The Enemy

HarveyMushman AKA Kyle has been reading 70’s Big for a while. His wife, Julie (hi Julie!), competes in roller derby and also had an ACL replacement in March of 2011. When she started her linear progression, they focused on using the leg press to help strengthen her knee through a full range of motion.

One day when Julie was using the leg press at the gym, a woman approached them and said (according to Kyle, who shits you not), “Women shouldn’t use this leg press with plates because they’ll get big. You should be over there [gestures to the selectorized side of the room] using the machines with light weight and high reps to tone instead of get big.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we’re up against. This is The Enemy.

This is a persistent myth that women hold onto, but it ends up being an excuse that keeps them from doing anything that is hard. I want to review why this is such an absurd assumption — aside from how it isn’t based on any factual evidence.

1. Women have 1/10th the testosterone of men. 

Hormones regulate our body and our life, yet women lack significant amounts of this very important hormone that creates a domino effect in a complicated neuroendocrine system to “get bigger”. In fact, you can’t even truthfully say that “lifting heavy weights makes men bigger” because there are thousands of goobers who prove this wrong every day. “Hard gainers”, skinny guys, and the misinformed prove to us that lifting weights hardly results in getting bigger, even when it’s the goal.

So why would we assume this would be the case for a female? And even if it was the case for men, women have a small fraction of the testosterone that a man does making it incredibly difficult to “get bigger”.

2. Muscle is metabolically active tissue. 

When you have more lean body mass (AKA muscle), your metabolism is higher. That means you use more energy when you have more muscle. That also means your body is more efficient at using fat as energy, thereby reducing body fat. Lower body fat also results in a higher metabolic rate. All of this means your body is efficient at being lean and strong, which is what “being toned” really means.

Erin Stern is my stock example of a fit woman. She competes in figure competitions, but implements a variety of training methods

3. Lifting weights to get stronger with compound movements significantly raises metabolism too. 

Crayola style:
When you lift weights, you damage muscle fibers. When you lift weights with compound movements, you damage muscle fibers all over the body. When you recover from lifting weights, the body will repair this damaged muscle. When you recover from heavier, compound movements, your body will repair lots of muscle all over your body. It requires energy to repair things, and a greater energy demand is a higher metabolism. Of all the women I’ve trained, I’ve never had anyone gain body fat; they’ve always lost body fat while increasing muscle (by a little bit). 

4. Why would a woman suddenly become bulky anyway?

I know, I know, I’m trying to apply more logic to a person that holds onto a belief without any factual evidence. But if you’re a female, especially a skinny one, why would you suddenly become bulky if you’ve been skinny your whole life? If you’re a heavier female, you definitely are carrying more body fat. If you accept # 2 and 3, then you know your metabolism will be higher and you will burn more fat by a) lifting and recovering from lifting  lifting weights with compound movements, b) having a greater lean body mass (even if it is only several pounds).

In order to be truly bulky with muscle mass, a women usually needs chemical help (AKA steroids). The women who are naturally muscular are genetically gifted and comprise a very low percentage of the population. If you were one of these women, you would already know (and you’d probably be proud of your physique anyway). 

5. Higher reps with lower weights seems to be the thing that actually increases muscle mass the most in women. 

Perhaps a literature review is in order for this topic, but those of us that are actually practitioners in the fitness or strength and conditioning field see that women seem to develop muscle very well with higher reps. I’ve heard of various people (including Robb Wolf) talk about how this seems to stimulate growth hormone. It’s an observation I’ve had for a while, because when you look at fitness/figure competitors and CrossFitters, they carry more muscle than average. The commonality in training is doing higher amounts of volume for sets of higher reps.

I’ve pointed out in the past (can’t find the post) that a good program for a girl who wants definition in her musculature is to strength train, then do some back-off work like walking lunges and leg curls to accumulate reps and volume. That’s what the gals do who get paid to do it. The point is that the method of training that women typically use (lower weights, higher reps) to avoid “getting bulky” is actually what helps stimulate lean body mass gain anyway. It’s just that they are doing it with three pound dumbbells instead of 50 pound dumbbells. Getting stronger is the key to metabolic activity, lower body fat, and being a kick ass woman.

The truth is that none of this really matters. I could keep going with a list of bullets 50 items long. Facts or statements are just a hodge podge of information that won’t sway an emotional belief. Some of you can print posts out like this and show it to your clients, spouses, or friends and they may take action. I don’t expect that to work in non-gym environments (i.e. It’s easier to convince a woman who is doing CrossFit than someone who lives and dies on the elliptical). Instead I’ll take the Robb Wolf approach and say, “Just try it for a month.” There are plenty of examples in the “Getting Girls to Train” series to get women training, but the hardest part is convincing them that the big scary physique that they think they’ll grow is just a silly myth.

59 thoughts on “The Enemy

  1. Good post. I was trying to convince my sister to weight train recently, but she’s paranoid of becoming “too bulky.” She understands in principal but can’t get over all the bullshit she’s been fed over the years.

    After going around in circles trying to convince her with logical, fact-based arguments, such as these, I finally found one that worked (somewhat). I said: “Look, if something crazy happens and you accidentally become the she-hulk by lifting twice a week, all you have to do to cure it is sit on your ass for a few weeks and eat pizza. It’s risk-free, so just fucking try it.”

  2. I have this conversation 3+ times per week. I’ve narrowed it down to, “You have indoor plumbing. It is not conducive to getting jacked.” If that doesn’t work it’s, “You see all the skinny guys lifting weights? What makes you think you’re going to get huge when all these weenies can’t gain 10 pounds?” So far I’m batting 1,000.

  3. *opens can of worms*

    a perfect example of this would be how crossfit produces quite a few super JACKED females with ease and not so many dudes. Its no secret that women respond growth wise to more reps than dudes do and watching the CF games kind of made me REAL self conscious about my swoller-trophy development.

    Also to be clear for all women, I am not saying that jacked CF women are gross or wrong. In fact I would put my weiner in most of them if they would let me.

  4. The anti-bulking thing is pretty hard to combat. My mom is pretty jacked but wastes all of her time doing gravity training for strength work (the rest is yoga and figure skating) and it kills me that those people are robbing her blind with their $45 an hour gravity board bullshit when she could be squatting, deadlifting, pressing, doing pull ups and push ups and actually getting more strong. Another thing that gets my goat with women trainees and especially where I live (oh hell this is with everyone man and woman) is the need for a special program run by super skinny soy eating people in super expensive snazzy clothes. For some reason because I train in singlets or torn clothing, I am less reputable than some yoyo in lulemon gear.
    From school of champions- “you must lift the barbell”

    • Never head of gravity. A few google clicks later, and the first article about it opens like this: “As a self-confessed gym-bunny I’m pretty good at clocking up time on the treadmill. However, I dread entering the testosterone-filled weights area afterward and usually dash in and grab the nearest set of dumbbells whilst studiously avoiding eye contact.” Arggghhh.

  5. My girlfriend was afraid of this when i started taking her o the gym, but shes not afraid to try new shit so when i explained it to her she was on board. Ps I was able to take my friend through his training today and still get all my lifting done

  6. Thanks for posting this. It’s useful to have a reminder now and then.

    Imma be really real for a second. I’ve been lifting for a long time, I know the facts, I’m proud of how I look (awesome), and I’m not a dummy. But every now and then, this STILL creeps into my brain. I doubt I’m the only one. The problem is that arguments and facts only get so far with actually changing the way that people (not just women) think. We’re surrounded by these myths and by photoshopped images of what women are “supposed” to look like. (That is, like they don’t have internal organs.) But every proud, strong, sexy lady — like Erin Stern — helps chip away at that ideal. Arguments help, but we’ve got to fight this on all fronts.

    TL;DR: Keep posting pictures of strong women.

    • That article is a must-read, and not just for the ladies. I’m a big fan of Krista’s, and I usually direct my ladyfriends who are interested in lifting to her site. Uninteresting biographical note: I found 70’s Big through Stumptuous.

  7. I think something that needs to be addressed is that there is a healthy range of bodyfat for everyone – especially women. Most lady folk who “look bulky” are actually just really fucking lean, and have gotten there on purpose, even if they only weigh 120 pounds. Chicks in the ~10% BF range are dangerously skinny and typically only get down that low for a competition of some sorts, and it takes a LOT of focused work to get there. The regular woman who trains heavy and eats intelligently is going to be in a much healthier 15-20% (or even more, for some body types) range and keep the womanly/curvy look (along with regular healthy body cycles), even as they get stronger and their muscles get slightly bigger (and as they start to get a lot of compliments from members of both sexes).

    Cliff’s Notes: If a chick wants to avoid “looking bulky,” she just has to eat like a real person, not a fitness model nibbling on carefully measured portions. Most super lean people look much bigger than they are. A female with delt striations and a 6 pack is going to look bulkier than she really is.

      • I totally agree. Someone up above was mentioning how jacked Annie Sakamoto looked at the CF games. I googled her, and proportionally, I would say she is damn near perfect, and really isn’t overly big/bulky. The only reason she appears that way is because she has no fat on her. Which is also one of the reasons some of the CF girls aren’t my thing. I’m cool with a girl with muscle, but she shouldn’t have a veiny 6 pack year round in my opinion.

    • This reminds me of a a post/rant I read recently (don’t remember where and can’t find it now). The argument was basically that skinny is the new strong for women. We’ve started to see some more positive images of more “muscular” women…but they’re usually of women who are very low bodyfat % rather than actually strong. So, while the marketing image has changed somewhat, the idea of what a fit, strong, healthy woman looks like is still inaccurate and unrealistic.

  8. “I’ll just do zumba I don’t want to get ‘too big’ or ‘jacked’ Chris…”

    Hear it all the time. The other day they sent out a survey for what classes would you be interested in if our company could get a discount and do them after work. The options were hilarious…Zumba, Sweating to the Oldies, part of P90x. There is def. a battle going on.

    My fiance has been doing a SS-ish workout for the last 8 months, she’s 5’8″ and has dropped 20lbs. Only until the last month did she even start doing any cardio. The best part is when she’s cocky about lifting which no girls at our gym even touch a barbell, I’m proud of her. She’s done awesome and hasn’t gotten “jacked.” But if anything she’s leaned out and is almost at her all-time thinnest and strongest.

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  10. I started powerlifting in my 20s, didn’t get jacked.

    Did some half marathons after that didn’t get skinny.

    Have done CrossFit for past 4 years, still not jacked.

    Back on a powerlifting program squatting like a mofo and I still have the flattest ass in the gym. My chest on the other hand…..:-)

    Point. I’ve done lots of different kind of training and my body has stayed the same…..

  11. Down with the enemy. Bloody bastard has changed the way our women view their bodies and their health over the past decades with airbrushed, cropped, cut and stretched ‘ideal models’ on just about all media.
    Down with the enemy!

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  13. aye im fighting this as well. Problem is, when a female comes in and wants to increase specyfic place (ass) without increasing thighs a bit. Your post was helpfull it gave me some ideas in regard of female training.:)

  14. Honestly, I find the new website much harder to use. On my browser at least, I only see one post at a time. To see any other posts, I have to click on them one by one. And to go back to any earlier posts, there’s no “Earlier Posts” button anymore. Nor is there any way to see “Archives” as far as I can tell. The only way to see earlier posts is to click on each date individually on the calendar. This is probably the worst possibly way to organize a blog’s archives, except for deleting them altogether.

    Anyway, great site content-wise, I just wish it were easier to read.

    • Do you see the calender at the top left of every page? The dates that Justin posted on are all bolded in blue, and you can just click through to that day’s blog. What browser are you using?

      • That’s fine, but you still have to scroll down the page to read one blog post, then scroll back up, then remember which day to click, then click on each day one by one, then repeat.

        There’s no reason to make that so much more work than just scrolling down the page to see one blog post after another.

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  17. *Sigh* if only us women who want to put on muscle, could do so just as easily as men.
    While I’ve gained a good amount over the past two years, it’s not nearly as much as I want. Read articles like this and it sounds as though women need to train forever to even get anywhere…

  18. My fiance (25-year-old hot female) dropped about 20 lbs to 135lbs. doing P90X and Chalene Johnson Turbo Fire. Then she bought a wedding dress that fit quite snugly. For the past 8 months she has done a SS type program and increased her squat from 50 lbs to 200 lbs. She weighs 140 lbs. and the dress still fits. Now she is almost certainly always the strongest and most useful woman in the room. End of story.

    TL;DR That wasn’t too long just read it.

  19. I am very much a novice, but when my lift numbers are going up and I can actually feel myself getting stronger, I just don’t a shit about what size of clothes I wear, how much I weigh, my body fat percentage, how much I eat, etc. etc.

    I just want to lift more than I am presently and get stronger. It truly is a beautiful mind shift.

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