Can Women Get Too Big and Bulky from Weight Training?
“Can women get too big and bulky from weight training?” is a common question among women who are thinking about starting a weight training program. Even though weight training can help you lose weight, many women are afraid they will become too big and bulky. Although wanting to maintain a feminine physique is understandable, evidence suggests that women do not need to worry about becoming big and bulky from weight training like a muscle-bound Amazonian warrior because of both physiological and coincidental factors that limit women’s natural muscle growth potential. In fact, women who weight train are unlikely to become too big and bulky unless they take anabolic steroids, following extreme diet and training programs, and dedicate themselves long-term to building muscle. Instead, for the vast majority of women who want to improve their physique naturally, weight training will give them a small amount of muscle mass that will shape their body and help them burn fat. So, women should rest assured that they have no reason to fear be coming too big and bulky from weight training.
Although many women fear to get too big and bulky from weight training, there are multiple physiological reasons why becoming overly muscular is very unlikely:
01. Women do not need to fear to get too big and bulky from weight training mainly because they have less testosterone than men, greatly limiting their muscle growth potential unless they take anabolic steroids:
Adult men and women have vastly different levels of testosterone: men range between 300 and 1,000 ng/dL, but women only have between 15 and 70 ng/dL¹. Recognizing the difference in normal testosterone levels between men and women is important because testosterone levels have been linked to muscle mass. Studies have shown that age-related decreases in muscle mass are correlated with age-related decreases in testosterone levels; in addition, studies have also shown that testosterone injections increase muscle protein synthesis and result in increased muscle mass2. Since low testosterone of levels would make it difficult to pack on a large amount of muscle, women do not need to fear getting too big and bulky from weight training. Cases such as the use of anabolic steroids by East German female Olympic athletes prove that women are extremely unlikely to gain considerable amounts of muscle mass from weight lifting unless they increase their levels of anabolic hormones by taking anabolic steroids².
02. Another reason why women are unlikely to get too big and bulky from weight training is that there is some evidence that female hormones inhibit muscle growth:
For example, in the article “Gender differences in protein metabolism,” Kevin D. Tipton discusses a study in which ovariectomized rats (rats whose ovaries were removed) were split into two groups: one group was not given supplemental female hormones while the other group was given estrogen and progesterone². The researchers found that “fat-free mass was greater in ovariectomized rats than in ovariectomized rats given estrogen or progesterone replacements”². Furthermore, the rate of muscle protein synthesis was lower in the group given supplemental hormones². Even though Tipton acknowledges that more studies are needed, he concludes that “ovarian hormones may attenuate [reduce] muscle growth in females by inhibiting muscle protein synthesis [building of new muscle]”².
03. In addition, women have fewer muscle fibers than men, especially in their upper body, so developing a significant amount of highly-visible upper body mass would be difficult:
In a howstuffworks.com article, Cristen Conger compares the strength capabilities of men and women. While she notes that some women possess significant lower body strength, very few women can develop their upper body strength to a significant degree³. In fact, Cristen writes that a 1999 study found that “women had 40 percent less upper body skeletal muscle” than men³. Cristen also mentions that the female participants in a 1993 study comparing strength levels between males and females “exhibited 52 percent of men’s upper body strength,” the researchers attributing this difference to “smaller muscles and a higher concentration of fatty tissues in the top half of the female body”³. With fewer muscle fibers and more fatty tissues in their upper body, it is difficult for women to develop their upper body musculature to a significant degree. Even if women purposefully follow a bodybuilding workout program and gain a significant amount of muscle, women’s upper bodies are unlikely to get too big and bulky from weight training; instead, a large portion of the muscle gain will be in their legs and glutes and out of direct view.
As you can see, there are multiple physiological reasons why women are unlikely to get big and bulky from weight training. Because their normal testosterone levels are significantly lower than a man’s, women’s muscle-building potential is severely limited unless they take anabolic steroids. Also, there is evidence to suggest that female hormones such as estrogen may limit muscle growth. It is also important to point out that women have fewer muscle fibers in their upper body, so even if they do gain muscle, most of it will be in their legs and glutes and not readily visible. Considering these physiological limitations, women should not fear getting too big and bulky from weight training unless they take anabolic steroids.
In addition to physiological reasons why women should not worry about becoming too big and bulky from weight training, there are also coincidental reasons why it is very unlikely that women will become overly muscular:
01. Women are unlikely to get too big and bulky from weight training because “bulking” requires eating a calorie surplus and gaining at least a bit of fat. Because women are pressured by society to be conscious of their weight and food intake, they are unlikely to be able to gain a lot of muscle mass:
Bodybuilding experts such as Sean Nalewanyj recommend that men who want to gain a significant amount of muscle eat 15-20% over the number of calories they need to maintain their weight4. If a man who requires 2,000 calories per day to neither lose nor gain weight follows this advice, he would consume 300 and 400 extra calories per day. Although not all of the surplus calories would be converted into body fat, any deliberate attempt to gain muscle by lifting weights and eating above maintenance is going to lead to at least a bit of fat gain (LINK). Most women are fully aware of society’s pressure to stay thin, so it is very unlikely that they would run the risk of gaining body fat by eating the amount of calories required to gain a lot of muscle mass. By considering societal pressure to stay thin, it is clear that women are probably not going to consume enough calories to put on an appreciable amount of muscle mass.
02. Also, women are probably not going to get too big and bulky from weight training because gaining muscle mass is a long, difficult process. Even if a woman manages to get “too big and bulky,” it would be such a slow process that she would realize that she was gaining “too much” muscle before she became grotesque looking:
Although there is much debate over how quickly you can gain muscle without steroids, trainer and writer Lyle McDonald addresses the issue in his article “What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?” After working with powerlifters, bodybuilders, and other athletes, Lyle has come to the conclusion that in the first year of following a bodybuilding program, men can expect to gain 20-25 pounds of muscle naturally if their training, diet and supplementation are perfect5. The rate of muscle gain dramatically diminishes after the first year. Lyle estimates that in the second year of serious training, men can only expect to gain 10-12 pounds5. By the fourth year, men can only expect to gain 2-3 more pounds per year5. Lyle states that women can expect to gain at only half the rate of males; thus, even if they purposefully follow a bodybuilding program, eat the perfect diet, and take the right supplements, they can only expect to gain 10-12 pounds in their first year of training5. Since it takes women so long to build muscle, getting too big and bulky from weight training would take years of consistently following intense bodybuilding workouts. Even if a woman managed to gain “too much” muscle mass, she would notice that she was progressively becoming overly muscular, so she would be able to change her workout or diet before she became grotesquely large.
In addition to physiological limitations on muscle growth in females, there are also coincidental reasons why women are unlikely to get too big and bulky from weight training. Putting on a significant amount of muscle requires eating a surplus of calories and accepting at least a little fat gain; considering societal pressure on women to stay thin, it is unlikely that women will eat enough to gain a lot of muscle mass. Furthermore, building a significant amount of muscle is a long, difficult process. If a woman were to become too big, it would only happen after years of consistently training with the purpose of building muscle. Moreover, even if a woman managed to get “too big and bulky,” she would notice that she was becoming overly muscular over the course of years, so she would be able to change her diet and training program before she became grotesquely large. With this in mind, women should not worry about getting too big and bulky from weight training.
Although many women realize the benefits of weight training, they are afraid of getting too big and bulky from weight training. However, an investigation into the issue reveals several physiological and coincidental reasons why women are unlikely to become overly muscular from consistent strength training:
01. The main reason why women are unlikely to become too big and bulky is that their levels of testosterone, a hormone linked to muscle growth, are rather low. Unless they take anabolic steroids, their anabolic hormone levels will never be high enough to support a significant amount of muscle mass.
02. Although it has not been proven, research suggests that female hormones may inhibit muscle growth.
03.In addition, women are unlikely to get too big and bulky because they have fewer muscle fibers than men, especially in their upper body. Even if women manage to gain a lot of muscle, it will be concentrated in their lower body and not readily visible.
01. Since gaining a significant amount of muscle requires eating above maintenance and accepting at least a little fat gain, societal pressure on women to stay thin makes it unlikely that women will eat enough calories to get too big and bulky.
02.Gaining muscle is a long, difficult process, especially for women. Women would only become excessively big and bulky after years of consistent, intense training. Additionally, if a woman managed to become too big and bulky, she would notice she was becoming overly muscular over time and could change her diet and training program before she became grotesque-looking.
Although it is understandable that women are worried that weight training will make them overly muscular, there are many physiological and coincidental reasons why it is highly unlikely that women are going to become too big and bulky from weight training. Unless they take anabolic steroids, eat more calories than they need, and train intensely for years, women will not get too big and bulky from weight training; instead, they will build the strong yet sleek, trim, and toned physique that they desire.