Myth Busting | Lifting Weights Makes You Bulky

Okay, ladies. It’s time for a little #realtalk #toughlove from yours truly. There’s a myth circulating in your gyms, in your conversations with your girlfriends, and in the back (or front) of your minds that needs to be addressed, and I feel like it’s my job to bring it all out in the open! Since it’s such an important (and misunderstood!) topic, this post is going to be a little long because I’m going to dive deep and do it justice. So grab your water and settle in! 

I get told ALL of the time from women just like me and you that they’re freaked out about weightlifting because they don’t want to build “too much muscle.” They’re afraid that if they lift weights, they’ll get too bulky and end up looking “manly.”

So what happens? They tend to avoid weights altogether and become cardio bunnies. They run and run and run…and they never stop running with the goal in mind to “get toned but not build muscle.”

Ladies. It’s not possible, okay? YES, you can tone and lean out your body, but in order to do so, you have to build muscle first. And let’s get something straight—building muscle does not equate to bulking muscle.

As women, it’s NOT physically possible for our bodies to bulk up the way men sometimes do. We don’t have the genetic make up or the amount of testosterone needed to build that kind of muscle. Unless we’re taking something like steroids, for example, or working out for hours upon hours upon hours each day, it’s just not going to happen. So make a pact right now with yourself to get that belief out of your mind for good!

Most often, people fail to realize that the more lean muscle we have, the more fat we’re going to burn consistently throughout the day. Lifting weights and building muscle actually boosts our metabolism so much so that it gets us to a point where our bodies actually become fat-burning machines. It helps our bodies become capable of burning fat even during periods of rest. Who wouldn’t want that?! But our bodies need solid muscle mass FIRST to be able to do that!

We gotta’ work together, ladies! We have to bust this myth once and for all that lifting weights (regular, total body resistance training) makes you bulky.

Bulking up is a very conscious decision, and unless that’s your goal and that’s what you’re working toward, it’s just not going to happen. Do some people have a genetically “gifted” part of their body the tends to get larger faster? Of course. But we can totally work around that by not focusing on that single area, and instead, by working on muscle groups.

Feel better about weightlifting? Seriously, you can do it, and I promise you, I honestly think you’ll enjoy it!

There are soooo many benefits to resistance training (remember when I mentioned becoming a fat-burning machine?!). Here are just a few:

  • Lose More Body Fat. Since muscle burns around THREE times more calories than fat, adding as little as 2-4 pounds of muscle can equal an extra 100 calories burned EVERY day. Plus, a high-intensity resistance routine can pump up your metabolism by 20% for several hours AFTER you’re done working out. MORE FAT BURNED!
  • Look Leaner & Fitter. Muscle has a denser volume than fat, so you can look leaner EVEN if the scale doesn’t budge and even if it goes up! A word of caution here: As you start lifting weights, you probably will see that number on the scale go up. In order to build muscles and make them leaner, they first get broken down and then have to build back up. As they’re broken down, they actually retain fluid, which is totally normal. This is the body’s way of healing those muscle fibers. Instead of focusing on that number on the scale, look ahead to the long-term benefits of how you’re feeling, the quality of your workouts, and how your clothes are fitting. **More about the scale at the end of this post!!**
  • Overall Health. Lifting weights has the ability to actually help you decrease your risk of injury and can affect your overall health by improving blood pressure, lowering bad cholesterol, raising good cholesterol, preventing back issues/pain, decreasing the risk of getting sick, fighting the aging process, improving your body’s response to processing sugar (which can reduce the risk of diabetes), increasing bone density, and decreasing your risk of osteoporosis! Did I mention it fights the aging process?!  

Let’s focus on that last one for a bit, because I don’t think a lot of us really have any idea how important our bone health is not just for today, but for 20, 30, 50+ years from now.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s going on right now that we lose sight of the fact that a lot of the things we are doing now (or things we’re not doing now) will affect our quality of life years, and even decades, from now.

Muscle and bone density/bone loss is a real thing that affects everyone as they age, especially women. They say it all starts to go “downhill” in our 30s….and they’re not entirely wrong (whoever “they” may be!).

In our mid-30s, our bone development reaches its “peak bone mass”—the stage where our bones have reached their maximum strength and density. We then start to lose 5-10% of our muscle strength and 3-5% of our muscle mass each decade.

Once we hit menopause, our bone loss becomes more rapid, which can lead to osteopenia, and then to osteoporosis. I know for some of us, menopause seems soooo far away! But I have several friends who have gone through surgical menopause earlier than they expected (in their 30s and 40s), so their stage of rapid bone loss comes much sooner than planned.

Where does that muscle strength and mass go? Well…it’s replaced by fat, and usually by a decline in our functional ability in our daily lives. Even if we’re active, we can still be losing muscle. Muscle is like a coat of armor: Our muscles protect and support our bones as we age, and with regular exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise (like walking, running, resistance training, hiking, dancing, walking, climbing stairs, etc.), that armor continues to strengthen, protect, and support our bones even better.

Think of it this way: Regular resistance training, in addition to all the benefits I’ve already mentioned, will help us be able to do all of the things we want to do once we reach our 80s and beyond! And that’s what we all want, right? To still be active and able to experience life and all the things we love for decades to come!

Okay. So that’s a LOT of info, and you’re probably still trying to wrap your brain around going to the gym, lifting weights, and NOT bulking up. And, by the way, once you’re finished reading this, I want you to call your best girl friends and share this info with them! They’ll thank you for it, trust me!

Now that we all understand the importance of resistance training, here are some general recommendations for setting up your own resistance training program if you’re not already following one. And if this all seems totally overwhelming, we have 4 different programs in The TRANSFORM App, and every single one includes resistance training! We’ve done all of the work for you—you simply have to follow the program!

Check out these recommendations:

Sets, reps, and rest periods:

  • General muscles fitness: 1-2 sets, 8-16 reps, 30-90 seconds of rest between sets
  • Muscular endurance (so you can do activities for longer periods of time): 2-3 sets, less than 12 reps, less than 30 seconds rest between sets
  • Muscular hypertrophy (to get those shapely muscles you want): 3-6 sets, 6-12 reps, 30-90 seconds of rest between sets
  • Muscular strength (so you have the strength to do the activities you want to do): 2-6 sets, less than 6 reps, 2-5 minutes of rest between sets
  • Tip: If you’re new to resistance training, start slowly with the general muscle fitness guidelines, and then slowly add in the other recommendations as you feel confident in your form and fitness level. In fact, incorporating all four types into your workout routine can help you get the all-round fitness, endurance, shape, and strength you want, which is so important!

Frequency (and this depends on your goals):

  • General muscular fitness: 2-3 times/week.
  • Muscle building and toning: 3-6 times/week

A Few Last Things..

So now that you have all this information at your fingertips, what’s next?!

Before starting any new exercise program, it’s always important to discuss it with your healthcare team first; especially if you have any pre-existing health issues! 

When you do begin, you should train both your lower and your upper muscle groups. Ignoring any muscle group can lead to muscle imbalances —a sure-fire way to get injured!  And always give your muscle groups 48-72 hours of rest in between sessions. Those muscles need time to heal, repair, and get stronger before you work them out again.

Make sure that you’re lifting enough weight! Here’s another myth that needs busting: Lifting light weights will help you tone and keep you from getting bulky. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Lifting with too little weight is really a waste of time because it’s not going to challenge your muscles enough to help them get healthier and stronger. (Remember: Strong does NOT equal bulky). On the flip side, how do you know if you’re lifting too much weight? Here’s a trick I recommend: Brace your core during every exercise, and if you find yourself losing that tight core, you need to reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting.

So one more thing, as promised. We need to talk about the dreaded scale. I know how easy it is to become emotionally tied to that number on the scale! But here’s the thing…and I’ll be honest, it’s taken me MANY, many years to learn this: That darn number on the scale can LIE to you and is NOT a true reflection of progress—especially when you’re building muscle.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll put this one out there. The me on the right is 20 pounds heavier than the me on the left. Which one looks healthier and happier?

I’m not saying that doing a physique competition has to be your goal, but take a look at the before and after photos on our app social media pages, and you’ll see members of our TRANSFORM family who have gained muscle weight and look so much healthier and happier than before! So I encourage you to take those before photos! Take your measurements! Those are far, far FAR better methods than paying attention to the number on the scale!

And look at that—two myths busted in one post! #winwin What other commonly-held beliefs are you wondering about? Leave ‘em below, and maybe I’ll do a future post on them with all of the facts!

xo,

Heidi

Related reading:

Transform App FAQ: HELP!!! I’ve been working my butt off, following my meal plan, and the scale’s not moving! What do I do?
Transform App FAQ: Which program should I choose?
My 5 Gym (and Home Gym) Must-Haves
Life Hacks: 5 Flat Belly Secrets Revealed!
A Weight Loss Win: It’s More Than That Number on the Scale


30 Comments

  1. Lainey - August 17, 2018

    This is my favorite post! Why? Because this is the hardest myth to explain to ladies who have it in their mind that if they lift (or “lift heavy”), that tomorrow they are going to look like they are entering an Arnold Schwarzenegger classic bodybuilding competition.

    I’m sharing this article!

  2. Andrea - August 16, 2018

    Since I’ve moved to strength training with some cardio mixed in rather than mostly cardio with some strength training (or none) I have noticed lots of pluses! Body shape looks better, I can eat more and still lose weight, etc. Changed my mind about it for sure!

  3. Tina - August 16, 2018

    Love this! I worry because my arms are already big and I don’t want them to get huge and look like Popeye! LOL! I already have to be careful with the shirts I buy, they are sometimes too tight around my arms and fit great everywhere else.

    I am ready to start lifting again, I loved it when I did it years ago. I’m 47 now and I know I need to gain muscle to stay active and healthy as I get older. I want to be active with my nieces and a good role model as they grow up.

    Thank you Heidi!

  4. Lisa Lichty - August 16, 2018

    This is so true! Lifting is my favorite and I’ve had so many people make this comment! Love this post

  5. Alanna Lacktorin - August 16, 2018

    This is my favorite blog post becuase it empowers women to be a bad ass in the gym and also maintain their feminitity. I think that so many women are afraid of lifting heavy and pushing heavy weight in the gym for fear of being “bulky” or “manly.” This article really shows women that we can do WHATEVER we want, and look HOWEVER we want without being judged by others our ourselves. So empowering.

  6. Andy Bowman - August 16, 2018

    I love that you posted this! I had this conversation with my wife and how lifting weights in the gym will not add tons of muscle right away. I told her I wished it was that easy! I love the encouragement and body truth that you gave in this article!

  7. Claudia - August 16, 2018

    👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼 So true

  8. Jinger D - August 16, 2018

    This is one of my favorite post. I used to do hours and hours of mindless cardio but not anymore. Lifting weights changed my life!

  9. Alica - August 16, 2018

    Yes, yes, yes. My body had never looked this good. Post kids and no longer just cardio. Cardio and Weights!! I also enjoy training so much more now too. The variety, change and challenge.

  10. Annabelle - August 15, 2018

    Love! I’m trying to gain muscle back. After two babies they seemed to have disappeared. Working on meeting my protein (macros). It’s much easier to eat carbs 😬.

  11. Judy - August 15, 2018

    Love this! My biggest fear is looking too bulky. Thanks for sharing

  12. Jen Durham - August 15, 2018

    As someone who is new to weightlifting, this article was very helpful and reaffirming. I have seen a total change in my body and my overall mindset. What great info!! I look forward to combing this with dietbet:)

  13. Kelly Martin - August 15, 2018

    Love this! One of me new favourite blog posts!! I lifting weights is a new thing for me and I am loving it!
    Hoping to be a part of your dietbet! 😃💕

  14. Regina - August 15, 2018

    Love this!! Just started my weight training

  15. Crystal - August 15, 2018

    Love this. I’m still working on my fitness journey… I mean aren’t we all. But I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to tell this to women.

    Great read!

  16. April Hawke - August 15, 2018

    I can honestly say I absolutely love the shape my body takes with the addition of weight training. I did CrossFit and love it but also have now added weight training and am so surprised at how much I love it! My zen!
    Thank you Heidi for telling it like it is……always 💕

  17. Mireille - August 15, 2018

    I’m ready!!! 💪🏼

  18. Kelly - August 15, 2018

    Thank you for showing woman that they can lift and not “get bulky” or “look like a guy”. I love Olympic weightlifting and always encourage other woman to try it.

  19. Kristina Pietrangelo - August 15, 2018

    I love how real you always are. My journey has many ups and downs like everyone’s does and I am currently trying to get out of a down after a knee injury. Will find out later this month if I have torn my meniscus in my Right knee. Had surgery on the Left knee for the same problem 4 yrs ago-unfortunately both injuries occurred while working out. Looking forward to and working at being able to change my mindset about getting healthy. Surgery or not I need to commit to my nutrition first.

    I love lifting weights and this post was great for tips and myth busting about bulking up!!

  20. Sharon Metzger - August 15, 2018

    My husband and I love your site and the incredible advice you both provide. Our one wish is Extreme Weight Loss to come back ON! It was so inspiring to see all the people you helped. Not only did you retrain them with new eating habits, but you changed their lives forever!

  21. Katie - August 15, 2018

    Love this so informative and eye opening! You are definitely my fitness motivation it’s nice to have someone to follow that posts the truths!

  22. Sue - July 25, 2018

    Love all your posts, you and Chris are so inspiring and uplifting. I would like to know about stretch marks. Long story short- a medication my doctor had put me on caused rapid weight gain in a short time leaving horrible bright red marks. (40 pounds in 3 months- off the medication now) The weight is so slow to come off, but every day trying is a win day. I’m just concerned the scars will be with me for life. Any advise to make them go away, shrink, minimize, fade, etc. will be appreciated. Thanks.

    • Team Powell - July 26, 2018

      Hi Sue: Congratulations on your weight loss, that is so awesome! Each person’s skin can react differently to weight loss and stretch marks, so keep doing what you’re doing to lose the weight, and please don’t get frustrated! Some people have found that a good vitamin E or coconut oil applied directly on the skin helps. And you’re totally correct – every day IS a win day! Hopefully, your skin will bounce back! 🙂

  23. Pamela - July 21, 2018

    I agree with the person above – please address cellulite in a future post.

  24. Bianca - July 19, 2018

    Heidi, is it true that working out and eating right will not get rid of cellulite??? I would love to know the answer to this since I’ve been hearing a lot of people telling me that it’s not possible. I’ve been working on myself for about a year on transform app and although I’ve seen a reduction of cellulite, it’s not completely gone. Please, please write something about cellulite because I really want to know what the truth is:(

    • Pamela - July 21, 2018

      This is me too! Aargh

    • Team Powell - July 23, 2018

      Hi Bianca: Great question! Eating healthy and working out (especially building muscle through regular resistance training) can help to decrease cellulite. Some treatments from a dermatologist and some creams can also help too. I’ll add this topic to Heidi’s blog idea list, but in the meantime, here’s an article from webmd.com that might help: https://www.webmd.com/beauty/get-rid-of-cellulite#1 Keep doing what you’re doing (yay! for you!), and it should continue to get better. 🙂

  25. Diana Reynolds - July 19, 2018

    Heidi – I’m a 41 year old mom of 3 young children. I do strength training 4-6 times/week with HIIT mixed in. I’ve been unable to lose that layer of fat. I keep my nutrition in-check but, I’m gaining weight AND getting bigger, none of my clothes fit and, while my core is strong, I know it’s getting flabby. Help!!!

    • Team Powell - July 23, 2018

      Hi Diana: It sounds like you’ve got a great plan in place! Your nutrition plan might need a bit of tweaking. It can be a fine line between gaining muscle and not gaining fat, and it can be a frustrating process! Heidi and Chris count macros and carb cycle, and this is the way their app nutrition program is put together too. Here are some posts that might help: https://heidipowell.net/10990, https://heidipowell.net/3713. And here’s a link to check out the app – it offers you a totally customized nutrition and workout program: http://thetransformapp.com. One more thing: Make sure you’re drinking enough water – that can make a huge difference. We recommend 1/2 your body weight in ounces every day + some for what you sweat out during your workouts. You got this! 🙂

  26. Nirupa - July 19, 2018

    Love this!! I used to be all about cardio and very rarely lifting until my husband got me into it and now I can’t get enough. I love the changes I’ve seen in my body and have never felt better or healthier!

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