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I recently read an article about a guy who trains many models and actresses and he states that women shouldn't be lifting weights above 5 pounds, and not doing cardio such as spinning, because doing so will cause you to look bigger:

None of the classes use dumbbells heavier than three to five pounds. "I think that what we always try to achieve is a long, lean, toned body," Kirsch explains. "Models don't want to look jacked. When they’re in a bra and panties, we want to make sure nothing jiggles."

Is there truth to his claims? What are the scientific facts? Is there anything correct about the idea that lifting weights heavier than 5lbs is inappropriate for women?

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Five pounds?! What rubbish. –  Dave Newton Jun 6 '12 at 15:14
    
What do you mean by bulk? And are you asking about lifting heavy? Or are you asking about lifting 5 lbs? –  user3085 Jun 8 '12 at 17:56
    
I think any good answer to this question is going to have to, as Stephanie's answer does, address the varying meanings of "bulk". To some it means "any muscle" or "anything not frail", lending women towards anorexia, to others it means "like a bodybuilder", and to still others it means "getting significantly bigger in the shoulders". The latter two give much more leeway in terms of appropriate programming. –  Dave Liepmann Jun 8 '12 at 20:24
    
love the hollywood/movie trainers... the bull that comes out of their mouth for optimal aesthetic appearance is literally LMFAO –  Andreas Jun 15 '12 at 18:13
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There is a certain look that these trainers are trying to give the models. They want the proportions to match that look. Big squats will give you big glutes--but they will be fit, not flabby. It's just outside the aesthetic for runway models. A shame. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 11 '12 at 15:12
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8 Answers

He's correct about the effects of lifting heavy. Lifting heavy will help you build muscle.

However, he's incorrect when he says you shouldn't lift heavy, and he's incorrect calling 5lbs heavy.

If you lift heavy, you'll get stronger, burn fat, build muscle, and look good.

Whether or not you'll look bigger (assuming that's what you mean by "bulk") depends on your starting point. If you're fat, lifting heavy will make you not fat. If you're skinny, lifting heavy will make you not skinny. In both cases, I'd call that an improvement.

To respond to Dave's requests for examples:

  • Here's a story of a woman who has focused solely on powerlifting as a sport and has lost 85 pounds as a result.

  • Here's another woman who is really into lifting and speaks against the myth that lifting will make her look like a guy.

In both cases, they've burned fat and gained muscle.

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I think you're missing two crucial components here: volume and diet. The fact that the weights are heavy is almost irrelevant compared to those two factors. Triples at 90% of 1RM with normal caloric intake is dramatically different re: mass and body comp from 5x5 at 80% of 1RM with a hefty caloric surplus and GOMAD. –  Dave Liepmann Jun 8 '12 at 19:35
    
Well, for sure, diet needs to be appropriate to one's goals, but the question seems clearly focused on whether or not lifting can help you build muscle and whether or not that's something to be avoided. I'm just answering their question rather than providing a complete training/nutrition program. –  user3085 Jun 8 '12 at 20:08
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Simple answer: no, that's a myth.

More specifically: it can be confusing what different people mean by 'bulk' or 'bulking up'. So the answer to 'Will women get bulky if they lift more than 5 lbs weights?' can be yes or no, depending on what their definition of 'bulk' is. But bottomline, by most definitions, and in the opinion of various top trainers and women themselves, the answer is that the notion that "I'll get too bulky" is a myth. A myth constantly and sadly pushed at women seeking fitness.

The scientific facts about building muscle on women are the same as that for men, taking into consideration the different hormone profiles, for one thing. If a person lifts heavier weights, rest and provide adequate nutrition, a woman as well as a man will get stronger, which usually means larger muscles.

The cautions against 'bulking up' for women is not an issue of science, but an issue of personal or industry-specific aesthetic tastes. What is bulky to one person's taste is merely a slight bit of muscle definition to another. The man in the article you cite trains fashion models primarily -- they have a particular aesthetic in their industry and they could lose work if they show more than a slight bit of definition. Fitness modeling is, obviously, a different part of the industry and women would certainly need to train harder to reach the aesthetic preferences of their trade.

As for the common woman, many mainstream magazines constantly print articles that caustion against 'bulking' -- but none of them, in my experience, ever mean the same thing as far as size or shape. The great myth in women's fitness (this from lifelong personal experience, working with trainers, talking to other women, and from much reading in magazines, online and books) is that merely picking up a weight heavier than 5lbs or 3 kg will turn you into Ms Olympia overnight. It is a hard myth to defeat and it is constantly pumped into women's (and some men's) minds. But the facts are that, for women or men, to get big you must lift heavy, rest and eat right -- and that 5 lbs is not heavy. 10 lbs is not heavy. And muscle isn't built overnight and 'bulky' won't happen, despite what most women's mag articles say, just by lifting weights heavier than 5 lbs:

As Lou Schuler writes in The New Rules of Lifting for Women:

... it's really hard to put on muscle size, it never happens by accident, and every bit of it is a sign of success against all odds. And that's with all the hormonal advantages that nature gives to men. Meanwhile, women, naturally deprived of the amounts of testosterone that would make muscle-building a more straightforward pursuit, worry endlessly about adding so much muscle.... So this brings me to the fourth dirty word [of women's weight training]: bulky. As in 'I don't want to get too bulky.'

I'll say this as simply as I can: Unless you're an extreme genetic outlier, you can't get too bulky."

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Women will build muscle if they lift heavy. –  user3085 Jun 7 '12 at 16:57
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Yes, but 5lbs (or anything in that vicinity) is not heavy. And building muscle does not automatically equal the term 'bulky' - a larger muscle is not by definition a 'bulky' one. And what women are being cautioned against when they are told "you'll get bulky" is really "you'll build muscle and look like a man" -- that is a myth. Women do not have the natural hormonal makeup to build muscle the size/shape & get the look of men. They will not 'get bulky'/'become manly' just by lifting heavier than 5 lbs. –  user3495 Jun 7 '12 at 18:44
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Well said. Its such an insult to guys like me that work very hard in the gym with a perfect diet to put on 200 grams of muscle a week. I get pinch tested every week and if I'm slack in the gym, I don't put on any muscle. Its that simple. Looking around at the way most people train, my version of "slack" still exceeds the way most people train. IMHO most bodies, especially female, are tightly regulated by natural hormones and your body won't let you get too bulky (without drugs). Our bodies are an amazing machine. –  Mike S Jun 12 '12 at 23:58
    
That bodybuilder bulky look is done on purpose, and really is only seen when the woman drops to ridiculously low body fat levels. If a woman has a six pack, they are on a razor thin edge to having too little body fat to be healthy. Anything 18% and higher body fat, you will always look feminine. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 11 '12 at 15:10
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Lifting heavy isn't enough

The idea that lifting heavy weights by itself causes bulk is a myth. Understanding why is more complicated. First, let's address the specific claim at issue, that women need to stick to 5-pound weights. Kathleen Ekdahl points out that five pounds is too light to even count as weights!

In order to avoid this gain in muscle mass, women are told to lift very light weights. This recommendation is oftentimes interpreted to the extreme, and women perform many repetitions with 3 or 5 pound weights. Unfortunately, without sufficient load (weight), the muscle will not change, and the goal of "tone" and "shape" cannot be achieved. A change in the shape or tone of a muscle is created in the same way that size is created, with hard work and consistency!! In order to shape or tone your muscle, you must lift a weight that is heavy enough to create muscle fatigue (also known as failure). Working your muscles to fatigue means that your muscles refuse to lift/move the weight in a correct and safe fashion. Working your muscles to fatigue will not necessarily create large, unsightly muscle mass. Even if you work your muscles to extreme fatigue, rest assured, that the majority of women are genetically unable to create large muscles because they lack sufficient hormones or body structure to do so.

It's really hard to get huge muscles and look like a professional bodybuilder. If it were easy, more guys at the gym would be sporting forty-inch biceps. Unless you're trying specifically to get bigger and bulkier, it's unlikely that it'll happen by accident. More likely, lifting heavy weights will burn fat and build size-appropriate muscle. These young women lifting heavy weights don't seem concerned about supposed problems with bulkiness, right?

In Practical Programming, Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore sum up the issue well, next to a photo of one of their young female trainees:

Women are more likely to believe that weight training is unimportant to health and sports performance than men. There is also a social and media-driven misconception that all weight training produces big, masculine, muscle-bound physiques. This generally does not occur in women without anabolic steroids.

"Tone"

Women are generally steered towards low-weight, high-repetition "toning" exercise routines. The New York Times reviewed the science and came to the conclusion that "for better tone, try fewer reps and more challenging weights."

Rippetoe and Kilgore explain the fact that the low-weight, high-rep exercise routines typically marketed to women are just ineffective hypertrophy programs. In other words, they're designed to make bigger muscles (which is the opposite of what these women want), and they don't even a good job of it:

The modern fitness industry's concept of "toning" muscles is specious--it might sound cool, but it lacks any tangible and definable meaning. The term "muscle tone," or tonus, describes an electrophysiological phenomenon, a measure of ionic flow across muscle cell membranes.... Lack of exercise leads to poor tone, aerobic exercise improves tone a little bit, low-intensity weight training improves tone more, and high-intensity training improves tone the fastest.... Most exercise programs that claim to improve muscle tone are actually lower-intensity hypertrophy programs and are only moderately effective for improving muscle tone. If "tone" is the goal, strength is the method.

Many women have discovered that strength training is the path to what they consider to be "tone". Heavy strength training can allow someone to stay the same weight while dramatically changing their body composition from fat to muscle.

More important factors

Whether the barbell is loaded heavy is almost irrelevant compared to diet and volume. Eating big and high-weight, high-volume programs will get you bigger in a hurry. Eating a caloric deficit, or at caloric maintenance, plus a low-volume high-weight program, will get you a great deal stronger but not add mass. Triples at 90% of 1RM with normal caloric intake is dramatically different for mass and body composition from 5 sets of 5 at 80% of 1RM with a hefty caloric surplus and a gallon of milk a day.

Tim Kontos, David Adamson, and Sarah Walls at EliteFTS address the importance of volume, as part of a broader attempt to dispel the myths that keep women away from lifting weights:

Muscle bulk comes from a high volume of work. The repetition range that most women would prefer to do (8–20 reps) promotes hypertrophy (muscle growth). For example, a bodybuilding program will have three exercises per body part. For the chest, they will do flat bench for three sets of 12, incline for three sets of 12, and decline bench for three sets of 12. This adds up to 108 total repetitions. A program geared towards strength will have one exercise for the chest—flat bench for six sets of three with progressively heavier weight. This equals 18 total repetitions. High volume (108 reps) causes considerable muscle damage, which in turn, results in hypertrophy. The considerably lower volume (18 reps) will build more strength and cause minimal bulking.

Heavy weights will promote strength not size. This has been proven time and time again. When lifting weights over 85 percent, the primary stress imposed upon the body is placed on the nervous system, not on the muscles. Therefore, strength will improve by a neurological effect while not increasing the size of the muscles.

Emphasis mine.

Examples

Reddit's /r/fitness subreddit is pretty dedicated to showing before-and-after examples of women who engage in heavy-lifting strength programs. Here's one. Sometimes those anecdotes are of the form "it worked for me", but occasionally women are unhappy with their results. Sometimes that's because heavy lifting didn't work, but just as often it's that the program worked as expected, but the woman simply considered the results to be negative.

JCD Fitness has some longer takes on the issue that make great use of women's personal stories. One of the points brought up there, as well as on reddit, is that marketing messages have effectively brought body image issues into the problem. At bottom, everyone has a different definition of "bulky", and sometimes women really do want to look like an undernourished model at her peak of starvation and airbrushing. In those cases, radical weight-loss programs really would be the best path to achieve those (possibly problematic) goals, and lifting weights and otherwise doing impressive things might not be the right approach.

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Excellent answer - especially the stuff the the ambiguity of the 'tone' word. –  Mike S Jun 13 '12 at 0:42
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With all due respect for Doctors, researchers and professional trainers, and i do not claim to be more knowledgeable at all but...The thing with researches is that, in my humble opinion, there are too many of them and one contradicts the other. For instance, some researches say eating fat will make you fat while others say the complete opposite. Some researches say you should have a low carb diet to loose fat, other researches will say differently, etc..

I will answer you based on common logic and things we notice in our everyday lives, some facts:

  • Women do not have as much testosterone and growth hormone as men thus they do not gain the same amount of muscle mass and as quickly as men do.
  • if you check the professional - steroid saturated - female bodybuilders, which should be the most muscled female types; even them they don't have huge upper bodies and muscle mass (even steroid has limited effect on women) as do steroid saturated male bodybuilders.
  • Women do gain strength and muscles but will never become bulky. As mentioned in the previous point comparing with steroid female bodybuilders, if they barely manage to become "huge" then there is no fear for the regular non steroid female bodybuilder.
  • Both males and females gain/lose muscles the same way, thus there is no need to have a different method of training (ie women can lift weights) and there is no fear of becoming bulky for the reasons mentioned above.

In the article you mentioned, the trainer is dealing with models and actresses, and thus it may be that he doesn't want any smallest detail of definition on their bodies. But between that and bulk there is a huge difference.

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It may or may not, some women that lift for size to get bulkier then other women, lots of genetics at work here. In general a woman won't get as bulky as a man without outside help (i.e. steroids) since the higher the testosterone level (which females tend to lack) the greater the muscle growth

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Care to elaborate on why you think so? –  Ivo Flipse Jun 11 '12 at 18:28
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Besides the general lack of testosterone in females? –  Wayne In Yak Jun 11 '12 at 23:02
    
Well that's pretty general knowledge, how the difference in testosterone affects muscle growth apparently not, so I would encourage you to elaborate on that –  Ivo Flipse Jun 12 '12 at 8:12
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Besides that the higher the testosterone level the greater the muscle growth? –  Wayne In Yak Jun 12 '12 at 14:49
    
@WayneInML Editing your answer to add the information in your comments would be swell. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 10 '12 at 18:49
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A woman with long muscle bellies might find they bulk up more than they'd like doing heavy lifting as they have a greater potential for muscle size. One of my exes had a tendency to bulk up quite easily (even without weights), while her brother remained skinny as a rail. I didn't know about the effect of muscle bellies at the time, but I suspect that's probably what allowed her to bulk up like that.

So in the very few instances that a woman has long muscle bellies, lifting heavy would cause her to bulk up. As a result, there's a smidgeon of truth to the belief. That said, most women do not have long muscle bellies.

This is also useful info for men with bodybuilding aspirations - if you have long muscle bellies, your bodybuilding potential is great. If you have short muscle bellies, you can forget about any dreams of being a champion bodybuilder - even with steroids you won't be able to come close to a natural bodybuilder with long muscle bellies.

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I'm a woman, and all I can say is I lift 3 lbs some days, 5 lbs most days, and 8-10 lbs other days, and lift 20 lbs using my legs on the lying leg curl machine, and it feels wonderful. I can't speak to "bulking up". It has not happened to me yet. But in two weeks of free weights I can feel and see bicep, forearm and back definition that simply was not there before, and those cut lines are beautiful. I think if I challenge myself but stay within these constraints bulking won't be a problem and these gorgeous new muscles will continue looking feminine. I am so in love with my gym and with endorphins right now - exercise is crazy fun.

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Is there truth to his claims? Not really. But it's a common belief.

What are the scientific facts? None.

Is there anything correct about the idea that lifting heavy weights is inappropriate for women? Physiologically not really. Socially/psychologically I think so.

What I think is that most women don't like to do 8-10 reps pushing to muscle failure whereas guys do.

If a trainer gives a low-rep heavy-weight program to a woman, she will probably not like it and not stick to it. She might also be intimidated if she needs to train in the weight room with many big sweaty and smelly men and no other women.

If the trainer gives a woman a high-reps low-weight program, she is more likely to stick to it and at the end get better results. Women also prefer group exercise classes like bodypump.

Many people think that if they do a low-rep heavy-weight program where they work out 2-3 times a week, they'll end up big and bulky like a pro body builder.

That's just not going to happen. A pro female body builder...

  • is genetically more able to gain muscle mass than the average person
  • trains like crazy
  • diets like crazy (reducing fat levels to potentially dangerous levels)
  • often takes steroids, hormones and other drugs
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Do you have any sources for your claims? –  Baarn Jan 3 '13 at 23:12
    
Which claims? I have said a few things. I don't have a link to a peer-reviewed journal article for every statement I made, If that's what you want. –  Dani D Jan 3 '13 at 23:22
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Well it would be nice if you had ;) You say there are no scientific facts. For me this implies that research you know of has been done that couldn't show anything like this. Actually I don't think you even have to do research, just compare Models and female Fitness Instructors. Their physique differs greatly, even if the latter group were only doing 'bodypump' style classes. In the first case it is a matter of the preference of the Fashion-Industry, in the second it's personal preference. –  Baarn Jan 3 '13 at 23:38
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