that one pound of lean body mass takes up around 20% less space than a pound of fat, so reducing your body fat stores is the easiest way to minimise the risk of looking ‘bulky’. For most women, losing around 0.5-1% per week of total body weight is a relatively good balance between good progress and adherence.