Debunking "Bulky"

Note: If you are recovering from or currently battling an eating disorder, and find words like “skinny” and “fat” to be triggers for you, please feel free to skip this post. Also, while I specifically address girls in this post, it is only because I myself am a girl—this article applies to guys as well.

When it comes to strength training, many women still live in fear of turning into the “B” word. That’s right—I’m talking about “bulky” (get your mind out of the gutter). But to me, and to many other strength and conditioning professionals, “bulky” is another type of “B” word, one that starts with “bull” and ends with “sh*t.” If you are a coach, teacher, or parent who has heard the girls in your life express a fear of weight training making them bulky—or if you yourself believe that strength training will turn you into a bulky man-beast—then this post is for you.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT "BULK"

The first step in debunking the myths surrounding this term is to define what most people mean when they use the word “bulky.” In my experience as a trainer, when women say, “I don’t want to lift heavy weights because I don’t want to get bulky,” what they really mean is, “I don’t want a high volume of muscle with a large layer of adipose tissue covering it.” In other words, they don’t want to build muscle without simultaneously decreasing their body fat percentage. So there are two components to this “bulky” aesthetic: muscle AND fat—and this is often misunderstood.

Subcutaneous fat lives in the layer between muscle and skin. A large layer of fat will hide the appearance of muscles. But just because you increase muscle mass, doesn't necessarily mean you decrease fat at the same time.

Subcutaneous fat lives in the layer between muscle and skin. A large layer of fat will hide the appearance of muscles. But just because you increase muscle mass, doesn't necessarily mean you decrease fat at the same time.

Ask a girl what she considers to be “bulky,” and my guess is she would describe a muscular physique. But I believe this is a common misconception. I think that when most girls talk about “getting bulky,” what they really mean is building muscle AND retaining a large layer of fat over it. Think about it: if you build lean muscle tissue, which gives muscles a hard or “toned” appearance (more on the word “toned” later), but retain a high percentage of body fat layered over that muscle tissue, you will appear larger than you would with a lower BF%.

But it is possible to build muscle and decrease your BF% at the same time (achieved through a combination of proper training and nutrition). A woman with a large volume of muscle tissue but a low BF% will appear lean—not “bulky.” Even though there seems to be a cultural perception that building muscle causes women to "bulk up," building muscle isn't the real culprit: a high percentage of body fat is.

So, really, when someone says, “I don’t want to lift weights because I’ll get bulky,” it is a contradiction. If they say, “I don’t want to lift weights in addition to eating more than my body needs, because I’ll get bulky,” well, that would be more accurate. It’s really a question of semantics.



THE TRUTH ABOUT MUSCLES

When I ask women about their ideal physique—athletic performance goals aside—I hear words like “toned” and “firm.” Imagine my surprise when, after I tell them the best way to achieve their physique goals is to lift heavy weights, they immediately backtrack, citing the B-word. I think this is because there is still confusion out there about what muscle tissue can and cannot do.

First of all, the word “toned” is another B-is-for-bullsh*t word. Seriously. Take it out of your vocabulary. Stuff it in a trash bag, fill it with rocks, and throw it into the middle of a lake. I KNOW IT'S LITTERING, OK?! Just never, ever tell me you want to get "toned" ever again. Wait, where was I? Skeletal muscles like your biceps and triceps cannot be “toned”—they can only get bigger or smaller. When trainers use the word “tone” as a verb—as in, “We gotta tone those glutes! It’s beach season!”—they are using the word incorrectly. Check out Wikipedia’s definition of muscle tone:

"In physiology, medicine, and anatomy, muscle tone (residual muscle tension or tonus) is the continuous and passive part contraction of the muscles, or the muscle's resistance to passive stretch during resting state."

In other words, a muscle’s tone has to do with its state of contraction. If you have ever felt a trigger point in your muscle, that is an example of hypertonicity—a portion of the muscle in a state of hyper- or over-contraction. (This is usually a mechanism adopted by chronically overstretched muscles to maintain structural integrity—try poking around the musculature around your shoulder blades, and you’ll likely encounter more than a few hypertonicities!) What I’m getting at here is: muscle tone has nothing to do with the strength or appearance of muscle tissue.

You almost have to run some of these cultural phrases through a translator. When people say they want a “toned” look, what they really mean is they want to build lean muscle and decrease the amount of body fat that covers it—because a muscle simply CANNOT be toned. It has tone; but it cannot be toned. It’s akin to saying water has viscosity; but cannot be viscositied. It just doesn’t make sense.

In addition to a desire to be “toned,” I also hear people expressing a wish for “long, lean” muscles. But this is yet another muscle myth. You cannot change the absolute shape or length of your muscles. Mic drop. Your genetics has already predetermined that. If you could change the length of your muscles, you would be able to make yourself taller or shorter, depending on how hard you trained. And that is simply not the case. You cannot make your muscles longer; flexibility training will only restore them to a normal length from a shortened state—sorry! But what you CAN do is either increase (hypertrophy) or decrease (atrophy) the circumference of your muscles. And you can either increase your BF% through nutrition and exercise, or decrease your BF% through nutrition and exercise. When people use words like “toned” and “lean,” what they are really talking about is a low BF% in combination of muscle hypertrophy.

THE SKINNY ON "SKINNY-FAT"

Did you know you can be skinny AND fat at the same time? What I mean by that is, did you know you can be thin and still have a high BF%? The volume of your body—the amount of space it takes up—has no bearing on what percentage of that volume is fat. You can be a size-0 and still have more body fat that someone who wears a size-12, percentage-wise. And remember: fat is squishyyou can have a high percentage of body fat and still smush your legs into skinny jeans. Muscle is firmer, and harder to displace.

So while “muscular” and “skinny” may be polar opposites, “skinny” and “fat” are, technically speaking, not. Building muscle will generally make a person less skinny---but if you can be skinny and fat at the same time, should “skinny” really be our ultimate goal? “Skinny” does not have any bearing on how strong, or fast, or agile you are. It’s just a word our culture uses to describe someone’s appearance. “Muscular,” on the other hand, conveys a lot more.

Each of these women is a professional athlete at the peak of her career. Notice how different each body type is. To see the full photo series, visit this site.

Each of these women is a professional athlete at the peak of her career. Notice how different each body type is. To see the full photo series, visit this site.

Aesthetically, our culture still values a slender frame. But athletically, having a high body fat percentage is—with a few exceptions—generally undesirable. So, at some point, we as athletes (male and female) must make a choice: to focus either on athletic or aesthetic development.

In an earlier article of mine, I talked about this dichotomy, how we sometimes confuse aesthetics with athletics. Sport performance has little to do with the way you look—and, conversely, the way you look has little to do with sport performance. Until we start talking about muscle.

IF YOU TRAIN LIKE AN ATHLETE, AND EAT LIKE AN ATHLETE, YOU'LL LOOK LIKE AN ATHLETE

To get some expert female perspective on this topic, I reached out to Katlyn Haycock, a former Division-I tennis and rowing athlete and current assistant strength coach at the University of Michigan. I asked her if she encounters resistance to strength training from her athletes for fear of the aesthetic changes that might take place as a result of consistent weight room training.

"In my time as a strength and conditioning coach, I have worked with numerous athletes that avoid lifting for this reason, both men and women.  The most effective way I have found to handle this situation is to explain "gains" in terms of sport performance.  If having larger quads and hamstrings means you can outrun and overpower your opponent on the soccer pitch, are you willing to do the prescribed squats?  If having a broader back and shoulders means you will be able to out-touch the girl in the lane next to you, are you willing to do the prescribed pull-ups and rows?"

This is the part about weights making you “bulky” that we cannot deny: if you lift weights on a program that is designed to help you build muscle, then you will build muscle. And if you are training for a specific sport or event, you NEED this muscle! And not just for strength and powerweight training has been proven to help prevent against injury. Lifting weights makes your bones and joints stronger, and, if you're training on a well-rounded program, lifting weights will help even out muscular imbalances that can lead to acute or overuse injury. When muscles on both sides of a joint (like the quads and the hamstrings, which both act on the knee joint) are not evenly strong, it can lead to stress on the joint. Strength training can help expose and mitigate these imbalances, keeping you healthy and active for longer. Watch an elderly person struggle to climb a set of stairs, or even walk down the sidewalk, and you'll forget all about wanting to be "skinny."

When I first started a strength program, I had to give away a couple blazers because they no longer fit my more muscular shoulders—BUT, for the first time in my life, I could do pull-ups! I had to choose whether to stop lifting and fit better into my jackets, or keep lifting and buy new ones. I chose pull-ups (and shopping!). Coach Haycock has had more than one athlete complain that they have to “store away their skinny jeans during training in the off-season.” Because when you train on a progressive periodized strength program designed for athletic performance, eat enough calories to support that new muscle growth, and get enough rest and recovery to build that muscle, guess what? You are going to gain muscle.

But—and this is an important but!—you probably won’t actually gain that much. Again, my girl Katlyn preaches truth:

"What many females athletes forget is that it actually requires a lot of work to gain that much muscle. Bodybuilders may lift two and three times a day, and are constantly fueling their muscle growth."

Muscle tissue is, pound-for-pound, more calorically expensive to maintain than fat tissue. In other words, you have to eat a lot to gain a significant amount of muscle. I mean a LOT. In addition to lifting a LOT. It’s hard work! And if you’re a female soccer or swimming athlete, chances are your training program (provided it is periodized to peak you for competition) isn’t designed to turn you into a hulking, sweaty behemoth. Different sports require different levels of strength and aerobic fitness, so athletes across different sports will correspondingly look different from each other.

It all goes back to that choice: aesthetics vs. athletics. Pull-ups vs. blazers. At the end of the day, if we are serious about maximizing our athletic potential, we have to metaphorically give away our blazers.



HOW TO JUST GET OVER IT

If you make the choice to value your performance on the field or in the pool or on the court over the way you look in jeans, chances are you’ll gain some muscle. Especially if you’re training on a good program like Volt. And that muscle might tip your scale a bit—personally, I gained around 5 lbs when I first started strength training—but that may or may not affect your size and circumference (I actually went down a jeans size!). Even if your new muscle does change the shape of your body, that can be a good thing, aesthetically! But that’s not the bottom line. As a strength coach, my job is to train athletes for better performance. Period. As an athlete, it is your job to work to improve your athletic performance. And that means strength training. Period.

Coach Haycock told me one of her female athletes once came into the weight room and said, “Aw, yeah! Time to get chunky!” Apparently, that joke actually lightened the mood of a team that didn’t initially buy into their strength training program. Another team coined the term “schneck,” as a tongue-in-cheek way of referring to the development of trapezius muscles from various Olympic lift derivatives. Some of her female swimmers will make exaggerated fake grunts and groans during lifting sessions. In every case, Coach Haycock says, these fun shenanigans help to undermine the “masculine” and “serious” nature of the weight room, and allow her female athletes to be proud of their accomplishments.

I think there’s something to this. By acknowledging that the gym is a traditionally male space and that lifting weights and building muscle is similarly associated with being male, and then making fun of that very idea, I think female athletes gain some power. When we joke about the things that we may secretly fear, it gives us a sense of power. Because, when you boil the whole “bulky” debate down to its essence, it’s really about the blurring boundaries between what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” So if we can somehow subvert the idea that building muscle is male, it flips the entire argument on its head.  Your first pull-up will help with that, too!

Doing your prescribed hang cleans and building your “schneck” can help you feel an ownership of the muscle you are building, because it calls out the fear by name (i.e., becoming bulky) and weakens its hold on you. Suddenly, you have agency—a choice, a voice—in this situation. And having a voice is a powerful thing! (Like your legs after hitting a deadlift PR!)

THE TAKEAWAY

Maybe that’s just some high-level philosophic bullsh*t. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something to the idea that weight training does more than just make your muscles bigger. In my experience training women, something happens when a girl becomes physically stronger, something big. This strength permeates other layers of her life and mind and spiritmanifesting itself as confidence, mental toughness, determination, grit, boldness, even joy! I don’t have any studies to back this up, but I believe that when your body becomes stronger, your mind follows suit. And even if, at the end of all this, you still cling to the idea that strength training will make you “bulky,” if it changes you on MORE than just a physical level, inside and out, I ask you: isn’t it worth it?


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye