Debunking myths around women and muscle-building

If women lift heavy weights, they’ll bulk up quickly – which is bad

Ask anyone in the gym – no woman has ever “bulked up” or become too muscular by accident. Our physiology doesn’t allow it – and frankly, neither does men’s. In order to become what most people regard as “over-muscled,” both men and women have to work very hard in the gym, and fuel and recover appropriately. Due to the amount of work that goes into creating new muscle, and the relatively small amounts of it we naturally have, it takes consistent effort over years (and decades) to build “significant muscle mass” on a woman’s frame naturally (without the use of steroids, growth hormones, or other performance enhancing drugs). 

There’s also the discussion to be made around our collective “fear” or distaste in women becoming more muscular than what we’re used to seeing in fashion or fitness magazines—if a woman decides she wants more muscle than is typical, that’s her choice. If her sport requires a body type that may not be the “beauty standard” on social media, that’s no one’s business but her own. Telling women not to lift weight or they will become unattractive is not only subjective and misogynist, it’s also a lie that keeps women from enjoying fulfilling, empowering, and health-promoting fitness activity.

It’s also worth noting that more body fat and less lean mass is usually what makes one appear ‘bulky,’ not muscle. For example, if someone has 30 pounds of fat and 120 pounds of lean mass, he or she will look much leaner than someone who has 30 pounds of fat and 100 pounds of lean mass. 

Men’s muscle responds quicker to training than women’s

There is no special “men’s muscle” or “women’s muscle.” Muscle is muscle and responds to “good” stress that forces it to compensate and adapt (grow bigger and stronger).

Yes, physiologically men start out with a lot more muscle than women, especially in their upper bodies, so it may appear that they have an easier time growing it. They also tend to have lower body fat levels, so you can see the muscle definition easier, especially in places like the arms and back. Also, men have more testosterone, which increases protein synthesis and growth hormone, encouraging tissue growth. So maybe on the surface, it seems like their muscle is “different” than women’s.

But it’s not all bad news for the ladies: there’s evidence to suggest that estrogen, the dominant female hormone, anti-catabolic – good for muscle protein synthesis and is an ergogenic aid, enhancing our stamina and recovery, which can work in our favor for training, and may be why it’s often said that women can handle higher volume in training, and recover faster from tough workouts. 

Yes, men and women are different; our skeletal structure and hormonal makeup can have an impact on training methodology. But our muscles are not different. Aside from an understanding of our individual, unique physiology, goals, and challenges, we do not have to assume that women across the board need to train differently (less weight and higher reps, for example). This type of complexity, and the amount of misinformation out there about women and muscle growth, is part of the reason why we created TK Program.

Women should prioritize calorie restriction and low-fat foods to stay lean, while men need to prioritize protein for optimal body composition

NOPE. Everyone should prioritize ideal protein intake in order to promote health and muscle growth. 

It is extremely difficult for most people to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time; it’s a much more effective approach to simply prioritize one at a time, and eat/train accordingly. This is why many strength and aesthetic athletes go through “bulking and cutting” phases. This does not mean that you need to gain a ton of fat or eat unhealthily if you wish to gain muscle; it just means you can’t be in a chronic state of restriction and expect to grow lean muscle tissue from nowhere. Our messaging that women should constantly eat as little as possible is what leads to disordered eating, and endless cycle of disappointing diets, rebounding and binging, and the “skinny fat” effect whereby you may lose some body fat, but still be disappointed in your body composition because of a lack of underlying muscle, as a result of not properly fueling your body. 

Learning to properly nourish your body in a sustainable way, without feeling guilty that you’re eating more than you’ve been taught, may be an even more important key to muscle growth than your exercise routine.

Because of higher fat stores, women need to do more cardio to achieve optimal body composition

It is true that generally women carry a much higher percentage of fat (due largely to the fact that we carry babies and require more energy and fat stores to do this safely) and that due to our hormonal makeup, our bodies tend to want to hold on to higher fat naturally. Many men can lower their body fat levels to a relatively extreme level (say, single digits) without much hormonal or metabolic side-effects, while this is generally not the case for women. This is a separate discussion that can be had around extreme cases like competitive bodybuilding.

For most of us who are simply looking to achieve a lean look with defined, visible muscles (which for women is usually around 18-22% bodyfat), this can be done without causing major metabolic harm, but it must be done intelligently and gradually. 

Managing your energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) will go a long way to losing fat (although there are other factors). It has been shown that increasing NEAT (non-exercise related movement throughout the day, including daily walks, regular breaks during periods of sitting, fidgeting, etc) as well as calorie management has a much better effect on fat loss than hours of boring, steady state cardio. Our bodies adapt to steady state cardio in many ways, including encouraging us to move less the rest of the day and even subconsciously eating more to make up the calories we’ve burned. You’re better off incorporating a short, HIIT session every week, and focusing more intensely on your lifting workouts, both of which are shown to raise our metabolic rate and level of fat burning for some 24 hours after the workout (an effect not shown as much from steady state cardio). Yes, more hours on a treadmill can slowly help you burn more calories, but there are much easier, quicker, and healthier ways to encourage fat loss.

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