Why Women Shouldn’t Fear Bulking Up During Weight Training

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In his newest book from Human Kinetics, internationally renowned fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld encourages women to drop the “pink dumbbell mentality” and train with high effort

"Strong & Sculpted" is now available from Human Kinetics

“There is no reason to fear heavy training. In fact, it’s an important component to achieve the body you’ve always desired. It’s not going to bulk you up.”

Getting bulky from lifting weights continues to be a concern for many women. Fitness trainer, educator, and researcher Brad Schoenfeld, one of the country’s leading authorities on muscle development and fat loss, hears from women every day who insist they want to tone, not bulk. While he blames this mind-set largely on a society that glamorizes “stick-thin waifs” and sees thigh gap and protruding ribs as physical attributes, he believes bulking up should be the least of a woman’s worries.

Fortunately, Schoenfeld believes, times are beginning to change: resistance training is steadily gaining popularity among women. “In increasing numbers, women are embracing the fact that a strong body is a feminine body,” he says. “A new era has emerged in which sculpted muscle is becoming the new skinny.” But all too often, fitness professionals feed into the toning mentality by telling women to train only with light weights. Schoenfeld has even seen one popular celebrity trainer who has gone so far as to say that women who lift anything heavier than two pounds risk developing bulging muscles, a viewpoint he calls “hogwash.”

“Pure and simple, the aversion to lifting heavy weights is based on beliefs that are completely unfounded,” declares Schoenfeld, author of the forthcoming "Strong & Sculpted" (Human Kinetics, 2016). He refers to recent work from his lab that shows similar muscle growth can be achieved using even very light loads provided they are lifted with a high degree of effort. Ultimately, muscle growth comes down to challenging the muscles; the amount of load is somewhat secondary to the process.

As for bulking up, Schoenfeld points out that the majority of women simply don’t have the ability to pack on large amounts of muscle. This is largely a function of hormones. “Levels of circulating testosterone, the primary muscle-building hormone, are tenfold greater in men than in women,” he explains. “If anything, you’ll have to work your tail off to achieve what is commonly considered a sculpted look with such low testosterone production.” Plus, it’s much easier to lose muscle than it is to gain it. So if at any point a woman starts to feel that a certain area of her body is getting too muscular, she can simply cut back on training that muscle group.

But what about the female bodybuilders seen in magazines? Schoenfeld calls them anomalies. For one, they have extraordinary genetics suited to building muscle, genetics that place them among the top 1/100th of 1 percent of the population. Even more important, they invariably are chemically enhanced. “No matter how great your genetics are, you can’t win a pro bodybuilding show without taking performance-enhancing drugs,” Schoenfeld stresses. “All things considered, you have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot drinking a beer in Central Park than looking like one of these competitors from lifting weights.”

Schoenfeld’s bottom line is that there is no reason to fear heavy training. “In fact, it’s an important component to achieve the body you’ve always desired,” he concludes. “It’s not going to bulk you up, at least in the context of my program. So ditch the pink dumbbell mentality and, regardless of the amount of weight used, train with a high level of effort.”

Along with being a best-selling author, Brad Schoenfeld was the 2011 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year. In "Strong & Sculpted" he offers 117 exercises targeting the lower body, shoulders and arms, and torso, delivering a research-based, scientifically proven program for women who want to gain strength and reshape their bodies. For more information on "Strong & Sculpted" or other strength and conditioning books and resources, visit HumanKinetics.com.

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Maurey Williamson
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