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Can we please give the whole, “lifting heavy makes me bulky” notion a rest?

By Melissa Edmonds, CSCS

Do you avoid lifting heavy weights for the fear that you may injure yourself or get too bulky? Find yourself sticking to cardio in an attempt to shed those unwanted pounds? As a female strength and conditioning coach, I’m going to show you why all those rumors you’ve heard about lifting heavy weights are just that: Rumors. Whether you want to rock that bikini on the beach, feel more powerful in the gym, or improve your overall athletic ability, strength training can help. So let’s put down those pink dumbbells, pick up the heavy black ones, and finally lay to rest these common misconceptions.

MYTH 1: Lifting weights will cause you to bulk like the Hulk.

As a fitness coach, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard women dismiss strength training because they “don’t want to get too big” and would rather “just tone.” But unless you plan on taking anabolic steroids, have insane genetics, and dedicate multiple hours daily to training, then you’re never going to look bulky. The cold, hard truth is that women have 1/15 to 1/20th the amount of testosterone as men, and testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for muscle growth. So it’s genetically impossible to develop a hulk-like physique, unless that is your actual goal—and even then it’s extremely difficult to achieve. Female bodybuilders have trained for many years to achieve a very specific look, and often use anabolic steroids to assist them. So please, once and for all, let’s give this one a rest.

MYTH 2: Using lighter weights is safer and will give you long, lean muscles.

Perhaps you strength train, but you’ve fallen victim to the idea that using tiny dumbbells for an endless amount of reps is going to give you the “toned” look you’re after. Resorting to this negates the real muscle-building benefits of strength training. Sure, it’ll increase muscular endurance, but it won’t help you increase muscle mass or build a more athletic physique. If you want to increase lean mass (muscle), you’ll want to stick to a lower 6-12 rep range and use a heavier weight.

Not sure how to choose the right amount of weight to lift? Start light and see how many reps you can do. If you’re aiming for ten reps, but you’re able to perform 14, then add about two pounds, rest for a minute (so your muscles aren’t exhausted and you get a better idea of what you’re able to lift), then go again. Do this until you’re using a weight that allows you to perform the desired number of reps.

Another clue: Pay attention to how you feel. You should be able to complete the last two to three reps with proper form, but they should feel tough. Quality always trumps quantity, though, so don’t push yourself so hard that you can’t perform the exercise properly. Find a reputable personal trainer, learn the proper technique and challenge yourself.

As for that whole “long, lean muscles” concept, well, it’s not realistic either. You cannot change the length of your muscles, just as you can’t make yourself taller by stretching. Muscles have a fixed origin and insertion point. No amount of stretching or training (regardless of the method) can change that. What makes you look long and lean is muscle definition, which you get from lifting. (See: What Really Happens When Women Lift Heavy Weights.)

MYTH 3: Cardio is the best method for fat loss.

Not only does strength training add more definition to your entire body (hello, abs!), but it has a ton of other health benefits too. My favorite: It increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which means you’ll burn more calories throughout the day—even when you’re not working out. The result is more lean muscle mass and less body fat, and that’s something you can’t get that with just cardio.

And because I like lists, here’s one full of other health bennies you get from strength training:

  • Increased bone density
  • Better balance, coordination, agility, power, and mobility
  • An ability to do everyday activities without worrying about getting hurt
  • Fewer symptoms associated with arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, obesity, and back pain
  • Improved sleep patterns, mood, and stress levels

As you can see, strength training does more than make you look—and feel—confident AF. And the benefits only multiply as we get older. As we age, our bodies are at an increased risk of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) and osteoporosis (decrease in bone density). A regular training plan can help to combat those losses. Luckily, women are starting to make their way into the weight room—so now it’s your turn.