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. Excellent article!

    Add another vote from me for Grokette. Like several others, I have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease. I also have to deal with very blatant gluten intolerance symptoms and have been working on cutting grains from my diet.

    In my search for a better way of eating, I found the Paleo-Diet, and was given a reccomendation to check out the Weston A Price Foundation. From there, I found this site and have since ordered the Primal Blueprint. I’m a bit over halfway through the book now and enjoying it immensely.

    Both my husband and I have been following a grainfree, primal/paleo diet for the last 3 months. I have lost 20 pounds, have more energy than I ever did and am generally feeling much better. Our exercise program consists of strength training 2-3 times a week at our local gym, one of these with a trainer. She has us doing low weights, high reps, but when we are in on our own, we work on low reps, high weights. I have discovered I like heavy lifting. :)

    Elizabeth Colon wrote on July 16th, 2009
  2. Great article. It is so hard to explain to women that I help out that lifting does not make you bulky, it is almost impossible for that to happen but yet it is hard to get over the image of the bodybuilders and that association with weight lifting.

    Thanks again for a great article. I will definitely share it.

    Troy Cooke wrote on July 16th, 2009
  3. “EVERY” woman should lift weights, it’s the best way to stay strong and look great!

    Donna wrote on July 16th, 2009
  4. I walked into my Crossfit affiliate in Jan 2009 at age 43 weighting 114 lbs, size 2, and never having touched weights beyond the cutesy dumbells in my life (and NO identifiable muscles). Seven months later I’m at 110 lbs, size 0, and the last time we did max weight on deadlifts, I lifted 143 lbs. Yes, I have muscles now – abs, triceps, etc. – but I’m not bulky, just look way cuter in a sundress!
    And it definitely adds to that self-esteem thing when you stride into PetSmart and watch the beer-bellied guys mouths drop while the little gray-headed lady slings that 40 lb bag of dogfood over her shoulder and takes it up to the checkout – hee, hee.

    Sheila wrote on July 16th, 2009
    • Great story! I’ve read about Crossfit. Right now, MovNat has my utmost curiosity, however, as it seems the most Primal.

      Elizabeth Colon wrote on July 16th, 2009
    • Sheila you’re a beast! Don’t you love the way men stare? I always get, “Do you want help to your car with this?”

      My reply: “No thanks…I TOTALLY GOT IT!” (flexes right bicep)

      Jennie Yundt wrote on July 17th, 2009
  5. Really enjoyed this post. I really like the muscular 8-9 lbs I’ve gained since joining crossfit!

    It is so frustrating that the ideal standard of female beauty in our society is small, skinny, physically non-threatening women who take up as little space as possible. Women who buy into this idea of “not wanting to bulk up” are many times being warned about bulking up or told they are too big by family, friends, partners, media etc… We are up against a lot of messages about gender and what it means to be “feminine.” I’m glad to hear others resisting these harmful messages.

    As for the earlier question about birth control, I would highly recommend IUD’s. The copper IUD is non-hormonal, lasts up to 10 years, no pills to remember, minimal side effects, and one of the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy-something like 99%. Just my .02 cents!

    at wrote on July 17th, 2009
    • I agree with the IUD suggestion. There’s also condoms, non-coital sex (after all, an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm), and another method whose name I can’t recall but involves checking the consistency of your vaginal fluids to detect when you’re ovulating (least effective since it requires practice, however that’s definitely a PB method right there)

      mm wrote on July 27th, 2010
  6. Actually, Bodybuilder Woman looks very good to me. Grok would have carved a little statue of her, if it was possible for such a physique to exist naturally. I hope she doesn’t have serious side effects.

    Paulie wrote on July 17th, 2009
  7. I don’t like the idea of using the copper IUD.

    Sue wrote on July 17th, 2009
  8. Hi, the gym at our apartment is the one closest that I have access to, but it doesn’t have barbells. I am thinking to ask the board to maybe add them, but meanwhile, how can I properly do any squats or presses with dumbbells ??!

    Ghazal wrote on July 18th, 2009
  9. Ghazal, you can do them the same way, just be aware that the DBs will be harder to stabilize than a BB.

    If for example, you can squat and press a 100-lb BB, you may only be able to use two 35-lb DBs.

    Be conservative! It’s better to start low and work your way up than to start heavy and accidentally crash into the mirror!

    dragonmamma wrote on July 18th, 2009
  10. I think the reluctance for women to weight lift, whether in the big box gyms or otherwise, includes the lack of attention and equipment of the right size. I can’t flip a tire, nor can I use the bench for preacher curl; its all too huge for me. I can’t use the giant kettlebell, so you you hand me a 15lb free weight that is going to fly out of my hands if I swing it. If you want women to lift, don’t make it impossible.

    Jen wrote on July 20th, 2009
  11. Here is an amazingly written article from the Again Faster crew.
    Ladies, give it a read and know that there are a host of men who whole-heartedly agree.

    Dutch Leftern wrote on July 20th, 2009
  12. Hi, I have done WeightWatchers and while I don’t agree with their nutritional advice, they were always supportive of weight lifting and told us it would boost our ability to burn fat.

    But I do agree that there are social pressures against women lifting hard. I do my Oly lifting at a big box gym where the vast majority of men seem to be appalled that a woman is lifting heavy weights and give me nasty looks all the time (probably because my lifts are often heavier than what they are doing). The only guys who are supportive are my husband and the gym trainers, who think I’m awesome. I don’t think I would continue without their support.

    I miss having a CrossFit affiliate.

    la nina wrote on July 22nd, 2009
  13. Thanks Mark, I’ve been trying to argue this point with my girlfriend who has been told by everyone (surprisingly) to do high reps and low weight.

    John Peden wrote on July 27th, 2009
  14. When was the last time you were at a Weight Watchers meeting? Your analysis of what they teach regarding fitness is WAY off.

    Ellen wrote on June 12th, 2010
  15. Mark, I am a Natural Woman BodyBuilder and I look lean and healthy. Being a bodybuilder does not mean you look like the girl in your photo, that is an extreme example. The bodybuilding diet almost mirrors the “Primal Diet”, and understanding how carbohydrates affect my body has been my biggest advantage in losing fat and gaining lean muscle. I enjoy your articles and have used what I have learned in my training and diet.

    Jamie wrote on June 30th, 2010
  16. my problem is I already have pretty large muscles – I don’t want to gain!
    As mark says – “You’ll increase musculature, but it’s not going to be superficial, bloated muscle”

    I don’t really care! I don’t want any more of it…i’m 131lb lean muscle mass already (plus 30% fat which will obviously be going as fast as I can chase it out) my calf circumference is 47cm! It’s ridiculous….that’s not toned – it’s CHUNKY and I struggle to look or wear anything feminine due to wide shoulders, large thighs (including the muscle)

    This is why I am worried of even touching a weight. I’d rather swim, yoga, dance, squash.

    : -)

    sarah wrote on September 20th, 2010
  17. Thanks for the great post Mark! I am 23, 5 feet 5 inches tall, weigh 115 pounds and wear a size 2. Since I’ve started olympic weightlifting about a year ago, I have leaned out and look more feminine than I ever have in my life! I used to dance, do yoga and pilates and nothing compares to the body you get weightlifting! Plus, being a small woman, it’s very empowering to know you can lift more than the guy that ogles you from the adjacent platform!!

    Chelsea wrote on December 5th, 2010
  18. This is not true for every women. I have a naturally larger lower body and when I start squatting and deadlifting my thighs and butt grow very quickly. I can squat 3/4 of my body weight and I’m sure if I kept up with it I could do my full weight. Everytime I start the lowerbody work my sister can tell right away and comments on how ‘thick and strong’ my thighs are looking.
    I realize that lower body fat is usually the last to go on women but when you start getting bigger and the fat isn’t moving .. it isn’t too pretty.
    I really do think height has something to do with it too.
    I had a trainer ask if he could train me awhile back as I could put on some serious size because of my height. I already knew that!
    I heard once that if you don’t want big muscles do the opposite of what the guys bulking do .. long distance running or long slow cardio. It makes total sense since women and men should train the same to get the same results.

    Heather wrote on December 24th, 2010
  19. Many (most?) women will find it more comfortable to take a wider stance for squatting and go lower than men do. Just because of how our legs connect to our bodies vs the male pelvic structure.

    But the only reason not to hold a heavy weight while doing so would be because you’re still learning form.

    Liz wrote on January 13th, 2011
  20. Please,..Who is the female bodybuilder freak you link (this) to?

    Sheryl Blystone wrote on March 23rd, 2011
    • Why do you so rudely even care?

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  21. All women are not the same. In general women will not bulk out like men since it’s not genetically possible. I’m 5’3″, 115 lbs, and lift considerably heavy weights for someone my size and I haven’t bulked out at all, in fact, it’s made me leaner. However, I have a female acquaintance who claims she cannot lift heavy weights because she actually does bulk up. She finds it very hard to lose weight because she’s so weary doing any kind of resistance training. I’m suspecting she must have some kind of hormonal imbalance issues. So, my point is, it’s very possible for some women to actually bulk out from lifting – but for the rest of us, it can only do us good.

    Monica wrote on April 18th, 2011
    • It’s very true. It’s really not that uncommon for women to have elevated levels of testosterone. My aunt for example had difficulties getting pregnant because of it.

      I for one tend to ‘bulk up’ as well, but I don’t have issues with it. Either way it’s better to have muscles than to end up like a half-starved runway model.

      Dey wrote on February 4th, 2012
      • I have that problem… I can gain muscle at a rapid pace… almost the same as the rate I can gain fat. And I struggle to lose both, but they always seem to go hand in hand. Very hard to get into a healthy weight range (especially waist circumference…I seem to always be waaaaaay to thick around the middle).

        Krissy wrote on February 17th, 2014
  22. I love strength training. Who wouldn’t want to be stronger? Squats have really given me great muscle definition on the thighs and prevented my bum from going flat.But I have not been able to convince any female friends to try the upper body stuff. They are scared of it but I don’t want spindly little arms. Weight training gives you shape and has actually enhanced the waist-hip ratio for me. I never had curves at all; now I’ve got a nice chunky bum and curve around the hips and my tummy has shrunk. I never thought I would have the beginnings of muscle definition in my stomach. I was the only girl in the weights area at my old gym and I just copied what I saw the men doing.

    Polecatz wrote on April 29th, 2011
  23. Explain Serena Williams!!!

    Jenell wrote on May 14th, 2011
  24. Doesn’t matter what you show them. I like to show my lady friends that are worried about “bulking up” pics/footage of Yoon-Jin Hee because she in particular has a lovely feminine form. Doesn’t help to sway them though. They even think she is “too bulky” but guaranteed if they didn’t know she was a strength athlete they wouldn’t say that.

    The only fundamental difference between men and women…men respond favorably to logical arguments!

    Will wrote on May 21st, 2011
  25. It will take courage to lead an existence. Any life.

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    Strength training program weight loss wrote on December 6th, 2011
  28. Hate to break it you, folks, but no one is going to take up heavy lifting. Oh, maybe some will try it, but they’ll go back to lighter routines very quickly. That goes for both men and women. Heavy lifting is difficult, its draining, and unless needed for a specific reason (sports?), squating with max weights is the last thing any girl (or guy, now) is going to do to tone her/his flabby ass. Not when they can walk for an hour, do some light lunges, then get a massage.

    Times change.


    bob wrote on January 19th, 2012
  29. I have a question. I have been doing Crossfit 4 X week for 9 weeks now. My pants are tighter in the thighs but I am not fatter. They are a minor amount tighter in the waist but my bulge over the top of the waist band is gone. So my question is, obviously my thighs have gotten bigger from muscle but I have not started to necessarily burn the fat on them yet. When will I see this happen? I am getting frustrated with my pants being tighter. Also, I am following the GAPS diet and I have been on Phase 1 of the intro for 5 weeks.

    Alicia wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  30. Add to all of the other benefits that weightlifting is very good for women’s bones.

    Olivia wrote on March 27th, 2012
  31. “(just where do the breasts go, anyway?)”

    I’ve been asking myself that question since I was a teen! I finally hit puberty, at the age of 34, but then became addicted to rock climbing. I looked down one day and screamed, “my muscles ate my boobies!”

    Your article is quite validating! While it’s taking me time to adjust to my new physique, I am so stoked I finally have natural upper body strength and an inclination toward healthy, “primal” eating. And all from muscle building via a sport I love…so it doesn’t feel like a workout!

    Finally a gender balanced article!! And one that recognizes our hips. The Q-angle explains why my knees hurt from running. I look forward to future articles that address this more.

    ~A New Fan

    Lisa wrote on April 12th, 2012
    • I also want to add, I have a heart condition (Mitral Valve Prolapse) that kept me from working out. Upper body muscle has strengthened my heart, lungs,and attitude. Don’t be afraid of muscles, ladies. They are good for the heart!

      Lisa wrote on April 12th, 2012
  32. I am a female and after starting to follow a more Primal diet and lifestyle, have added weight training to my exercise. When taking tape measurements, should the numbers still be going down or should some go up in certain areas due to muscle growth? Any info on this would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    LeAnna wrote on April 28th, 2012
  33. I see this article and comments are a bit old, but if anyone is reading this, I do have a question: I’ve only recently started strength training. I am a female 5’5 about 120lb. I have the look of some minimal muscle tone, but it is deceiving. People think I am in shape and look at me funny when I can hardly do a few pushups. Anyway, I have been curious about the bulking up thing for some time. I constantly hear that woman can’t bulk up. While I have never seen a drug-free female bodybuilder looking anything close to the size of a man, she still doesn’t look feminine. Even the bulk of fitness trainers I see on you tube have masculine looking arms for a female (but great abs!). It is a relative thing. I don’t want to look big for a female, not thinking as compared to a man. I have also seen a slect few strong and small women like the few portrayed in this article. Is this a matter of genetics, training style or diet? I have yet to find a source that addresses this completely. Any ideas out there?

    Shelley wrote on June 7th, 2012
  34. Whenever I think about muscle strength vs bulk I think about this video

    On top of being a woman who won various strongest woman in europe competitions, she’s gorgeous. I would love to look like her. She does have a bit of bulk in the arms, but I’m really ok with that. Screw what society tells me I should look like. I want to be strong.

    Willow wrote on January 7th, 2013
  35. I get frowned upon ALL the time cause I talk about weight lifting. I’m 18, a senior in a preppy high school where all the girls are thin as rails with no strength whatsoever. iCK! I lift weights 4x a week, love feeling strong, and think all women should lift weights. F the mindset of bulk. It’s bs. A lot of it stems from body image issues. Women believe in THIN. I believe it should be replaced with the word STRONG!!! Grok it…..

    Primal Rach wrote on January 24th, 2013
    • Keep doing what you are doing. Women with good muscle tone are far more attractive than those that are “skinny-fat” with no muscle.

      Jeremy wrote on January 24th, 2013
  36. Hi,

    I’m having the same problem although I don’t think my metabolism is as fast as the girl who posted this! Since starting the Primal diet about 3 weeks ago I have seen the fat literally drop off my stomach and hips – Im very slim anyway, 55kg and 5 foot 7, but I looked too slim before so have been trying to gain lean muscle and definition, and it’s not really working so far. On a typical day I have an apple and 2 hard boiled eggs for breakfast or sheeps milk yoghurt and nuts, with 1 tsp coconut oil in my tea in the morning, then snack on a handful of almonds whilst at work (I have a very sedentary job), then for lunch I have a huge primal salad with about 1tbs olive oil or avocado oil, and 100-120g lean meat or chicken or some other fish, and sometimes I throw in half an avocado. I workout 4-5 times a week in the evenings after work, usually 20-30 minutes cardio at no more than 60-70% of my maximum heart rate, then I do bodyweight exercises for 40 minutes, use the viper/weights/kettlebellss/trx etc.

    For dinner its usually 1 sweet potato or other carby veg, with lots of chicken or a whole fish such as mackerel, and I load up on veg. I can’t seem to put on any muscle though? on fitday I usually get 1000 calories so maybe this is much too low for my height and age, should I be adding in more carbs or upping my fat and protein? I reckon I get about 40 g protein average a day, and 40-50g fat and about 100g carbs.
    thankyou I would really appreciate any advice!

    sarah wrote on March 22nd, 2013
    • I know this is a little old, but I see this a lot on other sites, so…

      Eat more, girl! At 5’7″, you can probably eat somewhere in the ballpark of 1400-1500 before exercise. With all the working out you’re doing, I wouldn’t be surprised if your maintenance is around 2000, so bulk would be more than that. Yes, double, or more, what you’re eating now. (To compare, I’m 5’9″ and while I’m quite a bit heavier at 265lb, my maintenance is something like 3000 for a 5x/week workout schedule, and even at my ideal weight of 165, it sits in the 2500 range.)

      55kg works out to about 120lbs. Let’s assume 20% body fat (for math and it’s about right for an athletic woman), that puts you at about 100lbs of lean body mass. At 1g/lb of lean body mass for protein, you should be aiming for at least 100g of protein — more than double what you’re getting.

      Also, I know it’s not popular in the CrossFit/Primal/Paleo circles, but track your food for a while. Do it for calories (to make sure you’re getting enough) and for macronutrient ratios (to make sure you’re getting enough protein). Do it at least until you get used to eating the amount you should to gain, and until you get used to what 100g of protein looks like.

      Finally, drop some of the cardio. Cardio generally runs counter to bulking for a few reasons, and while 20-30 minutes won’t generally be enough to make your body burn muscle for fuel (protein is the next most efficient source of fuel after carbohydrates in such circumstances), it will use the glycogen that you could better put to use lifting weights.

      Shauna wrote on July 29th, 2013
  37. This article is so relavant right now it’s ridiculous. I’m 17 and have been recovering from an eating disorder that overtook my entire being and found dead lifts and leg presses to be the most beneficial coping skills! Honestly, I get some stigma when I workout because of my age and size, but the hope and satisfaction I get from my workouts make it worth it. It’s cool if other girls my age go run on the elliptical and wink at the guys but I’m doing this to improve myself and weight training has really saved my life

    Ashley wrote on January 8th, 2015

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