Will lifting weights make me "bulk up"?

Megan Dahlman
March 14, 2022

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"But, I'm gonna get huuuge!"

Have you ever felt hesitant to try "strength training" or "weight training" because you're afraid of bulking up? Many women hear about this type of training and immediately get a tinge of fear. "I don't want to get big!"

You might be surprised to hear that when I design workouts for women, I purposefully create strength training routines that are intended to build muscle mass. (Gasp!)

But wait...what exactly is muscle mass, and is it actually massive? Let's find out... ​

Muscle Mass

Muscle Mass is the amount of muscular tissue on your frame at any given time. Muscle tissue fibers are made up of particular proteins that are constantly working by contracting and relaxing. You have skeletal muscle (the muscle you think of like your biceps, abs, etc.), but you also have smooth muscle in your intestines and cardiac muscle in your heart.

Important to note: Muscle tissue cannot change forms (i.e. it cannot magically turn into fat tissue), but it can atrophy (break down) or hypertrophy (grow).

Several types of skeletal muscle fibers exist (Type 1, 2a, 2b and more), and these types vary in size, power and endurance capacity. I’m sure you’ve heard of fast twitch muscle fibers (these are types 2a and 2b). These ones are more powerful and tend to be a little larger in size than slow twitch muscle fibers (type 1). People who are very good at endurance sports like marathons and triathlons are likely to have a large percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers, which are smaller in size and made for the long haul. But everybody has both slow and fast twitch fibers. You can't have just one or the other.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

The amount and type of skeletal muscle tissue you carry is determined by your genetics and activity. Your genetics play the largest role, and that’s why we all look different, of course. For example, I have large deltoids and biceps, whether I workout or not. They never go away. I can lean up by getting rid of some of the overlying fat, which makes them look more “toned”, but I’ll never have slender arms.

Everyone in my family looks like this, too.My genetics have determined that I have more fast twitch muscle fibers, which are just bigger. On the flipside, my husband has slender limbs, like a distance runner, and has a really hard time carrying any muscular bulk on him. He probably has more slow twitch muscle fibers.

Your genetics also determine how much of the hormone testosterone you have in your body. Ever heard of steroids? Many performance enhancing drugs like steroids are testosterone derivatives. Increased testosterone enhances muscle growth.

Important to note: For us women, we simply do not have enough natural testosterone to grow large muscles, regardless of our genetic makeup. Our muscles will always have a size limit because of a lack of testosterone.

That's right, ladies. If you've been worried about bulking up, you can breathe a sigh of relief.


Your activity certainly helps determine if you have more muscle mass or not. If you never workout or apply any resistance to your muscles, they'll simply never grow... or even worse, they'll atrophy.

However, (and this is where most people are horribly misguided) the type of activity you perform does not create a certain look to your muscles. If you only do yoga, pilates, barre, run, etc., you won’t be creating long, lean muscles. And if you only lift massive weights, you won’t be creating big and bulky muscles. It just doesn’t work like this.

I ran for years hoping I could look like a lean marathoner. Instead, I was forcing my sprinter's body to run for miles, and I totally sucked at it. This body was not made for miles. I should have been spending my time with the dumbbells.

Nothing is happening.

Somewhere along the line, science got separated from practice, and we ended up with countless women pumping tiny pink weights for 30 or more reps. Also, more recently, women have been flocking to yoga and barre classes wanting to look like a dancer.

Will lifting weights make you bulk up? Get the real details on strength training, muscle mass, and how to really get

It’s true: these women never get “bulky” in these classes because NOTHING is really happening to their muscles. They're probably not getting any leaner, either. Without any true resistance, muscles just won't change at all. It's hard to even get stronger training this way. (Don't worry, I have nothing against yoga in particular. I personally practice yoga at least twice per week, but NOT to look lean. I like it for the balance, flexibility and recovery benefits.)

Lean and toned.

Most women I know want to look "lean and toned". They want to see their muscles but not be ripping through their shirts. They don't ever want to feel big or bulky, but want to feel slender and strong. So, how do you achieve this?

The number one factor is what your eating habits look like.

The difference between being lean and toned and big and bulky is how much body fat you carry. Eating well will encourage your fat stores to dwindle and your muscular tissue to become more visible. When you don't eat well, you are more likely to maintain a layer (or several!) of body fat that covers your muscles. Not sure if your eating habits measure up? Read this.

The second factor is to challenge your muscles with strength training.

Strength training, or resistance training, causes your muscles fibers to break down so they have to repair and regrow. Growing muscles sounds scary, but when they grow, you’ll actually be able to see your muscles, giving you that toned appearance you desire. Yes, you will have more muscle mass, but because you're eating well you will have less fat mass as well.

And in the end, you will look and feel toned.

Metabolism Boost.

The added benefit of more muscle mass is that it is very alive and active tissue--it takes energy to keep it going. So someone with more muscle on their body is chowing through more calories during the day than someone with less muscle. You will have a higher metabolism and therefore more likely to have less body fat. Muscles for the win!

Important to note: Having more muscle mass on your body is especially important as you age. In fact, it's one of the most important things for helping you navigate menopause.

Will lifting weights make you bulky?

Now you know that the answer is no. You will build muscle mass, but it's live, active tissue that increases your metabolism, makes you stronger, and helps you be truly lean.

Running, yoga, barre, walking, dancing, etc., barely come close to the amount of lean muscle tissue you create when you lift weights. These other practices are great for variety and cross-training, but don’t expect to be particularly lean and strong by doing them. There simply is just not enough resistance to challenge your muscles and encourage growth, even if you feel the burn by rep 100!

Side story: I once trained a client that pounded the pavement running nearly everyday and did yoga multiple times each week. She was flexible and had great running endurance, but carried about 20 pounds of extra fat that she could never get rid of. After starting a good strength training and nutrition regimen, she started to build some muscle mass and actually lose body fat!

So, don’t be afraid to grab some real dumbbells and do some actual squats and push-ups. You won't get bulky, I promise. You will probably find that you notice your fat start to disappear and your muscles become more visible. I guarantee you’ll also like the added benefit of feeling STRONG and capable, not wimpy. If you're a newbie to this whole weights thing, this beginner dumbbell routine is a great place to start.

​Be strong, momma!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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