Rejecting the "Bulky" Myth

I really enjoy training women.  In fact, they can be easier to train than guys because they A) are overly concerned with form/technique, B) tend to ask more questions, and C) can't stop bragging about their newfound strength.  In fact, when a female client tells me she was showing off her deadlift videos, or is able to fit into her "skinny" pair of jeans, I tend to react like this:

What really tends to get under my skin, however, is the perception that heavy weights will make you "bulky."  For various reasons, this perception tends to be pretty prevalent among women, while it occurs rather sparingly with men.  Now, I could go all Vassar on everyone and talk about heternormativity and gender neutrality (after all, you don't get a liberal arts degree without being able to spit some BS)...but, it's today's reality.  Which is pretty unfortunate because women need to lift heavy things - even more so than men - for reasons like bone density, self-defense, and overall bad assitude.

Yet, almost everywhere you look, fitness marketing towards women runs completely counter to heavy weights.  Pink dumbbells are the norm, and words like "lean," "slim," and "sculpt" are everwhere.  In fact, it's a bit like Owen Wilson and the word "Wow!"

So, if lifting heavy things is as important as I make it seem, how do you do it and not get bulky?  First, it's important to clarify that there are a ton of factors that contribute to getting bulky.  You need the right genetics, hormonal profile, proper nutrition, sleep, and a great training program.  In fact, you need so much to go right, it probably eliminates most of the female (and male) population!

The other key? Heavy weight for low reps.

Yup, you heard me.  And I'm here to say that if you've previously been doing the low weight (2-10 lbs) high rep (10-15 reps) routines, that's precisely why you may have been getting bulky.

To get real nerdy, it all comes down to sacroplasmic vs. myofibrillar hypertrophy.  In plain speak, it simply means what we're building: the size of our muscles vs. the connections between our muscles.

Let's say we have about 60 pencils, and we have to store them somewhere.  One option would be to get multiple containers for those pencils (low weight, high reps).  It works, but it's going to take up a lot more room than we may want.

The other option would be to cram all those pencils into the same container (high weight, low reps).  Does it take a bit more effort?  Sure.  But we have a stronger container, and the increased connections between the pencils increases the tension it takes to grab one.

We could have multiple containers and not be very strong..

We could have multiple containers and not be very strong..

Or we could increase the pencils in our container, get strong, and be awesome.

Or we could increase the pencils in our container, get strong, and be awesome.

Another analogy I like to use is if you wanted your car to go faster, because you were fed up with the Boston-area traffic (and frankly, I can't blame you.)  One option would be to simply get a bigger, more powerful engine (low weight, high reps).  But the more attractive option is optimizing your current engine and making sure you're using all 6 cylinders, rather than the 2-3 you may only be using right now.

Anyway, all of the above is meant to say that if anyone states "heavy weights will make you bulky," it speaks to their lack of information and overall naivete when it comes to the science of lifting.  Most likely, they're getting bulky because they're eating bulky, if ya catch my drift..

Don't believe me?  That's cool.  But, I've been using the same type of programming with myself and have seen unprecedented results.  Just this past weekend, I deadlifted 521 lbs (silly kilograms!) while weighing in at 188 lbs.  That's A) 8 pounds lighter than when I graduated college and B) a 2.8X bodyweight lift.  If anyone were to get bulky, the combination of my age, gender, sleep, nutrition, etc. would definitely make it me.