Will lifting weights make me bulky? This is a common question for both men and women.
When you’re asking about building lean muscle vs bulky muscle, the answer involves more than the weight room.
Is weight lifting an automatic path to big, bulky muscles?
Weight lifting does one thing reliably: it makes you stronger. Check out Aaptiv’s strength training workouts in app now.
“When people say ‘bulky’ muscle they are usually referring to either more muscle than they want or like, or more often, someone that has a muscular physique but also has a significant amount of body-fat. It is very possible to structure a training and exercise program that does not result in either of these,” says Chris “Protein” Leach, an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer and NASM Certified Weight Loss and Nutrition Specialist.
When you lift weights, a large part of the stress is on the nervous system, not necessarily the muscles; heavier weights equals more signals from brain to muscles. That means, without any other changes to your routine, lifting heavy weights will only make you stronger, not bigger.
How Diet Comes Into Play
There’s a reason that bodybuilders and weight lifters are so focused on their diets: bulking up depends on calories. “The total amount of food, or at least caloric intake, is one of the most relevant factors,” says Leach.
“Most people that the average person says looks ‘bulky’ are people that lift, but also have high body-fat, which is entirely a results of their nutrition.”
Diet is why a lot of men see a plateau in size and women don’t see the slimming results they want. Simply put: if you eat more than you burn, you’ll get bigger. In order to really start getting bigger, you need a diet to match that work in the gym.
On Men Vs. Women
Along with physical appearance, strength training has amazing health benefits for both sexes —ladies, don’t be afraid of the weight room! A lot of women either shy away from the weight room or think that they need a completely different workout than a man.
While we’re guessing that the focus of womens’ workouts will differ—men and women store fat in different areas—that doesn’t mean that ladies should be using light weights to avoid bulking up.
(Pro tip: Leach noted that he gets a lot of requests from women wanting overall toning and shapely lower body; he recommends a program that focuses primarily on lower body.)
Focus areas aside, all else stays the same between sexes. Men and women should both be utilizing bigger weights, proper form, and a clean diet.
For the women worried about getting bulky or huge from lifting big weights: thanks to hormones, you almost certainly won’t pack on muscle like a man.
Women don’t have the same amount of testosterone as men, so lifting weights doesn’t automatically equal muscle mass (aka gains). That testosterone difference means men will get bigger much faster.
For women, hormones are win/lose at the gym: strength training will help you tone, but you’ll have more trouble losing that last bit of fat.
Getting Toned and Lean
Shaping a lean, toned body isn’t an easy task, but the recipe is more straightforward than we sometimes think: lift big, do cardio, and eat healthy food. And yes, we said lift big.
“It’s a huge myth that lighter weights and higher reps will help with toning. The truth is that light weights with high reps will have little or no effect on body composition. Taking the dog for a walk or carrying groceries probably illicit a greater physiological response than pumping the three-pound dumbbells for 20 minutes,” says Leach.
“Sets need to be taken within a few reps of maximum capacity to be effective. In other words, it needs to feel like you can’t do very many, if any, more.”
You need to be strong to be lean, and weight lifting is your ticket to success here. If you feel like you’re too big, it’s almost certainly an issue with diet or the amount of cardio you’re doing.
Strength, Not Mass.
If a toned look is your goal, put a focus on strength. Cardio is going to help (and it’s good for your heart), but doing more and more cardio won’t compensate for a poor diet, and it won’t shape your muscles like lifting does.
A lean body is just a strong one with low body fat—so you need that time in the weight room if you’re going to achieve your goals.
Check out Aaptiv’s strength training section for more workouts you can do in the gym or at home.