Knowing how to approach women and weightlifting can be viewed as a niche skillset in the fitness industry. Many women still fear building “muscle” when discussing goals with their personal trainer. While perceptions do seem to be changing for the better, many women are still terrified by the common misconception that lifting weights will make them look “bulky”. The best way to remedy this fear is to teach women how muscle mass can truly enhance their bodies, while not transforming them into the next greatest female version of The Hulk.

Muscles can perform amazing feats within the human body. They alternately contract and release in the process of creating all movement, from sitting/standing to dancing, from lifting heavy objects to giving hugs.

Muscles can be powerful and at the same time aesthetically pleasing. Muscle mass is what provides a woman with a fit, lean shape, especially when combined with a healthy, prudent meal plan.

Teasing Apart Terminology

Adding new muscle requires taking in more calories than what the body utilizes during exercise and activities of daily life. The problem with this is that more calories may mean the addition of some adipose tissue as well as lean muscle mass. It is an unfortunate yet indisputable fact of physiology that we are unable to send these excess calories directly to our muscles. This is the primary reason women give for their fear of bulking.

The term ‘bulking”, as it applies to muscular development, can be defined as eating more calories than your total daily energy expenditure in order to feed new muscle growth and create a favorable environment for such growth. Conversely, the term “cutting” is used in reference to stripping away fat and lowering the body fat percentage to reveal sharp delineations and definition in one’s muscles.

Facing the Fat Fears

Attempting to lose additional fat in an effort to rapidly achieve that desirable “lean and tight” body when one’s weight is already within a lower range is not only hard to do in the absence of significant muscle mass; such a practice tends to render the individual just plain skinnier, which is a very different look than a lean physique.

This is a common misconception among aesthetically conscious female athletes. Losing the stubborn lingering adipose tissue means dipping into fat-loss techniques that are unsustainable; it requires a continued lowering of caloric intake, inviting the risk of eating disorders as well as the loss of muscle mass. Furthermore, eating very little while engaging in an excess of cardiovascular exercise places detrimental stress on the body.

Building muscle is very often what is needed to achieve the sculpted look of which many women speak. While females understand this concept, the notion of adopting a temporary bulking diet can be threatening. It is our responsibility as professional trainers and health coaches to educate our female clients. The process doesn’t have to involve uncontrollable eating, regression into bad habits, or a tremendous gain of adipose tissue.

A little fat gained is probably inevitable, and this is where most females just can’t bring themselves to do the work. Building a trust factor between yourself and your client figures prominently at this stage of training. Helping her to know her body, reinforcing good habits and working with what is sustainable will not only put her mind at ease but will propel her towards successful results.

Mechanics of Muscle Development

Lifting weights has been scientifically proven as one of the most efficient ways to promote fat loss while retaining muscle, a critical combination for achieving a toned physique. Adding resistance to workouts imposes good stress on the muscle, forcing it to adapt to the load. The more we force our body to change in this manner, the stronger and fitter we become in the process. When supported by a healthy diet, consisting of lean protein, nutrient-dense carbs, plenty of veggies and fruits, and healthy fats, results come even faster.

When we push, pull, lift, or carry resistance, we are creating a small amount of trauma to the muscles.  This is how the body cultivates strength. The muscle tissue experiences tiny “tears” under such tension. When our body repairs this muscle tissue during recovery and rest, it grows in strength and eventually mass.  This is quite literally what it means to build muscle.

Bulking May Be Temporary from Healing

Inflammation is the process whereby the body heals from trauma.  In order to repair the tissue tears that occur in the workout, a muscle holds onto water and swells in an effort to heal. This is what is visible in the mirror, the highly prized “pump” that men love to witness, and the very same pump that sends most women into a panic, thinking they will resemble The Hulk within a week’s time.

This notion leads them to the incorrect belief that lifting = bulking.  So they run back to the cardio machines and continue to do what they have always done, what feels safe, while somehow expecting to derive different results.

If your client happens to fall into this demographic, patiently helping her understand the biological truth of what she is experiencing will be important as well as greatly appreciated. After her next workout session, remind this client that her pumped-up appearance is not actual muscle mass, but merely swelling as she is healing and getting stronger.  With proper nutrition, plenty of water, and healthy amounts of sodium, this temporary fluid retention will be flushed out, leaving a healthy, tight, and lean physique in its wake.

Grasping The Girl Power


It is ironic that the very thing women need most on their journey toward their body-shaping goals is also what invokes the greatest fear. Our society has purported the myth that women who lift weights or do any form of strength training will transform a ladylike shape into that of a big, bulky bodybuilder. This is simply not the case, scientifically or anecdotally.

Strength training is actually the exact activity that is most appropriate for women who have specific physique goals. When asked what kind of physique they would like to achieve from a fitness program, the majority of women describe a goal of building long, lean muscles. The good news is that female genetics, body type, and hormonal profiles are all designed to facilitate just such a physique.

The bodies of most elite natural female athletes contain approximately 85% as much muscle as elite male athletes. This 15% difference can be attributed to many factors, but one that leads the pack is the scientific fact that women’s bodies have a genetically higher body fat percentage. In order for proper hormone regulation and function to flourish, a healthy female body averages 12% essential body fat, as opposed to a mere 3% in their male counterparts.

Hormonal Hindrances

Building muscle is not easy, and actually involves a tremendous amount of time planning, as well as months upon months of hard work. Women cannot build an excessive amount of muscle; the female composite simply does not contain the necessary physiological building blocks to do so. According to Bill Kreamer in the book Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning – 3rd Edition *, it is estimated that the female human body has approximately 15 to 20 times less naturally circulating testosterone than males, and other sources have reported even more substantial discrepancies.

Since testosterone is the human body’s primary anabolic hormone, it could be reasoned that women have 15-20 times less of a chance of building muscle than men. Since women do not naturally produce nearly as much testosterone as their male counterparts, it becomes virtually impossible for women to build large, bulky muscles without the aid of largely illegal supplementation. To that end, women’s workouts need to be heavy and intense, and nutrition must always remain on point.

Not an Overnight Sensation

Women tend to greatly overestimate how much muscle they can gain and how fast they can build it. Convinced these ideas are fact, they often do everything they can to avoid this very goal, for fear of bulking like a man. Most dedicated female bodybuilders who do not use anabolic steroids can expect to gain around 1 kg/month, half of which will be actual lean mass. This means, of course, that a certain amount of body fat will also be gained in the process. This “fat phobia” issue is a deterrent for so many of our clients who claim they want a more muscular physique.

The minimum number of calories a woman needs to consume on a daily basis in order to maintain her current level of body mass for intense training is 44 calories per kg of body weight (or 20 calories per pound). To increase her muscle mass, this client must eat an extra 350 to 700 calories per day. Maintaining food, exercise, and body assessment logs will help her monitor how her body is responding to the increase in calories, and she can then appropriately tweak her program so she will continue to add lean muscle tissue.

Encourage your client to plan and prepare her meals ahead of time, to ensure she is deriving all the calories necessary to build muscle from appropriate sources. Waking up without having to think about the day’s consumption will lead to better food choices and an adequate calorie load.

Pacing Progress for Women and Weightlifting

Once you have established a trusting, open rapport with your female bodybuilder client, it is worth pointing out to her that muscular development comes MUCH faster when she is first starting out. It often seems that clients who are new to weight training will consistently build muscle at the high end of average rate, and possibly even exceed it at certain points.

So that she does not come to expect this trend to continue and be disappointed down the road, remind her that the more experienced one becomes and the more lean muscle mass one attains, the rate of gain begins to slow down. Experts observe that the amount of muscle one can build in the first year of serious strength training endeavors is twice as much as it will be in the second year. Each subsequent year sees a tapering off of ~50%.

Accentuating The Positive

Strength training remains one of the healthiest endeavors in which a female can engage. The myriad of benefits includes the following:

  • increased lean muscle tissue, which builds strength and endurance;
  • strengthened metabolism, allowing for the natural burning of more calories throughout the day;
  • improved posture;
  • stronger bones, which may reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.

If we can teach our female clients the basic tenets of how muscular mass develops, and allay their fears of becoming too massive in terms of bulk, we will hopefully continue to see a shift toward more positive acceptance of lean, strong, and appropriately feminine body types. Muscle can be beautiful. Spread the word!

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Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!