Does Heavy Lifting Make Women ‘Bulky’? 

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Does Heavy Lifting Make Women ‘Bulky’?

The term ‘bulky’ generally refers to gaining a noticeable amount of weight. Some of this weight gain will be fat and some will be muscle.

Gender differences in strength training

Training should be structured according to a person’s goal rather than gender specific. A man and a woman with the exact same goal should train pretty much the same way. Men naturally have much higher levels of testosterone than women so they generally have more potential for muscle gain. This is a reason why women struggle to gain as much muscle as their male counterparts. Some women resort to injecting testosterone in order to build more muscle than they naturally are capable of doing. That is why a lot of female bodybuilders begin to develop masculine characteristics. Women do naturally have higher levels of estrogen than men. This allows them to recover faster from training and to fatigue less than men.

Instead of giving you a yes or a no answer to the title question I will provide a few scenarios to help explain the effect of weight training on body composition. Each scenario can actually apply to both genders but it is usually women more than men that have a misconception about strength training.

Being in a calorie deficit without training

To put yourself in a calorie deficit you need to be consuming fewer calories than your body needs. For example, if you maintain your current weight at 1800 calories then reducing your calories to 1300 calories would put you in a clear deficit. If you put yourself in a deficit you will start to lose weight over time. You can control the type of weight you lose (water, fat, and muscle) to some extent by being selective with the macronutrient ratios you consume.

Weight training in a calorie deficit

If you add weight training to the equation you will be burning more calories because you are now more active. You will gain some muscle but not a huge amount because you aren’t eating enough to gain weight. With more muscle, your metabolism will improve meaning your body will be more efficient at burning calories. It will now be easier to be in a calorie deficit so you will be burning more fat now compared to if you simply ate less without lifting weights. Your body composition will significantly improve and your weight should go down eventually too.

Maintenance calories without training

The number of calories that cause you to stay the same weight is said to be your maintenance calories. With no other new variable, your body will stay the same.

Weight training in maintenance calories

If you keep your calories the same and start to lift then your body composition will change similar to what happens if you train in a deficit. However, you will gain more muscle on 1800 calories compared to 1300 calories as you have more fuel to stimulate growth and more energy for improved gym performance. You might not lose any weight but you should lose fat. Your maintenance calories might actually change eventually because of the addition of weight training.

Calorie surplus without training

If you overeat you obviously will gain weight most of which coming in the form of body fat. If your maintenance calories are 1800 then anything over that e.g. 2200 calories will be considered a surplus.

Weight training in a calorie surplus

By adding in weight training you will still gain weight but the amount of fat gain will be reduced and you will instead gain some muscle. So in a sense, the combination of overeating combined with weight training can cause that bulky’ look. But the same amount of overeating without the training will also cause weight gain. The difference here is that you can at least reduce the ratio of fat gain by heavy training even in a calorie surplus as well as receiving the other benefits from training.

Other variables

Program design can also determine how much or how little muscle you will gain. There are programs that are geared towards maximal muscle building goals and there are totally different programs that are suited to people trying to get stronger without too much weight gain. It’s important to get a tailor made program specific to your goal. Either way your strength training program should include heavy lifting.


Strength training can help you improve your body shape, get you stronger, improve your posture, better bone health, prevent diseases, and a number of other benefits.

Heavy lifting will only make you ‘bulky’ if you combine it with eating more. Some women want to bulk and that’s perfectly understandable. Not everyone has the same goals.

It’s important to look at all the variables before jumping to a conclusion about strength training.

Strength training can be used as a tool to help you achieve any performance or physique goal even if that goal is to lose weight. You just have to tweak your diet accordingly.



Rishi Haria

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