In Defence of Lifting Heavy

I start today’s posting with a disclaimer. I am not a professional in the area of strength training (outside of certification as an aerial yoga fitness instructor and a pole dance instructor). I’m a recreational strength trainer with critical thinking skills and two years of experience lifting heavy without resulting in giant, manly looking muscles. This is the perspective from which I write. Consult your qualified health care professional about whether accentuating your existing awesomeness through strength training is right for you. 

If you have spent any amount of time in a gym, you have probably heard a woman (or twenty) say “I don’t want to get big and bulky, I just want to tone.” Off they go to the elliptical for an arbitrary amount of time, their workout completed with the satisfaction of knowing that they will not become unwieldy.

The process of becoming bulky does not happen easily for women. It has to do with testosterone. Also, it doesn’t happen overnight. Some non fitness examples to illustrate how unreasonable getting bulky phobias are:

1. You sign up for a college level chemistry class and report to university once. You wake up the next day with a PhD and Nobel prize on your wall and wonder what the heck happened.

2. You leave your infant unattended with an abacus. You check in after nap time and find she has assembled her teddy bears in a circle and is instructing them in advanced calculus.

Building muscles takes time and dedication. It will not sneak up on you, I promise. Outside of the unlikelihood of surprise man muscles ambushing you, it is also important to be cautious not to attribute something to causation when correlation is more likely.

I would like to use breasts in my example of correlation vs. causation. Most super elite runners do not have large chests, they tend to be flatter. This makes sense, women with larger breasts are going to be less comfortable running than women with more athletic frames. While fat loss associated with exercise will often decrease the size of a woman’s chest, no amount of running is going to turn my ample bosom into anything that could reasonably fit into an A cup. There is no complex mythology to warn women against the evils of the treadmill which will steal away their boobs. The average woman will not lose all her “girls” this way. Small chests and running are correlated but it’s a bit of a stretch to insist running causes a small chest.

In the same way, women who naturally put on larger muscles are attracted to weight training and rise to upper levels in the competitive circuits. The average woman is not going to become bulky by weight training. Women predisposed to amassing large amounts of muscle might, with time, nutrition and concerted effort.  This fear of bulk is not unique to the average woman. I have seen it in the pole dance community as well.

In pole dance, we lift our entire body weight, which packs a lot more punch than a three pound pink dumbbell in a hotel gym. Your body cannot differentiate between lifting yourself and something made of metal. It does not sense a metal lode and signal hulk-like muscle development. Lifting heavy will not accidentally make you bulky any more than pole dancing will.

You don’t have to be a pole dancer to lift more than three pounds and not get bulky. There are many objects women lift every day without adverse effects. Purses, sleeping children, the garbage, groceries. I went to Safeway last week, lugging my purse and two weeks of groceries and didn’t wake up looking any different.

The bulking myth is something I would like to address from a feminist perspective. I think fear of bulk is rooted in some ways to social pressures around how much space we are entitled to occupy. Anti-fit and anti-fat are the same oppressive voices. Don’t take up too much space! Muscles are also evidence of strength and provide independence. No damsel in distress here, I can open my own pickle jar.

If you start lifting heavy, your odds of waking up a muscle bound behemoth are pretty low. You might, however, wake up one day and find:

Confidence

Self-sufficiency

Pride in a job well done

Motivation

Fun, fabulous friends who lift too

There’s nothing wrong with feeling like big muscles don’t fit the look you are going for. But there’s no reason to assume that recreational strength training in moderation is going to convert your body into something unattractive. Come to the dark side, we have water bottles and quest bars 🙂

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