Do women actually get ‘bulkier and masculine’ when they start lifting weights?

Most women I talk to, especially in India do not want to take up weight training in the fear of becoming ‘bulkier’. The most common answer I get is ‘I want to lose weight so I will just do cardio’. Lets discuss this topic even further breaking it down into three separate parts.

1) Is cardio enough for weight loss that is sustainable over many years?
2) Will weight training actually make you ‘bulky’ or ‘manly’?
3) What is an effective training module for sustainable fat- loss?

Is Cardio enough for weight loss that is sustainable over many years

Cardio is great! It honestly is, and if strategically included in your routine, it could become your secret weapon. It will get you in great shape in no time. I also do not know of anyone (including professional bodybuilders) who have got in great shape completely excluding cardio from their routine. So bottom line, it is very important. Before you read any further here, read my blog on the types of cardio .

However, if cardio is not just another part of your routine but ‘the only part’ of your routine, then you could be calling for trouble in the near future. Most forms of cardio are repetitive movements and demand over use of some joints/ muscles of your body. Think of cycling or running or even swimming which is technically suppose to be joint- friendly. You are overusing your ankle join, knee or shoulder girdle incase of swimming. Now unless you include some form of strength training (not limited to lifting weights necessarily), you will not strengthen the muscles around the joint. Thus, making the joint only weaker. Over time, the joint might become completely useless or even need replacement. But that is just one major side effect of cardio. Suppose you just want to reduce a few kilo’s and want to include cardio as your only training buddy for a few months, you really do not have to worry about over using the joint right? So in that case, is it ok to use only cardio? Treadmill is literally the easiest machine to use at the gym, and you do not have to worry too much about getting your posture wrong or drop the weight on your head. Its comfortable and if it gets you results, why hire a personal trainer to help you with strength training! Well no, thats not it, lets discuss a few other side effects of cardio.

In the fitness industry, when we discuss getting in shape, it is divided in two parts.
1) Building muscle mass.
2) Losing body fat.

Personally, I believe the latter is relatively easier. Building muscle mass is harder because it requires you to be consistent with both your nutrition and exercise. Of course involves other factors like recovery, hormonal and stress levels etc but we will not discuss them here. Fat loss is mostly staying in a caloric deficit. One could lose weight by only falling sick or under chemotherapy treatment etc. This is not the healthiest way obviously, but will get the job done when all you are looking for is a number in the weighing scale.

Excess cardio without adding in exercises to challenge your muscle fibres does just this. It will ensure you lose body weight but also lose muscle mass. Look at the below pictures to understand more:

The one on the left is not enough weight training, excessive dieting and 2 plus hours of cardio per day. The one on the right is 1 hour of religious strength training sessions 6/7 days with 30 min cardio session 4/7 days. Also included a clean diet with more food but food dense in nutrition to fuel my body to work more efficiently rather than just keeping me alive. Which one would you choose?

Apart from aesthetics, weight training has other benefits as well. An increase in muscle mass in the body also increases your metabolic rate. Metabolic rate is, in most simple terms the amount of calories you will burn when at rest. Meaning, the number of calories you will burn for just waking up every morning, digesting food you eat, maintaining optimal body temperature and going back to sleep. Thus, the more your metabolic rate, the more efficient your body gets at burning calories. Every pound of muscle will burn six calories a day just to sustain itself, while every pound of fat burns only 2 calories. So muscles will use up upto three times more calories than fat! .

Eventually with years of training you want to reach a point where your training time keeps getting lesser and lesser which the freedom to eat what you want keeps getting more and more. That is a good metabolism. You need high muscle mass for this to happen. By increasing your muscle mass through weight training, you are ensuring to maintain a high metabolic rate and thus continue to burn more calories and fat even at rest.

Last benefit I want to discuss about weight training is the total burn in overall calories. An hour of moderate intensity cardio (not HIIT type of cardio) will help you burn 300- 500 calories depending on your intensity, body type etc. An hour of weight training will give you similar results too. But with weight training, you are creating micro tear’s in your muscle fibres. So for the next 23 hours post your training, the body tries to heal those wounds and fix the micro tears while also building new muscle fibres to make you stronger. This process of breaking and rebuilding is very calorically taxing for the system and you will continue burning calories even when you are off the gym floor. Apart from this, the body’s need to consume more oxygen post an intense workout (as compared to steady state cardio) goes higher. This phenomenon is called EPOC (Excess post oxygen consumption). Every 1 liter of oxygen consumption requires a 5 calorie expenditure form the body. Therefore, an increase in the oxygen consumed post workout increases the net calorie burn. See the graph below to understand this.

Picture Credit:

Now that we have discussed that long- hours of steady state cardio is not enough to obtain sustainable fat- loss, lets discuss if weight training will actually make women bulky.

To understand this, we need to discuss one important hormone in the body called testosterone. Testosterone is the hormone most relevant when it comes to gaining muscle mass. Whatever you do to help you boost your testosterone level will reflect in how fast you gain muscle mass. Obviously a clean, well planned diet and hard work on the floor go hand in hand. Now this is where we have got it all messed up. Female’s, unlike males do not produce as much testosterone as one might think.

Here is a simple graph from the Mayo Clinic to help you understand this concept:

Notice an average adult male produces at least 270 ng/dL vs an average female produces a maximum of 70 ng/dl. Now even accounting for the minimum and maximum production, thats a HUGE difference. But haven’t you seen female bodybuilders with huge muscle mass that can put most men to shame? Well true, and there is where the problem lies. I may sound offensive but the idea that weight lifting bulk’s women up is actually created by female body builders who take the competition to the next level. Do I find that wrong? Of course not, if anything I salute and respect women will huge muscles. Being in the fitness industry I know its hard work and takes a lot of time, dedication and commitment. But as a viewer, I understand that the human body has its limitations and external drugs are required to achieve that kind of results. No, even with an exceptionally good diet and the world’s best fitness trainer you will not become ‘manly’ by lifting weights.

So what really will happen? Simple, you will become a tinier- stronger version of yourself. Your body will tone, and you will become much stronger than before. But will also become tiny instead of bulking. Will you get absolutely no cuts? Well no, you will get some cuts and good definition and this is where you decide to become the sculptor of your own body. Another picture to help you understand this:

My weight in both the pictures is pretty much the same and trust me iv seen my body in all shapes and size’s. I personally LOVE seeing my shoulder’s pump. Thus I work my shoulder muscles two times (minimum) per week. In the picture you can see the result. I don’t really care about my biceps/ arms in general. Thus, when I flex, there is literally no cuts unlike some other girl’s I know. Notice also, I had just finish an intense shoulder workout and hence the pump. Now few days later I had to change for an event and the pump went away and this is how I looked

My body gets stronger, but also tinier. As I weight train more and more, the definition/ cuts/ muscle mass will go higher but I choose where I am comfortable and will draw the line. Same with you, plan your routine such that you use weight training to boost your metabolism and get your muscle mass high. You cannot spot reduce weight but you can spot tone your muscles. So sculpt your body the way you want! Tell your trainer your goals and exactly what your expectations are from the program. Everything you say matters and every fitness/ meal plan is created keeping in mind an individual’s goals.

Conclusion, weight training WILL NOT bulk you up like you see female bodybuilders. It will make you strong and tiny and give you the right curves.

Now lets come to the final part, what is an effective training module for sustainable fat- loss?

Really, there is no one right answer. That’s why you pay a professional to plan one only for you. However, I can give you some pointers:

Scientifically, you cannot gain muscle mass and lose fat at the same time. You can get on a program to sustain your muscle mass and lose fat or sustain your body fat and gain muscle mass. Considering you are on a fat- loss program here, don’t worry too much about putting on muscle mass when you go to the gym to lift weights. Its not going to happen overnight.

Include MISS cardio (explained in this blog) as part of your plan and weight train at least 4 times a week. Adding post workout steady state cardio at moderate intensity will speed up your results. The way your 4 days will be split really depends on how you want to sculpt your body. I train 6 times a week and my split is two days for shoulders, two for legs and one each for chest/ triceps and back/ biceps. This is because I love seeing my shoulders/ legs more defined than the rest of my body parts. If your legs need more work, do it two times a day. Your body, your choice!

Stick to rep range of 12 and above when you lift weights. Anything lesser is great for hypertrophy and strength gains. You might need to play around and switch things up every 12 weeks or so if your body plateaus (WILL NOT before 12 weeks so please stick to the plan. Results take time, its not that your body has plateaued). But most importantly, stay in a caloric deficit. You are on a fat- loss plan, so you might get hungry some days, fibre up! Eat fruits/ veggies/ lentils/ pulses and everything high fibre to fill you without taking in a lot of calories. Excess calories will be used as fuel for muscle gain when you train religiously. This will result in you seeing more muscle mass and get thicker instead of tinier. So train smart and eat wisely.

I truly hope that this read has given you some sort of clarity and helped clear some common myths regarding weight training.

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