Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Jul

Primal Strength Training for Women: Not So Different After All

I knew they were coming, as soon as I hit “Publish.” I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too. You see, Conventional Wisdom has somehow drilled into our heads the silly notion that men and women are completely different species, especially when it comes to working out. There are definite differences – anyone who’s been married will be able to tell you that! – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re all homo sapiens with the same basic physiological makeup. And so an outfit like Weight Watchers will push the chronic cardio, the ankle weights, and the step classes because of some underlying, self-defeating assumption that women aren’t “meant” to lift heavy weights. It’s insane, it’s preposterous, and it’s downright insulting. Men and women have different work capacities and different natural inclinations, but their bodies still work the same way.

“But I don’t want to get big and bulky!”

That’s another common one, and I can’t really blame them. Have you ever seen a women’s bodybuilding competition, especially one where the drug testing bodies are asleep at the wheel? Those women are frightening and incredibly ripped (for my money, the dudes look just as freakish), but more importantly, they just don’t look right. In fact, this is one area in which the underlying gender-specific physiology is limiting (thank god!): women, being testicle-free, do not produce enough natural testosterone to get those bulging pecs (just where do the breasts go, anyway?) and engorged thighs without supplementing with steroids (synthetic testosterone, essentially). Men generally do produce enough natural testosterone (the ultimate muscle-building hormone) to get big, and most of us still have trouble building a significant amount of muscle. Just imagine how difficult it is to bulk up for a woman.

If anyone’s still worried about looking like a female bodybuilder, just take a look at this selection of videos.

Women’s Olympic-style weightlifting at the 2007 Arnold Weightlifting Championships (below): No Arnold look-alikes here, just strong women performing Olympic lifts.

Snatches at the 2007 American Open in Birmingham: I don’t even know if I’d look twice if I saw these women walking down the street. Well, I would, but for a different reason. They simply look like attractive women in good shape.

Here is another example: Watch a 108 lb woman clean and jerk twice her body weight. And another.

These are women whose entire athletic lives are devoted to lifting big and lifting heavy – the very same movements that I’ve prescribed as truly Primal and strength-intensive – and yet they aren’t big and bulky. You’d think if it were likely, or even possible, for a natural woman to build major size without resorting to steroids, you would see it happen with Olympic-style female weightlifters, but you don’t. Time and time again, you don’t.

Now, check out these women.

Armenian bodybuilder Lisa Moordigian shows some sample workout clips: Notice the exercises she does – curls, machine curls, tricep pulldowns, and even more curls. She’s doing nothing but isolation exercises.

Brenda Smith’s killer leg workout (check out her crazy calves!): The closest she gets to a real movement is the lunge, but even her squats are assisted. She’s obviously not interested in learning actual athletic movements or developing real strength; she only cares about stoking that PUMP coursing through her veins.

Look at the bodybuilders’ bodies, their workouts, and their focus. Notice anything? They’re solely focusing on individual muscles to the detriment of the whole. There’s no catlike athleticism, nothing that indicates actual functional strength. Leg extension machines don’t exist in nature.

Seriously, though: men and women should work out the same way. That is, provided they have the same goals of developing functional strength, promoting lean body mass over adipose tissue, and improving health, both men and women are best suited to lifting heavy, hard, and with great intensity. Hormonal differences and diet will alter how this lifting program affects you and how much hypertrophy occurs, but the end result is the same: an increased strength to body weight ratio, which is vital for true Primal health and fitness. You’ll increase musculature, but it’s not going to be superficial, bloated muscle. It’s going to be muscle that makes sense, fat-burning muscle that fits your body and fits your genes. After all, you’re just providing the right environment for your genes through proper diet, adequate sleep, normalized stress levels, and – now – the right kind of movements.

There are a few other physiological differences that might crop up when it comes to working out. The “Q” angle, which describes the angle measuring from hip to knee, is larger in women. As a result, the quadriceps can pull on the patella and eventually cause knee issues. Cutting sports, like soccer and basketball in particular, can place additional stress on the knees and increase the chance of injury. This just makes maintaining proper form even more important (as if it wasn’t already). Here’s a great YouTube series of tips on improving your squat form. I should also mention that pregnancy, especially during the 3rd trimester, can soften the pelvic cartilage and relax the hips to prepare for childbirth. It’s absolutely essential for safe birthing, but doing deep squats with such tender cartilage and overly-relaxed hips will increase pressure on the knees and should be avoided.

Last week, I suggested that eating an extra dozen eggs on top of your regular daily dietary intake might be the catalyst for hypertrophy, especially for hardgainers. For women who perhaps aren’t so interested in adding a lot of muscle, skip the extra eggs. Keep eating Primal, get adequate protein, hit those deep squats and heavy deadlifts, and you’ll begin shedding fat and putting on lean mass that (because of the physiological differences between the genders) won’t be “bulky” or “big.”

In the end, though, it’s your choice. You could do the basic strength exercises and end up looking like this (thanks for the photo, Crossfit Rockwall), or you could spend hours in the gym and spend hundreds on steroids and stuff yourself with protein shakes to look like this. I think I know who Grok’d rather have on the hunt. What about you?

amber in norfolk Flickr Photo (CC)

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Dear God that last picture was frightening. I’ve been sprinting a lot lately, and doing a lot more pushups, and I’ve found that my quads are getting a little bigger (they tend to build muscle very easily) but with the primal diet the fat is coming off too. So overall my legs look smaller even though the muscles are getting bigger :)

    hannahc wrote on July 15th, 2009
  2. Agreed. The masculine stigma behind strength training is completely unwarranted. Strength training for women is probably more important than it is for men, since they naturally have less muscle mass to begin with (the most metabolically active and protective tissue in the body).


    Dream wrote on July 15th, 2009
  3. UGH That last picture was horrifying!!!! Yay for not having testicles! :o) Thanks for a great article Mark

    Meggilizz wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • What an inappropriate comment for this site. Shameful.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
      • That last picture WAS horrifying. Women are not meant to look like that. That is why AAS usage is absolutely required in order to achieve a look like that.

        G wrote on September 13th, 2011
  4. How timely of this blog post. I have been trying to convince my girlfriend that lifting heavy weights is the best thing to do. Of course, she was told by a personal trainer recently to do high reps, low weight. When I told my girlfriend that women don’t have the testosterone to get bulky like men, she didn’t care. She thinks that non-bulky muscular women are…too bulky. She doesn’t like the look. I found this worrisome because I find toned muscular women to be attractive. Perhaps what we see as a non-bulky muscular woman is indeed bulky in the eyes of the media. Most women models are extremely slender, now muscular. Even pop-idols like Paris Hilton – who so many young girls and college-age girls try to copy – are muscle-less extremely skinny women.

    Thus, for some women, even if they believe that they won’t get bulky, they don’t strive for the muscular/ toned look either.

    Matt wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • She should check out The New Rules of Lifting for Women by Schuler. I got it this weekend and it really breaks down a lot of Conventional Wisdom myths.
      I agree this is a timely article, Mark, as I was just sitting here trying to decide if I wanted to go to your site today or read some more of this book! :-)

      Karell wrote on July 15th, 2009
      • Rock on CrossFit Women. You look fantastic! Great to see you waving the flag for fit, strong, healthy women.

        I am a CrossFit Women – and CrossFit Affiliate in Auckland (Albany) New Zealand. 16 years in the industry, I think I’ve heard every ‘reason’ and explanation for women being frightened of strength training – or weights training.

        Thank you Mark for sending me the link to this fantastic article. I was really impressed with the videos of the lightest weight class. And…in all honesty, before becoming a CrossFitter, I would never have known or beleived that women can make such rapid progress in strength and skill capability, and still look femanine while toned and athletic.

        All fellas out there, keep encouraging your beautiful ladies to train full body functional exercises with weights. Its like medicine for the body!!

        Lisa wrote on July 21st, 2009
        • Yeah, yeah!!

          Lisa wrote on April 12th, 2012
      • I agree. I have the Lift Like A Man, Look Like A Goddess book and LOVE IT!

        Primal Buddhette wrote on July 8th, 2012
    • If your girlfriend is worried about looking bulky, show her my progress pictures:

      I can do 25 consecutive pull-ups, dead lift 1.5 times my body weight, and I can clean and jerk my body weight. By most women’s standards, I’m a STRONG. Your girlfriend will hopefully notice the lack of bulging muscles on my frame, and the absence of jutting veins.

      I wish I could find the person that started that nasty rumor about women and weight lifting…I’d poke them in the eye. I own a CrossFit Affiliate, and I watch women start lifting weights, and the fat just melts off of them! Get her off the treadmill and show her the free weights!

      Jennie Yundt wrote on July 17th, 2009
      • You look amazing! Way to go!

        Heidi wrote on February 18th, 2010
      • Now you make me wanna crossfit, just for the skin tannability :p

        (And on a more serious note, I’ve recently decided to exercise again, bought books, weights and did research. I’ve heard on forums other people talk about that problem – even some personal trainers (of both genders) try to steer women away from heavy weights.
        Also some gyms are apparently infested with cardio bunnies, to the point of outnumbering and possibly driving out the other gym rats as the amount of treadmills and ellipticals that they consume increases and off-sets the gym’s delicate ecosystem. Pretty soon even squat racks may become endangered…

        mm wrote on July 27th, 2010
      • You look great!! Awesome progress!

        Jenell wrote on May 14th, 2011
    • “When I told my girlfriend that women don’t have the testosterone to get bulky like men, she didn’t care”

      This is not strictly true – a lot of women don’t have ENOUGH testosterone to make man sized muscles. But if you’ve ever checked out a women’s rugby or soccer team – there are some women who DO have more than their female friends.

      Rememeber – everything is relevant. Having your hormones in balance means you won’t bulk up. Having too much testosterone such as those suffering PCOS – may have a different effect.

      Just sayin.

      queen_sheba wrote on March 30th, 2011
      • Listen… Most girls don’t gain muscle like men, but some do. And I unfortunately seem to be one of them. If I did literally nothing, I would be and have been bony (I always eat clean anyways). But I like kickboxing. I can lift extremely heavy weights; sometimes its challenging, but I can and do. I’m 5’11 and 170 and after reading this realized that I fall into the category of “rugby/soccer girls”. Need to run/kickbox more, lift weights under 100 lbs.

        Lee wrote on October 26th, 2011
        • Yes that’s right, some women can build muscle more easily than others, nobody has ever suggested they cant, or have suggested that it is impossible but for most women in general it is very hard. In fact it is very hard for men. There is nothing unfortunate about it, you are not a freak, I’ve seen guys in the gym pounding the heavy weights, pouring gallons of protein shakes down their necks and their physiques never seem to change, and for others it just seems so easy, it just doesn’t seem fair, but that’s life.
          All the best, and keep training.

          David Smith wrote on May 9th, 2015
      • True. And the muscular differences between men and women isn’t nearly as big as most believe. It’s really not as unnatural or impossible for women to bulk up as certain people suggest.

        I for one gain muscle/bulk up quickly as well and I most certainly don’t use supplements and the like.

        Every woman is different I suppose. Sad how articles like these don’t take that into account.

        Dey wrote on February 4th, 2012
  5. So many women buy into that whole “size 0” ideal which leaves them useless skeletons. While I, personally still have a fair bit of fat to shed to get that toned look I would love to be a size 6 and able to actually carry something larger than Paris Hilton’s 3lb chihuahua! I need more muscle, time to go make with the pushups and squats and get me a sandbag.

    Simone wrote on July 15th, 2009
  6. No matter how many deadlifts or squats you do, you won’t get “too bulky” if you keep your weight under control. Muscles don’t grow out of thin air. If you stay the same weight, or lower, the most you can do is exchange your fat for muscle, and who’s going to complain about that?

    On a side note…I love your little silhouette of Grok, but you also need a female! (Grokette?)

    dragonmamma wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • hee hee, I asked for one a few weeks ago too. Maybe something Darryl Hannah-ish (ala Clan of the Cave Bear) with a sling?…

      Peggy wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • Ooh I would love a Grokette icon…

      FlyNavyWife wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • Unless you’re an extreme genetic outlier, as a woman you aren’t going to get “bulky” if you try- men have a hard enough time with it with their testosterone advantages. You can’t “exchange your fat for muscle” you can only burn fat and gain muscle (or, of course, gain fat, lose muscle, or any variety of those things). Dieting burns fat, but it also breaks down muscle, and lifting without increasing the weight over time may increase your endurance but that won’t do anything towards building muscle, tonus, and increasing one’s metabolism.

      Karell wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • It’s not even like bulk just sneaks up on you – once you reach a musculature that you like and decide to go no further you can just lower your exercise intensity to maintenance-levels.

      Simple as that.

      mm wrote on July 27th, 2010
  7. It’s unfortunate how terrified some women are of touching a free weight. If it’s not a fear of looking like Arnold, it’s a fear of sharing gym equipment with people who do.

    It took me a LONG time to convince my wife to do some real lifting, and despite her fear of bulking up, she’s still very thin. Even 10 years later, I still have to steer her away from silly isolation exercises from time to time. Dogma dies hard!

    Vin - NaturalBias wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • I’m assuming the women who are hesitant to lift weights share my opinion (I apologize to the ones who don’t..just trying to generalize.)

      We know that if we walk into a gym and lift heavy weights, we are not going to walk out of the gym looking like Arnold. DUH!

      But gaining muscle makes a person look bigger. We do NOT want to look bigger. Sometimes (not always, unfortunately), gaining muscle makes a person look smaller, but only if some fat is lost too. Lifting heavy (ALONE) does NOT guarantee fat loss. Therefore, there is a fear of lifting.

      The difference in this “bulky” term is subtle, but there’s a difference.

      kerri wrote on June 10th, 2010
      • This is about strenght, fitness, and health, not just being someonemwith a smaller body.

        Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
      • Why wouldn’t a woman want to look bigger? I do believe this mostly applies to yourself and those like-minded. It hardly fits everyone’s opinion though, unlike what you seem to be suggesting.

        I for one happen to be a ‘bigger looking’ woman and I find it liberating.

        I’d rather be muscular and actually make an impression in my work-field than to be another easily discarded skeletal female. I enjoy being taken seriously at first glance, thank you very much.

        Dey wrote on February 4th, 2012
        • I like your attitude!

          Bud Fetterley wrote on March 21st, 2012
  8. Actually, most women don’t like that look on men, either. Brad Pitt in Fight Club=sexy Mr. Universe=gross.

    Karin wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • Luckily, it’s pretty difficult to get that look in either sex without the aid of steroids.

      Karell wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • MOST women would actually disagree.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
      • Hmmm….. you must be a female bodybuilder. Just a guess by your comments here. Anyway, I am a male bodybuilder and the truth is, the VAST-MAJORITY of women DO prefer Brad Pitt’s look over Mr. Universe or Mr. Olympia’s look.

        G wrote on September 13th, 2011
  9. another thumbs down & “Eeek!” for that last picture. Gross!

    Thanks for the post & subliminal encouragement for us gals that needed a little prodding towards the next step – I know I needed it. Add that to the anticipation of another challenge & I just might actually make the progress that I desire.

    Peggy wrote on July 15th, 2009
  10. I would still like to see some advice for how to gain muscle mass for women. No, I don’t want to look like “super size she” but I am a bodybuilder that would like something to show for my efforts!

    PrimalJewishAmericanPrincess wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • Eat big, get big. Increase your protein and fat intake. There’s also the old standby gallon of milk a day.

      You don’t get big in the gym, you get big in the kitchen!

      Jennie Yundt wrote on July 17th, 2009
    • Lift heavy and eat in a caloric surplus above your TDEE with adequite protein intake. Easy as that. You won’t build muscle unless you eat in a surplus; track your intake and weigh everything on a scale. And no, not all of us are afraid of muscle. Some of us LIKE to build muscle but natty, not on the cell tech like that bodybuilding girl Mark posted who is juiced out of her brains.

      Mary wrote on May 14th, 2015
  11. My wife was the same way… not wanting to get too bulky… like she’s going to accidently get huge all of a sudden.

    I wish that would happen to me 😀

    arthurb999 wrote on July 15th, 2009
  12. In general, the mode of strength training used does not matter as much as the dietary intake, and steroids only add an entire different level of physiological responses, separate from diet and supplement.

    John wrote on July 15th, 2009
  13. Thanks for an article for us ladies, Mark! We do need a Grokette and a girl’s T shirt too!! :)

    Yummy wrote on July 15th, 2009
  14. @PrimalJAP – check out Stumptuous – Krista got me on the righteous path. Lemme know what you think.

    This post inspired me to get off my butt and go do some bodyweight work. I’m off to get physical!

    Camille wrote on July 15th, 2009
  15. Hey, I haven’t been following this site long but I think it is great. My wife ordered the book and I check it every day. How about a little Crossfit talk. Mark are you for it?…or is it a bit too much for the Primal Blueprint?

    Chris wrote on July 15th, 2009
  16. Do you have any advice for women post childbirth and doing squats?

    I’m sure squatting is even more important, but are there any specific concerns of deep squats for women that have had babies?

    Gordon wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • Gordon, as far as I know there are no concerns for women doing squats who have had babies. I have plenty of moms at my CrossFit Affiliate, and they all do squats without issues. I’m assuming that regardless of how many babies a woman has had, she’ll need to get on and off the toilet on her own…which is essentially a squat.

      Now, doing double unders after a baby is a different story…I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. 😉

      Jennie Yundt wrote on July 17th, 2009
    • What? Really?! LOL!!

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  17. YAY! Thank you! I was just talking to a male friend the other day and told him I’d started lifting heavier w/ fewer reps. He said his personal trainer cousin told him women should do higher reps with moderate weight or they’ll get bulky. I tried to convince him women don’t have the biological mechanisms to create large volumes of muscle the way men do, but he didn’t buy it. These pictures prove it. I especially like the linked Crossfit photos. Such beautiful strength. I was seriously considering changing my routine back. I’m glad I came across this serendipitous post instead!

    Hilary wrote on July 15th, 2009
  18. Couldn’t agree more.

    I get a lot of women who like my mma workout stuff and get great results with it, even though I don’t promote it to women at all.

    Eric wrote on July 15th, 2009
  19. enriquegp wrote on July 15th, 2009
  20. Just got an email at our CrossFit gym from a women who put that request in all caps: “I don’t want to BULK up.” I just shake my head and start the explanation again.

    Thank you for your article, Mark.

    Aurtherb999- hilarious and so true: “like she’s going to accidently get huge all of a sudden.”

    Neophytes believe that one morning they are going to look in the bathroom mirror and be packed and ripped: “oh my God, what has happened to me?!”

    The amazing irony is, when our female clients start to get some strength and muscle, they get hooked on it.

    CraigH wrote on July 15th, 2009
  21. Nicely stated.

    Full body, multi joint movements. Lift heavy, and practice good form.


    Pamela MacElree wrote on July 15th, 2009
  22. Love it. Let’s go DL!!

    Alex wrote on July 15th, 2009
  23. I was concerned when I heard that oral contraceptives may limit muscle gain, as discussed here for example (Science News blog):

    Any insights on what kind of birth control pill would be best to take, not just with regard to this issue but overall? I realize the most primal choice is probably not to use them at all, but for a lot of people it’s the best option.

    Ursula wrote on July 15th, 2009
  24. The two female bodybuilders on the youtube videos you posted look like [and sound like] they’re using steroids. A lot. Those kinds of clips scare women off weight lifting.

    Also, their muscle isn’t functional. Which is kind of anti-primal.

    The Arnold isn’t drug free. Natural female bodybuilders do not look like these two. Casual lifters who are females will not get this big, which is good because most of us do not want look like this.
    The crossfitter is an awesome example though.

    yeara wrote on July 15th, 2009
  25. Completely agree with this article. I can squat and deadlift 1.5 times my weight (120).
    athletics (functional excercises) long outlast aesthetics (bodybuilding excercises).

    Monika Lowe wrote on July 15th, 2009
  26. Most female bodybuilders using steroids seem to have this massive square jaw and a deep voice. And I bet they are very hairy as well. So attractive…

    SerialSinner wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • I saw one once (no I’m not going to post a link in case anyone’s eating), her clit could have put my p*nis to shame . . . would have been an excellent excuse for Grok to do a very fast sprint . . .

      Trinkwasser wrote on July 19th, 2009
  27. three cheers for this post! I’ve been working w/ heavy weights since March thanks to my paleo trainer, Joe. My goal is to do deadlifts w/ 100 lbs+. I am not the least bit concerned about bulking up because I know bulky comes from cheesecake & donuts — not exercise!
    I was recently diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and am currently on Armour. Now I know why I was unable to lose weight/build muscle on the PB- but hopefully the meds will help. I will continue w/ my heavy weight routine (and primal/ tabata sprints), so I imagine a stronger & leaner me is not too far away. I wanna look like a Grokette!

    marci wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • by “bulky” is meant visible muscle mass, not increase of body fat.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  28. Kurt Hessenbruch wrote on July 15th, 2009
  29. Eric, I checked out your MMA website, and it looks great, but there’s a problem registering. The confirmation link is “no longer valid” and the log-in page is also “not there”. (According to my little error messages.)

    dragonmamma wrote on July 15th, 2009
  30. Weight training is for men and women. I have worked out for a long time. I lift weights every other day and I don’t look like a man. Even in the days of Grok, women did a lot of heavy lifting, etc..with housework, cavework, etc…Staying strong is key to staying younger—it’s been working for me so far!!!Thanks
    Check out my site:

    Terri wrote on July 15th, 2009
  31. Great article Mark, though the amount of times I have told my girlfriends they will not get bulky by lifting heavy weights they still don’t believe me and chose to be doughy chronic cardio bunnies.

    I have been weight lifting for about 15 years and I still am NOT an enormous monster women,so I can guarantee women cannot get huge overnight! :)

    Also I am lazy and low reps suit me, I can get in and out of the gym in less than 20 minutes and actaully feel I have used my muscles.

    Miriam wrote on July 15th, 2009
  32. I, like most women, was afraid of strength training as well. I actually started some of the P90X workouts, which mostly use body weight, and began to see the great benefits of strength training.Once you see yourself gain muscle, it becomes a little addictive!

    Emily wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • MOST women are not afraid of strength training. Pehaps only SOME.
      Just tired of all this ignorant generalizations. Certain people are on this site for a reason.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  33. if only it were as easy to put on muscle as some women fear it is!

    Dude wrote on July 15th, 2009
  34. But don’t you think those women weightlifters looked quite bulky in the bottom half compared to top? Or have they still got a lot of fat in the legs with muscle on top. Apart from the last one who was fat.

    Sue wrote on July 15th, 2009
  35. My comment above was about the 2007 lifters. The 2008 lifter was small all over.
    The two female bodybuilders looked so masculine – personally I think its so unattractive.

    Sue wrote on July 15th, 2009
  36. I agree with Emily, except about P90X being mostly body weight … she needs to up her weights! :)

    No seriously, I appreciate this post as I felt a bit self-conscious about gaining muscles mass but am also finding it addictive. It feels good to be more capable as a woman, and my husband is liking how these “new” muscles look!

    Alisa - Frugal Foodie wrote on July 15th, 2009
    • I agree with you! I was confused by my new physique at first, but I LOVE these new “curves”. Now, if only fashion designers would craft us business attire to fit our new muscles!

      Lisa wrote on April 12th, 2012

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