wshaffer (wshaffer) wrote,
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On Women, Weight Lifting, and the Dreaded Bulk

Nearly everything you read on the subject of women's weight training starts off by reassuring women that if they lift weights, they won't get bulky. Apparently, fear of bulk is keeping women out of the weight room in droves.


One thing that irks me about this kind of discussion is how seldom it directly addresses the perspective of women who are fat. (One notable exception is Miriam Nelson's Strong Women Stay Slim, which specifically addresses strength training for weight loss.) When someone says to me, "Don't worry, you won't get bulky," my response is, "Look, I started out bulky. Strength training offers me the opportunity to express some of that bulk as muscle rather than fat. Don't be so eager to take that away from me!" (Conversely, I knew I'd picked the right personal trainer when he said to me, "Sorry, you don't have the testosterone to put on a huge amount of muscle mass, but we'll put a few pounds of muscle on you.")

Another thing that's interesting is that these discussions almost always assume that the feared bulkiness is that possessed by female body-builders, who only manage to look the way they do by virtue of genetics, intense training, strict diet, and the use of anabolic steroids.

Personal trainer Leigh Peele decided to go a step further and actually ask a bunch of women what they meant by "too bulky". I recommend going and reading all three of her blog posts on the subject (links below), but to summarize, she asked a large number of women to evaluate photos of popular actresses and other celebrities according to their bulkiness.

To summarize the results:

  • Roughly 3/4 of the respondents said that they didn't find muscles on women attractive, and didn't think that men found muscles on women attractive either.

  • Women with much more modest muscular development than your average female bodybuilder were singled out by a large portion of respondents as being "bulky" and "unnatractive". (Jessica Biel and Hilary Swank as she looked in the movie "Million Dollar Baby" were two of the names singled out here that I actually sorta recognized.)

  • Both level of muscular development and level of bodyfat influenced the perception of bulkiness. Big muscles with a moderate level of bodyfat were perceived as bulky, but so were smaller muscles at lower levels of bodyfat that made muscle definition visible. The most desireable look was "lean but soft".



Links to the full blog posts here:


Not really the results I'd have predicted. Personally, I think women can be attractive at a whole range of body types, including fat, thin, muscular, or in-between. In terms of my own body, I like the way it looks with more muscle (to the extent that I've been able to develop any), and I think that will probably be true for any level of muscle mass I can realistically expect to attain. (I don't find the bodybuilder look particularly attractive on either men or women, but as noted above, nobody ends up looking that way without trying really really hard.) And most of the women that I've talked to about fitness seem to feel much the same way - some of them can envision some level of muscular development that they would find "unfeminine" on themselves, but I haven't encountered the "eew, visible muscles" attitude that these blog posts suggest is prevalent.
Tags: fitness, picking up heavy objects
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