Strength training for women is spoken about in code words. We’re supposed to fear getting “bulky” and instead want to build “long, lean muscles.” Guys are told in no uncertain terms that lifting will make them big, muscular, jacked; women, somehow, will only get “toned.” This is patriarchal bullshit that obscures how our bodies actually work.
It’s not new bullshit, either. Just look at this article by powerlifter and historian Jan Todd on one of history’s great strongwomen, Katie “Sandwina” Brumbach. Over and over, people at the time praised her for being being strong, but also beautiful, and most importantly not muscular. A typical quote: “The feminine Hercules has a wonderful figure, full of symmetry, and not marred by a display of muscles.” She was literally a strongwoman. That was her job.
It’s impossible to walk the femininity/muscularity tightrope to everyone’s satisfaction. You get one visible muscle, and there will be people in your life saying ignorant things like the ones catalogued on the Instagram account @you.look.like.a.man (which overlays those nasty comments on nature photos so we can appreciate just how absurd they are). On the flip side, if you look too feminine, there will be people assuming you can’t be strong. Can’t a girl just lift some things in peace?
I mean, clearly, there are fit women out there with every conceivable body composition. Working out can give you Michelle Obama arms, or it can make you really fucking ripped. Where you land on that spectrum is more or less within your control, but you have to understand how things actually work.
You can make muscles bigger, and/or reduce fat
That’s it. That’s the whole deal.
If you work a muscle, and work it progressively harder over time (lifting heavier weights, for example), it will get bigger.
If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. If you do this responsibly, most of the weight you lose will be fat. (How to do it responsibly: eat plenty of protein, keep strength training, and don’t make your calorie deficit too drastic.)
Losing fat is a whole-body thing: you can’t choose where to make the fat come off, you just have to wait and see.
You can micromanage your muscle gains a bit, though. If you want to see bigger muscles in a certain area of your body, work those muscles harder and more often.
What are “bulky” muscles, anyway?
I asked fitness coach Sohee Lee to clarify what people mean when they talk about their ideal bodies. She has a refreshingly evidence-based approach to fitness, emphasises weight training for her audience and clients, and works with a lot of people who have very specific aesthetic goals for their bodies. Here’s what the code words tend to mean:
Long and lean: “They’re probably looking at someone like a Victoria’s Secret model.” Lee remembers a 5'2" client sending her a picture of a supermodel who was 5'9". That body type involves some muscle and very little fat, but no training will make you look long and tall. “You’d have to lengthen your limbs somehow.”
You can’t change how long your muscles are, because they are attached to your bones. (Also, she notes, you’re looking at someone who became a model because they have unusual genetics in many respects; you won’t necessarily luck out and get their fat distribution or anything else.)
If we take “long” out of the equation, we’re left with “lean,” which simply means low body fat. That’s a thing that you can work on, mainly with your diet. That said, getting to supermodel levels of leanness is not realistic for everyone, either. But you can lose some fat if that’s a goal you have.
Bulky: “Generally what people mean when they say ‘I don’t want to get bulky,’ they’re referring to the look where you have a good amount of muscle on your frame but you also have a good amount of fat covering it.”
You’re not going to get bulky by accident. To get this body type you have to train a lot, while also eating a lot. It’s a body type that often works for powerlifters and other athletes who need a lot of strength and aren’t too worried about overall body size.
I’ve found that sometimes when people talk about women who look bulky to them, they’re thinking about someone like a bodybuilder, with massive amounts of muscle. Those competitors also have ridiculously low body fat percentages; they work out a lot, build muscle, and then in the months leading up to a show they’ll diet and dehydrate themselves to get that extremely ripped look. Once again: not a thing you’ll achieve by accident.
Toned: Muscle “tone,” in a technical sense, refers to how much tension is in a muscle at rest. That’s not a thing you train for, but sometimes people use it to mean muscles without much fat on top of them. (“Toned” arms may look and feel firmer than arms with more fat or less muscle, which is how I’m guessing the term came to be used this way.)
So if you want to look toned, you’ll need to build muscle, and depending on how much body fat you start with, you might want to lose fat. That’s it! You don’t need any specific type of exercises to do the job; you can lift tiny dumbbells or heavy iron. And despite what you may hear, the number of repetitions you do—five heavy bicep curls versus 50 light ones—isn’t going to make a significant difference in what happens to your body.
“Influencers on social media these days will say, ‘well, this is a toning workout.’” Lee points out. “A toning workout is the same freaking thing as a muscle gaining workout!”
So what happens if you just...work out?
“If you’re smart about your nutrition, you can absolutely gain muscle and keep fat gain to a minimum,” Lee says. Which seems to be the common factor in what most people want. She says that if one client asks for a toned look, and another wants to be really muscular, she’d recommend similar exercises but different diets.
Being smart about nutrition, in this context, means eating enough protein to support muscle growth, while keeping your calories reasonable. Too many calories and you’ll gain fat as well; too few, and you’ll have a hard time gaining muscle.
People who are new to serious exercise, or who have a good amount of fat to lose, can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. It’s a process known in fitness circles as “recomposition,” but you might also know it as “oh hey, my clothes fit better now.” This is a thing that sometimes happens by accident, just because you’re exercising more and eating well. If you’re starting a new exercise program, consider taking body measurements so you can keep tabs on how your body is changing—your weight on the scale may not change if the muscle gain and fat loss end up balancing each other out.
To get more precise about your results, you may want to talk to a professional who can give you advice on how to train and what to eat (these may be two different people; most trainers aren’t also dietitians). But to answer the paradox we started with: yes, you can gain muscle. And you get to decide how much of it you want.