First things first: Muscles are badass and beautiful and there is no reason anyone should be ashamed of them.
Everyone is allowed to have muscles, and literally no one should tell you differently. That said, we know that everyone has different body composition goals, so if yours don’t include bigger muscles — but you still want to lift weights and get stronger — read on!
1. The thing about lifting weights as a woman is that you probably won’t get big, bulging muscles (unless you work really hard to do so).
As BuzzFeed Health has has previously reported, putting on serious size and bulk really requires a training and nutrition plan geared towards those specific goals, along with a hormonal response that makes it happen relatively easily (more on all that in a sec).
2. Generally speaking, the average woman’s hormone levels don’t enable muscle growth the way men’s do.
Hypertrophy — an increase in muscle size — occurs when, among other things, strength training creates a hormonal response that promotes muscle growth. The hormones in question here are testosterone and growth hormone, says Heather Milton, exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center.
So even if you’re lifting weights like crazy, you need to actually have enough of those hormones available to cause your muscles to get bigger. It’s not that your muscles won’t grow at all though. It’s that on average, cisgender women have a fraction (around a tenth) of the circulating testosterone that men do, says exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D. And having less testosterone makes it harder and makes it take longer to gain as much muscle mass, says Milton.
3. Also, getting swole requires some pretty specific strength training protocols.
It’s pretty hard to accidentally get big, strong muscles, as we previously reported. First you’ll need to do compound movements like squats, presses, and deadlifts — which use the largest muscle groups in your body to move the most amount of weight. And you’ll need to do accessory lifts (like rows, good mornings, dips, etc.) to strengthen the muscles that support the bigger lifts, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Tony Gentilcore, a Boston-based personal trainer and fitness coach.
And there are other special techniques that can help you gain muscle, like: increased time under tension (basically performing reps slowly so you’re spending more time using your muscle), tweaking rest periods, and doing special sets like drop sets, cluster sets, and so on.
4. And you typically have to eat a lot.
If your workout and your hormones are tied for first in terms of things that will help you put on big muscles, how much you eat is second, says Holly Perkins, certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of Lift To Get Lean and creator of Women’s Strength Nation.
You’d need to eat a lot more than the average person would eat on a daily basis if her goals were simply to maintain her weight, have energy for her workouts, and feel great. So the odds are very slim that you’re accidentally eating enough to support huge gains.
5. But, OK, everyone is different. Some women are “easy gainers.”
Just because the average woman doesn’t put on the same kind of muscle as most men, it doesn’t mean women can’t do it at all, says Perkins. She estimates that 15-25% of women are “easy gainers,” meaning their muscles get bigger quickly and they can put on size more readily than most.
If you start to see clear and obvious changes to your physique within six weeks of starting to strength train, you might be an easy gainer, says Perkins. If you’re an easy gainer who wants big muscles, you can start with a program like the one described above. But if you’re an easy gainer who doesn’t want big muscles, DON’T FREAK OUT. You can still lift weights!
6. If you want to get stronger without looking super muscular, all you have to do is adjust the way you strength train.
Perkins recommends circuit training with lots of reps and little rest. The idea is to move from one exercise to the next, only taking rest between circuits (not between each exercise), and then repeating the circuit a few times.
“This creates an environment where you get fatigued from your workout and can’t put all your energy into lifting heavy weights.” If you keep moving and keep your heart rate up while you lift, you’ll be getting stronger, fitter, and leaner and not working towards bigger muscles.
7. You can also train around the muscles that tend to get big.
If you are an easy gainer but you want to lift, you can minimize heavy lifting with the parts of your body that tend to get bigger more easily, says Gentilcore.
For example, if your shoulders tend to get muscular quickly, you can focus more on lower body and lower back movements like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and hip thrusts. Or if your thighs get big quickly, you can go lighter on your lower body and focus more on lifting with your arms, shoulders, chest, and back.
8. If you still aren’t convinced that strength training is for you, know that having muscle is actually really good for you.
Strength training has “unlimited potential” to help you with many health and fitness endeavors, says Perkins, from weight loss and running a faster half marathon to improving your yoga practice and reducing your everyday aches and pains. Plus, muscle tissue is great for your health, making your metabolism more efficient so you burn more calories doing the same activities.
9. Plus, exercising to gain muscle can help you lose fat and ~contour~ your bod.
Nothing beats strength training when it comes to working towards a shapely, contoured body, says Gentilcore. Gradually increasing the amount you lift will build muscle, which increases metabolism and burns fat, which helps those muscles show, which is what makes your arms or butt or whatever looked contoured, Gentilcore says.
Take your butt, for example. While bodyweight and banded exercises like glute bridges and hip thrusts will give you that burn in your glutes, it’s weighted exercises like deadlifts, squats, weighted lunges, and split squats that will make your glutes bigger and stronger and more shapely and help you burn fat so that their shape is ~revealed.~
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