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)

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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121 thoughts on “Primal Strength Training for Women: Not So Different After All”

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  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 🙂

  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).


  3. UGH That last picture was horrifying!!!! Yay for not having testicles! :o) Thanks for a great article Mark

      1. 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.

  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.

    1. 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! 🙂

      1. 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!!

      2. I agree. I have the Lift Like A Man, Look Like A Goddess book and LOVE IT!

    2. 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!

      1. 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…

    3. “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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

      2. 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.

  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.

  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?)

    1. 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?…

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  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!

    1. 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.

      1. This is about strenght, fitness, and health, not just being someonemwith a smaller body.

      2. 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.

  8. Actually, most women don’t like that look on men, either. Brad Pitt in Fight Club=sexy Mr. Universe=gross.

    1. Luckily, it’s pretty difficult to get that look in either sex without the aid of steroids.

      1. 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.

  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.

  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!

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

  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 😀

  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.

  13. Thanks for an article for us ladies, Mark! We do need a Grokette and a girl’s T shirt too!! 🙂

  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!

  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?

  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?

    1. 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. 😉

  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!

  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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. Completely agree with this article. I can squat and deadlift 1.5 times my weight (120).
    athletics (functional excercises) long outlast aesthetics (bodybuilding excercises).

  23. 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…

    1. 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 . . .

  24. 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!

    1. by “bulky” is meant visible muscle mass, not increase of body fat.

  25. 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.)

  26. 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:

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

    1. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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!

    1. 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!

  32. Awesome article Mark! Been waiting for this 🙂 I’m loving my workouts at the gym, for the first time in my life I really feel like this exercise thing is going to stick. Helps to be eating properly too 🙂

  33. @Miriam

    you said:”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.”

    I suggest you try doing interval training. i often do my workouts in 15 minutes or less.

    check these out:

    HIIT – (you can sub dumbbell for kettlebell)

  34. Like Miriam, I’ve been lifting pretty seriously for a long time (22 years in my case) and look more like the Crossfit women than the woman in picture 2.

    In my early twenties I did actually want to be a lot bigger, but I found my muscles were pretty stubborn despite the heavy weights I forced them to lift. I wasn’t prepared to take roids, so I just figured I wasn’t cut out for bodybuilding. I’m rather glad of that now. I’m strong but healthy, and that’s the object of the exercise, isn’t it?

    I do find it frustrating that I’m usually the only woman in my gym who frequents the free weights room – all the others seem content to slave away on the step machines and lift tiny dumbells whilst balanced on a bosu ball. I’ve always found strength at muscles to be a cool thing, so when I see these skinny fat cardio bunnies, it makes me wonder whether I belong to the same species, let alone gender!

  35. I get a lot of strange looks from the cardio women running on the treadmills at work lunchour! They sweat, while I do my 20 minute weight lifting routine and simply change back into my work clothes dry as a cucumber!

    I save my cardio for evenings 3 X a week, like a bike ride, game of squash or rollerblading.

    I love how they just do the same 30 crunches and same tricep dips after their Monday to Friday 45 min stepper workout, with no results!

    I however, am decreasing in body fat % every week and prepping for my first figure competition! I am by no means “bulky”… I get compliments every day, and it’s all thanks to weight training and Primal Diet!

    P.S. Last photo made me sick to my stomach! WOWZA!

    1. Trish ~ did you adjust the Primal diet for the last week before your competition? I’m doing a Figure in April and wondered about the carb deplete/load using veggies only. I’m pretty lean already, but a bit on the smaller size of muscle mass.
      Any info would be greatly appreciated!

  36. 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. 🙂

  37. 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.

  38. “EVERY” woman should lift weights, it’s the best way to stay strong and look great!

  39. 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.

    1. Great story! I’ve read about Crossfit. Right now, MovNat has my utmost curiosity, however, as it seems the most Primal.

    2. 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)

  40. 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!

    1. 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)

  41. 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.

  42. 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 ??!

  43. 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!

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. When was the last time you were at a Weight Watchers meeting? Your analysis of what they teach regarding fitness is WAY off.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

    : -)

  50. 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!!

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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).

  54. 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.

  55. 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!

  56. I have been exploring for a little bit for any high-quality articles or blog posts on this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I finally stumbled upon this website. Reading this info So i’m glad to show that I’ve a very good uncanny feeling I found out just what I needed. I such a lot unquestionably will make certain to do not fail to remember this website and give it a glance regularly.

  57. 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.


  58. 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.

  59. Add to all of the other benefits that weightlifting is very good for women’s bones.

  60. “(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

    1. 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!

  61. 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!

  62. 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?

  63. 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.

  64. 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…..

    1. Keep doing what you are doing. Women with good muscle tone are far more attractive than those that are “skinny-fat” with no muscle.

  65. 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!

    1. 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.

  66. 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