Gray Matter Health logoGray Matter Health
Feb 27, 2024   •   4 min read   •   Body Image

Afraid to get bulky by lifting weights?

Photo by SALAH PICTURES / Unsplash

First off, you're not alone.

There is constant and immense pressure on women from all directions to conform to beauty standards. The desire to look attractive (which in our culture, also means being small) often dictates the choices that many women make about what they eat and what activities they engage in. Most women put a lot of thought and effort into their appearance, aiming to be thin, soft, and feminine – a body type that is not commonly associated with physical strength.

It may seem shallow at first, but honestly, I don't blame them. Our society has yet to progress past the ideal of thinness in women. The Economist published a video last year that shockingly revealed that, for an obese woman, simply getting down to a medically "normal" weight would earn her a 18% raise, the equivalent of getting a master's degree. It may be unfair, it may be upsetting, but the sad truth of the matter is that fitting the beauty standard affords women significant advantages in life. This doesn't only go for income gains, but also in how she is treated and the relationships she is able to form.

I've been into fitness for a while and have seen my own body at different shapes and sizes. After all that, I've come to the conclusion that my self-worth should come from something way deeper than how I look.

To be completely honest, though, I'm not always in a mental space where I can say that and fully embrace it. I believe that it's actually quite unrealistic to expect women to be "body neutral" and feel high self-worth 24/7/365. We need to acknowledge that no matter how beautiful and confident a woman is, she will still have bad body image days and she will sometimes still let negative feelings about her appearance influence her. And that is perfectly normal.


But what I'm really here to say today is, that no matter how you feel about the way you look or the way you want to look, you should not let it deter you from lifting weights.

Strength training will not make you bulky.

Photo by Gursimrat Ganda / Unsplash

If you don't believe me, here are just a few things to consider:

Women don't produce enough testosterone to build big muscles.

The average man produces over 20 times more testosterone than the average woman, and testosterone is needed to increase muscle mass. Women still have some capacity to grow their muscles, but it is much more limited, and will result in what we commonly call a "lean" or "toned" look, rather than "bulky".

Muscle takes a really long time to build and it is really dense.

Under absolutely optimal conditions with her training and diet on point, a woman could gain up to 10 lbs of muscle in her first year of lifting. However, most women do much less than this, and are still able to make great progress in terms of strength. In subsequent years, the potential for gaining muscle falls off precipitously, so it could only be 5 lbs her second year and 2 lbs her third year.

To give you a sense of what this looks like, 1 lb of muscle is about the size of a tangerine and this is spread out across your whole body.

Tangerines on yellow background
Photo by Sahand Babali / Unsplash

You will get stronger by training your brain, not only by growing muscle size.

Early on in your strength training journey, most of your gains (amount of weight you're capable of moving) don't actually come from physically growing muscle, but rather from neural adaptations. Basically, your brain is just learning to fire signals to your muscles more effectively. So you can develop the capacity to move more weight without any changes in muscle size.

Training alone won't make muscles bigger. You need to eat more food.

If you're really desperate to not get bigger, there's one easy way to accomplish that: Just don't change your diet.

It comes down to basic thermodynamics. In order for your body to pack on size, you need to eat more calories than you burn. If you don't eat in a surplus, you won't get bigger.

Bodybuilders and fitness models who are jacked likely have elite genetics and help from performance enhancing drugs.

If you've gotten this far and you still don't believe me, you may be thinking, "But wait, Michelle, I have seen literally seen women at my gym/on YouTube/on Instagram who ARE bulky. What gives?"

Photo by Sabel Blanco from Pexels

To that, I say, "It's probably a combination of a decade or more of intentional training, great genetics, and/or drugs."

Professional athletes, fitness models, and bodybuilders follow meticulous routines for years and years to produce their bodies. And it is a lot more common than you might think for them to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to overcome natural limitations on muscle growth. It would be very difficult for the average person to ever look like them with training alone.


To summarize, there are unfortunately many factors that deter women from pursuing strength training. But, concerns about physical appearance should not be one of them. I've met hundreds of women over the years who are seriously strong and feminine at the same time, and I'm grateful to them for modeling this duality for the next generation.