Debunking the bulking myth – you’re doing it wrong.

One of the regular features of any weight training blog is the post where the author tries to convince women to drop the barbie weights and go into weight training. To do this, they address women’s biggest complaint: “I don’t want to get to bulky”. The author’s do this out of good will. They feel women have been lied to and miseducated, that they could greatly benefit from weight training.  They want to ‘disprove the bulking myth’, and get women in to the gym (and increase their own customer base, i’d imagine).

My complaint

Don’t get me wrong. I think women can get great benefits from weight lifting. I enjoy it immensely and hope I can motivate other women to get into it. But I do want them to be informed before getting into it.

It’s my feeling that they don’t do a good job at addressing women’s concerns. Worse, they sometimes end up lying to women, creating new misunderstandings, and insulting real female weight trainers in the process. They also make assumptions about the type of body women want to have that aren’t always correct.

Misunderstanding #1: Bulking

The core of these misunderstandings is the definition of “bulking”.

What bulking means for a man: “Going into a period of intense weight-training with a program specified to make muscle gains, while eating agressively over maintenance”.
What a man thinks bulking means for a woman
:  “Ending up looking like a female gladiator”.
What bulking actually means for a woman: Gaining width on ANY bodypart.

You can see how this leads to misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding #2: Your dream body

As far as the internet can tell me, Angelina Jolie is considered to be the most attractive woman in the world. This means many women will have *this* as their dream body:

Not this (Sorry, Rachel! I worship you, you’re my musclespiration!):

For many women and just as many men, Angelina Jolie’s body is preferable to Rachels. I know this stupid, and that it’s clearly Rachel who should be worshipped as a goddess, not miss stickfigure. You know this. But the rest of the world disagrees. As the song goes: “You can’t argue with popularity. Well you can, but you’d be wrong”.

Can you really promise your target audience that weight training will make them look like the underfed waif they want to look like? Because that’s what your doing when you say ‘picking up the weights will get you your dream body’.  The body that men will swoon over? Because last time I checked, a woman with visible muscles still gets an audible “eww” from most men.

What’s being said

Once again, all these people have the best of intentions, and don’t meant to mislead anyone. But they do, and I want to point them out.

From Elite Female fitness:

“Seriously, if one more woman says to me, “I don’t wanna lift cause I’ll get too big,” I’ll lose it! Look, if you think all you have to do to get huge is to step into the weight room and lift a few weights; you’re insane. It takes years of hard, heavy training, plenty of food, and testosterone, which women do not have enough of to get that big. When you see female bodybuilders, they are a product of steroids.”

This picture accompanies the argument.

This is an “argument from the extreme”. The woman is afraid of bulking (i.e. gaining an inch) and the article responds with ‘don’t worry, you’ll never gain 50 inches, it’s impossible”. I imagine this isn’t very reassuring. It’s like me saying “I’m afraid of sewer spiders” and someone reassuring me by saying “Don’t  worry, a 40 foot spider will never fit through your drains, it’s impossible”.

From Figure Athlete:

“But Wet Wolf, I can ‘muscle up’ very easily. I mean, my quads and glutes are really thick and muscular. In fact, I think I need to lose some muscle from my quads. They’re just too big.”

No. The password is… fat loss! Your legs aren’t too muscular, they’re just carrying too much fat. Show me one single Figure Athlete who’s drug-free and under 10% bodyfat, who possesses legs that are too muscular. You can’t do it.

Under 10% bodyfat? Granted, FA is not a site who caters to women who are currently swinging their pink dumbells around. But imagine a woman who has been lead to believe that pumping iron will give her her dream body. And who then gets told “yeah, of course you don’t have your dream body, you’re too fat! Your going to have to go on hardcore diets to drop yourself down to a very low bodyfat% that your body will continually struggle to get away from. Suprise!”.

Strange how that didn’t get a mention, isn’t it? Picking up the weights will give you ‘that nice toned look’, but who’s going to drop your bodyfat by 10 percentages?

Tony Gentilcore on FA (don’t hate me, Tony! I love you!):

Lifting heavy weights will not make you “big and bulky.” Eating bagels and drinking Starbucks (aka: liquid McDonalds) for breakfast everyday makes you “big and bulky.”

The take home message is, again, if you’re bulky, it’s because you’ve been taking too many dips into the cookie jar. Diet down, fatty. Funny though, before you started lifiting, you fit into your jeans fine. Now you need to diet down to compensate for the muscle width you gained. They didn’t tell you that before you started, did they?

Ok, let’s lift

So, a women wants to put down her pink dumbbells and start training weights. Chances are, she’ll start with the New rules of lifting for women. The programme starts with 12 to 18 weeks of 8-12 rep exercises with a low to no deficit. Women reported busting out of their pants in phase one and posted on the forum. They weren’t on steroids, they  were doing three fullbody workouts a week and having a shake afterwards.

The response they got was very different from those initial promises:

Matt from AmpedTraining:

“Sounds like your legs/butt were just un trained and responded how they were supposed to. Some women have hangups about the size of that area. If you’re one of those that prefers the skinny lower half, then building muscle is going to ruin that for you. Accept the changes or stop doing what you’re doing.”

“Some” women have hangups about that area? SOME? Are you kidding? How about “inform people properly or never try to debunk the bulking myth again?”

Or maybe she’ll mail tony about it, and he’ll say:

Ummmmm, 10-12 reps is notheavy, low rep training. It’s HYPERTROPHY training. The reason you can’t fit into your clothes anymore is because you’re probably doing too much volume.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had mentioned that in their “hey, women, drop the pink dumbbells article?” and had saved you a 16-week bulking cycle?

If weight-lifting will make me hot, why are your blog posts and articles covered in skinny fat girl pictures?

Because that’s what turns your male audience on, and part of what keeps them coming back. We’re not stupid. You may talk the talk, but your pictures don’t walk the walk. Or are these the toned, healthy weightlifting women you’re talking about?

What should be said

The take home message should be a little more detailed than: “pick up some weights, you won’t bulk’.

  • It should take the ‘pink dumbell woman’s point of view into account. No matter how much you hate it
  • It should provide realistic information about what you can expect to change about your body when you weight train.
  • It should explain that weight lifting alone is not enough to lose weight, and that dieting will still be the order of the day.
  • It  should explain what kind of weight training has what kinds of effect on body composition, so they can make an informed choice.
  • Perhaps you need to ditch or tone down the “you will look hot!” argument alltogether. It’s what you use to get men into the gym, isn’t it? Work hard and girls will want to have sex with you. Since most men prefer a skinny fat girl over a toned one anyway, maybe you need to make your selling points a bit more serious.Gubernatrix:
    “Likewise there is potentially more mileage in teaching women that weight training is good for them, than in trying to persuade women that weight training will make them look hot. It will – but most women will only be persuaded of this after it actually happens, not before! In the meantime, the argument that they need to do weight training for health could bear more fruit.”
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12 Responses to Debunking the bulking myth – you’re doing it wrong.

  1. Excellent read. I struggle with this very issue myself, and have been guilty of a few of the misrepresentations you describe myself.

    I think part of it is the reactionary element – I get very annoyed the misinformation that goes with the pink dumbbell crowd. That doesn’t change the fact that my assurances are perhaps a bit too simplistic.

    As an aside, as a straight, 30 year old guy raised in the US (and with all the cultural trappings that entails) I prefer the look of Rachels Cosgove to the skinny fat (tanorexic) models.

  2. Kelley Moore says:

    Hey Jules, great post, makes sense, and very thought provoking. I too have written on my blog “please step away from the pink dumbbells”. It’s mainly because I hate to see women working like crazy in the gym and never actually challenging their bodies enough to change. But you bring up some very good points! I love to lift heavy (squats), but I’ve done that for a few months now and while I can still wear the same pair of jeans, the legs are too tight because of my quads. I’m challenged in the area of nutrition, but while I’m starting to see abs I’m also wearing my best undies in case I split a seam. So, gotta rethink some of this. Read a great article on Testosterone Nation by Chris Shugart, who interviews Alwyn Cosgrove. One of the points he brought up is not dissing the concern a female client has about bulking, but to rather explore it and understand the look she’s really going for. Makes a lot of sense.

  3. Rayna says:

    As a female lifter I think you make some valid points, but I don’t agree with all of them.

    for instance: I think if your ideal body is Angela Jolie and you think you’re going to get that body from lifting, you need to reconsider your goals. You will never get Angela’s body by lifting, it requires a dedicated starvation diet. Completely different angle. So who’s fault is it that a girl has an unrealistic view of themselves, of models and of how to voice what they want? (please don’t say the media…)

    Also: as far as girls being afraid to put on an inch? Not quite, girls are afraid they’ll LOOK like they put on an inch. I’ve put a few inches on my legs since I started lifting, however they look thinner than they did before. I’ve talked to many girls about this, they agree, they’d rather have legs that appear thinner than flabby ones that fit into a size 3 because the blubber moves around their jeans.

    Now- I do agree that the trainers/blogs, etc need to be more upfront about this. I also believe the “you won’t bulk up thing” comes off as not listening. I’ve heard it a million times. But in my opinion these blogs and trainers aren’t lying when they say, “you won’t bulk up.” When a girl says “am I going to bulk up?” what she means is “am I going to look bigger than I look now”… why doesn’t she just say that in the first place? and why is she listening to what someone tells her without researching it on her own?

    I just think that girls need to take a bit more responsibility for themselves. On the other hand… if you want to “sell” lifting to woman, you may need to tell them they’ll look like Angelie Jolie just to get them to try it. ><

  4. lolfitness says:

    Hey Chris,

    Yeah, it’s so frustrating, isn’t it? Also, weightlifting is fun and you really just want to spread the joy. There was a girl in the gym last night going “Oh, i could never lift weights like you do”, and I was trying to sell her on NROL before I even asked what her goals were :)

    Hey Kelly,

    Yeah, it’s more complicated as you go along. I’ve been rethinking my goals too. I wanted tons of muscle, but i’m not sure I want the superlow bodyfat% which makes that look work. I’m going to look into strength programs (vs. muscle programs) a bit more, i think. Good luck with your training!

    Hey Rayna,

    I saw your blog, you’re pretty badass! I know what you mean about the looks. I look great in short skirts now, but unfortunately I don’t fit in the skirts I own anymore. It’s a strange place to be. :) And yes, girls need to know what they want, and voice it, it goes both ways.

  5. Gubernatrix says:

    Great article, props for addressing the issue in such a clear way! Every woman is different and has differing perceptions of the issue based on what she has seen/read, how she sees herself, what she wants and so on. For men to try to interpret this in a blanket fashion often just comes across as patronising. Surely men know by now that women are more complicated than that?!

    Of course one way around the whole issue is not to make strength training about looks at all! You *will* look better as a side effect of training, not only because of changes in your physical composition but also changes in your attitude, confidence, level of empowerment and so on. The message is: if you do real strength training, good things happen. :)

  6. Jbaker says:

    I can say that in my short career as a Personal Trainer I have fallen into the trap telling women stop being a wuss and lift heavier weights. As well as tellin them that they won’t bulk up. What really opened my eyes was the Leigh Peele article where she studied what a large majority of women really want. I think that the premise of lifting for strength and performance is a great idea that I will begin to implement as my end goal. I think that it could possibly be empowering for a women to know that she can lift and be strong just like the boys. As a man that is really into the fitness industry, my opinion of what women should look like seems to be a lot different than the males and females that I work with. Rachel Cosgrove is lightyears ahead of Jolie in the sexiness category by the way. But your post makes a lot of sense, education may be the key. And making the performance and strength the primary goal, and putting physique goals secondary may be a better option. I just found your blog and I will continue to follow it because it seems to give a no bull perspective on what women are thinking. Keep up the good work!

  7. Cathy says:

    I have been searching the net for information on my large thighs that have become more muscular and yes LARGER since I embarked on a lifting and cardio plan over 1 year ago. I was not overweight when I started the plan. I was already exercising but I wanted to make a bigger commitment. After trolling the net, I found all of the exact misinformation mentioned in this article. I talked to a teacher and a trainer at my gym and I was told by the teacher that I should buy new jeans and by the trainer to use less weight. What I think I and a lot of women want is that we know we cannot make our thighs any smaller, to some extent. I think I could starve myself and my thighs will always be too big for my body (5’4″ and usually 120-130 lbs.). Anyway, I at least want my big thighs to be muscular, yet I don’t want to gain inches on them. I want them the same size but muscular. Is this possible or not possible? I am working hard on exercise and diet. I don’t want to be Angelina Jolie but I know the top half of me does not match the lower half of me. And in a bathing suit I look ridiculous with a tiny waist, average calves, average butt, toned arms and shoulders, and then thunder thighs. Most of my life I have assumed that the only solution would be surgery but I still try. Now, after giving it my best try, after more than 1 year, none of my pants fit me.

    • LOLfitness says:

      Hey Cathy,

      I feel your pain, girl! (Especially now that I’m spring cleaning and throwing away a tons of perfectly good pants). Outtraining your bodytype is nearly impossible, I think. Still, it seems to me there’s three things you can do:

      – Go for the ideal weight-lifter body: Diet down to a low body-fat percentage (Not a lot of fun)

      – Go for the ideal hollywood body: Change your training drastically. I can’t say how because I’m not a trainer, but I can imagine replacing low body training with cardio altogether – with perhaps a few exercises in the strength training rep zone. (your thighs aren’t going to look superstrong because they won’t be superstrong)

      – Change your own beauty standard. That’s the default answer other weightlifting women give you. I hate that answer, it sounds so self-righteous. Still, there’s a lot to be said for equating health and visible strength with beauty. But if you can manage it, more power to you, right?

      (FWIW I did 2 and 3, went into a lighter maintenance program and stopped worrying about it. I don’t have my ideal body which sucks but as I’m getting older I’m real happy to be strong and healthy – and not needing to count calories for the rest of my life sure helps with the happiness ;)

  8. Hawkfitness says:

    Great article. When I first started as a Personal Trainer I would become annoyed with women who thought they could get big easily since it took me years to add the muscle that I did and most days it was hard to eat all of the calories I had to. I doesn’t bother me as much as it used, women just don’t know about the actual research and I fault the major magazines for all of the “toning” exercises for that.

  9. Oh gosh thank you so much for this article!!!! Finally someone who mentions the unexpected outcomes of lifting I can totally relate to this article and agree with what has been said.. But thank you so much for confirming that I am not crazy!

  10. Jared says:

    Just because a woman isn’t big it doesn’t mean that she is skinny fat.
    Men don’t like skinny-fat women because skinny-fat women are shapeless, since that’s the definition of skinny-fat i.e. shapeless and flabby and what men like is shape and curves.

    The point is that both men and women prefer medium grounds and hate extremes. Neither skinny and neither big is good looking. An average amount of muscles with a low enough amount of body fat is what both men and women are attracted to. That’s what natured intended for us.

    Even in 1890 and even without starving themselves an average girl who is not interested in fitness but try to live an healthy life and be active, will have that kind of body and if that’s too small by female amateur bodybuilding standards it doesn’t mean that the natural physique of non fitness fanatics females is wrong, it means that the physique of female amateur bodybuilders is the exception.

    We’re meant by natural instinct to like an average natural body who is fit enough but it isn’t the result of gym fanatism. A body with a lean percentage of body fat but not so low to be shredded. A body with a normal amount of muscles, not so little as if you starved all your muscles and not so large as if you trained a lot.

    Just check this picture a women created and shared on the web:

    And just because a women doesn’t have lot of muscles or super low body fat levels it doesn’t mean she is skinny-fat. This is skinny fat:
    and I don’t know any men who would think that’s attractive. Skinny-fatness is shapelessness and this is the least attractive thing ever for a men or woman. And while Angeline Jolie might be excessively thin, she doesn’t look skinny-fat to me, in fact in her leaness she looks like several fitness models I have seen, except she has less muscles.

    The truth is that we aren’t biologically designed to find exceptionally attractive anything above the natural amount of muscles and fat that living on a natural environment running, hunting, moving objects and eating a decent amount of food would put on us.

    So it’s time to stop claiming that the solution to excess fat and less muscles than our natural life would allow us to develop is putting on lot of muscles and losing lot of fat, the solution is actually 2-3 pounds more of muscles and 4-5 pounds less of fat, that’s ALL most people who are flabby and skinny-fat and unfit need to look normally attractive and decently lean. Anything more than that, anything more than what looks natural and non fat-fetched would decrease attractiveness.

    So that’s a good article that addressed the real problem of ridicolous bodybuildings standards confusing people about their goal physique and what they need to get there (and this apply to males too, expecially college guys who are interested in bodybuilding but want to get rid of their beer belly and have a leaner physique) but that’s still not enough, while busing the “you won’t bulk” myth you have reinforced few myths yourself, like that if you don’t look like an amateur bodybuilder you’re necessarily skinny-fat or that our aestethic standards are wrong and we should be more attracted to big people with super low body fat rather than averagely muscled people with an averagely low amount of fat.

    What’s sad is that people who are not interested in making bodybuilding a part of their life but just want to maintain a decent physique in a modern environment who is conductive to that, don’t know where to look for. Bodybuilding has the prerogative, if you want to build some muscles and get leaner bodybuilding is where you’re supposed to find your solution but bodybuilding is actually about unrealistic standards, extreme concepts who are interesting to less than 0.5% of the world population, twisted aestethic ideals. So still when someone looks himself/herself in the mirror and sees an unfit, flabby and shapeless body and this “I want to gain some muscles I have lost with sedentarity, say 2-3 pounds, and I want to lose some excess fat I have accumulated, say 5-6 pounds” they don’t really have no idea where to start and who to consult to get the job done. If they consult a trainer in a gym working with big guys, they’re going to be very very disappointed. And while this nonsense goes on and on, people stay sick and unfit because changing seems like excessively complicated or uncompatible with their real goal (i.e. they want t slightly better body not becoming amateur bodybuilders!)

  11. Melvina says:

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