Does lifting weights make women bulky? The myth that won't die

Does this kettlebell make me look bulky? Be honest.

Amanda Capritto
4 min read
Women lifting kettle bells

Lifting weights does a lot of things for women, but not among them is "bulk up."

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If there's one fitness myth that just won't die, it's this one: Lifting weights makes women bulky. Full stop! Women will not "bulk up" if they lift weights -- even heavy ones! People often use the term "bulky" in a negative way to describe others, typically women, who have large muscles or well-defined physiques.

As weightlifting gained popularity and edged its way into mainstream culture, many women developed a fear of turning into Arnold Schwarzenegger if they so much as touched a 10-pound dumbbell.

Marketing masterminds caught on and someone, somewhere invented the terms "lean muscle" and "tone up" to target women who wanted to exercise but not get "buff." 

We need to nix all of these terms from the fitness vernacular because first, women won't bulk up if they start lifting weights; second, lifting weights produces so many health benefits; and third, it's blatantly sexist to think women shouldn't look muscular anyway.

Here are four reasons to stop believing that strength training makes women bulky, plus several reasons to add weightlifting to your workout routine stat. 

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It's actually insanely hard to build muscle

This is good news for some, bad news for others -- it's great news for women who are afraid of packing on too much muscle. Building muscle is a long, slow process that requires years of consistency, dedication and effort. 

Most people don't put in enough time or effort to create the kinds of physiques they're scared of. It takes several years to put on the kind of mass that bodybuilders have, and there's a reason professional bodybuilders are an elite few: They put in work that most people won't.

Lifting a medicine ball

Real-life case in point: I've been lifting weights for more than seven years and I wouldn't call myself "bulky."

Amanda Capritto/CNET

Women don't have enough testosterone to get bulky

In general, women don't produce as much testosterone as men. Testosterone production is a huge factor in your capacity for muscle growth, so this should automatically tell you that you won't turn into Wolverine overnight. 

Of course, there are always exceptions: Some women have higher testosterone levels than other women, but even those with higher-than-average testosterone likely don't have enough to produce bulky muscles. 

Many women don't eat enough to build big muscles

To build muscle, you must eat more calories than you burn. You can't grow new tissue out of nothing, so don't expect muscle growth if you're eating in a calorie deficit or even at maintenance. Many women don't eat enough calories or enough protein to support significant muscle growth. 

For reference, the recommended calorie intake for a healthy woman is between 1,800 and 2,400 calories. If you exercise, you probably need to meet the higher end of that range, and potentially more if you're tall or very active. Unless you're eating more than your maintenance intake each day, don't worry about getting bulky. 

Hoisting a barbell weight overhead

Packing on a lot of muscle takes more calories, more protein and more testosterone than you might think. 

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Many women don't lift heavy (or often) enough to get bulky

Muscles don't grow in response to tasks they're used to. Your muscles need a challenge: If you're not progressively overloading your lifts on a regular basis, you're not encouraging your muscles to grow. They have no reason to get bigger if there is no demand. 

To add more muscle mass, you need follow two primary rules with your workouts: 

  • Lift in the correct rep range (eight to 15 reps per set)
  • Lift until you reach fatigue

What's more is that those two techniques only work for so long -- eventually, as you get stronger, you'll also need to add in techniques like drop sets, super sets, pyramid sets and repping to failure to send stronger muscle-building signals to your brain. 

Frequency is another key factor in building muscle. Studies show that when you train a muscle more often, it grows more in a shorter period of time. As with volume, however, there are caps on this concept. The stronger and fitter you get, the less of an impact frequency has on muscle growth.

Flexing the biceps

Women who lift weights won't get bulky. They'll get strong, healthy, and probably more confident. 

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Why women should lift weights 

Women won't bulk up when they start lifting weights. What they will do, though, is lose body fat and earn the "toned" appearance so many people are after. Beyond aesthetics, women who lift weights will experience the numerous health benefits of resistance training

Lifting weights can:

  • Improve your bone density and help prevent osteoporosis, a degenerative bone disease common in older women
  • Aid in weight loss (if you want to lose weight)
  • Improve your body composition (increase lean mass and reduce fat mass)
  • Reduce your risk of chronic diseases
  • Benefit your mental health 
  • Improve your flexibility and mobility
  • Make you feel strong, empowered and confident 

If those reasons aren't enough to pick up a pair of dumbbells and start strength training, I don't know what is. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.