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Can Women “Bulk Up?”

Let’s just get this out of the way right now–under no natural circumstances can a drug-free woman EVER look like this:

Bodybuilder Jay Cutler

So the idea that any woman will blow up the point of looking like a man is truly absurd–especially considering even MEN have a hard time putting on legitimate muscle, and women naturally don’t have the same muscle-building hormonal profile.
So the question is not whether or not women “bulk up,” but more aptly, Can a woman put on muscle and as a result appear larger?
The answer is yes.
But it is not because somehow her hormones masculinize and she morphs into The Hulk. It’s simply because when you add muscle without regard to simultaneously losing fat, you will appear larger. This is like putting on a jacket over two sweaters–if you don’t burn fat, your muscle won’t “pop” as readily, and you may appear larger.
The math:
Fat + Bone = skinny fat
Excess Fat = overweight or overfat
Excess Fat + Muscle = a more fit look, but can still appear bulky
So the key lies in being able to lose fat while also building lean muscle. This distinction is often the difference between a “toned” look and a “bulky” look–how much muscle you can actually see. The less fat, the more cuts and definition will show.
And burning fat comes down to nutrition, mostly.
When you eat excessive carbs, especially of the high sweet variety, not only will you put on muscle like a champ (yay), but you’ll put on fat too, and retain water (insulin causes water retention at the level of the kidney). This is a more “puffy” look–or like a competitor might look in her off-season. There’s certainly visible muscle, but with a little coat of fat and water on top.
And so, to maintain a fairly lean look and have visible muscle tone, it’s advisable to follow a higher protein and high vegetable/greens diet (minerals also help maintain an favorable electrolyte balance so you don’t retain water). Use carbs strategically–earlier in the day and post-workout only. Eat enough so that you are building lean muscle, but not too much that there’s spillover into fat storage. I recommend finding your Carb Tipping Point, via Metabolic Effect.
Hormones are an important consideration too.
There’s also a strong hormonal component that I won’t get into too much here, but the bottom line is that some people are more sensitive to insulin than others and will naturally stay leaner and more “cut.” Those who are operating in a higher cortisol state may appear more puffy, and those with a more PCOS-type profile will also have a harder time looking more defined.
The hormonal component is an interplay between insulin, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone and catecholamines. And each person’s relative hormonal levels are unique to them. For example, if you are naturally more puffy, you might need to get more strategic with your eating frequency and monitor carbs more closely. A lot of this is trial and error. Try something for 4-6 weeks and monitor progress.

Photo by MacFoto

You can adjust your training too.
You can also adjust your training to increase its metabolic component so that you are moving more quickly, and getting breathless and burning at times. The key is to train in a way that puts on muscle in the right places via progressive overload, but also eliciting a cardio effect. I prefer Metabolic Physique Conditioning (especially Metabolic Chains) for this. The workouts tend to be shorter, faster, and use a moderate weight.
Contrary to popular belief, building muscle is not all that easy for most.
One last thing to remember is that many women have a really, really hard time building muscle. It’s not as if you lift regularly for a few weeks and turn into a man. The women (usually competitors) who are able to build considerable muscle have been at it consistently FOR YEARS (we actually require our figure competition clients to have been weight training intensely with heavy weights for at least a year before we will take them on).
Putting on considerable muscle takes time, dedication and consistency with heavy weights and proper nutrition. So don’t make the mistake of not lifting because you are scared of your physique drastically changing right under your nose. Not gonna happen.
So should you still try to build muscle? Absolutely, and here are the reasons why:
  • If you don’t have any muscle, there is nothing to “tone”–building muscle is key in being able to bring out more cuts and definition. Fat alone does not have definition.
  • Building muscle boosts your metabolism–this is not a huge amount, but the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn both during exercise and at rest.
  • Building strength increases your stability, functionality and reflexes. Especially for older women, the amount of muscle you have directly impacts your health. Staying active with weights as you age is paramount in maintaining your living independence and ability to react physically in the world.
  • When you don’t have muscle, you only have fat. Which would you rather? :)
  • Physical strength begets mental strength. Something magical happens when you start to see muscle on your frame–it’s almost as if physical accomplishment begins to permeate the rest of your life, and empowers you to take risks and see possibilities in other areas. It’s a huge confidence builder.
  • Muscle is sexy. That is all.
Just remember to pay attention to your nutrition (high protein, high vegetable + strategic carbs) and increase the tempo of your weight training workouts at times. Good luck! ox, Jill

Related: Muscle on Women: An Acquired Taste?

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