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Women and Bulking – A Common Misconception by Emma Goh, ACE Personal Trainer

Women & Bulking

A Common Misconception

Emma Goh (ACE Certified Personal Trainer & ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor)

Goh Han Juan (ACE Certified Personal Trainer)

The fitness industry is riddled with strange notions and misconceptions. As fitness professionals the most common questions heard from female clients are “Will I bulk up like a man?”, “Will my muscle turn to fat?” or “Can I just tone up my bum and tummy?” and statements like “ooh… carbs are evil” and “No pain, no gain”.  There are a lot of urban myths surrounding women and weight training. Hopefully this article will help to dispel at least one social stigma which is women and bulking.

So where do people get these ideas? A lot of it comes from magazines and the media and needless to say but also from people supposedly“trained” in the industry. Statements such as “Deadlifts, that’s a man’s exercise; you better stick to something easier like the butt blaster. Do high reps and five sets with a weight that’s manageable”. With statements such as this coming from a trainer, it’s easy to understand why most people and not just the women are under the impression that strength training is going to make them look like a female Hulk.

Why Women Can’t Bulk

First of all, and most importantly, women are built differently to men – their chemistry is different. It’s physiologically impossible for a woman to gain large quantities of muscle mass like bodybuilders. Simply, women do not have as much testosterone (the main hormone responsible for increasing muscle size) as men. As suggested by Bill Kreamer, in the Essentials of Strength Conditioning, women have 15-20 times less testosterone than men.Testosterone is a major male hormone secreted by the testes and classified as an androgen. Most men have between 350-1200ng/dl of testosterone and this is the main reason men are men and women are women (i.e. facial hair and deep voice).  Without drugs to stimulate or increase testosterone, women cannot develop large amounts of muscle mass. However, when women do resistance training without the aid of chemicals or supplements, they can achieve muscle definition, or what is commonly known as being “toned”. This then brings me to reason number two, Steroids.

It is the use of anabolic steroids (a synthetic derivative of the male sex hormone), other drugs and supplements that make these women bodybuilders who they are. They don’t accidentally look like that and it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Apart from being chemically enhanced, it takes these women years of serious dedication, strict dieting and a grueling training regime to achieve the kind of mass you see on magazine covers.

Thirdly, muscle bulk comes from a high volume of work. This means, bodybuilders will have at least three exercises per body part, with approximately three sets of each doing 10-12 repetitions.  If you add them all up, they amount to over 100 repetitions in total for one body part. This causes considerable micro trauma or muscle “damage”, which in turn is the first step to gaining muscle mass or otherwise known as hypertrophy.

Finally, the fourth reason women can’t bulk up like men is intensity (the amount of weight carried). Heavy weights will promote strength and not size. When lifting weights over 80% of your maximum capacity, the stress imposed on the body is placed mainly on the nervous system and not the muscles therefore improving the efficiency of the neuro-muscular system andnot hypertrophy.

Some Benefits of Strength Training

1. Muscle by its very nature has a thermogenic effect on the body. This means, the more muscle you develop, the higher your basal metabolic rate (BMR) becomes and therefore you become more efficient at expanding more calories without additional time exercising. While we sleep our skeletal muscles are responsible for more than 25% of our caloric expenditure. This means that an increase in muscle tissue causes a corresponding increase in fat utilization; likewise a decrease in muscle tissue causes a corresponding decrease in our metabolic rate. Although our metabolic rate eventually slows down as we get older, regular resistance training delays this process.

2. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), strength training is defined by “The process of exercising with progressively heavier resistance for the purpose of strengthening the muscular-skeletal system”.

Our muscles serve as shock absorbers and balancing agents. Balanced muscle development reduces the risk of overuse injuries and gives us better coordination. With better coordination, we are able to move a lot better which makes daily living that much easier.

3. Strength training has also been proven to fight and prevent osteoporosis by increasing and restoring bone density.  Additional studies suggest that physical activity including cardiovascular and strength training can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels significantly.  According to Dr. Barry A. Franklin of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. “Weight training can improve cardiovascular health in several ways including lowering LDL (“Bad”) cholesterol, increasing HDL (“Good”) cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.

4. Another factor is body composition or physical appearance that can be enhanced by using weights. Resistance training can increase fat-free mass and reduce body fat. This means that weight training not only makes you stronger but it also helps you achieve muscle definition.  Regular strength training can result in a lean and sculpted physique, ultimately boosting ones self esteem and confidence.

In conclusion, the benefits of strength training by far out weigh the notion that women bulk. Apart from the reasons stated above, other benefits can include, reducing stress, improving sports performance and even in fighting depression. So ladies the next time you work out, be sure to incorporate strength training into your regime. You aren’t going to bulk up! Don’t let anyone tell you any different!


1. Beachle, T., Earle, R.W (2008) 3rd ed. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. USA: Human Kinetics

2. Boyle,M. (2009) Advances in Functional Training – California: On Target Publications

3. Bryant, CX (2003) American Council on Exercise Personal Trainer Manual. USA: American Council on Exercise