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To Lift or Not to Lift: Women and the Bulk-Up Myth

Posted by Lara Salahi  October 9, 2013 10:36 AM

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Nick Downing is in his second season as the New England Revolution’s strength and conditioning coach, a position that was created with the hiring of head coach Jay Heaps. This is Downing’s second go-around with the club, having previously played for the Revs a decade ago.

In his current position, Downing is responsible for developing and enhancing the Revolution players’ speed, strength and endurance, as well as their overall conditioning and fitness in conjunction with both the coaching and medical staffs. Through an integrated approach – including weight training, cardiovascular training, plyometrics, and nutrition – Downing has created both position-specific and individual programs to help the Revs emerge as of Major League Soccer’s most fit teams.

I’ve made no secret that I am not a fan of fitness fads. At best, they tend to make false promises they can’t actually deliver, and at worst they can be downright dangerous.

That being said, I have noticed one new fitness trend that I can really get behind. The “strong is the new skinny” movement has created a great new atmosphere in women’s fitness. More and more women are coming into my gym looking to build muscle and strengthen their bodies, rather than just lose weight.

Despite this new outlook on women’s fitness though, I still have a lot of female clients who are afraid of “bulking up.”

I want these women to know that bulking up is almost impossible. Building bulky muscles require one thing that women lack: testosterone. Women do have small amounts of testosterone in their bodies,but on average it’s about as much as a 10-year-old boy. Have you ever seen a bulky 10-year-old?

I have heard women say, “I don’t want to look like a body builder,” a lot, but the fact is, without supplements and a full-time (40+ hours a week) lifting schedule, there’s no way that can happen. Putting on bulk is a full-time job for female body builders. It’s not something you’re going to achieve by strength training an hour or two a day, three times a week.

A side effect of a fear of bulk is women often avoid strength training in their daily fitness routines. Many rely heavily on cardio to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but cardio is only a small portion of a much bigger picture.

When I was a player for the Revolution, I was guilty of having the same fear: I was afraid if I lifted too much, I would get too bulky and be slowed down on the field. I was also in pain a lot because I hadn’t built the muscle I needed to cushion the blow from injuries on the field.

Aesthetically, strength training is the only way to target and tone specific muscle groups. Women come into our gym all the time saying that they want to shape up certain areas of their body, but they are only doing cardio. Cardio is great for overall endurance and stamina, but it’s a lot harder to tone abs and arms without any weight training.

Health-wise, strength training is a necessity. When I retired from playing professional soccer, I stopped focusing so much on cardio and started strength training more. My body got stronger and I started feeling better than I felt during my days as a professional player.

Finding a balance between strength training and cardio is very important for everyone. Man or woman, a strong body is the foundation of a healthy body. A strong muscular frame has been proven to help protect against injury, improve heart health and ease arthritis, among other ailments.

Building strength becomes even more important for women as they age. Unfortunately, women are at a greater risk of decreasing bone density over time, which contributes to osteoporosis and increases the risks associated with sprains and fractures. Studies show that strength training is directly related to increased bone density in women, especially women over 50. That doesn’t mean that only women of a certain age should focus on strength-training. It is an important part of any routine, whether you’re 20 or 60.

My ideal weekly regimen for a woman of any age would include two to three days of strength training and two to three days of cardio. If you aren’t the type to hit the gym five to six times a week, dial it back, but try to keep a 50-50 ratio between cardio and strength training.

On cardio days, stick with what you do best. If yoga’s your thing, enjoy your flow. If you like to run, run. Any cardio that works for you—as long as you are doing it correctly—will build endurance, burn fat and improve heart health.

On strength training days, try circuit training that sticks to the basics:

• Squats
• Dead lifts
• Body rows
• Push ups
• Pull ups

You will get stronger, your body will be healthier, and your overall exercise routine will be much more complete and balanced. Shake off those fears of bulking up and try it out. Your body – and health – will thank you for it.

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.


Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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