Stop Telling Women It’s Impossible For Them To Get Bulky. Sincerely, A Gymnast

Women are always being told by their peers, personal trainers, and influencers that not only do they not need to worry about bulking up from weightlifting but that it’s an irrational and invalid concern. The truth, however, is more complicated.

By Jaimee Marshall6 min read
shutterstock 2197737283
Shutterstock/ - Yuri A

Stop the psyop. If you’re a woman, I guarantee you’ve heard it – the insistence that women can’t build excessive muscle that’s out of alignment with their aesthetic preferences. I already know personal trainers and women who lift weights are frothing at the mouth, waiting to utter the predictable line, “It’s incredibly difficult for women to build muscle. Women don’t have as much testosterone, and even large swaths of men struggle to get bulky, so it’s not something that you have to worry about.” 

This line of reasoning is wrong on many different levels. To begin with, just because women would need to take steroids to reach the pinnacle physique of a male bodybuilder doesn’t disprove that women can get too muscular for their liking. If I said, “My arms are getting bigger and have more definition than I prefer,” to respond with the fact that women are unlikely to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger through regular weightlifting is a complete non-sequitur. Believe it or not, there are levels between Kate Moss and Arnold Schwarzenegger that may or may not align with someone’s aesthetic preferences. 

Secondly, this claim is just physiologically wrong. If a woman lifts heavy weight, eats in a caloric surplus, and consumes enough protein, she will build muscle and potentially a lot of it. Thirdly, it is not as difficult as many of these people presume, and it does not even require ritualistic weightlifting. Fourthly, you’re not exactly making your claims any more believable when the women shouting them themselves look excessively muscular and bulky by most women’s standards.

Having some self-awareness when it comes to discussing other people’s physique preferences is essential. You may love the muscular look, and there are plenty who do – but it’s still a legitimate preference for a woman to want to look more slender with minimal muscle definition. Just because you don’t personally share these preferences doesn’t make them invalid, and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to lie to them or insist that their preferences are wrong. This may sound obvious to you, but it’s evidently not to most. Make a quick Google search or look up anything about women getting bulky on YouTube, and you will be met with personal trainers and other fitness influencers insisting that women who fear getting bulky are irrational and that it’s a preference they shouldn’t have in the first place. 

Shaming and Blaming

Take this video by Brittany van Schravendijk, for instance. After acknowledging that she can’t assure women that they won’t get “bulky” in the sense that they may grow muscle mass and get bigger from weight training, she explains what unsettles her about this question from her clients. “Why are women so afraid to be seen as bulky? Why is being bulky or muscular or big seen as being the end of the world by so many women?” She goes on to rant about how these fears are deep-seated in the idea that we are not being feminine or desirable enough. Well, what’s wrong with wanting to look feminine or “desirable”?

Why is it valid for men to want to look masculine but invalid for women to want to work toward the feminine ideal?

It’s valid for men to want to look masculine but invalid for women to want to work toward the feminine ideal? The more muscle a woman packs on, the more masculine you appear. If that’s not a woman’s goal, she would want to avoid a workout plan and lifestyle promoting excessive muscle gain. It’s not for you to decide what someone’s aesthetic preferences should be. I understand what Van Schravendijk is attempting to do – she wants women to feel encouraged to strength train and not be fearmongered out of doing so based on societal pressures or others’ perceptions of her. She cites all the benefits of strength training, which makes you stronger, healthier, and feel good. Women by no means need to cut out strength training from their routine altogether. For some women, their body responds really well to weight training. For other women, whose legs and arms grow in size really easily, we benefit from incorporating bodyweight exercises, smaller dumbbells, and compound rather than isolation movements into our routines.

My Personal Story

Muscle becomes increasingly important as you age because it decreases over time and becomes much more difficult to build. However, some women, like myself, naturally put on muscle with ease. I’m a quad-dominant woman who has spent much of my life being active, playing sports, and strength training. As someone who grew up with older brothers, I recall being given training routines to be strong and know how to defend myself from a very young age. It’s to this routine that I owe my winning a pushup contest in the 6th grade, where I beat everyone in my class, including the boys. Growing up, I did gymnastics, cheerleading, and dance and have reconnected with my passion for gymnastics in adulthood, taking it up recreationally. As someone with a baseline of muscle that is already higher than the average woman, even without actively lifting weights, my body will respond differently to strength training than a woman with a different body type. 

In fact, I tested this experiment a few years ago when I bought into the hype of weightlifting and decided to give it a go myself. My quads were growing a lot, and if I had kept going, I would have looked abnormal for a woman. Even when I’m not regularly working out but doing gymnastics semi-frequently, my legs can start to look incredibly muscular from the high rep, low-weight repetition of slamming your body weight into the floor. You’ve probably noticed that professional female gymnasts, despite having an abnormally (compared to the average population) low body weight, have very large thigh and arm muscles. 

This is why it’s wrong to claim that women only need to worry about becoming bulky if they lift incredibly heavy. If your body builds muscle easily and you’re constantly stimulating these muscles and eating enough for them to grow, they’re going to get larger. However, some even go so far as to claim it’s “impossible” for women to get bulky because they only have 10% of the testosterone men have, which is a necessary component of building solid muscle. They then point to female bodybuilders – an obviously extreme example – and point to the fact that they have to take performance-enhancing drugs to achieve the abnormal results they achieve. Never mind that some women have hormonal imbalances and that you don’t need to have a man’s level of testosterone to build muscle. 

Countless personal trainers and fitness coaches trying to sell courses use this line to convince women they need not fear their program, which largely focuses on weight training. However, they then go on to boast about why they don’t need to fear putting on muscle because of all the benefits – it will make you look tighter, your BMR will increase, so you’ll burn more calories, and you won’t need to run to lose weight. I thought they just said that women need a man’s testosterone level to pack on muscle? They know their claims are dubious. Sure, it may be out of the purview of a small woman with virtually no existing muscle mass to expect to get bulky immediately upon hitting the gym. Building muscle might take a year or so of dedicated weightlifting for her. My contention is that this isn’t the case for every woman, and possibly not even for most women, and invalidating these legitimate concerns makes me question the validity of their training advice.

Why Your Body Type Matters

So, how do you know how strength training will affect you? It depends on which of the three body types you have: ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph. Ectomorphs are lean and slender with long limbs, a lower body fat percentage, and have greater difficulty putting on muscle. This would be someone like Kate Moss. Endomorphs tend to have an hourglass shape, a higher body fat percentage, a propensity to gain weight and muscle easily, and more difficulty losing weight. Think Kim Kardashian: She is soft and curvy. Mesomorphs are in the middle – they have athletic builds and tend to gain and lose weight easily. This would be someone like Gigi Hadid. You can also fall somewhere in between two body types. 

Women with the ectomorph body type tend to look lean rather than bulky by weight lifting.

This, along with your diet, exercise routine, and the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers you were born with, determine your propensity for gaining muscle mass. I need to give credit to personal trainer and nutritionist Rachael Attard for bringing this to my attention. Her story piqued my interest since she was another woman who didn't like how her body was responding to weight training, and when she expressed these concerns, personal trainers just gaslit her, assuring her women can't get bulky, all the while she was feeling unhappy with her body! After studying the different body types and how they respond to exercise, she tailored her exercise plan to her specific type and was finally able to slim down her legs and get the body she always dreamed of.

There are women who can strength train and even lift very heavy weights without looking considerably bulky, and that’s the women who have an ectomorph body type. These women tend to look lean rather than bulky by weight lifting. They tend to have faster metabolisms and have to work extra hard to put on muscle. However, the other two body types run the risk of looking big or excessively muscular from weight training. Endomorphs, who are softer and gain weight easily, will likely bulky up in a way that doesn’t even promote significant muscle definition but just makes them look larger. To avoid this, they would need to carefully control their calorie intake to make sure they’re not in a significant surplus. Mesomorphs, who have athletic builds, can build muscle very easily with minimal effort, and this may result in more muscle than a woman seeking a slim physique would prefer. 

Other Contributing Factors to Muscle Growth

Muscle growth is also dependent on calorie and protein intake, so if you think you’re bulking up, try reducing your calories and making sure you’re not eating a very high amount of protein. Finally, the best way to avoid growing excessive muscle is to stop stimulating your muscle fibers. I see a lot of people demonizing cardio these days, and I understand why. To most people, cardio is an endless, tedious slog of torture that makes you ravenously hungry and isn’t the most effective way to lose weight. However, it isn’t completely useless. Cardio can be an excellent tool for achieving your desired body composition when used intentionally. If you want to decrease your muscle mass, cardio is one of the best ways to speed up this process. To me, low-impact cardio or a few sessions of high-impact cardio are a great way to burn a lot of calories, and I genuinely think it’s fun. As someone who is naturally muscular, I find that cardio only improves my body composition and helps me achieve that more slender look that I want. 

Closing Thoughts

How women’s bodies will respond to weightlifting and strength training is heavily dependent on many factors, including a woman’s genetic makeup, her training routine, and her body type. I want women to know their aesthetic preferences and concerns aren’t invalid, and they aren’t delusional if they think they have gained too much muscle for their liking despite everyone’s assurance this would be impossible. I see extremely muscular women all the time. What is considered “bulky” is an individual perception, so you can’t assert that a woman won’t get bulky when she may have a different standard than you. You don’t need to feel like your exercise routine is some kind of political activism to prove that women are allowed to lift weights. Do what works for you and only what works for you.

Love Evie? Sign up for our newsletter and get curated content weekly!