“I don’t want to get too bulky”

Why getting too bulky is never going to happen

Setting straight the “I don’t want to get too bulky” crew with some hard science facts:

  1. Women tend to have about 2/3 the amount of muscle mass as men, with a larger difference in upper body (about ½). Yes, men tend to be stronger than women, but this difference is mostly explained by the difference in muscle mass.
  2. This higher level of muscle mass is mainly due to sex hormones (testosterone, growth hormone & oestrogen) and their role in muscle building. Males larger amount of testosterone puts them at a muscle building advantage.
  3. Women do not have a harder time losing weight or fat mass than men – they just probably need to eat less due to their lower muscle mass as well as other factors such as activity level and age. Gender itself isn’t a factor.
  4. Women have the capacity to train harder and at a higher percentage than men with the expectation of purely anaerobic activities (short sharp bursts)
  5. To not get bulky you need to lean up and increase muscle mass. Resistance training most effectively does both.

If your interest is piqued and you want to know the Ins and outs read on…

As most know, men have more testosterone in their bodies than women, up to 10 times in-fact. Testosterone can stimulate growth hormone secretion and increase the presence of neurotransmitters at the fibre site, which can help to activate tissue growth.

Tissue growth = more muscle. Resistance exercise that uses a large amount of muscle mass, moderate-high intensity weights, high volume and short rests between sets gives large increase in growth hormone, IGF-1 and testosterone, for at least a few hours post training. Exercise examples are squats, deadlifts, and pull ups at a moderate weight and high intensity.

Therefore more testosterone and more growth hormone equal more muscle. So it would make sense that, as a woman, it’s just biologically harder to bulk up with muscle than men. Combine this with a genetic disposition to having lower muscle mass of about two thirds, getting bulky is a hard task. You are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the starting point vs. men.

too bulky

However there are some arguments that say women are more than capable of packing on muscle mass as men. Women tend to produce more growth hormone throughout the day, as well as having a higher oestrogen production, which is great for retaining muscle mass.

The simple fact is yes that does help, but its effects are nowhere as potent as the difference in testosterone and muscle mass between the sexes. The take away from this point is, it will take real dedication to pack on more muscle than you might like. Remember, men spend years and years trying to get “too bulky” – it’s not going to happen to you over night.

Other significant differences between genders

Women do tend to have more fat than men, however there are differences in where that fat is stored, and also the characteristics of that fat. Men tend to have more visceral fat (fat stored around the organs), and women tend to have more peripheral subcutaneous fat (fat stored between the muscles and the skin). This gives rise to the “apple” and “pear” shaped, or android and gynoid fat distribution patterns.

“apple” and “pear” shaped, or android and gynoid fat distribution patterns

Secondly, you do not have a harder time losing weight because you’re a woman. Yes, you’ll probably have to eat fewer calories than a man who weighs the same amount you do, but the major factors of calorie requirement are body size and composition as well as activity levels. Gender plays a very small (if any) role.

The hard truth

When starting weights don’t mistake excess body fat for “bulk” from strength training. This is the harsh reality that a lot of people don’t want to face up to. If you want to be leaner, focus on your nutritional approach but still enjoy the process of exercise.

As you start to build muscle and lose fat your weight may not always change on the scales. If you gained 2kg of muscle mass and lost the same amount of fat, you would be the same weight but smaller. This is because fat takes up more space per pound than muscle does.

This is because fat takes up more space per pound than muscle does.

If you are looking for fat loss don’t fall behind “weights are making me bigger” curtain when it comes to measurements. Even when you are happy with how much mass you have, you can still lift heavy, without gaining significant size, as long as you plan your training and nutrition accordingly. For better body composition, your focus should be on increasing muscle mass in your chosen areas as well as dropping to a lower body fat.

Think of “bulky” as fat and “tone” as lean. Layman’s terms I know but that’s the crux of it all. If a women with moderate to high muscle mass, dropped 5kg of body fat she would get ab line, definition in her arms, firmer glutes etc.

Most of this is what people are trying to achieve in the gym no matter what gender. Without the muscle mass these characteristics would be far less prominent and the best you can hope for is “thin” not “toned”

Closing thoughts

Due to the biological characteristics, men have a better starting point to women in regards to building muscle mass. Therefore “bulky” is going to be difficult to achieve. But perspective is everything. The way you want to look now is probably vastly different to the way you will want to look after 6 months of weight training. Enjoy the process of training itself and use that as a motivator to move more.

Never done a pull up before? Aim for that as a goal, its pretty damn cool. Training orientated goals are a great way to get to your chosen body composition without putting crazy amounts of pressure on it. Those people tend to be the most successful in their journey.

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Sex Differences in Training and Metabolism