More than any other club in which I've worked, my current health club has a segregated layout of free weights on one end of the room, cardio machines on the opposite end. Now that winter is upon us and people are moving their workouts indoors, I've noticed an emerging trend: men clogging the weight area, and women crowding the cardio equipment. It's really brought to light something I hear regularly from female gym members discussing their goals. I don't lift weights because I don't want to bulk up.
Having spent nine years in the fitness profession, it's kind of shocking that this myth pervades---even more so that so many women buy into it. Now, I understand that many potential clients only want to emphasize their desired result, typically toned but small muscles. But a majority seem genuinely fearful that picking up a weight over 5 pounds will turn them into the Hulk.
This myth is perpetuated by women's magazines with their baby dumbbell workouts and celebrities who boast that they got their bodies doing only yoga. It's encouraged by informercials hawking products that will produce abs of steel without picking up a single weight. The fact is, we live in a culture saturated with messages about how to get fit delivered by individuals more interested in their profit than your results. It's about time someone cleared the confusion and delivered the facts.
So here's the deal: strength training will not give you gargantuan muscles any more than it will give you superpowers. To put on mass, you need three things regardless of how heavy you lift: a high-volume regimen (think 6 days a week, multiple exercises per muscle group, etc.), nutrition specific to building muscle tissue, and testosterone. That's right. Testosterone. It's a hormone that all women possess in small quantities, but we don't have nearly enough to support significant muscle growth. Those bodybuilding chicks you're picturing? They likely supplement with it (and other things) in order to get those results.
You may be thinking, wait a minute---I've lifted weights, and I always notice that my legs get bigger. Odds are you're training like a bodybuilder, doing isolated moves like leg extensions in addition to heavier compound movements like leg presses. If you desire a slimmer, leaner look, consider training like an athlete: choose compound movements, particularly bodyweight exercises like lunges, push-ups, step-ups, and dips. If your goal is to lose weight/tone up, there's no reason you need to spend time on machine exercises or isolated movements when you should be getting your heart rate up, burning calories, and moving your entire body.
If you work out this way, you'll burn fat and tone up all over, not hulk out. So the next time you're working out, ladies, consider joining the guys by the free weights. It's a gym, not a seventh-grade dance.