You cannot imagine the look of absolute horror some women give you when you tell them they should start lifting heavy weights. “But I don’t want to get all bulky and look like a man!”
This always makes me grind my teeth in frustration, but it’s such a common response. The reason I get so frustrated is that a properly designed lifting program is the best thing a girl could do for health, fitness and looks; and when I say lifting weights, I don’t mean pink 2kg dumbbells as part of a pump class. I’m talking about the same lifts that all men should also be doing: the squat, the deadlift, and the press.
Now, before I go through what will happen when you start lifting, I’m going flip this around and talk about what’s not going to happen.
What Won’t Happen
A lot of people have this idea that if a girl picks up a barbell she’ll look like Arnie by the end of her first set.
There are a couple of reasons for this common misconception. Firstly, female bodybuilding really isn’t helping. People see images of these bodybuilders and they think that any girl who touches a weight will end up looking like them. For starters, this is just as illogical as thinking that any boy who does a set of bicep curls in Fitness First will automatically get 22” arms like Arnie. Female bodybuilders have spent years of dedicated training to get to where they are. Their programs, and their lives, have been built around gaining muscle. You’re not going to be at the same point if a few times a week you do some squats.
Also, when you’re talking about the women who are winning professional bodybuilding contests, then they’re so big for the same reason that male professional bodybuilders are: drugs. These women don’t look like they do purely as a result of their training program, they’re also on high-dosages of steroids and other anabolic drugs.
This neatly brings me to my next point: hormone levels. There are certain hormones in the human body that regulate the growth (hypertrophy) and loss (atrophy) of muscle. The big players in this are testosterone, human growth hormone and IGF-1, with testosterone being the most important one. On average, women have 5-10% of the testosterone that men have. Think about that for a moment. Women have a tenth to a twentieth of the main anabolic hormone as men.
I’ve had quite a few girls who have told me that they ‘just bulk up really easily.’ During a discussion about this on 70’s Big, Erica (who runs the RandomFit blog) mentioned “I can’t count the number of women who claimed that working out for two weeks made them all bulky.”
I spent twelve years in the Army, and worked with hundreds and hundreds of young, fit males, most of whom desperately wanted to bulk up. I can think of three who could do it with barely any effort. Three, out of hundreds; and yet it seems to be an epidemic amongst women.
Another factor that we haven’t considered is diet. For the best muscular gains, you need to eat. A lot. You have to be in a caloric surplus, and especially you have to be getting a heap of protein. This is generally not something you do accidentally. If you’ve ever been around or lived with a guy trying to put on muscle, then you know the effort that must go into eating. A few years ago I was trying to get my lifts up, and so I upped my calories to support my training and weight gain. The five days a week that I lifted, as soon as I finished my last rep, I’d grab 2L of chocolate milk and start skolling. It wasn’t particularly fun – or healthy – but it was 1700 calories for breakfast.
So if you’re not eating to support mass gain, it’s unlikely you’re going to put on a lot of size.
My last point for today is one that seems pretty intuitive to me, but seems to get overlooked pretty regularly. Training – and results – are a slow process. You don’t go to sleep one night, and wake up a gorilla. I’ve worked with guys who compete in weight category sports like MMA, and they need to get stronger without putting on a lot of size. But in the rare event that does start happening, then we can just shift the emphasis or nutrition slightly. If you pick up a barbell you’re not committed to a lifetime of heavy lifting. So isn’t it worth giving it a shot?
Now that we’ve covered what won’t happen, next week we’ll look at the numerous benefits you can reap from lifting.