I have a new client who is very concerned about what lifting heavy might do to her frame as she doesn't want to add size. This was my email response and figured it'd be beneficial to share here as well.
"I think once you learn the principles and effects of proper eating, you might find more balance in the way you select foods and how to get around mindless eating. Sounds like we should spend some time going over facts vs myths about training and nutrition. From what I've read, I'm getting the impression you have a few concerns that are not based on truth, but popular misinformation. One that jumps out at me from this email is the common fear of "bulking".
So let's dig in on that one here:
The misconception (popular among women, but also men too) is that once a woman starts lifting heavy on a regular basis, she will begin to rapidly put on unwanted muscle size and begin to look "big or mannish". I've even seen un-educated trainers perpetuate this myth, which blows my mind. Where it gets challenging to dispel is when someone starts to feel their body change in a way they are not used to and don't understand physiology as well. This reminds me of a few years ago when I picked up a book from Rachel Cosgrove (an amazing trainer and educator) and began to follow her program to get me ready for my 10-year high school reunion. I wanted to drop about 20 lbs in a way that was healthier than I used to do in the past, which was tons of cardio and eating less than 1,000 calories a day. Her program was the complete opposite: eat more than enough food (and carbs!!), lift heavy, and no cardio until the last few weeks/pounds. Sounds crazy, right?? One of my co-workers (a fellow trainer) decided to join in on the workouts with me for a while. My body was humming along, getting leaner (not bigger) and more shapely (but not dropping tons of weight, which Rachel said would happen) and I was loving how much stronger I was feeling and looking. Deadlifts, pull-ups, heavy squats and more, I was having a great time and so was my co-worker.
But within a few weeks my co-worker started to feel her body become more firm and dense and her weight wasn't changing. She started to freak out! She ran to our fitness manager, who didn't help the situation and lead my co-worker to believe that she was indeed beginning to "bulk" her legs. So she quit the program and missed an opportunity to really change the shape of her body.
Here's what was actually happening:
- The reason why the weight wasn't coming down quickly was because we weren't also losing muscle. But we were preserving muscle and dropping only body fat. Muscle doesn't "weigh more than fat", it's more dense. A pound of rocks and and pound of feathers is going to weigh the same, but one is going to take up more space. Weight loss programs that drop body weight quickly by dropping calories super low and doing a lot of cardio end up shedding precious muscle tissue as well as fat. Muscle is our "fat-burning engine". It gives our body shape, strength, and movement. To do all those things, it uses the calories we eat and the stored body fat to power it's movement. The more muscle we loose, the more our body gets weak and slows down, this is including our metabolism.
- Women can lift heavy without gaining size easily because of our hormonal and genetic structure. There are exceptions and I'll come back to that in a bit. Training and nutrition make a big difference, don't get me wrong, but most likely, you will not see significant change in overall body size even within half a year of lifting heavy alone. One of my favorite quotes is "You get big by eating big. Either big and muscular or big and fat." It takes months and months of abundant calories and progressive hypertrophy (muscle gain) programming to grow a significant amount of muscle mass. The amount of pure muscle that most women can put on even in a year of specific training to do so is only a few pounds. And I mean to even gain 5-8 pounds of pure muscle in a year for a woman (without hormone or drug intervention) is a really big deal!
Exceptions to this include (as I just mentioned) performance enhancing supplements or drugs. Many (but not all) physique athletes will use something like this to help them with muscle growth and/or staying lean for their sport. Many women do not want the "bodybuilder" look and are under the impression that weight lifting alone creates it. What you must understand is that to grow that kind of "masculine" size, most elite bodybuilding women are blocking estrogen, adding testosterone, using growth hormone or a whole list of methods on top of proper nutrition and training protocols. But as you are training for your wedding, and to live a fit life, this isn't for you.
- Another exception is a person's Somatotype (body type), and this is a big generalization, but gets the point across. There are 3 basic types and people can definitely be a combo. First would be an Ectomorph: this is someone who is built with a thin frame and usually doesn't weigh much naturally. A classic type-model of this would be a marathon runner. These types find it hard to put on weight or at least keep it on. Second would be a Mesomorph: think bodybuilder or wrestler. This type finds it easy to put on lots of muscle and keep it on and they typically have the bone structure to go with it. They excel at strength sports and lifting heavy. The third is the Endomorph: these people just naturally carry more body fat. It's easy for them to gain it, and very hard to loose. Again, these are generalizations but can lead us in a good direction when it comes to designing nutrition and training programs as they have to be specified to a person's body. If you are an ectomorph, you can't just follow a bodybuilder's program and expect to look like them in a year. Your body will not respond the same way.
I would consider my old co-worker more of the Ecto-Meso. type whereas I'm more Meso-Endo. I find it very easy to put on weight (muscle or fat) and I really have to bust it out to drop either.
So here's where she might have gotten mis-directed:
Based on her body type structure, she'd have to lift heavy for a prolonged period of time AND eat in a fashion that encouraged her body to build muscle. She was not following the fat-loss nutrition plan that I was. When I asked her about her weekly eating habits, that was clear to me. Also, she was complaining that she felt her thighs were getting thicker. For one, she was an athlete growing up and I was inactive. So her body has more neural pathway connections within those leg muscles than I do. When she lifts heavy, her muscles are going to respond more completely and effectively because of that "muscle memory", and mine needed more time to develop that quality. So because of her history, her initial results were slightly different. Physiologically, she will get more activation and more cell turn-over and fluid within the cells of those muscles than I would. This is something I frequently notice in my female clients. The thighs will go up in circumference 1/2 to a full inch for the first month of training, but ultimately always go down. This isn't because the thigh muscles are "bulking" this is just fluid.
There's a lot more that goes into muscle building than I've written here, but I've touched on the basics of why you won't get "bulky" by using heavy lifting to achieve your goal of a lean and toned body.