July 11, 2023

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Lifting Won’t Make You Bulky – By Alana Asch, MS, CSCS


Lifting Will NOT Make You Bulky – here’s why!

Over the years, I’ve heard from all genders and ages that they do not want to start strength training because of the fear that it will make them bulky. Two common fears associated with this are the belief that it will slow them down in their sport, and the belief that it will make them look bulky aesthetically. In this article, I break down a few reasons why lifting will not make you bulky.

Before I do, I want to briefly share my experience with this myth. One of the many reasons I wanted to start weight lifting was because I wanted to “get bulky.” Really, I wanted well-defined muscles, or in other words, that toned look. I did not want to look like a member of the Hulk clan. Although my first strength training goal had nothing to do with this. My first goal was to be able to do a few reps of pull-ups in a row.

Shortly after that, I started to intern at college weight rooms and private gyms which specialized in athletic performance. To my surprise, not only were the majority of those athletes not bulky, but also most of them did not even have that toned look I was after. Yet, they consistently lifted most days of the week. I started to think that maybe there is more to this than just lifting.

While I was working on my pull-ups, in the back of my mind I kept wondering, why am I not seeing my muscles? I started to wonder about nutrition as a factor. I was going back to school at the time for my master’s Exercise Physiology. I took all the courses offered on nutrition and as interesting as they were, none of them were really answering my question.

It’s 10 years later. Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice my muscles popping up here and there. What has changed in the past few years, is that I started to build up tiny habits that began to add up. Such as, drinking enough water, and getting both quantity and quality sleep. Once I nailed those down, I started to focus on eating more quality carbohydrates, prioritizing protein, and making sure I was eating enough fat as well. Yes, all three of those macronutrients are important for building muscle.

If you want to get bulky, or that toned look, it may or may not take you as many years as it took me. The time it will take depends on many things. One of the reasons it took me so long was because I held onto old myths and beliefs about the topic that I heard years ago from unreliable sources. It took a lot of trial and error for me to experiment with myself and unlearn them. A big one that I see many females struggle with today, and I know everyone can struggle with this one as well, is the fear we have around letting ourselves eat enough of those three macronutrients – fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Another reason it took me so long was because I had a bunch of goals during those 10 years that were more important to me than seeing my muscles. Those goals took the front seat while I started to build the tiny habits I mentioned earlier because I also learned (again through trial and error), the importance of focusing on one goal at a time. Nonetheless, this leads to the first reason of why lifting will not make you bulky:

The first reason lifting will not make you bulky is patience, and I’m going to mention consistency here as well. It’s not like you will go to the gym one day, and wake up looking like the Hulk, or the She-Hulk, the next day. More realistically, let’s say you start going to the gym 2-3 days per week for a past month. That’s not enough to get bulky. The people you see that are bulky have been doing it for years. So, in the off chance you have crazy genetics (another factor we will get into shortly) and see your body getting bulky after a few consistent weeks (you likely won’t), you can stop lifting and/or make changes. But by then you might have fallen in love with how strength training makes you feel and how amazing and strong your body can be. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be able to knock out a few pull-ups.

The second reason lifting will not make you bulky, or that toned look, is because it takes a lot more than just strength training. Let’s say you did start seeing changes to your body after a month of consistent strength training and you dislike them. Rather than stop lifting, you can change things within your nutrition. Have you heard the saying that, “abs are 90% made in the kitchen?” When it comes to getting bulky, I don’t know if there is a way to measure the exact percentage because so many factors go into it, but your nutrition does play a big role.

For instance, in order to grow, you need to eat more than you are currently eating. Have you ever seen how much a rapidly growing child or adolescent eats? It’s because they are growing. They need fuel and nourishment to help them grow. Strength training burns calories, and makes your body more efficient at burning calories while resting, so you will need to eat a surplus of calories to make up for that, plus even more to grow and build muscle. The quality of that food will be a factor as well, after all, you are what you eat.

The next reason why lifting will not make you bulky is because of muscle protein synthesis, the process of breaking down muscles and rebuilding them stronger. Strength training will initially cause the breakdown of muscle protein synthesis. And your amazing body will automatically build itself back up stronger, all on its own (as long as you give your body time to sleep and recover). However, we can influence that process. Through proper strength programming we can manipulate certain adaptations of the muscle, and through proper recovery we can help our bodies build itself back up stronger, bigger, and bulkier. That’s why building my sleep and hydration habits were so important for me, they helped me help my body recover properly.

I want to emphasize how much work programming and recovery take outside of the gym. These do not happen by accident. Starting a strength training program will most likely not significantly change your body composition to the point of getting you bulky. Getting bulky takes a lot of work including nutrition, sleep, and recovery. Your stress levels are another factor, which brings us to discussing hormones next.

Cortisol is a hormone you may have heard of that has to do with stress. If your stress levels are high, cortisol will be high, and this hormone can inhibit the muscle protein synthesis process. On the contrary, a hormone that helps facilitate muscle protein synthesis is testosterone. Most males have more testosterone than females. There are females who have higher testosterone levels, and even if those levels are as much as males, it will not make you bulky. When it comes to muscle protein synthesis, testosterone is involved in telling the damaged muscle to not only rebuild itself, but to rebuild itself stronger. Testosterone also has been shown to decrease muscle breakdown. So, when it comes to building muscle, the more testosterone, the better. However, testosterone is not the only hormone that goes into building muscle.

Testosterone does help stimulate some of the other hormones involved in muscle protein synthesis, like HGH (human growth hormone) and ILGF-1 (insulin like growth factor-1), to name a few.
But, muscle growth is more than just hormones. And it’s more than just nutrition, and it’s more than just strength training. It’s all of these things, plus patience and consistency. It’s a lot of work.

When just starting out, it is more common for males to start strength training and see changes to their bodies. However, this can have to do with many things such as genetics, puberty, training, diet, and other factors that may promote those changes. Even so, getting bulky will still take time and consistency.

If you are worried about slowing you down in your sport due to strength training, when done correctly, it will only help your performance, not hinder it. For instance, you can lift to help train for a bodybuilding competition. That lifting program will look different from a soccer player’s strength training program. However, both of those programs will not get someone bulky without all of the other things mentioned in this article such as consistency, nutrition, and sleep.

So rather than focus more on what lifting will NOT do for you, let’s end this article by focusing on what lifting will do for you:

  • Improve self-esteem and confidence
  • Improve mood
  • Reduce risk of injury
  • Improve speed
  • Better performance
  • More explosiveness
  • Your body will work better while at rest, or what the diet culture calls having a “faster metabolism”
  • Increase longevity (in life and in sport)
  • Increase stability and mobility, aka more agile, as in speed and agility
  • More energy on and off the field
    And more!

Written by:
Alana Asch, MS, CSCS.
IG @thebettercoach

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