Can Women Get Bulky?

Kait by ATP

My best friend messaged me recently and told me barre was making her bulky. I laughed out loud while doing the biggest eye roll because she weighs about 110 pounds and has the body type as far opposite of “bulky” as you can imagine. If she came to me as a client wanting to get bulkier muscles I’d have to reset her expectations and work out a very specific plan for her. Genetically, it would be a challenge.

I’ve spent years thinking about this topic, because I am built oppositely. I put on muscle quite easily and have found myself googling intentional muscle atrophy more than once. So what’s the answer? Is it true that “women can’t get bulky?” Have both her and I, genetically different but both women, just imagined bulk? Not exactly. This is a nuanced issue, and as a blanket statement “women can’t get bulky” is quite frankly, inadequate. If a trainer (especially a male trainer, sorry guys) is shutting down your concerns with this statement, without giving you a deeper explanation, run!

It is true that for most women, gaining sizable muscles would be quite challenging. It would require very intentional training and a specific diet (it’s possible, though, even for my tiny bff). However, the appearance of bulky muscles can happen to women, and quite rapidly, which sends many women right back to their trusted cardio. How this appearance can happen:

  1. If you are new to exercise, or starting a new routine, you can experience immediate swelling of your muscles. Exercise can cause inflammation as micro-tears are repaired (this is how the body improves strength). Think of this swelling like bloating, it’s temporary and it will go away as your body adjusts to your training. Anytime you challenge the body with a different workout (especially the kind that leaves you sore), you’re likely going to experience this swelling again. 
  2. If you’ve been going at this program for a while (weeks, months) and you are seemingly positive that you are getting bulky muscles, I would almost guarantee that your issue is body fat, not muscle. If you haven’t made adequate changes to your diet to support fat loss, you may have gained lean muscle from your new exercise program, without losing fat. The appearance of fat sitting on top of lean muscle can easily be mistaken for bulk. A combination of proper nutrition geared towards fat loss, strength training, and cardio is a simple formula that will work for most women (with a big emphasis on nutrition). It may take time to see adequate fat loss to get that “lean” appearance. You will have to put blinders up as you pass through that uncomfortable phase where you appear bulky.

To clarify: there is nothing wrong with bulk. Many people are seeking it. But more often than not, my female clients fight strength training because of this fear. They’ve been told time and time again that they “can’t bulk.” Then, lo and behold, they see with their own two eyes what they perceive as bulk! It’s frustrating to be told you are wrong about your own body. It’s dismissive. When I first started strength training, I heard this phrase so often. Since 1. wasn’t changing my diet adequately and 2. I actually fall into the category of women who gain muscle quite easily, l felt like I couldn’t trust trainers and stopped strength training all together for a while.

Even if you have a more athletic body type as a woman, know that adding true bulk or size to muscles will take months to achieve. If you are feeling “bulky” after a few weeks, it’s likely because of one of these reasons above. It is not a reason to quit strength training, which is incredibly important for health and body composition.