The reactions to that frequently asked question are perky and contradictory – you either hear the instructive “yes” or the pitiful “no”. No wonder we are all so confused and it is more than ok to ask again. Whether you want to look slim or strong, strength training is not your enemy. Have you ever thought of what it actually takes to get bulky?

The correct and short answer is: “Strength training will not make you bulky.” The reason why it is so simple, is because with strength training we increase the muscle mass and to create the bulkiness we need fat. 

Hormones: male vs female body

The main purpose of strength training is hypertrophy, muscle growth, and there are many reasons why it is so crucial to keep our muscles strong and healthy. However, to answer the top question about bulkiness, we need to remember that muscles are naturally lean. The more muscle mass and the less fat mass we have, the more toned and slim we look.

Biologically women are not equipped to become bodybuilders. To grow bigger muscles any kind of training needs to be supported by the hormone called testosterone and (un)fortunately females do not have enough of it. Healthy woman produces one-tenth to one-twentieth of the amount of testosterone as the average man. Due to oestrogen though, our bodies store more fat, faster and easier than men (on average we have 6-11% more fat), most probably in preparation for childbearing.

Bodybuilders’ body – is lifting weights enough?

The misconception and confusion about strength training’s results very often come from incomplete information. We see a female bodybuilder with an amazing, sometimes masculine physique sharing with us her gym routine. What we don’t see is her diet and the list of daily supplements, if not steroids. Even for men, it is not easy to grow extreme muscles. It takes months and years of hard work and careful nutrition. 

Then I hear that you see friends going to the gym regularly, becoming bulky within a few weeks of weight training. It is important to know the whole picture, which again may not be so transparent even among friends. Did their lifestyle change in any other way? How are their dietary habits? Not many people like talking about what and how they eat, or how they treat themselves after the workout – nothing wrong with that, but we tend to overestimate the amount of calories burnt and we end up overeating. To have a true evidence of what happened, we need a proper scale, which shows the real body-composition changes.

Dancers’ body 

As a former dancer I cannot stress enough that how we look is primarily the result of our diet. Would you say ballerinas are bulky? Probably not. At the same time you may not notice how muscular they are. In ballet the focus is to look lean and subtle using a flexible and strong body. We think it is all about balance and flexibility, but trust me, stability requires a lot of strength. Dancers are muscular and if the long hours of practice were followed by overeating, all the muscles of the ballerina’s body covered by fat mass would make her look bulky.

Lifting the body-weight

Lastly there are a few formulas for strength training based on exercise science. Different weights stimulate our bodies in different ways. To simplify the weight training though, we add weights to make your training more time efficient. Don’t you prefer to do twelve squats than a hundred? And don’t forget that your own body is a weight itself. A bodyweight push up could create more resistance than a chest press with dumbbells. Same as while walking our legs carry a lot of weight (definitely more than 10 lbs) from place to place. No one ever said: “do not stand up too much, so your legs won’t look too bulky.”

To summarize: a lean body is a strong body with a low fat mass, a bulky-looking body is a strong body with a higher fat mass. 

Lifting weights comes with many benefits other than the looks and that is a topic for another article. If the aesthetic is still the main area of your concern though, another good thing to keep in mind is that the muscles are “metabolically expensive”. They need more energy, meaning the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn – even at rest!