Fitness & Nutrition Tips

Ask a Coach Q & A: Will Strength Training Make Me Bulky?


Question: Will Strength Training Make Me Bulky?

Answer: By Katy Jercich, Head Health Coach

It is extremely unlikely for regular strength training to have a Hulkish effect on most people, especially women. Let’s get to the bottom of this highly misconstrued question.

Myth: Strength training makes women bulky

The ratio of muscle to fat you have is dependent on a few key factors, some you have no control over (like genetic predetermination) and some you do (like nutrition and exercise).

Women have a distinct disadvantage if the goal is to put on mass. They have about one-tenth the testosterone of men, and testosterone is key in the muscle building process. So women, even if you’re working out just as hard as your male counterpart, lifting the same amount of weight meanwhile packin’ in meals every chance you get, you still won’t see the same results with regard to muscle building. I know, I know, it’s a shame…

But, women can and should build muscles- especially since they don’t have to worry about looking bulky. Instead of seeing large, rounded muscles develop, most women will experience a sleeker, longer, flatter muscle under the skin. However this is not the case 100% of the time. As mentioned earlier, your genetics still play a significant role in how your body responds to strength training.

Myth: Strength training doesn’t burn fat

Far too many people are focused on how many calories they burn while they’re in the gym, but this is shortsighted. Instead, what if you focused on how your body expends calories outside the gym during everyday life activities? You burn calories throughout the day regardless of what you are doing- that’s the nature of metabolism. Exercise helps increase the rate at which you burn those calories. With most forms of traditional steady-state cardio, you expend calories while you’re exercising, but once you stop, you quickly go back to your normal metabolic rate.

Strength training, however, builds muscle and more muscle helps you burn more calories even when you’re kickin’ back on your couch.

Alwyn Cosgrove co-authored the book The New Rules of Lifting and is one of the most trusted authorities in fitness, strength training and athletic conditioning. Something worth taking note of, Alwyn says, “Strength training is a critical component of any program that emphasizes long-term fat loss.”

Think of it this way: Muscles are “hungry” from a metabolic perspective. The more muscle you have, the more fuel you are constantly burning. This is the advantage strength training offers if your goal is to decrease body fat.

Treadmills and ellipticals are often seen as a quick fix to rev metabolism, and they are certainly useful if your goal is to improve cardiovascular health, endurance or simply to burn some extra calories, but strength training is a powerful ally. There are many different ways to get into shape, and while steady-state cardio has its benefits, there are limitations to using it as a sole form of exercise to lose weight.

So, where do I start?

If you’re new to strength training, hiring a trainer or coach who can teach you how to squat, deadlift, overhead press, and do a chin up safely and effectively may be the first logical step. Once you have a grasp on basic proper mechanics, you’ll activate the right muscles and get much more out of your workouts. You’ll also be able to apply what you’ve learned during classes at the gym such as our awesome options like Strength + Conditioning, Build,  TRX and Cross Mix just to name a few.

If you want newer (and possibly more exciting) variations, consider Kettlebells, Bulgarian Bags, medicine ball or barbell circuits, sled pushes, or battling rope variations- the options are endless!

Strength training can help you lose body fat and is likely a quicker ticket to better fitness than just plain cardio exercises. It also won’t limit your athleticism (it will more likely improve it), and women can derive tremendous benefit from resistance training without getting bulky. However as with any program, you’ll have to put in the work. Get to the gym, lift something heavy and reap the benefits.

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Fitness & Nutrition Tips

Gain Muscle. The Most Efficient Way to Lose Body Fat

Gain Muscle SF

Most people don’t understand strength training; it’s hard to get a clear picture with all the media gimmicks and conflicting information out there.

Years of muscle magazines touting “10 Best Exercises for Ripped Abs/Arms/Shoulders”, or “10 Days to a Bigger Chest/Back/Bench Press” have permeated fitness culture for decades, and that’s just for the men.

“Flatten Your Tummy/Sculpt a Better Booty/Lengthen Your Legs/Slim Your Middle/blah blah blah all in 10 days/a weekend/hours/minutes!” have been the taglines for nearly every women’s magazine for quite some time now.

These catch phrases have done nothing but hold back the truth when it comes to what strength can do for your body. While these promises may be enticing, they hold little relevance, and even less factual value for the average person wanting to get muscular and/or lose body fat. (I mean, go ahead and try to write a paper using Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health as a reference and see how that goes…).

Facts show strength training will burn body fat better than cardio, and do it in less time.
The calories burned during 10 running steps is far less than the calories burned during 10 squats. If you run a mile, that’s about 2,000 steps. As your running improves, you can run for longer periods of time resulting in more steps. Welcome to sustained, steady state cardiovascular exercise. This is what traditionally pops in your head when you think of the term “cardio.” The problem is, this type of exercise burns more than just fat, it burns muscle and other tissue through a process called oxidation.  By increasing your mileage to increase the demand on your body, you increase the amount of time you spend in oxidation.

Your squat on the other hand uses completely different metabolic process, using energy stored in your muscle, liver, and blood, vice breaking them down for energy. So instead of running 2,000 steps for a mile, you could do 10 squats weighted with 100 pounds across 5 sets, resting in between. As you get stronger, you can increase the load keeping the time you spend squatting and resting the same. You do greater work, in the same amount of time.  Simple physics explains that this is more efficient (average power  = work x distance / time, yes?)

Your body will change based on the demands you place on it, hence the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand). The greater the demand, the greater the change. Due to the nature of running (short steps, small range of motion, repetitive nature), the body adapts quickly to it. When you want more of a change in your body, you need more demand, so you may run more by adding miles. Eventually, there are more miles than hours in the day, and you must reduce caloric intake if you cannot increase the number of miles you run to make a change. Or you could just move something heavy. You choose.

Muscle burns more calories per pound than fat.
Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning it takes more energy to maintain per pound than fat does. This is due to how your body regulates blood sugar via the hormone insulin, and muscle takes more of that sugar to refuel itself. Excess blood sugar is typically stored as fat, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn and the less likely excess blood sugar will be stored as fat.

The best way to gain muscle is to avoid steady state cardio.
A Norwegian study performed a 12-week trial of two groups: a strength only group, and a strength-endurance group.

The strength group performed only lower body strength exercises, but didn’t do any endurance work like running or cycling. The strength group gained just over 2lbs of muscle and increased the cross-sectional area of their upper leg musculature by 50% more than the other group. Putting on two pounds of muscle sped up their metabolism and prevented their bodies from storing extra fat.

The strength-endurance group performed the same lower body strength exercises in addition to a cycling routine. They did not gain any muscle weight. The cycling and running put the strength-endurance group into a steady state of cardio that prevented them from building any muscle. Ultimately, this group did not burn fat any faster and still stored fat at the same rate.

Bottom line: Learning how to lift heavy things, and doing it often will help achieve fat loss goals more efficiently than any treadmill can.


Ronnestad, B., et al. High Volume of Endurance Training Impairs Adaptations to 12 Weeks of Strength Training in Well-Trained Endurance Athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2012. 112, 1457-1466.

Cakir-Atabek, H., Demir, S., Pinarbassili, R., Bunduz, N. Effects of Different Resistance Training Intensity on Indices of Oxidative Stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September 2010. 24(9), 2491-2498.

Skoluda, N., Dettenborn, L., et al. Elevated Hair Cortisol Concentrations in Endurance Athletes.Psychoneuroendocrinology. September 2011. Published Ahead of Print.