You want to lift weights and get fit, but you certainly don’t want to bulk up. Right?! Got it! In today’s post I’ll share everything you need to know to achieve that fit yet feminine look without worrying about any bulk. There are 3 things that sum it all up.
By now, you know that my specialty is helping women achieve a fit and lean physique. It stems from my personal goals. I love muscle. I love the look of strength and physical fitness. But, I also like to comfortably fit into my skinny jeans. I strike the balance between getting fit while staying lean.
This was a highly requested blog post topic that came in as feedback last week… I get it! It too was one of my “fears” (that I later learned was a misconception) about weight lifting. Many of you shared that you feel weight lifting has added some bulk to your body, especially by your legs.
Below you will find 3 things that should clear this up for you!
1. MUSCLE PUMP + SWELLING
This is where many women feel their legs (or other body part) are bulking up, but really it’s just a temporary workout effect. So, when we weight train… like seriously weight train… 3-4 sets of 10-20 reps using heavy weight for several exercises, we damage our muscle cells. Don’t worry! It’s intentional and good damage because breaking down our muscle fibers allows them to grow back stronger. This is what we commonly call “results.”
A muscle pump (or hyperemia, the scientific name) is what we experience during the workout. While we are lifting weights, blood flows to the muscles we are working. In order to accommodate this blood flow, the muscles stretch ever so slightly to accommodate the excess fluid. This is what we call a “pump.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this full and tight feeling before. Your muscle may look a little bit more fit than usual and you may even see some veins saying hey.
The beneficial purpose of a pump is to provide a muscle with what it needs to perform optimally. Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to the worked muscle cells as well as helps to remove waste products.
Side Note – this is also why I highly suggest traditional weight lifting splits/schedules like how I set them up. Targeting too many muscle groups in one workout doesn’t allow us to achieve a muscle pump to the degree described because the blood is flowing equally everywhere =we aren’t getting the best results
About 2 hours after exercise, swelling begins. During this time, you may notice some muscle tightness and discomfort (you know… when it’s hard to walk down the stairs after leg day lol). As I just described, during our weight training, tiny tears develop in th muscle cells and now they are in the recovery and rebuilding process. White blood cells rush to the damaged muscles, producing prostaglandins as a byproduct: this is a substance that causes the pain and swelling. Also, other fluids with nutrients and enzymes flow to the worked muscle to help with the repair process.
During your workout (thanks to the muscle pump) as well as for up to a few days after (because of swelling for repair), you may physically feel “bulkier” than normal, but it’s all temporary and part of the process. It’s easy to get caught up in this. We are more aware of our legs during and after our leg workout, so it’s not uncommon to feel a tiny bit of “bulk.” Now you know this process is what will actually help you get fit and lean!
2. MUSCLE VS FAT DENSITY
Here is the hard evidence I love sharing. When I say I know what it’s like to fear lifting/getting bulky, I mean my workouts for the two years consisted of 30 minutes on the elliptical and 30 minutes of abs because I didn’t want to “get big” lol. Go figure I didn’t see the results I hoped for until I picked up the weights. Learning what I’m about to share completely made those fears subside.
Muscle is more dense than fat. It physically takes up less space on our bodies. You’ve likely heard me say this before, but I want to hammer the point home. A 150 lb woman with very little muscle mass will physically appear larger/bulkier than a 150 lb woman with more muscle mass. It’s just the science of density.
Let’s put it another way… since I began weight training several years ago, I’ve gained 10 pounds. BUT, my jean size is 3 (yes 3!) sizes smaller. You know I love a good #LGSweatSeshSelfie with a flex post-workout. Sometimes these photos make me look deceivingly large/bulky (see above!). When I meet people in person, I often hear “you’re so much smaller than I thought.” Because muscle won’t make you bulky! In fact, reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass may likely lead to you getting physically smaller because muscle is more dense than fat.
3. NUTRITION IS KEY
This is the tie in that is critical. We know what we have to do to increase muscle mass and get fit. We know weight training can help us achieve that quite effectively. How do we focus on losing body fat? Another benefit to muscle is that it helps us burn fat without any added effort. Muscle mass is your body fats worst nightmare… it literally eats it up. The more you focus on your muscle goals, the more body fat you can lose naturally.
Still, there is one key component… nutrition. If you’re not eating well, you’re going to have a hard time changing your body composition. When women tell me they feel bulky, nutrition is the first place I go to tweak… it’s not the weight lifting/muscle, rather it a higher body fat percentage from a lack of a nutrition system.
When I put together my nutrition approach in the Eat Your Way Lean Meal Plan, I focused on one concept: eating enough without the excess. What does that even mean?! I strive to eat enough, such as enough lean protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates to help me achieve my goals especially related to muscle. But, I don’t want to be eating too much for my body and my activity level that it ends up being stored as body fat. The meal plan lays out all of those details for you, so I won’t spend too much time on it here.
It’s important, however, to understand that you an overeat healthy foods. This was my mistake a few years back. I was working out regularly and getting fit; I could feel the muscle developing, but I couldn’t see any of it. In order to achieve muscle definition, I had to realize that I couldn’t just do general healthy eating in order to see results. That’s when I applied the meal plan system and the concept of eating enough without the excess.
If you feel you’re doing great with your training but are having a difficult time seeing those results, it’s likely those stubborn fat cells need a greater nudge. I would highly suggest my Meal Plan to help you make some simple tweaks to your meals that can lead to big results.
So, there you have it! I hope you’ve now seen that weight lifting and muscle will not make you bulky. In fact, it will help achieve the opposite. If you stick to any one of my training challenges or plans and combine it with the meal plan suggestions, I am confident you will see those fit and lean (certainly not bulky!) results. You’ve got this, you sexy, strong babe!
I also wanted to share this selfie because it was taken just seconds after the one from above. In the top photo, I’m flexing every muscle fiber I’ve got and it could come off as “bulky” “big” “muscular.” Don’t let one photo fool you. No bulk here just some muscle that I’m darn proud of!
Great info. Can you elaborate more on how you set up your weight lifting splits/schedules? How do you determine which muscle groups to include in a certain workout? I know there are several ways to do this (push/pull, opposing muscle groups, same muscle group, upper/lower body, etc), just curious about your logic when it comes to determining which body parts and which exercises to include in a workout.
Hi Lauren, can you clarify how ‘heavy’ we should be lifting. I’m never quite sure how heavy I should go! Thanks
YES! SO often at my gym I’m the only girl in the free weights area. Its pretty much all men. All the women are doing ab exercises, or on cardio machines. Which is needed, but we also need muscles! Not only to be strong but also boosting our resting metabolism
Great post Lauren! I didn’t know the full scientific details you mentioned in the first part, about swelling. Super interesting! Love learning how our bodies work.