The first time I have new female clients even touch a kettlebell or move a dumbbell of more than 10 pounds, I often see their eyes widen with apprehension. I know that one of their primal body image fears is being triggered, and that a predictable, yet hesitant, request is soon to follow:
"I just don't want to get...bulky."
Their timid statement reveals the trap that women are caught in—pressure to be fit combined with conflicting pressure to be small.
However, what many women don't realize is that it's really hard for most women to get bulky, even using heavy weights. For most women, a bigger, "hulkier" size is just not in the cards genetically or hormonally.
Dramatic increase in muscle size in both men and women results from several of these factors, usually occurring simultaneously. It can come from significant intake of calories, especially protein, carefully programmed, extremely heavy lifting routines, or supplements.
Unless you're doing some combination of those three factors, it is more likely that your lifting regimen will help you fit into your skinny jeans, not put you up a size.
So how can you use weights to get the lean, strong physique you're after? Here are some general principles to keep in mind:
1. Keep an eye on your diet, especially if you increase your exercise.
I've seen it a hundred times with clients. As the exercise intensity increases, the amount and type of food disproportionately increases in tandem. But the workout gets blamed for the extra weight!
The additional calories that you burn by working out is, in reality, not very significant. If your goal is getting leaner, you need to focus on improving your overall diet with high-quality ingredients and portion control and stick to a moderate eating plan over time.
2. Push and pull in every direction.
In an effective workout, you need to incorporate movement in every direction against gravity. Many women (who typically didn't spend as much time in their high school gym as most of their male counterparts) feel lost in the weight room.
So, just think of moves as coming in "pairs" of opposing muscles.
Always try to visualize the muscle that you are working, and then do an exercise that works the opposite muscle. If you do bicep curls with dumbbells, for example, you need to pair that move with an exercise like overhead triceps extensions.
3. Aim for high difficulty between 8 and 12 repetitions of an exercise, and do 3 to 5 sets of each exercise.
This means that by the time you reach the 12th repetition of a move—let's use curls as an example again—you'll feel that you could simply not do another curl, even if your life depended on it. Once you've rested for a minute, however, you'll be ready to tackle another set.
This level of effort will stimulate muscle activation and muscle growth, which means a shapelier, leaner appearance over time.
4. Remember that you can't spot tone.
Doing 100 squats every day as your exclusive exercise will not burn fat directly from your thighs. Fat is distributed fairly evenly all over our bodies, and for women, there tend to be stubborn deposits around the thighs or belly that are the hardest to target.
If you want to tackle those "trouble spots," focus primarily on how you eat first, and let gym time be a balanced, full-body workout, not a "spot-toning" session. Patience and consistency will pay off in the long game as your entire body becomes leaner.
5. Don't watch the scale unless you are comfortable with the number possibly going up.
I actually recommend that my female clients do not weigh themselves regularly because the numbers on the scale are not just numbers. For many women, their weight is a toxic, emotional-hostage-taking symbol that they have internalized throughout their lives.
Because of the emotional priority that we as women place on the scale, we over-identify with that number instead of considering that maybe the weight we thought was "right" was not ideal for us after all.
Instead, I recommend using a measuring tape for bust/waist/hips, and (if there is access) a fat loss monitor. Both of these methods, in addition to changes in clothing size, are more reflective of goal achievement than the scale.