I'm in a rather weird situation here. I've been doing weights for about a year; it's been going well due to a good trainer (my brother), good attitude and suchlike. I've been able to keep going 4 days a week with very few hitches other than intense work periods such as examinations. I do my whole body, chest & arms, legs, shoulders, back, over the week. For brevity purposes, I normally do about 8-10 reps of whatever exercise, and i have definitely gotten stronger - for instance, going from ~40kg to about 70kg on bench over the past few months. Tone has increased, pectorals now visible, adonis' belt, toned legs etc. It's going well... Or rather, has been up until recently.

The truth is that I've been having some gender issues for quite a while. They've been skulking in the background since a few years ago, but they've really snowballed this year (since around July 2013), even more so in the past couple of months. I started my weight training in September last year. It's helped considerably with my depression; I've always wanted to be able to train, but when i was younger i had massive psychological trouble doing it, and now it's easy for me. However, despite my growing desire to look like a girl, I've kept up the upper-body exercises which don't exactly help with that (I'm not terribly girly naturally), because:

  • I don't want to undo my hard work, even though I'm not sure if I want it any more... Strength is helpful (I do other sports like boxing and fencing), and even though it's not how i want to look now, it does look good on a guy, and I was definitely proud of it. I'm aware this is probably a good example of sunk cost fallacy, but still, it's interfering with my decision making.

  • It's only been recently (i.e. within the past couple of months) that I've really felt a very strong dissatisfaction with my body. Last year, I wanted to feel girly, but I didn't mind my arms as much. I just liked dressing in girl's clothing and using makeup and things like that. I didn't really think about trying to pass as much as now, since I still very much thought of myself as a guy, and I wasn't sure if this was just a phase or if I was serious about this or whether I was going to be more serious about this in the future; I did plan on getting a corset so my waist would be narrower, but I didn't dare consider dropping my arm workout because I was already in a very good - but rigid - routine, and I felt it didn't affect my appearance that much anyway (compared to other things). However, now I keep looking at photographs of myself and getting upset at how my upper body looks; my arms look bulky, chest too large, it just doesn't look girly at all. And that's even before I think about my face, but that's another issue entirely.

  • I'm also currently training with my brother (he wasn't here for most of the year, but he's back now), and I don't want to drop half my workout entirely in front of him; I wouldn't want him to feel disappointed or something.

This is starting to become really stressful for me, partially because it involves such a hard decision, as one can see above. As time goes on, any sort of transition will become harder, other things may come up, and in any case there will be more progress wasted if i do stop it (the upper body workout that is) entirely. I'd rather start making progress towards my preferred look as soon as possible, but it's deadlocked by this indecision.

However, further research has shown me that muscle strength without increasing bulk is possible (low reps, high weight). Personally I think this would be a good compromise for now; I wouldn't feel as if I'd lost progress if I kept up my strength, and I need my arms to be in good shape anyway (for boxing). I've asked around and apparently if i were to start going for entirely strength building - i.e. building muscle itself rather than sarcoplasm, which is what increases the size iirc - my exterior would simply cease to grow, rather than becoming smaller... Which is of course undesirable.

I should also point out that I will probably be going on hormonal treatment at some time in the future which will of course inhibit muscle growth (reducing testosterone), but I'm not sure what effect it'll have on current muscles.

Does my idea about reducing size while retaining some strength hold water? Are there any other ways of reducing size while keeping some progress? Am I going about this the complete wrong way? Do I need to just stop everything entirely? Am I just another victim of sunk cost fallacy? Please help, I am getting very stressed about this and I really don't know enough about the ins-and-outs of this to make a decision in a timeframe I'd like, especially since it's a rather quaint situation created by rapid change of circumstances.

  • 1
    Hey there... I was (and still am) pretty much in the same situation, although I'm quite a bit more down the road regarding gender-issues. I don't feel overly qualified to answer your concrete question, but I'd be happy to share my experiences. My e-mail is in my profile, feel free to get in touch. (sorry for miss-using the comments everyone, but it's damn hard to get in touch with people on this site.)
    – user8119
    Jun 13, 2014 at 6:50
  • I would highly recommend you talk with people (Such as @LarissaGodzilla) that have the same issues, and possibly a mental health professional to guide you through this. Unfortunately, I think this is more an attitude/approach rather than a physical problem. I wish you luck with your quest.
    – JohnP
    Jun 13, 2014 at 14:21

2 Answers 2


Generally, it's possible to get stronger without building muscle once you reach a certain point. The problem is, to reach that point, you'd probably still build muscle and get bigger. Also, please view this answer as a theoretical rambling instead of a recommended course of action.

Theoretical ramblings:
First off, you don't need to gain size to gain strength. Strength depends on multiple factors of which muscle size (and therefore amount of muscle fibers) is only one. Others are intra-muscular coordination and motor unit recruitment among others. This is why even if you keep muscle size constant, your ability to lift heavy stuff can increase. It's much harder to do, obviously and progress will slow down considerably.

The other problem with that approach is that your body will want to build more muscle to be able to meet the stress you put it under. This can only be prevented by not giving your body the building blocks it'd need to do that. So if you don't provide a caloric surplus your body can't possibly build anything in the long term.

Short term, your body can however utilize stored body fat to a certain degree. Your body would have to decide what's more important and would, to a certain degree, build muscle from fat until you reach a point where it decides that both are equally important.

From that point on, you wouldn't be able to build new muscle without a caloric surplus. However, do keep in mind that at that point you'd be considerably lean and muscular, which is probably exactly the one thing you wouldn't want.

Ways to get there:
The first approach would be starting from zero. You could lose muscle first, by not working out for a few months and keep a quite strict diet, which would maybe, just maybe, allow you to get stronger from there without building much muscle in the process. You'd start pretty much from the beginning, though, with no guarantee that you'd not get huge again.

The second approach I can think of is dieting down without losing much strength. This will, even more than the first approach, get rid of body fat first and muscle later. It would allow you to keep your strength, to a certain degree. This is basically a normal bodybuilding diet, but you'd accept the muscle loss instead of seeking to prevent it.

If by "looking girly" you mean soft, without much visible muscles, I fear that can't be done while keeping and/or gaining strength. If you look up some of the top CrossFit ladies, though, you'll notice they do look athletic (and are strong) without sacrificing much of their femininity, in my opionion. Depending on genetics and how HRT is laid out, it could be possible to get close to that look. It won't be easy, though, and there's no guarantee that it'll work.

  • Thank you very much. A couple of things I would like to bring up though: You mentioned that muscle size is one factor in strength. However, my research has told me that high mass with low reps increases the muscle density without boosting strength, while medium mass will build sarcoplasm, leading to hypertrophy. Is there anyway I could maximise the former while keeping hypertrophy to a minimum? Secondly, I wouldn't mind too much looking athletic, as long as I wasn't visibly bulky. I think athletic is a good look; I guess the dysphoria would reduce if other factors (e.g. face) weren't as bad. Jun 18, 2014 at 8:27
  • Also, if I began hormones while keeping up a similar pattern, would my muscles reduce in size? Would there be any way of gauging this so strength and endurance aren't lost too much while size dropped, given these new circumstances? Jun 18, 2014 at 8:32
  • Muscle size will increase much less if you do heavy weights for 1-5 reps. By keeping the volume down (low reps) the muscles won't get that much of a signal to grow. You won't be able to erase hypertrophy, but a low overall volume should keep growth to a minimum. Regarding hormones, that's a complicated thing and depends on the specific medication and a lot of other factors. I wouldn't trust anyone but a specialist to answer those questions. As for gauging strength and endurance you could keep track of benchmarks like 1RM, the time you need to run 4000m etc. and see how they change.
    – user8119
    Jun 18, 2014 at 8:40
  • I see. That makes sense; just to clarify, if I were to leave training for a while and let my muscles reduce in size, then restart on high mass-low reps, they would remain relatively small while getting stronger, but if I were to start that now without giving them time to atrophy, the hypertrophy would remain? Jun 18, 2014 at 9:51
  • It would depend largely on your diet. If you eat a caloric surplus, I'm pretty sure your muscles would at least remain as big as they are. If you restrict calories they could become smaller, depending on how big the deficit is. Generally, though, high intensity lends itself especially well to keeping muscle mass even when dieting, so I'm not sure if you'll be able to actually lose muscle size this way.
    – user8119
    Jun 18, 2014 at 10:00

I wish you the best of luck with everything. The first problem I see is that you have your idea of increasing strength without building bulk is skewed. Low reps and high weight is for powerlifting. You WILL get bigger. If you want to sculpt your muscles try pushing out 12-15 reps or even 15-20 depending on the exercise and body part. You can increase your strength withoutI used adding size. I used to be a competitive bodybuilder and changing the reps and weight is one way to work on your body proportions leading up to a competition. Once you start hormone therapy I am sure that will have an affect on your looks as well. I hope this helps. It has always worked for me. I don't compete any more, but I do still work out and use this technique.

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