More women are working out with weights these days to build strength and muscle tone, but many still use lighter weights during their workout out of fear that lifting heavy weights will cause them to gain weight or “bulk up.” Instead of maximizing the amount of weight they lift, they use light hand weights and do almost endless repetitions, never really exhausting the muscle. Although multiple repetitions using a light weight increases muscle endurance, it doesn’t build real muscle strength or definition. Women can get more benefits from their workout by increasing the amount of weight they lift, and, contrary to popular belief, lifting heavy weights doesn’t cause weight gain in women.
Do Women Gain Weight or Become Bulky if They Lift Heavy Weights?
Some women avoid lifting heavy weights because they mistakenly have visions of turning into the hulky women they see on the cover of some women’s bodybuilding magazines. Instead of becoming bulky, women who lift weights become leaner and more defined over time with ripples and curves that make them look great in a tank top. Men have far more muscle-building testosterone than women, which means women have more difficulty building muscle than their male counterparts. It’s physiologically impossible for a woman to get as big as a man by lifting heavy weights unless she’s taking hormones or chemicals that boost muscle development.
What about the issue of weight? Some women are unpleasantly surprised to find they’ve gained a few pounds after they first begin lifting heavy weights. Of course, they’re not happy to see the scale moving in the wrong direction, but there’s no need to panic. It’s not uncommon to experience temporary weight gain after starting a weight-lifting program. The increase in weight isn’t from fat gain or even from muscle but is from more water being retained by active muscle tissue.
Why the Scale Goes Up When You First Start to Lift Weights
When you first start challenging your muscles with heavy weight-lifting, your muscles temporarily store more carbohydrates in the form of glycogen to make it available as a fuel source to muscles. Glycogen holds onto water, which is the reason the number on the scale goes up. The number reflects temporary water weight gain. Over time, your muscles adapt and no longer stockpile so much glycogen, and your weight drops back down to normal. Have you ever noticed how your muscles look fuller after a weight-training session? It’s not because you’ve suddenly developed muscle, but because your muscles are holding onto excess glycogen and water.
Why is it That Some Women Insist That Their Legs Get Bulky When Lifting Heavier Weights?
There are two reasons this can happen: If your thighs increase in size after starting a heavy weight program it is either because of temporary water weight gain or because you are consuming more calories than you are burning. It is a scientific fact that changing your fitness and diet program to create a calorie deficit will result in weight loss and yes, that means your thighs shrinking in size too. Even if you lose one pound of fat in your thighs and add one pound of muscle, your thighs will still shrink in size since muscle takes up less space than fat does. If you are trying to slim your thighs the key is to make sure you have a negative calorie balance and that you reduce your body fat while increasing your lean muscle mass. Your legs will not only be slimmer but will look toned and healthier too!
The Benefits of Lifting Heavy Weights for Females
Lifting heavy weights not only increases muscle definition, but it helps you burn more fat even when you’re not sweating it out at the gym. There are two reasons for this. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue. Having an extra pound of muscle burns additional calories each day even when you’re just sitting in a chair. Who doesn’t want that? Then there’s the after-burn. When you challenge your muscles by lifting heavy weights, you activate key hormones that help your body burn more fat even after you’ve finished your last weight-lifting set. This increased rate of calorie burn continues for up to 24-hours after a weight training session. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research women burn up to 100 additional calories within 24 hours after weight-training. That adds up to almost a pound of weight loss every month and 30 pounds a year.
It’s not just strength-training that makes you lean and defined. You still need to combine strength training with a healthy diet to get the full benefits. You won’t develop metabolism-boosting muscle if you chow down on pastries and ice cream. To support muscle growth, eat a diet consisting of complex carbohydrates and lean protein sources, and go light on the junk food and processed food. They’re loaded with empty calories and salt that increases water weight gain. According to the ACSM athletes should have between 1.2 and 1.7 g/kg (0.5 – 0.8 grams per pound) of protein each day depending on your age, gender and activity level. Getting more protein than this won’t boost muscle growth anymore but simply adds to your calorie load. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need massive amounts of protein to increase muscle tissue.
As you can see, heavy weight-training works in your favor when it comes to weight loss, because it boosts the amount of metabolically active muscle tissue you carry around and because of the after-burn effect. It also adds cuts, curves, and definition that you won’t get from running on a treadmill or working out on an elliptical machine. If you want to look great in a bikini, weight-training gives you the edge. Cardio is still effective for burning fat and for conditioning your heart, but weight-training has some of these benefits too. Do both for maximum benefits, but don’t overdo the cardio while neglecting strength-training, as many women do. You may lose body fat, but you won’t become firmer and more defined, and you won’t get the benefits of additional metabolism-boosting muscle. With cardio, you may end up smaller but still flabby, which isn’t what most women want.
Finally, heavy weight-training helps to reverse the aging process for both women and men. The average person loses about 7% of their lean body mass every ten years after the age of 20. Since muscle is our body’s furnace for burning fat it is no wonder that most people gain weight as they age and this causes all kinds of health problems for men and women as well as reduces their quality of life.
The Bottom Line:
Don’t let the naysayers tell you lifting heavy weights will cause you to gain weight or bulk you up if you’re female. Enjoy the benefits that lifting heavy weights has on your metabolism and your body.
Excluding temporary weight gain from water retention, the only way to gain weight is to consume more calories than you burn. Lifting heavy weights burns calories, it does not add them to your body and thus it is impossible to gain weight from just lifting heavy weights. For example, look at me, I’ve been lifting heavy weights for decades and I weigh less now than when I was in high school. Even powerlifters will lose weight if their calories consumed are less than their TDEE. So, no matter what your exercise, if you burn more calories than you consume you will lose weight-Guaranteed!
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000 May;904:290-7.
Women’s Health website. “The Best Strength Training for Women”
Exercise Physiology. Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Fifth edition. 2001.