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The Five Things Women Need to Know about “Bulking Up"

As an active woman in healthcare, I often hear women say, “I don't want to get bulky” as a reason not to lift weights. I’m here to tell you that lifting heavy does not make you bulky. This line of thinking also belittles the journey of women and men that have been trying to gain muscle mass. I am the daughter of a female trainer whose philosophy, when I was growing up, was “high reps, low weight”. Now as my mom is on her own fitness journey to return to a healthy weight, we discuss the importance of progressively overloading (read on to learn more about this) her tissues to get the changes she wants to see. In this blog, I will share five reasons why it is hard to get bulky and what that actually means if you are trying to achieve this goal. No matter what part of your fitness journey you are on, this applies to you!

1. Hormones: While working out your body produces hormones to regulate your metabolism. Your body is flooded with anabolic (they use energy) and catabolic (they release energy) hormones during your workout. The muscles that are being used during your workout are the ones that are affected by these hormones. As females, the hormone that affects our muscle growth, strength, bone mass, libido, and fat distribution is….drumroll please….. TESTOSTERONE! Being a woman also means we do not produce as much testosterone, and therefore achieving a bulky muscle mass would require an increase in the amount of testosterone in your body through supplements (which are banned in sport competitions). Our muscle mass is also affected by growth hormones (GH), insulin, and cortisol. Bottom line, you will not gain the amount of muscle mass to bulk up unless done so purposefully with tracking and supplementation.

2. Stronger not bigger: Weight lifting for women is finally becoming talked about in a way that is supportive of all women lifting weights. This new movement of being strong and healthy is trickling over to the general public, but it’s very difficult to change people’s mindsets. Lifting heavy weights does not mean muscle bulk. Lifting heavy should mean burning more calories! How does it do that? Because when you increase your skeletal muscle mass you are increasing your basal metabolic rate (how many calories your body naturally burns). Lifting weights for women is not only vital to longevity but has huge overall health benefits–decreasing risks of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, depression, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Skeletal muscle mass (the amount of muscle in your body) is now used as a predictor for mortality. Lifting increasingly heavy weights is the best thing not only for your muscles but also for your ligaments, tendons, and joints as well! Using weight bearing exercises also increases your bone density which is very important for females who are more prone to suffer from osteoporosis and why we encourage women to lift weights no matter your age. To see a great example of someone who embodies this idea, type in TrainwithJoan on Instagram to see my favorite weightlifter. This woman’s story is an amazing testament to what you can do no matter your age with weight lifting.

3. Progressively overloading: I mentioned this above, and if you are not that familiar with lifting, this term may be new to you. As you go through your lifting journey and continue to lift weights, you should be progressing by one of the following:

  1. Increasing Volume: Adding more reps, sets, or different types of exercises to your routine.

  2. Increasing Intensity: Adding more weight! My favorite!

  3. Increasing Tension: Adding a tempo to your exercises, For example the bicep curl with a 4:1:4, which means you curl up to a count of 4 seconds, hold for 1 second then curl down to a count of 4 seconds. This is training the eccentric control of your muscles, which research has shown to be the most effective to gain muscle.

  4. Increasing Frequency: Adding more training sessions to your week.

Progressively overloading will increase your skeletal muscle mass and strength. Again changing one of these is good, and you do not need to increase all factors to benefit.

4. Diet: As most of you could probably guess, diet plays just as big a role in gaining muscle and losing fat as lifting weights. As you are going through your fitness journey be mindful of your goal. If you are trying to get strong, focus on how much protein you are consuming. The amount of protein/carb/fat intake and the consistency needed to get bulky is something the casual gym go-er does not even get close to. For instance, the daily recommended amount of protein to gain muscle mass is 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight. Few women today get that much protein in a normal diet. I know because I tried to do so for a week, and even with the help of protein shakes it was hard to get close. Here are some helpful tips you can use when planning what to eat that concern your work out:

  1. Eating protein after a workout to keep your testosterone levels high to help muscle building

  2. Eating carbs before or during your workout to minimize cortisol levels, which break down muscles

  3. Having a sports drink with enough sodium to improve your blood volume and blood flow

  4. Keeping all nutrition balanced - if you have any specific questions please feel free to reach out to our dietitian, Allyson Balzuweit RDN/LD.

5. Consistency. I have been on a fitness journey since a high school rotator cuff injury took me out of playing volleyball at a high level. I understand the difficulty of being consistent. The amount of time it takes you to truly get bulky is something that is not done overnight or even a handful of times. Do not fear ladies, if you do not want to get big, you won’t. It has to be something purposefully done to gain that bulky, jacked body you think is on the other side of 3 sets of bicep curls. As I said above, to get jacked takes hard work! The amount of prep, awareness of diet, hormones, and time that goes into achieving that type of look is something that many men wish was as easy as women think it is. It takes 6-8 weeks to see skeletal muscle mass changes with proper diet and exercise. Bottom line is that beginning your weight training journey is a long road with ups and downs that are dictated by your diet, hormones, and consistency with training.

At Functionize, we believe everyone is an athlete and are here to help you begin or take your journey to the next level. Overall, if you weight train 3 times a week you are in the top percent of Americans that weight train. If you want to join the 23% of Americans that weight train, jump on the wagon for longevity and decreasing your risk of all diseases!

Thanks for reading!

Ashleigh Tompa PT, DPT

Ashleigh is a Doctor of Physical Therapy with a specific interest in manual therapy, sports orthopedics, and women's health. She is either working out at the YMCA or watching a Marvel movie with her boyfriend, Bin, and their two dogs.

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