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Can Women Get ‘Too’ Bulky?

Originally posted in March of 2008

This is a big topic in the athletic world, and the general consensus among my colleagues and peers is a resounding no. It likes to be said that because women don’t have enough testosterone they should quit worrying about getting bulky and start lifting HEAVY weights, yet my entire (and very successful) business has been built on the premise that they can get too muscular. I have created programming that assures that my girls, while looking fit, won’t come off as overly buff or ripped. So what gives? How can the majority of some of the top fitness professionals believe it is a myth that women can get too muscular, much like before Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile it was believed to be physically impossible to do. This is a topic I am so passionate about, that I recently gave my first ever presentation on the subject.

During my seminar I broke down the secrets I use to get my clients in the shape that I call ‘Red Carpet Ready’

I think that the confusion lies with not clearly understanding the word “too.” According to Webster’s dictionary, the adverb “too” means: more than desirable, more of an amount or degree of something than is desired, necessary or fitting. Frankly I think this explains things perfectly. It means the term “too muscular” is subjective to the person desiring the muscle and not the person doing the programming.

Maybe not for her, but too big for my clients?  Probably.

Maybe not for her, but too big for my clients? Probably.

Here’s a comparison: I am a novice surfer. I have the basics down but I will not be going out on the tour anytime soon. While I know how to catch a wave, I get very scared when the waves are “too big.” My instructor often laughs at what I consider “too big.” More skilled surfers wouldn’t waste their time on the waves I take because they could be considered “too small.” So who’s right? Does it matter to me that they say it can’t be considered to big unless the wave is overhead or the swell has a certain amount of volume or intensity? No, because once the waves hit shoulder height I’m sitting on the beach.

Phenomonal athlete, but is she 'too' bulky?

Phenomonal athlete, but is she 'too' bulky?

One more example. I love to look at the magazines and see what the stars are wearing. Sometimes I think “wow, her clothing is too revealing” other times I think, “she dresses too conservatively.” Am I right? I am sure the person in question thinks they look nice and really, who am I to judge?

So the next time your client, girlfriend or fellow gym goer says “I’m afraid of lifting weights because I don’t’ want to get too big,” please don’t tell her she is being ridiculous. Instead, ask her what that means to her. Better yet, get her to show you pictures of what body type she likes and what she thinks isn’t right for her. She has her reasons and it just might open your eyes.

What do you think?  Can women get TOO bulky?  Leave your comments below.

For more information on how I get my clients in shape WITHOUT the extra bulk that many programs provide:  Visit Red Carpet Ready and I Want My Bikini Body!


  • valerie on Jun 22, 2009 Reply

    Hi Amber,

    I saw Leigh’s article. I was going to post a follow up to mine and then I saw her’s. She said just about everything I wanted to say, only better. She is so articulate. Clearly, this is information that needs to be heard. Thank you so much for your post!!


  • Amber on Jun 22, 2009 Reply

    Great article Valerie. I think this is a conversation that can never really end because everyone has varying opinions. It’s almost like politics. Thanks for putting out such great information.

    J.- I just wanted to let you know that Leigh Peele put up a follow up article regarding to the survey I thought you might find it interesting.

  • valerie Waters on Jun 21, 2009 Reply

    Hi Tracy,

    Red Carpet Ready will definitely help you get those benefits. If you are already pretty fit, then you might want to do the bikini body program. The diet is the same but the workouts are a little more intense than RCR. Not with heavier weights but with the cardio aspect of the circuits.


  • Tracey on Jun 19, 2009 Reply

    Hi Val,
    I personally don’t want to eat a ton of calories or train like a bodybuilder,but want to lift weights to change my shape and get the bone building benefit..what program is best for me? Does Red Carpet Ready fit that requirement??
    Look forward to hearing from you!

  • J. on Jun 19, 2009 Reply

    Leigh’s survey was flawed because of the limited choices of answers. She only used 4 possible examples of body types of celebrities when asking what do they define as bulky out of those choices. She didn’t include any really bulky examples of woman or fitness models or body builders etc. Sure, of course Jessica Biel is bulkier then Jessica Alba, but that doesn’t mean that Biel is what most woman think of when they think “too bulky”.

    I agree with her though that it’s more that woman are afraid of “plumping” rather then “bulking”. It takes a LOT of work and time to really bulk huge muscles. It doesn’t take much time at all though to build a little muscle under the fat and thus achieve a “plumping” effect where you don’t fit into your pants anymore. What most women don’t realize though and have the patients to see out, is that it is a temporary effect, and if they keep going and then go on a fat loss – leaning out phase they will eventually shrink back down in size, but with a higher muscle to fat ratio, etc. Of course it depends on body type, but I do see some very defined woman who are into heavy weights and sculpting their bodies who are not huge in size and thickness. Like Zuzana – and Jennifer Nicole Lee –
    Jennifer says in her videos to never work the obliques and also that as a beginner if you don’t have much muscle to begin with to lift heavy, but then as soon as you get to the level of muscle development that you want to switch to high rep. muscle endurance instead so you stop building and stop getting bigger then where you want to be. Makes sense to me. Wherever that is for the individuals preference.

  • Jennie on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I know women can get to bulky. I bulk very easily and my legs are the ones that bulk the most. I’m not fat but my legs are huge and its mostly muscle. I’ve tried to de-bulk but nothing is working. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to do that?

  • Valerie Waters on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    My friend Leigh Peele wrote an article a few days ago about this topic as well.. it was just pointed out to me!

  • Valerie Waters on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Whew! So many great comments! I would like to make a few things very clear and then I will have a follow up blog post in couple days describing some of my thoughts about training.

    One- I am not making a judgement on anyone or the physique they desire. If you like a athletic look (as I did when I was younger) or what some might call a “Pilates” body or you like to feel skinny or you are working to love your body where it is, I am okay with all of it. I just believe there are different training protocols for different looks.

    Two- The blanket statement “women can’t get too muscular or too bulky” should be removed from trainers vocabulary. I get emails from women every week attesting to the fact that some can and do.

    Three- I am fully aware that diet plays a big role in the “bulky” look.

    Four- Some women can lift heavy weights and still struggle with gaining muscle, while others with a different genetic makeup seem to get bigger looking at the squat rack.

    Five- I do believe women need to lift weights. I use a variety of rep ranges, a variety of weights and I love body weight exercise and exercises done on 1 leg.

    My programs work and I don’t have to use heavy weights (which doesn’t mean sometimes I might) to get the results my clients seek. With that said, other programs work too. I think the key is to listen more closely to the client and be open minded about the most effective way to get there.

  • Sandra on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I totally agree on getting too bulky. I do have fat in my lower half that I need to get rid of, sure, but I can tell you that even from doing the elliptical with a little resistance, in 2 weeks time I can no longer fit in my pants. Not cool. My upper body is small but my legs bulk up pretty quick, sure if I lose fat I would look leaner but I don’t need to get bigger legs while waiting for the fat to melt down. Just my personal experience.

  • Debra Charych on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I agree with all of the above comments also from personal experience. Right now I’m about 15-20 lbs. overweight, although according to the charts I am at the high end of acceptable for my height. I know friends who start weight/resistance training and immediately lose fat and tone. I just seem to build muscle under the layer of fat that all ready exists! The good side is that I have pretty decent muscle tone without doing anything, but I care about strengthening my bones. So the question is ~ how do I get leaner? Is it mostly the right nutrition? That’s another confusing issue. Give up carbs? Give up fat? Watch portions? What is the “right” way to do things????? Help Val….

  • Jo on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I am too bulky!! I love to be fit and have muscle definition, but would love to lose some muscle and fat to have a leaner shape. I use weights as I am told they are the fastest way to burn calories,and they seem to be giving me strength,but I would love to have a more feminine, willowy physique. Perhaps we are just born with a genetic blueprint and changing it is difficult? I have had big quads and calves since being a sporty child,and now as I age I find the weight is settling on thighs and tummy making me look even chunkier……any tips to lose the bulk, but keep some strength and definition??

  • Allison on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I absolutely agree that women can get to bulky, and I speak from personal experience. I remember in high school conditioning class, my lifting partner and I were about the same height, but she weighed about 100 lbs. and I weighed about 130 lbs. For 3 months, we did the exact same workout every day. I bulked up and she didn’t – at the end, it was amazing how much she could lift considering that she had very little visible muscle tone and was just plain skinny.

    I have no problem easily putting on muscle, which would be great if I were a guy. My boyfriend (who is tall and skinny) laments the fact that he can’t make his legs bigger. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m genetically designed to be a bodybuilder (stocky might be the right adjective) and can lift for just 2 weeks and see definition. I would love to hear how to avoid this… I’m guessing the answer is the standard high reps, low resistance, lots of cardio?

  • Mona on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    The lady that produces more testosterone than the average woman is more an exception than the rule. As a personal trainer, I see many body types and I think that if a woman is getting too bulky; it’s because there is too much fat over the muscle. Now, can a woman get too muscular is a different matter; and it takes a lot of work to build muscle, and clean eating.

  • Liz on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I am a personal trainer myself. I have been training for about 5 years and I still look for good tips and advice. I have a good muscle build, which some may think is on the bulky side. But I enjoy having muscles. However, note, there was a time when I was lifting some serious weight in the gym, which gave me the muscle mass I have (ie., bench pressing about 120 pounds). I tell my clients, you will not bulk up on the amount of weight I give you. I believe women can use 15 lb dumbbells for rows, and bench press 30-40 pounds. These are challenging weights, but not real heavy weights, and they will give the results women are looking for, stronger muscles, leaner body. There is no way a woman can get lean and tone using 5 pound dumbbells. That’s all you see in these fitness magazines and I laugh. These women demonstrating the exercises in these magazines did not get those bodies lifting those 3-5 pound weights!!

  • Maja on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I know I can definitely get too bulky for my own liking, also I do build muscle easily and that is probably a side effect of producing too much testosterone compared to the average woman, in my opinion fit is nice but also I think it is important to look feminine as well, which for me means softer curves.

  • mary on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    So what makes a woman bulky? Lifting heavy weights? Certain movements like barbell behind the head squats (as in your int with Chad W)? No woman wants to be bulky, but some of us need more muscle to burn more fat. Help us Val!

  • Erin on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Hi Val,
    I agree with you 100%! It’s all about what each woman perceives/believes is big for her. We all have our preferences and since it’s our body that is being sculpted it really matters most what we like for ourselves. Thank you for pointing this out. I have always been concerned with lifting heavy because I am shorter, naturally muscular and I was a gymnast when I was younger so my legs are pretty developed. I like having muscle and being strong and yet I’ve always wanted to thin them out a bit on top. I have gone back and forth and up and down with how to do this. Anyway, just a testament to your commentary.

  • Marylin Sanchez on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    I agree with Esther. It’s a matter of perception. Now if you want to compete then obviously you would need that kind of look but as said it takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication and a very strong intense workout. With Valerie, you can just tell her what kind of look you are looking for and she can guide you! So yes we as women can get too bulky but then again you can always stop and change your workout to change the way you want to look

  • Kelley Moore on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Val, great post and thanks for addressing it because so many women are just blown off when they bring this up. This is so subjective and I think the most critical thing you pointed out is how to respond to women who ask this question and are concerned about it, especially in order to validate that they are not ridiculous. I think it’s imperative to find out exactly what they want to look like and that might take looking at some pictures together. It’s kinda like hairstyles, though, we all seem to want the opposite of what we have. There are some of us that will never look like a waif and others that will never be able to build a lot of noticeable muscle. I think you have to work with and understand your body type, so education is a key part of it. Another critical point I think is that if you don’t address the nutrition end and get the body fat down, you will look bulky even if you are not muscle-bound. I tend to sport some hefty looking quads the higher my body fat is. The last thought I have is evaluating the woman’s current muscle state when you start. Many women do not realize just how hard it is to look like a figure athlete or someone like Serena and may likely not even be thinking about putting that much work into it, so getting on the same page with that could help too!

  • Rach on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Definitely its down to the individual’s perception of what ‘bulky’ means, however there are still so many women out there who are afraid to lift heavier because they think they will bulk up- the majority of us could strength train 3/4 days a week and still never look like the first model you showed because If your body fat stays within a normal level so you won’t ever look too ‘cut’, just toned, regardless of muscly you are.

  • Glynis on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    From personal experience, I completely agree – women can get too bulky! It’s not just a matter of aesthetics, it can be dangerous because of our anatomy. Right now I’m dealing with the results of that. Because of over development in my pectorals, I am experiencing cervical radiculitis from muscle pinching on nerves coming from my cervical spine. Another condition women can develop from becoming too muscular is thoracic outlet syndrome.

    The “experts” who insist women can’t get too bulky have their heads stuck in the sand. By following plans that are geared more for men, but encourage women to “look like a goddess by lifting like a man,” I am now too muscular for my tastes and it’s going to be hard work undoing the muscle-bound damage.

  • LJ on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Hey Val,
    I just wanted to make comment for completeness sake and discuss the under emphasized aspect of this debate.

    I am a Kinesiology professor and own a personal training business specializing in fat loss. I interact with many 18-22 year old girls at college and many 30-50 year old women at my studio and one feeling they share is that they don’t want to get too bulky. I completely understand and agree with that, the problem arises when, whether it is the younger girls who have never really exercised or played sports or if its the (slightly:) older ladies who haven’t exercised in a really long time, the thing they have in common is very low (below average) strength levels.

    There is no need to rehash all the reasons women need to be strong here, but for the older ladies, body density (osteoporosis) and muscle mass loss (a problem for anyone over 30) is a concern for sure (along with numerous others that arise when they have less than optimal strength levels).

    The problem I encounter is that when they are told they “can” get too bulky, they use this as a justification to not lift heavier weights at all. It is easily possible to get stronger without getting bulky as long as you control volume (i.e. number of sets and reps). My girls (both young and old) lift heavy weights towards the beginning of the workout but the total number of “heavy” reps never exceed 9 (so 2×3 or 3×2, etc. etc.). The point is that most women who decide to begin working out for the first time (or for the first time in a long time), do need to lift heavier weights at least initially to improve their below average strength levels.

    On an aside, the moment that see my female clients confidence grow the most is when they can perform a feat of strength such as ten “on their toe” pushups, one pullup, or a solid set of presses or rows. This feeling of accomplishment and confidence shouldn’t be overlooked!

    Val, I really love what your doing and you website is in the helpful links that all my students get at the beginning of the semester, keep up the awesome work!!!!

  • Dawn on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Agree! This why all of us RCR girls heart Valerie!!! She gets it and gets us the results!!!!

  • Esther on Jun 16, 2009 Reply

    Well, you are right, it’s a subjective perception and women can definitely get big and bulky or muscle bound, but it’s an intentense process that requires dedication and know how and, as you se your progress, you can always stop and control how big or strong you want to get

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