Does weight training make women bulky?

How to get stronger: “Why I’m no longer explaining why weights don’t make women bulky”

Posted by for Wellbeing

It’s time to stop engaging in the conversations around whether weight training makes women bulky, argues PT Laura ‘Biceps’ Hoggins. 

I may have made my name as a strength advocate (my IG handle is @LauraBiceps), but I’m now refusing to talk or write any more about whether weightlifting makes you bulky. It’s one of the most common questions trainers like me get asked – with women often worried that they’ll get ‘too big’ if they lift any serious weights. 

So, I’ve decided to stop speaking the whole topic into existence. Having to continually address the risk of women getting bulky just furthers the problematic undertone that being bigger – whatever that means – is undesirable. 

Despite how complicated the industry can make it look sometimes, fitness is actually pretty simple. Pursuing health requires us to be active – getting the blood pumping little and often, and moving in multiple patterns and directions to prepare our bodies for the demands of daily life. While certain sports might require a degree of skill and practice, everyone can benefit from the host of mental and physical benefits offered from consistent strength training and conditioning.

More women are undoubtedly tapping into strength training to feel powerful and move better. You only have to look on Instagram or TikTok to see women taking up space in weights rooms. But as someone who actually works in the industry, I still believe there’s an expectation for us to do more dainty activities, such as ballet or pilates (which, as anyone who’s done it knows, is brutal), running totally sweat-less with glossy hair. 

Despite the effort to create more inclusive and non-judgmental strength spaces, the misogynistic rhetoric of the bulky, ‘less feminine’ woman remains. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a debate around the aesthetic versus athletic elements of fitness. 

The misogyny of contradictory beauty standards

Think for a moment of what society tends to deem ‘attractive’. The ‘healthy woman’ might be someone who has visible abs, ‘toned’ legs and – undoubtedly – very little body fat. It’s interesting that while we’ve been persuaded to believe that a six-pack is the ultimate sign of female fitness (despite the fact that actually, loads of us aren’t genetically made to have one, however hard you train), women are often put off from building muscle in other parts of the body.

One of the biggest fears women still seem to have is about ‘gutting bulky’ from strength training. Many worry that if they lift heavy, they’ll build bigger arms, shoulders, quads and hamstrings. Building muscle will move them away from the ‘tone and lengthen’ ideals that have defined female fitness for decades. 

It’s not that women are vain or pathetic for worrying about how they look; it’s the natural result of constantly being told to shrink ourselves. From being warned not to “get too big” or told how big my calves are, I’ve taken the flack for not subscribing to the whole ‘make yourself smaller’ rhetoric. After playing football for 10 years, I’d bloody hope that I did have big calves. Why should I be made to feel bad about that? 

If we really think about it, even the word ‘strength’ has a masculine undertone to it. We think of the strong man, the breadwinner who protects his household. Women, on the other hand, aren’t described as being strong – we’re ‘bulky’. When was the last time you heard a guy described as a ‘bulky man’?

Remember when the whole #StrongNotSkinny trend arrived? As much as I wanted to celebrate the strength of women, I was always uncomfortable about the fact that the #strong bit always seemed to advocate for a very specific kind of female strength (read: lean), and ‘not skinny’ shamed smaller bodies. It absolutely continued to shame women of all shapes and sizes. And I could well imagine a #StrongNotBulky popping up some day – which would be horrendous.

We’ve got to try to remove the aesthetic stigma that’s all too often attached to women when it comes to health, strength and fitness. Women deserve to be celebrated for their effort and attitude, for turning up in an unfamiliar environment, for being mentally strong. Let’s just be as strong as we can, and forget what anyone else thinks. 

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Images: Getty

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