Toning & the myth of bulky women

So you see one of those girls up there. She’s looking pretty good. Hey, maybe you’d like to look like that! She’s slender, toned, and overall looks like a model. She’s got muscle tone, but still very feminine. Surely she doesn’t do anything too heavy/strenuous? False, she works her ass off.

So what are women so afraid of when it comes to getting overly-muscular? Let’s layout a couple reasons you aren’t going to be packing on mass.

Hormones: This is by far the biggest factor in gettin’ huge. The vast majority of biological females just don’t have enough testosterone to build enormous muscles.

Diet: How many grams of carbohydrates and protein are you getting? Most physique competitors are consuming a minimum of 1g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight (give or take), daily. That means between 100 and 150g for women, while the daily recommended amount is a mere 50g. Not to mention all the complex carbs you’d have to be consuming for energy.

Bulk: When you lift heavier weight, chances are that you’re going to have initial gains, be they in the mirror or on the scale. This is can be scary, but is beneficial in the long-term for reasons that will be explained below.

So what we’re left with are the benefits of adding some strength training.

Burning fat

It’s a common myth that you need to do cardio to burn fat. However, your body is almost always using fat for fuel, just in small amounts. The oft-quoted “20 minutes of strenuous exercise” where your body starts burning fat is really just where your body switches to burning more fat than carbs. Before that mark, you’re burning about 40% fat/60% carbs and after it, you move to roughly 55% fat/45% carbs.

In addition to that, muscle is capable of burning calories while at rest. So even if you’re just sitting around, your body is using energy to maintain muscle.


Yuriko (5’1″) works 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps and loves the feeling after.

The Pump

When you lift just the right amount of weight, where it starts to burn a little, when there’s a bit of struggle, but not too much, you feel The Pump. Basically, it’s the increased blood flow to muscles and the oxygen that brings through your body, giving you a sort of high. So yeah, while you’re working out, you might look like you’ve got #MadGainz, but it’s a temporary effect (as many disappointed bodybuilders will attest to), so don’t worry about the hugeness. After the workout, that “high” can continue, though, giving you a self-esteem boost and sense of accomplishment.

Preventing injury

Lots of cardio can effect your joints and that’s not including all the time you’re sitting in your car or at your desk, weakening from disuse. However, strength training with proper stretching can reinforce tissues and make them less frail. This includes bone density (a persistent issue for women), connective tissue, and muscle.

Feeling better

This means both physically and mentally. Yes, you’ll look sexier, and that’s great, but what may be even more powerful is the confidence boost from realizing your potential.

Physically, there’s a good chance you’ll have more energy over time. Again, everything here is an investment. Sow some time and dedication, and reap the rewards. At first, you’ll probably be tired. This is the body’s normal adaptation when being put through a new stimulus. In the weeks that follow, you’ll find it getting easier and becoming energized. You won’t go into/come out of the gym feeling like a badass every time, just like you don’t feel super productive every time you want to be. That’s OK. You pick yourself up and go at it again.

You know what? Don’t take my word for it. Here are a couple women who kill it in the gym, sometimes twice a day.

Photo by Gene Geter
Kira Hamilton keeps her workouts simple, but effective.

Kira Hamilton, for her part, mostly keeps her lifts to a simple three sets of 10. Kira is a professional dancer and fitness model in New York City and abroad, traveling often for her work.

“Lifting gets me a bigger booty,” she laughs, “and let’s me eat a lot more food.”

Meanwhile, bikini competitor Jordan Beaubrin cycles through her training often, alternating her weight used and rep ranges depending on how close she is to a show.

Photo by Jordan Beaubrin
Jordan cycles her rep ranges (and diet) to achieve a svelte but powerful figure

“It’s always different,” she says. “Not every day is going to be an [all out] or PR, but my goals are to have consistent and perfect form for all.”

Jordan believes strongly in a quote: “The myth that women shouldn’t lift heavy is only perpetuated by women who fear work and men who fear women.”


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