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Starting Strength in the Real World

Three Ways to NOT Get Bulky from Lifting

Getting strong without getting gross and bulky

by Niki Sims | January 14, 2016

Have you heard that rumor before? The one that was started when some gal's cousin's roommate's aunt saw on Facebook that her sister-in-law started squatting and turned into a bulky, jacked, muscle-kitten. Now women – and even men these days – live in fear that the barbell will transform them into a rippling, veiny, skinned yeti.

While there are people out there who do become copiously jacked, this is not something he or she stumbled into, and it didn't happen overnight. It takes unique genetics with some specific training, diet, and chemical supplementation. I'll explain in three points why you will not become a she-beast from barbell training.

Your dilemma is that you want to get “lean and toned,” get rid of your under-butt cellulite, and have those pretty lines down your abs. And you're not sure how to go about it, because the fitness industry is always selling you the newest, easiest, and at times, quite conflicting exercise programs. How else are they going to come up with magazine content each month?

Let's start by taking the phrase “lean and toned” out of your vocabulary and throwing it in the garbage. You need to be more specific and more objective: you want to lose body fat and increase your muscle definition. Both of those things require you to monitor your diet and get more muscle! You can't define it if it ain't there. The best way to get more muscle is to train bilateral movements using the most muscle mass across the most effective range of motion with the most weight possible.

The exercises that best satisfy these criteria are the Squat, the Press, the Bench Press and the Deadlift performed with a barbell. (Don't ever bother with those tiny pink dumbbells again, unless you're throwing one at some bro trying to “mansplain” squatting to you.)

These movements are the ones you need to focus on to build some muscle and put your body in a better metabolic state to get rid of excess body fat. And the best program is one that does not vary the exercise selection based on you being female, but rather has an appropriate prescription for volume and intensity to account for your testosterone levels as a female, like Rippetoe discusses in this article, Training Female Lifters: Neuromuscular Efficiency.

But how do you do this without getting gross and bulky?

Your ability, or lack thereof, to produce force and build muscle is almost entirely based on the genetics you were born with, and your testosterone level, which is also genetically predetermined. Being predisposed to putting on huge quantities of muscle mass is pretty uncommon in females – and really, in males too – and if you have these genetics, you know it already.

Like most women, you weren't born with these characteristics, and you don't have enough testosterone to get huge. So, if you accidentally stumble into a time-travel black hole and get to choose your parents, do not to pick a pair who will breed you as a woman with a higher-than-average level of testosterone.

Sounds difficult, I know. You'll just have to make do with what you've got. And what you've got won't make you "bulky".

Secondly, don't do steroids. Testosterone level is the major factor when it comes to getting on the Swole Patrol. Like I said, you probably don't have what it takes to be lady-jacked at this point, so don’t manipulate your testosterone through supplementation of anabolic steroids.

Best to avoid all needles entirely if you can. Watch out for orally ingestible anabolics, too. Just like you do at the bars, always keep your eyes on your drink at the gym. It'd be a shame to get 'roid-roofied.

Lastly, work hard: train with a barbell 3-4 times per week and take responsibility for your diet.

No matter how hard you train, if you don't have the right genetics, the best you will achieve will be some real nice muscle definition, abs, a nice butt, great work capacity, and never having to make people wonder where you hide your dick in your yoga pants.

The women pictured below can lift a large percentage of weight relative to their own less-than-hulkish bodyweight, barbell train 3-5 times per week, religiously track their caloric intake and still look this mediocre on the bulky scale.

female lifter juliette

At a body weight of 127.4lbs, Juliette recently Squatted 250lbs, Overhead Pressed 92.5lbs and Deadlifted 315lbs. [Image © Thomas Campitelli, used with permission]

female lifter niki sims

This is me. I'm just shy of 6' tall and while weighing between 158 and 160lbs, I've Squatted 270lbs, Bench Pressed 176lbs and Deadlifted 390lbs. I've also done an 80lb chin-up.

Here's the thing, building muscle for almost every human is really difficult; it takes a lot of time and dedication to training and nutrition. Women who have taken the time to develop an extremely high amount of muscle mass wanted it, and they worked really hard for it. I guarantee that training 3 times per week with a barbell will not put you on their level, so please stop insulting their efforts by claiming it will instantly happen to you.

While barbell training may not be easy, it's certainly efficient. So, no more wasting your time on silly things like “Split Lunges” – they are far less efficient than a squat or a deadlift for training your legs and back. You cannot spot-treat your love handles with “Russian Twists.” And the "yes and no" machines for your outer and inner thighs are better used for picking up dates.

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