Strength without size: How to get stronger without getting bulky

December 26th, 2008  |  Published in Training art & science  |  73 Comments

By guest author Geoff Girvitz

The first thing I want to tell you is that this article is for women. I am — in case you’re wondering — a man. I hope that’s cool. I’m writing this because you’ve come to this site looking for advice on strength and conditioning (or maybe just getting “toned”), but may not really believe that lifting heavy things will help you. You may actually think that doing so will make you bulky, unfeminine or some other terrible thing. I want you to be clear on what proper training will and won’t do. And I want you to maximize your potential.

Staying weak because of how it might make you look is the same as staying illiterate for fear of appearing nerdy. Stop it. You’re better than that.

I see you made it to the third paragraph. Welcome! This is the part where I tell you that women have somehow been sold a false bill of goods when it comes to working out. Guys certainly have their own douchebag idiosyncrasies, but that’s for another article at another time. In this one, I’m going to tell you that high reps with very low weight do not “tone.” They do not strengthen. They pretty much just waste your time. Below I’ll provide details for some of the things that do not waste your time. If you want to know why flapping your arms around with purple dumbbells is not typically helpful, you should be able to do the math on your own by the end of our magical journey.

I don’t have the space (translate: patience) here to detail an approach to every possible physical goal, so I’m going to focus on the following:

  1. Looking better naked
  2. Getting stronger
  3. Not gaining unwanted muscle

I am going to help you with the items above. But before I do, there is another list of things that we need to be clear on:

  1. Lifting heavy things is essential for maximizing strength
  2. Looking better naked can be achieved far more efficiently if you’re already strong
  3. It’s possible to get strong without significant gains in size
  4. Being strong is, in fact, pretty awesome

Now is the time for you to get over any pictures of female bodybuilders you may have been unintentionally scarred by. These women don’t look masculine because of strength training; they look masculine — first and foremost — because they take male hormones. Don’t want to look masculine? Don’t take androgens. It’s pretty simple.

Even if you’re not a fan of bodybuilders, it’s an insult to all their hard work to think that you might look anything like them without years of ungodly dedication, unwavering adherence to programs specifically designed for size gain, great genetics and (most likely) some unnatural supplementation. Without embracing the lifestyle wholeheartedly, the closest you’re ever likely to get will be a bad spray-on tan. So, put that stuff out of your head.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but most people who train for performance (aka athletes) don’t actually want to put on size. With a few notable exceptions, carrying unneeded muscle around makes about as much sense as strapping a car engine to the back of your bicycle. So instead of packing new muscle onto to their bodies, athletes make the most of what they already have. In other words, they get stronger by becoming more efficient. Like most good training, this involves fine-tuning the nervous system.

To give you an idea of how nervous system-focused work impacts strength development, I’m about to drop science on you like a clumsy chemist, so if your eyes are going to glaze over, just skip the next section. If not, here we go…

the science of strength

Signals from your brain travel from your spinal column into motor neurons. Motor neurons connect to multiple muscle fibers. This little assembly is called a motor unit. Bear in mind that multiple motor units comprise any given muscle. If your brain is the boss and your muscle fibers are workers, then motor units are middle managers – overseeing numerous team members. If one of them isn’t working, then their entire team (in this case, the entire group of muscle fibers) won’t work. There’s no halfway here; it’s all or nothing.

In an untrained person, motor unit recruitment is generally pretty lackluster. The brain will send out the signal for a certain movement (the ubiquitous biceps curl, for example), but only about half of the motor units assigned to that movement will be activated. By tapping into these dormant muscle fibers, we are able significantly increase strength with a minimum of outward change. Cool, no? It’s kind of like discovering a superpower. Before we start jumping over buildings, though, we need to understand why so much strength has been lying dormant within you.

To further stretch out an already fatigued analogy, your middle managers have been taking three-hour lunch breaks for years and no one has even noticed. Why? There’s been no need for adaptation. If you don’t consistently challenge your muscles with enough weight to require full recruitment, this adaptation will never occur. No heavy weight with any consistency = no need to lift heavy weight. It’s simple.

If we truly want to get stronger, we’re going to change the way we do things. Especially if we want to put down the purple dumbbells and reap the benefits of powerful, efficient workouts. Since the progression of motor unit recruitment (what gets turned on first) follows the transition from light stuff to heavy stuff, to access the whole workforce, we’re going to need something heavy. How heavy? The research tells us 80% or more of capacity (what you can lift for one repetition). In absolute terms, this translates to a big difference between, say, what a mighty lumberjack can lift vs. a self-cutting emo vegan. However, in relative terms, both should find their respective loads to be extremely challenging. Remember this: no matter who you are, these workouts will be tough. Strong people don’t get off any easier.

“Wait. Wait! Wait! Wait! How can all this not make my muscles bigger?”

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. If you are weak and have never done any real strength training, you will see some adaptations pretty quickly. For example, you’ll need stronger forearms just to hold onto enough weight. Listen. Please. The gains you’ll experience will not be linear. They will not continue forever. Do not freak out about them or delude yourself into thinking that you will turn into She-Hulk overnight. Unless your mom and dad were both Olympic shot-putters or you gained superpowers in a freak atomic accident, the odds are far, far lower than you think. Far lower.

“Are you sure I won’t get bigger after this initial period of adaptation?”

Emphasizing or de-emphasizing size gains comes down to the following factors:

  • Caloric surplus: If you don’t exceed your daily caloric needs, you will not have the raw material to build new muscle. Although it’s rare to meet a female athlete who takes in enough protein anyway, suffice it to say that if you’re getting less than a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (what is, in my opinion, the minimum required for maintenance), Ms. Olympia will not be calling.
  • Density: Two parts here:
    • Trying to lift maximal loads while fatigued is kind of like practicing chess while drunk. After months — even years — of this approach, you will still suck. As such, it’s essential to ensure that ATP (the fuel for muscular contraction within the cell) is completely replenished before you lift. This process takes between four and five minutes so I’ll give you some details on how to best make use of your downtime in Part 2 of this article.
    • Most of the stresses responsible for hypertrophy (increased muscle size) come from creating a stressful intracellular environment. Lowered PH (more acidity) and increased accumulation of waste products impair performance. Your body will respond by increasing its capacity to restore balance. It’s these adaptations that are largely responsible for size. So, to avoid them, you need to avoid stresses. By sticking with rest periods long enough to facilitate full ATP recovery, you will have also waited long enough for the cell environment to normalize.
  • Volume: Once again, the root of adaptation is stress. There are a number of peripheral factors (including the degree of damage inflicted on your muscles) that will accumulate in spite of lengthened rest times. To avoid these, we’ll reign total volume in somewhere between 24 and 30 total reps (that’s the total number for all sets of any given exercise). We’ll get into actual set numbers in Part 2.
  • Intensity: As stated above, we need loads in excess of 80% of our single-rep maximum for neurological improvement. You don’t need to be scared of big weights, but you need to be respectful and train safely.
  • Tempo: There’s a lot to be said for slow, controlled reps. I emphasize these for beginners because of what they bring to the table in terms of coordination and control. With those skills as a prerequisite, people training for performance, not size, should move fast. How fast? If we go by Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin’s recipe for hypertrophy as being 30-70 seconds of time under tension, then having the total time for your set come in at under 30 seconds will be fine. For the type of lower-rep sets that we’ll be getting into, a fast lift and controlled eccentric (lowering) motion will be more than enough to ensure this.
  • Training frequency: Since training your nervous system for strength is similar to practicing a fine motor skill, there’s only one way to get to Carnegie Hall. Instead of practicing scales, though, you’re going to squat, deadlift, press and pull. The low volume of your workouts will help minimize the accumulated factors that contribute to hypertrophy.

Do you feel better? Do you at least believe that you can add strength without size? I hope so. There’s not a whole lot more that needs to be said. However, you may still have some questions about how heavy weights relate to looking hotter. Fair enough.

It’s like this: the amount of energy you expend correlates directly to the total amount of work you do. If you are so weak that you can only move itty-bitty weights and your fastest sprint is a lame jog then your workout productivity will be limited and you will be sad. However, if you are so strong that you can move great big weights and that your fastest sprint can blister the paint off of nearby houses, your workout productivity will be great and you will rejoice. In practical terms, when strong people perform energy-intensive work, they get more done in the same amount of time. These workouts are not easier, but they are superior.

Put into the framework of circuit training (performing groups of exercises), your strength development will translate into highly effective workouts that absolutely blow any kind of low-weight, high-rep program out of the water. Instead of performing bad cardio with minimal strength gain, you will be stronger and leaner in less time. You will develop the kind of muscle tone you’ve always wanted with strength to go along with it (surpass it, actually). Most importantly, you will begin your transformation into a bad-ass.

This concludes Part 1 of this article. We’ve gone over all the conceptual stuff. I’m hoping that any remaining questions you have pertain to the nitty gritty of working out. We’ll get to those details in Part 2.

geoff_girvitz_headshotGeoff Girvitz runs Bang Fitness in Toronto, which offers personal training, group classes and combat conditioning in Toronto. Bang Fitness is, like, totally sweet. It has tires and sledgehammers and an Olympic lifting platform and a dragging sled and freakin’ Astroturf! If you are in the west end of Toronto, this is definitely the place to train.

Geoff is also one of my favourite boys in the whole world. He introduced me to the epic joy of Rottblott’s, a hardware surplus store — basically a candy store for people who love old-skool strength training toys. Thanks to Geoff I now own 20 feet of thick rope. And I’m eyeing a heavier sledgehammer…


  1. Keri Myslinski says:

    February 13th, 2009at 2:40 pm(#)

    This article was one of the best I’ve read lately. Hilarious yet informative. Thanks!

  2. nine says:

    February 17th, 2009at 1:52 pm(#)

    I would love to read part two. Part one was excellent, with a necessary good sense of humor.

  3. Katie says:

    February 18th, 2009at 10:38 am(#)

    Great article. I am 28 and have recently decided to start lifting again. I was an athlete all my life and took a hiatus after college. It was thrilling to know i didn’t have to work out if i didn’t want to. Being required to lift and run and be at practice and games for over 12 years of your life, well its controlling, and I rebelled. An extra 40 lbs later, I took up wortking out again. I have been very serious about working out now for the last two years and have finally come to truly enjoy it. It is time to incorporate strength training and I started a month ago. Saw amazing results immediatly. Now I feel I am already at a stand still and I am researching on what to do next. This is the best article yet. Where is part 2????

  4. bm says:

    February 19th, 2009at 10:53 pm(#)

    Where is part 2!!!?!

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    February 20th, 2009at 9:56 am(#)

    Part 2 is in the works. An order for completion has been duly submitted to the author. :)

  6. Geoff says:

    February 20th, 2009at 11:44 am(#)

    Working on it . . . working on it!

    Thanks for all the great feedback. I’m shooting to have Part Deux completed for next week.

  7. Sharon From Penn State, Pa says:

    February 24th, 2009at 12:44 pm(#)

    “Staying weak because of how it might make you look is the same as staying illiterate for fear of appearing nerdy. Stop it. You’re better than that.”

    That is the BEST analogy I have ever read. Awesome!

  8. Jenni from Brisbane Australia says:

    February 27th, 2009at 5:22 am(#)

    Well done. I often get asked for “advice on weightlifting” in the gym (as I lift more than most women in there) and I don’t know how many times someone hasn’t said “but wont I bulk up”. I try to explain but my best response is “look at my arms” (my biceps are not quite 27cm) and explain that I’ve been lifting weights (non-competetively for about 30 years) and this is the result. But it has paid off as my bone strength at 53 is better than a 30 year olds.

  9. lachica says:

    March 1st, 2009at 1:41 pm(#)

    Good stuff. Glad I ran across your site.

  10. Kelcey says:

    March 9th, 2009at 1:59 pm(#)

    This was a great article! Just came across your website and it has inspired me to start lifting again. Many thanks!

  11. nails says:

    March 20th, 2009at 12:19 pm(#)

    I think this whole thing is kinda lame. Its weight lifting advice for women who do not understand how to like themselves unless they fit a cultural ideal. I don’t really care about how hot I look when it apparently means I should look like I am weak. Maybe a discussion of how screwed up it is to have these standards in the first place would be more constructive? Having an article assuring me that I won’t offend anyone with my body if I stregnth train kinda supports the idea that there is one way to be attractive and that it should be important to me. It also supports a sexist ‘this is how your body should look’ kind of approach when there is a lot of variation out there. What about women who are already masculine looking? It sends the message that a person who looks like that is not attractive and that their appearance is a source of fear for other women. The part about being scarred by looking at masculine women says that their existance is offensive to everyone.

    The ‘why don’t you look like a fitness model’ article on this website was really empowering and body positive and inclusive. I would much prefer that to having the same old crap said to me about how I should look, women get plenty of that spammed at them 24/7. There are a million and one reasons to lift weights, why use something like this? I really do not think it is preferable to encourage women to weight lift in order to not exceed their culturally determined size limit when that is the same reason tons of women puke up their dinner on a regular basis.

  12. Random « iDiet says:

    March 20th, 2009at 7:05 pm(#)

    […] week I want to get into more weights.  I have been reading this article on Stumptious and want to try it but it does involve some thinking and planning  because it’s all stuff […]

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    March 21st, 2009at 4:21 am(#)

    I agree that the ideal end point would be a state of non-fuckedupness about bodies, and an openness to a variety of physical forms. One of the things this article captures is the strategic approach to managing clients who present with problematic ideals. As trainers, we can’t convert everyone who walks in our door, but we can present this type of training to them in a way that doesn’t make them afraid of it. Perhaps in 6 months, a year, five years, whatever, they will become more receptive to a broader spectrum of physical ideals (and ideally happier with whatever they have), and start to rethink some of their own paradigm, but for some folks, assuaging fears (rational or otherwise) is an important first step on the journey. You have to at least get them to pick up a weight before they can become a ninja. It’s all kind of a work in progress.

  14. Geoff says:

    March 22nd, 2009at 12:00 am(#)

    I personally find the whole discussion of what women (or men, for that matter) are *supposed* to look like serve as little more than a distraction from actually getting shit done.

    This article was not written for the women who are ready for results come what may. A general powerlifting program, for example, will suffice for them. It was written for women (and trust me, there are many) who have had their progress hindered by some sort of fear of how getting strong may impact their appearance.

    I wrote Strength Without Size to serve as a gateway drug . . . an intermediary step on the way to figuring out how much more satisfying achieving your own goals is over trying to live up to someone else’s.

    I don’t really think the world needs another article to dole out gold stars and hugs no matter what you look like. I think the world needs more information on how to maximize your own potential and gain enough confidence to be completely happy in your own skin.

    If that skin happens to be coated in fake tanning lotion and stretched out from HGH-enlarged organs and acromegaly, so be it, you should be strong enough not to care what some dude on the internet thinks about it.

  15. nails says:

    March 22nd, 2009at 12:16 pm(#)


    you are painting it as a really unimportant issue. maybe you should pick up the beauty myth sometime and see how beauty ideals are used against women at their jobs and in courtrooms. Or hey tune into some footage from the last election for a nice illustration of how there isnt a correct way for a woman to look. so even if you lead women to weight lift and they achieve some level of conventional attractiveness its pretty unlikely to make anyone happier, their appearance can still be used against them. The reason I liked the other article I referenced on here wasnt because it ‘gave out gold stars and hugs’ to everyone, it was because it said “I care more about what my body can DO”. It made appearance less important than how it feels to actually live inside your body.

    And if you are in the “X THING WILL MAKE YOU ATTRACTIVE” game you are at a serious disadvantage to begin with. Its you vs countless numbers of products that only work quckly and short term, and a well funded barrage of emaciated women that are ever present in womens lives. It isn’t something that will ever jive with a woman who can demonstrate how strong she is or one who looks strong. People use the ‘you wont bulk up!” line on infomercials with BALLET style work outs, and thats the opposite of being butch. I don’t see weight lifting being seen as not butch until a bunch of gym dudes are willing to give it up as a measure of their masculinity. Offering something revolutionary and not like everything else seems like a much better strategy because serious lifting is never going to fit in with everything else that gets sold under feminine beauty. The idea that you should do this just to get people into the gym is kind of dishonest, but maybe its worth it. Its an interesting ethical problem but I do not have a concrete answer.

  16. OMGBFFA says:

    March 22nd, 2009at 7:37 pm(#)

    If one chooses a strategy to address a problem, it does not follow logically that one is thereby supporting the problem’s cause.

    I see this as a pragmatic approach to reaching women who would otherwise be turned off by all of the garbage they hear elsewhere. True awareness is a process, not an event.

  17. Geoff says:

    March 23rd, 2009at 3:27 pm(#)

    If there’s been any lack of clarity on my standpoint, let me reiterate it here:

    The development of strength and ability coupled with the discovery of what your limits really are goes way, way farther toward self-confidence than any external approval of your appearance.

    The point of the article was not to say that “X THING WILL MAKE YOU ATTRACTIVE” so much as “X THING WILL NOT MAKE YOU UNATTRACTIVE SO PLEASE GET OVER IT.”

    When people come to me to get a six-pack I don’t open up with a lecture about patriarchal media and embracing body image. I say “ok.” On the way, I do the best I can to educate them about the bigger picture, often seeing their priorities change during the process. Telling someone that they can get stronger without significant size (when that’s their particular bugaboo) is not dishonest; it’s a fact. If we’re lucky, it’s a fact that will get them on their way toward actualization.

    If you’re not a fitness geek like me, perhaps you can write an article that espouses your own philosophies (hugs included) and see if that helps turn the tide. My own belief, however, is that on the self-esteem front we need role models more than anything else. I’m hoping to have a helping hand in creating some.

    If you’d like to e-mail me at, I’ll be happy to continue this discussion with you.

  18. nine1199 says:

    April 9th, 2009at 3:47 pm(#)

    Krista and Geoff, I’m still dying for part two!

  19. Geoff says:

    April 10th, 2009at 11:11 am(#)

    Lookee what I found:

  20. G says:

    April 17th, 2009at 11:23 am(#)

    The point of the article was not to say that “X THING WILL MAKE YOU ATTRACTIVE” so much as “X THING WILL NOT MAKE YOU UNATTRACTIVE SO PLEASE GET OVER IT.”

    FYI, I definitely read it in this tone, Geoff. Excellent article. I find myself making the same kinds of points to other women because it is way more effective to let them discover what really matters on their own.

    I notice that people kind of shut down when you start inundating them with “But have you really thought about how bad it is that you want to look like this picture?” rather than have them gradually come to that conclusion on their own. You start seeing the difference between a healthy-looking, curvy magazine lady with some definition to her arms and legs and the stick figure who starved herself.

  21. Casey says:

    April 30th, 2009at 11:28 am(#)

    jesus what’s with the haters? let’s not forget how HEALTHY it is to have good muscle density etc…i think that stubbornly rejecting the body concerns that many women have, instead of getting some heavy weights in their hands “by any means necessary” is just mean-spirited and abstract.

    anyway, what ever happened to people being allowed to want to look a certain way? if it’s wrong to want to be smaller and tighter then is it wrong to want to be big?

    This article offers an effective way of gaining strength without gaining as much size as going slower with more volume. it’s a different kind of goal. bfd.

    also, there are practical concerns with size issues, especially when it comes to sport-specific training. for instance, i naturally have large glutes. some of it is fat, for sure, but there’s muscle there too. my sport is ballet, and there are many movements that are physically more difficult, if not impossible, with large muscles (or fat) in the way, but of course i need to be strong.

    anyway, i am ranting on my lunch break. thanks for the great article.

  22. Lose Fat & Build Muscle says:

    May 11th, 2009at 1:26 pm(#)

    A women is never going to put on muscle that makes her look disgusting. Professional Bodybuilding women use drugs and/or testosterone.

    It’s perfectly fine to follow typical bodybuilding routines and not get bulky.

    This goes for men too. BELIEVE ME, you’re not going to look like Arnold anytime soon. If you’re drug free and eating properly, you’re going to develop a very nice physique.

  23. Cassye says:

    May 11th, 2009at 1:30 pm(#)

    Great article that I feel like passing out at my gym every time I visit. I am 40 and have been lifting for over 10 years. I love the strength and empowerment muscle mass has brought me and love lifting heavy. My upper body is the result of some pretty intense workouts, and looks great. However, at risk of sounding like an ignorant mainstreamer, the heavy lifting has left my lower body (get ready) bulky. I love my butt, and actually have marginal hams, but my quads and inner thighs are just too big proportionally. I have arrived at this look care of heavy (for me) barbell squats, plie squats and stiff-legged deadlifts and lunges.

    I read an article indicating that many women carry a larger proportion of muscle in the lower half, esp. the front side, and maybe I’m one of them. One pro I read about only works her quads every other week with “light” weight leg extensions to accommodate this imbalance. That approach seems to promote imbalance, and it scares me to think of lifting “light” weights, especially on a machine. In the end, I’d rather have strong, big thighs than flabby chicken legs. However, I’d appreciate any tips on how to shrink the thighs without losing the butt and actually growing the hams.

  24. Geoff says:

    May 12th, 2009at 6:58 pm(#)

    The quick answer is to utilize lower volume and longer rest for knee-dominant movements and more posterior chain work in general. All the exercises you mentioned, except the deadlifts, are knee-dominant. Shifting to other deadlift variations (single-leg versions, in particular), good mornings, glute ham raises and so on should help with yee old hammies.

    It’s also worth noting that, if your body happens to like storing fat in your legs, fat loss protocols may be helpful. As a matter of fact, I think that muscle gets scapegoated a whole lot of fat-based size gains. When picking a culprit comes down to hard, sweaty workouts and delicious ice cream, guess who gets unfairly blamed more often than not?

    This is obviously not your issue, but it is worth bringing up.

    I can say from experience that women definitely do tend to carry proportionately more muscle in their lower-bodies, but I believe that this has a whole lot less to do with gender differences and a whole lot more to do with getting young guys into weight rooms and young women onto treadmills and group cardio classes.

    Finally, I’m assuming the pro performs some kind of posterior chain work for her other leg days. That’s actually ok. I’ll leave bitching about machines out of this and simply say that arguments about structural balance kind of get thrown out the window with the lower body. While it’s easy to find people who are too knee-dominant, I have yet to meet someone who’s too hip-dominant.

  25. Haley says:

    May 18th, 2009at 1:46 pm(#)

    I’m going to need you to come here and train me. now. Please :)

    I’m a long-legged gal with a a short, almost non-existant waist and a horrible tendancy to pack it on in the middle. I’m not fat, I don’t think, but I really really want to be muscular. Before I read your article, I must say, I bitched about not wanting to be bulky. I’m not a fan of synthetic testosterone myself so I guess I’ll be okay.

    I know you must get this a lot but I’ll ask anyway. What can I do do work love handles? What about back? If I must have love-handles then surely I can correct it by working back muscles? I’m desparate.

  26. Geoff says:

    May 18th, 2009at 6:58 pm(#)

    Dry land is not a myth. Spot reduction is.

    While it’s possible to target an area of your body for muscular development, it’s simply impossible to do the same for fat loss.

    You already knew that, I suspect. One can hope, though, right?

    Nutrition. Nutrition and more nutrition.

    Go with the program above along with some interval training. And — when in doubt — better nutrition.

  27. Braidwood says:

    May 20th, 2009at 9:04 pm(#)

    I really, really, really, really care how I look. I don’t care enough to diet, or wear uncomfortable shoes, or uncomfortable clothes, or make-up everyday, or enough not to exercise because it might make me gain muscles.

    I guess the truth is that I care about my health and happiness MORE than I care about how I look, which is a LOT.

    I can relate to the comments that say I shouldn’t care, and often I wish I didn’t, but I am a little mammal who likes the other mammals to like me – and who wants a male mammal to find me attractive, and I think I should be forgiven this humanness.

    I find it very comforting, exciting, and motivating that I can get stronger without getting bigger. I appreciate knowing that, and liked that part of the article.

    And, saying that, I still HATE how narrow definitions of attractiveness are in this society. It totally pisses me off.

    May all the beautiful people I see and so enjoy looking at feel and appreciate their own beauty, me included, forever and ever, AMEN!

  28. Mistress Krista says:

    May 21st, 2009at 6:26 am(#)

    I think your comment hits the nail on the head. People often assume that all these things are the same:

    1. I want to look good.
    2. I want to be an emaciated plastic doll.
    3. By virtue of #1 and #2 I am essentially an amoral, brain-dead husk of a person.

    It also assumes that body and mind are separate — that somehow we are basically brains being driven around by a container.

    In reality when we feel good on the inside, and when all our insides are humming along the way they should be, we look good on the outside. It’s just that “looking good” can be 100 different things. Humans have eyes for a reason. There is nothing wrong with using them.

    Fit, well-nourished, and well-groomed people look better, but not because they’re “thin”. They look better because they stand up straighter, they move more confidently and energetically, they feel better and more able to take on life’s challenges, and they present themselves to the world more effectively. This is true at any size or shape.

  29. Laura P says:

    June 25th, 2009at 3:18 pm(#)

    I see a lot of these “don’t get bulky” articles online. What’s so bad about being bulky, is what I wonder. Men don’t seem to fear it, why should we?

  30. Serafina K says:

    June 27th, 2009at 10:09 pm(#)

    Well said Laura P. Where do grrls go for advice if they want to get as bulky as possible? Anyone??

  31. Mistress Krista says:

    June 29th, 2009at 7:46 am(#)

    Um, here? Jeez, people.

  32. Geoff says:

    June 30th, 2009at 3:29 pm(#)

    It’s also worth noting that pretty much 80% of the strength training content on the internets is dedicated to that very subject. If that’s your goal, follow the stampede of guys — unless you’re some kind of sexist, that is.

  33. Kat says:

    July 1st, 2009at 12:14 am(#)

    I love this site, but bummer about the self-cutting vegan comment. I’m an ethical vegan, and struggle almost daily with balancing it with my love for lifting in the gym. It’s a commitment, but possible to be a lifter and a vegan. I fight this stereotype daily.

  34. Geoff says:

    July 1st, 2009at 11:37 am(#)

    Um . . .

    If anyone has any questions about the actual program — implementation, exercises, rest periods, etc. — please e-mail me c/o

  35. Kitty says:

    August 25th, 2009at 3:16 pm(#)

    This is a great article I have always had muscles and I’m a girl some dudes are scared of me I think but I can’t help it I have good gens I really LOVED this article it was kind of long but well worth it keep doen ya thang everybody because this really does work and remember to give yourself and your body rest to build up that muscle thanks again for the article!!!

    -Kitty, CO

  36. Take a Second… says:

    January 2nd, 2010at 11:27 pm(#)

    […] Take a second to think about what you train for. […]

  37. gloria says:

    January 24th, 2010at 5:42 pm(#)

    What if you are the gal whose parents are both Olympic shotputters? (just lucky I guess)
    Gloria, CO

  38. Geoff says:

    January 26th, 2010at 4:31 pm(#)

    Lucky for a whole bunch of reasons.

    It’s generally worth reminding people that muscle is hard to gain and easy to lose. And since it’s so very effective in raising your metabolism, anyone who is afraid of being bulky should leave as much muscle on as possible until their bodyfat percentage is extremely low.

    Ditching muscle from their is a cinch. Trying to ditch fat without much muscle mass involves a battle up an unbelievably steep hill.

  39. Workout programming « Quick Fit says:

    January 27th, 2010at 10:10 pm(#)

    […] strength training when younger, and a lot of women do as well, fearing they will get bulky, but here’s why you shouldn’t […]

  40. Kathryn Carson says:

    February 21st, 2010at 9:31 am(#)

    I just wish I could agree with him! As a woman of 63(!), I still have to avoid certain exercise, or I bulk up. I feel I have genetic propensity to bulk up. I see it in 2 of my 5 brothers, as well as in my arms and thighs. In my 20’s I rode a bike as a mode of transportation. I was 110 lbs, size 5, in the original days of hip huggers. I couldn’t fit my thighs in most pants, only certain ones. My biceps were defined just by being a tomboy as a kid. I NEVER exercised them intentionally.
    In the decades since then, I’ve tried “toning up” or various exercise programs. ONLY Callenetics was able to get me toned without bulking up. My biceps are ALWAYS there, even when there is no tone to them. I don’t mind them like I do the thighs.
    Two yrs ago, I went to a ladies gym for a 1 month “test” (knew it was a promo for gym membership, just wanted a jump start on getting back in shape). It was totally beginner level. First some time on the treadmill, then: Stepping up for a couple minutes, then off to a minute at a machine, then back for a couple min. of stepping up. Whole thing done in about 20 min. 3X/wk.
    We were weighed and measured before and after. I lost about 10 lbs. and lost inches in every place BUT my thighs! I gained inches. I didn’t gain anything in my upper arms as I was troubled with a pinched nerve in my neck and couldn’t use any weight on those machines. Needless to say, I didn’t join the gym.
    MOST women won’t bulk up with working with weights, but some will. I once again need to get in shape. After looking a variety of programs, I’m going back to Callenetics, Yoga, and hiking.

  41. Geoff says:

    February 23rd, 2010at 4:46 pm(#)

    This program was written for people who want to get strong while minimizing size gains. The size you put on — assuming it was muscle — was not because it had anything to do with what I laid out.

    If you aren’t concerned about strength but want to minimize your size (ergo get as lean as possible), muscle is a blessing. It will up your resting metabolic rate and make your journey far more efficient.

    Muscle is easy to lose, hard to gain — certainly relative to fat. Muscle should be the last thing to go. It is only when your bodyfat percentage is exactly where you want it to be that decreasing muscle mass should even be a consideration.

  42. Osteopath London says:

    February 27th, 2010at 5:00 pm(#)

    This is a great thread, Geoff.

    Thanks for the post.

  43. Electrician Nottingham says:

    March 20th, 2010at 5:25 pm(#)

    Hey Geoff, thanks for the post.

  44. Poorly girl England says:

    April 1st, 2010at 6:50 am(#)

    This is a great article. I have ME/CFS and have not been able to exercise for over three years. I am recovering now but still find cardio a bitch and cannot really do much more than a twenty minute brisk walk. However I can do some lifting, and my body feels like it is telling me to lift some weights. I feel like I need to build some muscle back up.

    Before I got ill I got into weights after seeing a personal trainer. I had been down the gym for years running, aerobics etc but either ended up really skinny or I was flabby. This trainer put me on a programme that was very little cardio – some interval training but not much – and lots of weights. Six months later when I got married I had the best body I have ever had. I had muscles in my arms – a toned waist but still had a bust and butt. And the best thing was I was strong and could open jars etc – lol!

    I spoke to my occupational therapist at the ME clinic about wanting to do weights again and she has got me started on Pilates and also said to go for it with the weights and just listen to my body. She says it is really common for people with ME/CFS to be able to do some weights but not be able to do much cardio and they don’t really know why. Anyway the thing is I would love a little bulk – I actually like the whole Jessica Beil in Blade look – arms with real muscle definition and some bulk to them. So it may take me a lot of time to get there as due to my illness I get very tired and I am de-conditioned but I am going to start this week on a programme that will hopefully help me recover and eventually lead me to gaining some strength back in my body.

    After years of being so ill all I want is to feel and look strong – I am sick of being weak. I think though after a month or so of gentle weights I need to find a trainer to help me start a proper programme as I do not want to make myself suffer a relapse. Does anyone have any advice for working out with a chronic health condition?

  45. Maria says:

    April 5th, 2010at 10:29 pm(#)

    This article was amazing – informative yet interesting – nay, hilarious.

    It’s this kind of wit that makes me want to train harder and also possibly bone the author.

  46. Tash says:

    April 6th, 2010at 8:58 pm(#)

    Can isolated exercises be included in the programme for strength gains? If so, will the high intensity/low rep principle still apply?

  47. Geoff says:

    April 7th, 2010at 2:49 pm(#)

    Tash, what do you mean by isolated exercises?

  48. Tash says:

    April 8th, 2010at 4:57 pm(#)

    Sorry, may not have worded it correctly.

    Exercises that work only one muscle group. Reason I ask is, I usually work out with my partner and his goal is different to mine. He’s body building, I’ve been performing the same exercises with him for over a year now. Same routine. And I do like the outcome so far…however, I’ve decided that I would like to focus more on strength without building muscle mass, so I decided to maybe start my own routine. Otherwise continue with his current programme with changes to the number of reps, rest and sets.

    Hope that makes sense

  49. Clare says:

    April 9th, 2010at 12:56 am(#)

    In my experience lifting heavy weights has not made me bigger at all, if anything I am smaller than I was before I started training. I would actually like to add a bit more muscle to my body, but it is a long hard process. I weigh 58kg and I bench press 70kg (which is how much my partner weighs, hehe). I love being strong, and I think women can be a lot stronger than most people realise.

  50. Meredith says:

    April 9th, 2010at 4:16 pm(#)

    Thank you for writing! Honestly, there is so much non-truth out there about this subject. MUCH APPRECIATED.

    Article recommended to me by CrossFit Woodbridge, by the way. Good stuff.

  51. Geoff says:

    April 10th, 2010at 12:32 pm(#)

    If you’re looking for something that combines strength and size, I would check out something like Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program. I like more exercise variety for non-powerlifters but the process — low reps for primary lifts and then higher rep assistance work — works very well.

    In this case, we’d prioritize, say, one lift a day (a pull-up for example) and stick with a low rep scheme. After that you could do some supplementary work with less weight and higher reps (such as 3 sets of 12 biceps curls). The second part is . . . well, secondary.

    Generally speaking, lower reps with higher weights are a better choice for strength gains. In practice, there are certain things that we need more time under the bar with.

  52. Cary says:

    April 11th, 2010at 10:46 pm(#)

    Well Done! I’m a trainer in Manhattan and I have to answer the “will I bulk up” question every week. I’m always preaching how important it is to be strong and not to fear muscle. And further how unlikely it is for women to get all swole unless they really pack on the calories/protein. I want to share this article with my clients so I would love to post it on my gym’s facebook’s a super slow high intensity strength training facility (fancy way of saying we lift weights slowly till deep muscle fatigue)ya’ll should try it sometime! Anyway thanks again, awsome site and Krista, I think I’m in love with you.

  53. Geoff says:

    April 12th, 2010at 12:17 pm(#)

    Post away — I can’t help you with the unrequited love part, though.

  54. Anne says:

    April 20th, 2010at 7:29 am(#)

    Thankyou.For.Great.ARTICLE! I only made it through half had to scroll down here for comment must go back for the rest…now.

  55. Anne says:

    April 20th, 2010at 7:41 am(#)

    Wow, just read some of the comments. Want to say: I read the article and was entertained, educated, and curious for the second section, yay! Great writing, fun angle.

  56. Michael says:

    June 19th, 2010at 3:23 pm(#)

    Great post! This is my first time on this blog and I find it very entertaining. I like this approach to strength training. This is the way i like to advertise using weights on my site. Reminds me very mucg##f of Pavel Tsatsouline’s stuff.
    Great read!

  57. megatron says:

    July 18th, 2010at 10:32 am(#)

    Thanks much! I am new to weights and knew nothing about nothing for lifting. I’ve been doing low weights and high reps as I was told by my complimentary trainer (I just joined the gym), and have felt that it was a ridiculous waste of my time. I told him that I wanted strength and that I really don’t mind getting a bit bigger in a few places. He assured me that his regimen was what I needed for the best results for me. Now, I am kinda pissed but feel that suspicions have been validated. YOU smacked down some terrible assumptions and misconceptions that seem widely held by a lot of women and the mainstream fitness world in general. Thank you…a lot! So now…well, in some months, I will be able to slam my beautiful fist that is attached to my beautiful gun down on the desk of that trainer and say, “Hey! Don’t patronize us ladies with your wasteful sissy-weight program! Give us the real deal!… or are you afraid we’ll kick your ass with our awesome muscles?”

  58. bandcamp says:

    September 9th, 2010at 3:58 pm(#)

    thank you this has been very helpfull to me as i have recently started working as a labourer on a building site and need alot of strength but i don’t wanna be huge as i have quite alot of muscle mass in my arms already i just need it to be more efficient

  59. Not Important says:

    March 13th, 2011at 8:05 pm(#)

    I’m a guy, but I want more strength without more muscle mass as well. I googled it and found this. So far, it sounds good. I’ll probably have forgotten all about it by the time part two is out, but at least I know that I can get stronger and still be tiny.

  60. Not Important says:

    March 14th, 2011at 4:09 pm(#)

    I just realized, after I left that last response, my family got Chinese food the other day. My fortune cookie said, “You should focus on enhancing your femenine side now.” Heheheh, interesting….

  61. Luclarie says:

    April 8th, 2011at 7:04 pm(#)

    I’d like to say thanks so much for your info. I quit smoking 5 years ago and gained 80#. Slowly I’ve lost all but 12#, but of late no matter what I do do it’s almost as if my brain (and body) are working against me.

    Unfortunately, some think wanting to look your best physically is vanity, but it isn’t — By working out I’ve become empowered internally and externally to exude self worth, which reflects in both my physical and mental outlook everyday. And by deciding what type of physique I want to have (which I prefer a more slender look) is just another part of that process…

    It’s just too bad some don’t understand this, but I can clearly see that your expertise was what I needed to rethink my workouts — and look forward to reading part 2.

    Thank you :)

  62. Krissy says:

    April 15th, 2011at 6:16 pm(#)

    Hey Geoff,
    You mentioned that it is impossible to spot reduce but possible to build up muscle in specific spots..does that mean I can get leaner while building my posterior chain (well my legs in general)? Could I tweak the program you laid out to include a higher volume of leg work in order to achieve this?

    Awesome post by the way! This workout has really pulled me out of my rut.

  63. Chazzsinger says:

    April 22nd, 2011at 5:43 am(#)

    Just a little clarification please, I’ve been lifting for over 25 years now and as my age is not in my early 50’s I know I need to change a little bit how I work out. I love to lift free weight sometimes heavy sometime moderate, but my husband tells me that doing bar bell deadlifts will thicken my torso. I have a tendency to disagree with him. What are you thoughts on this? Deadlifts will or will not bulk up a woman’s torso?

  64. Chazzsinger says:

    April 22nd, 2011at 5:44 am(#)

    Sorry about that my age is in my early 50’s.

  65. simma says:

    April 22nd, 2011at 4:48 pm(#)

    @Chazzsinger: Are you worried that, if they do thicken your torso, your husband will disapprove, or do YOU not want them to thicken your torso?

    If you are very, very thin, then yes, lifting will add a bit of size. In that case, you’ll probably look much better (and more feminine) with the additional muscle. It won’t be much–if you are already very thin, your body does not harbor an anabolic environment to begin with.

    If you have some extra bodyfat, chances are that lifting will help you lose fat, if your nutrition is in order, and you will ultimately end up looking smaller.

    But lifting does makes your muscles larger, even if you lift to minimize size. It also makes you strong, more capable of dealing with stress (both physical and mental/emotional) and does more for you health than just about anything else you can voluntarily do.

    The extent of your size gains will depend on your personal genetics, natural hormonal profile, etc. But the ultimate size difference will almost certainly be small, unless you are a freak of nature (a freak that women like me who love strength training will envy).

    Note that size gains, even if you are a freak of nature, *even if you were to do steroids*, do not happen over night. They take hard work over time–often *years*–and, even if you are genetically blessed for ginormous muscles, you will never wake up the next day and suddenly be hyooge.

    If you’re interested in getting strong, just start lifting already. And on the off chance that you start getting to a point where you can see yourself getting bigger than you want, you can easily adjust your program or stop before that happens.

    It doesn’t happen, though. Aside from women with body dysmorphia issues, I have never seen a woman who has learned to love the iron stop because she’s gotten “too big”. Women either never get there because they are hormonally incapable of it, or they learn to deprogram society’s brainwashing and realize that the right kind of size, when it has a purpose (to make them stronger and healthier) is good and beautiful.

  66. simma says:

    April 23rd, 2011at 6:13 pm(#)


    Go on youtube and search for videos of women deadlifting at powerlifting meets. You will find that torso size is usually very much related to the size of the rest of the body, unless the woman is also a bodybuilder.

    Look up women’s Olympic weightlifting. Those women spend a lot of time pulling (the pull is basically the start of a deadlift, not to mention that, outside the U.S., Olympic lifters spend a lot of time training the deadlift to build strength). You will see that muscularity tends to correlate with body weight. These women have smaller torsos compared to powerlifters, since they spend less time benching.

  67. Brenda says:

    May 2nd, 2011at 8:11 pm(#)

    Great Article!!!! I found it VERY useful =D thank you!

  68. ava says:

    December 17th, 2011at 10:34 am(#)

    Hey, I absoulutley love this article, didn’t even know it was possible tbh I’m soo relieved. Don’t worry about them haters there how someone don’t understand that women want to look like women is beyond me, any how I really have a short attention span so in short what your saying is to incres streangth without much muscle gain to do very intense very qwik sessions? As apposed to long sessions with not very heavy wight wich along with increased cal and protien intake will make you gain muscle. Let me know :)

  69. Eve says:

    January 11th, 2012at 4:56 pm(#)

    I thought that this was a good and well written article. The best one that I’ve read today. I will definitely follow your advice and I thank you for taking the time to write this article.

  70. Will says:

    February 8th, 2012at 10:48 am(#)

    Great article! I typically focus on 1-2 sets max per body part. I’ll go as heavy as possible on the first set, say 90% of my one-rep max, and 80% on the second with 2-3 minutes rest between sets. Result? Serious strength with no appreciable increase in size.

  71. Ben says:

    February 10th, 2012at 9:13 am(#)

    There’s a lot of confusion here between muscle gain and lean mass gain. Men do have the propensity to gain more muscle than women but, at low body fat levels, men on the whole are not genetically inclined to be bulky.

    To be clear, I want you to put aside any Olympic athelete, any football player and all professional bodybuilders. We tend to specify these groups in muscle gain discussions and they distort the truth at the average genetic and workload levels. Due to drug use, training schedules etc these people are not physical role models.

    Any form of strength training will force your body to increase muscle cross section. Manipulating reps can keep you fresh or tire you out. Gaining muscle simply means you have tired your muscles out over say 5-10 reps and have increased the weight you have used progressively to meet your new strength levels.

    When certain strength levels are met, that’s all the muscle gain you will have. If you have overate to gain muscle at this point you can add LEAN MASS but its not pure muscle, its bulk. And I challenge anyone at the advanced strength level to “bulk” then “cut” to original bodyfat % and tell me they have gained a single lb of muscle. We know this because natural bodybuilders have been tested like this and not a one gained muscle (measured scientifically, not “brow you look huuuuge” broscience).

    The take home point? You can progress to deadlifting 350lbs for reps as a woman and as long as maintenance caloric intake is meet you WILL look awesome and will never bulk.

    Wanna look lean and ripped? Lift heavy weights, fast for 14-16 hrs a day and eat your calories in the remaining 8 hrs.

    Wanna look lean but have more curves? Eat a little more but keep an eye on it.

  72. Lean And Muscular says:

    March 22nd, 2012at 1:41 am(#)

    That’s some great info right there. Well written article. Thank you

  73. Yasmin says:

    May 9th, 2012at 10:39 pm(#)

    The reason I need to get stronger is for parkour. I have recently started doing it and all the guys say that girls can’t do it as well. I am not nearly as strong as I need to be to be able to vault over obstacles and climb up walls and jump great distances and everything else. But I really love parkour and I need to get stronger and I was scared of becoming masculine looking until now, when I have read this and understand that it doesn’t quite work like that. Great article, looking forward to reading part two.

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