Preventing Bulky Arms
April 28, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Workout Question - A few years ago I went away from my cardio-only gym routine and added in weight lifting. I did chest press, lat pull downs, shoulder press, etc. I'm a girl, btw. I lost a little weight but now my arms are bulky, not super muscly but just bulkier and sometimes they don't fit in my shirts. I enjoy lifting weights but I feel conflicted about it if my arms are going to continue to get bigger and bigger. My question is - how do I continue to lift weights without my arms getting bulkier and bulkier? I would like to also make my arms less bulky if possible.. Are push-ups a good option?
posted by AngryLlama to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How lean are your arms? If there is some fat, loose it and it will decrease your arm size (leaving you more room for muscles). Never lift really heavy... light weight, high reps, keep the cardio so your bulk is all lean. Pushups will bulk the tricep and pectoral..... but that is wonderful, isn't it?
(unsolicited opinion~ Muscles on a human are awesome)
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 8:15 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Based on what you used as examples of weight lifting exercises, I suspect you're doing what most people do, which is heavily lean on their upper body (chest,upper back, arms and shoulders) and neglect or undertrain their core (abdominals and lower back, and complimentary muscles) and their lower body.

In the past two years, I went from skinny (6', 140lbs) to very athletic (6', 170lbs), but not bulky, and I found I got there by focusing less on individually intensive exercises and more on combination exercises; namely, bench press, squats, shoulder presse and deadlifts as your big group. These exercises work virtually all of your body, and if you focus your workouts on getting the most out of these exercises, you'll find that you burn the calories you're looking for and avoid the bulk.

Make your focus as you go to the gym about getting away pure upper body and more into core and leg development.
posted by dflemingecon at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I basically do what dflemingecon does: bench, squats, deadlifts. I throw in a bit of variety around them, but you can get a heck of a quick, effective workout in with those basics.
posted by kcm at 8:46 AM on April 28, 2011

My question is - how do I continue to lift weights without my arms getting bulkier and bulkier?

For arm exercises, don't increase the amount of weight you're lifting any more - you can increase reps if you want. For everything else you don't mind more muscle, continue increasing weight as you've been doing.
posted by yeloson at 8:52 AM on April 28, 2011

Just to add - I also did lower body work - squats, leg press, etc. I mountain bike for cardio. My shoulders are already broad for a girl and any amount of upper body weight lifting I do just seems to make my chest, shoulders, and arms bulky looking.
posted by AngryLlama at 9:01 AM on April 28, 2011

Supposedly, lots of this is in the rep ranges -- they say <6ish reps is good for strength, 8-12ish is good for hypertrophy, and 15+ish is good for endurance (with modifications to the amount of weight accordingly).
posted by paultopia at 9:06 AM on April 28, 2011

I tend in this direction as well (although I love it and think it's hot) and I would contend that part of the problem is that many girl-cut shirts are also cut for narrow shoulders and toothpick arms. You may find if you shop around for some shirts that fit you better now that you won't look as "bulky." (I wish I had more specific recommendations, but it's been so hit or miss, and I loathe shopping so thoroughly, that I've pretty much given up.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:22 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

less weight, more reps.
posted by violetk at 9:25 AM on April 28, 2011

Drop the weights. Use resistance bands instead. This will move the focus away from cosmetic bulk and toward strength. There are lots of great videos demonstrating techniques for working out with these. I like the ones made by SPRI.
posted by jardinier at 9:27 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a women, you don't have the testosterone production to bulk up -- female bodybuilders (well, bodybuilders in general) are typically on a heavy diet of anabolic steroids to produce bulk. You should not continue to get bigger and bigger. That said, you will not have the toothpick waif shape to your appendages that fashion tells us women should have if you are doing any exercise of note.

Most of the fitness forums I'm on often have lamentations of the fact that it's really hard to find clothes that appropriately fit women that are in shape. Sorry for the bad news; might be worth finding a good tailor to let things out.

Also, your exercise selection is going to give you more bulk per strength gain than selecting a different set of exercises would. The exercises you're using are designed for bodybuilding, which necessarily involves increasing bulk to increase muscular definition. Olympic weightlifting is where it's at. Barring that, start working on bodyweight gymnastic progressions.
posted by bfranklin at 9:30 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry for double posting here, but I found a few blog articles that I really wanted to include in that first answer. First, how to get stronger without getting bulky, and second, don't fear the free weights. may actually be a pretty good site for you to poke around.
posted by bfranklin at 9:41 AM on April 28, 2011

As a women, you don't have the testosterone production to bulk up -- female bodybuilders (well, bodybuilders in general) are typically on a heavy diet of anabolic steroids to produce bulk.

Just want to address this to head off a potential derail that I often notice when women ask this question -- I don't think the OP is worried about bulking up to reach a male or bodybuilder level of muscle, which, yes, she probably doesn't have the testosterone for. I think she's worried about bulking up to the point of just looking like a stocky squarish woman, which is not rare at all for athletic women. Example, example
posted by Ashley801 at 10:10 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, find shirts that fit. Makes a huge difference. If your clothing doesn't fit, it'll emphasize the characteristic that is too big/small, and that won't make you feel good about your shape.

Some lines run wide through the shoulders, but that can change year to year (e.g. Banana Republic had some lovely women's no-iron shirts a few years ago, but their cut in the last year got much thinner and no longer works for me). You might have to try more places, or get some custom made shirts. I asked this question; turns out I eventually got lucky with finding a blazer that fit at a dept. store (I can look up the name if you'd like). But people there did have lots of other suggestions.

What particular cut you choose can also matter; e.g. dresses with cap sleeves might be better than haltertops.

Also keep in mind that our perception of women's arm size can be rather off-- i think cutting on down on natural arm size is a relatively common photoshop in advertising involving women. In other words, it might be helpful to get some perspective from folk you know whom you trust; maybe your arms just look big to you because they're bigger than they used to be.
posted by nat at 10:48 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a great article from Men's Journal by Daniel Duane about how to lift for the body you are looking for. It should open right to the chart about muscle mass v strength.
posted by mearls at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you're not eating enough to grow more muscle, you will not grow more muscle.

Like fat loss and gain, muscle loss and gain is 80% eating.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:01 AM on April 28, 2011

I enjoy lifting weights but I feel conflicted about it if my arms are going to continue to get bigger and bigger. My question is - how do I continue to lift weights without my arms getting bulkier and bulkier?

The short answer is that they're not going to. Women tend to get stronger without significant hypertrophy after the initial period of gain -- that means your arms will get to a certain size (not huge or asymmetrical with the rest of your body; for real-world examples see Ashley801's photos or this one) and then pretty much stay that way, even as you lift heavier weights.

As others have mentioned, there are things you can do to minimize size while maximizing strength: lift heavy, don't do more than 5 reps in a set (I like three sets of 5), and concentrate on compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullup/chinup. Also, cut some calories -- unless your arms look super-cut already, chances are that some fat is contributing to the bulkiness. Eating less while working out at the same level will encourage fat loss and slow down or stop muscle gain, both of which will make your arms look less bulky.

The obvious alternatives would be to do tons of reps with light weight, or to stick with what you're currently lifting forever... but if you're enjoying weight training for the strength aspect, IMHO there's no reason to do that. Just adjust your workout and what you're eating a bit, and your arms will follow.
posted by vorfeed at 11:26 AM on April 28, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions and added perspective.

Ashley801 - that's my exact problem. I'm very short (5'2") and want to avoid the 'short and stocky' look. I weigh 135 and I'd like to weigh 120 - I feel like weight lifting has only added the pounds instead of helping me lose them.

I'm wondering - are simple bodyweight exercises like pushups/situps/squats/lunges effective in helping to tone the muscle without extra bulk up?
posted by AngryLlama at 12:46 PM on April 28, 2011

Ashley801 - I don't think gymnasts are a good example of "normal" builds for women. Standard weight training, whether it's free weights, machines, pushups, etc is not going to make anyone look like that.
posted by The Lamplighter at 12:53 PM on April 28, 2011

It depends on exactly what you're doing now. If you're doing a lot of 10-12 rep, small-muscle-focused stuff, stop - that's bodybuilder stuff and exactly what you don't want. You want low-rep, high-weight work - and even then you'll carry some muscle because, well, that's what happens.

But seriously, unless you aggressively train bodybuilder-style, you'll plateau out on size gains pretty quickly. If you really want a narrow, delicate upper body, you need to not work it at all. (High-rep low-weight exercises basically count as not working it at all, by the way. Don't waste your time.) Personally I think broader shoulders look great - they tend to minimize your waist and give you an hourglass figure even if your chest doesn't do that by itself - but yeah, it's a bitch to find shirts that fit, and if you're big-framed there's always the danger of looking like a fireplug. (Or, if you're a little taller, a brick shithouse, which is where I always end up.)

Diet is definitely a factor. You can't add muscle if you're not eating enough to sustain it (past a certain initial adaptation, which it sounds like you've been through and are probably over.) And fat over muscular arms leads to a certain chunkiness that is less awesome than I could wish for. But you haven't said a thing about your eating habits, so I don't have much to go on.

I'm happy to go into exhaustive detail about workouts, diet, etc - this is one of my hobbyhorses - and you're welcome to MeMail me if you want to talk about it. But the short answer is basically train powerlifting-style or just let your upper body atrophy, or find somewhere else to shop.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:04 PM on April 28, 2011

Revisiting now that I'm actually at a computer...

violetk: "less weight, more reps."

Most pros and researchers stopped believing this years ago. Google "Low reps vs. high reps" for a mountain of information (much of it conflicting, natch). Tons of research of varying quality has been published on this, and you might want to wade through some of it.

The most current trend I see in the low/high rep controversy is the opposite of violetk's view: low reps/high weight for strength gains; higher reps/lower weight for size gains.

But really, genetics determines how you'll respond to ANY type of resistance training more than anything. Whether you get "toned" or just bigger has more to do with your parents (and diet!) than with which exercises you do.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:36 PM on April 28, 2011

I'm wondering - are simple bodyweight exercises like pushups/situps/squats/lunges effective in helping to tone the muscle without extra bulk up?

There's no such thing as "tone" -- how "toned" your muscles look is a factor of muscle size and body fat percentage. Bodyweight exercises like pushups/situps/squats/lunges may or may not make your muscles bigger, depending on how much you do and especially what you eat, and they may or may not help to decrease your fat percentage, likewise depending on how much you do and especially what you eat. The same goes for every form of strength training.

I understand why you'd "feel like weight lifting has only added the pounds instead of helping me lose them", but this is probably primarily due to what you're eating, not what you're lifting. You may be eating a bit more than you need to lose weight, and/or your metabolism may just be the stubborn, holds-onto-fat kind; either way, if you weigh 135 and you want to weigh 120, no amount of adjusting your exercise program is going to get you there unless you also address your diet.

The good news is that having gained some muscle will really help when you do start to drop fat: it'll boost your metabolism a bit, and it's the only thing that'll make you look "toned" when you do hit 120 lbs, as opposed to simply skinny. In my experience it is almost always easier to bulk up before trying to cut fat percentage, rather than vice-versa... and that's exactly what you've done, so pat yourself on the back, lift heavy, and cut some calories!
posted by vorfeed at 1:41 PM on April 28, 2011

"As a women (sic), you don't have the testosterone production to bulk up"

This is BS; some women most certainly do. I'm a female who tested "high range of normal" for testosterone, trained high weight/low reps, drank lots of Muscle Milk post-workout, did insane numbers of incline crunches with a 45-lb plate held across my chest, worked up to doing bent-over rows with a 100-lb dumbell, etc. and guess what? I bulked the hell up. In an attempt to reverse my osteopenia and avoid osteoporosis, I went from "needs the child's cuff for taking blood pressure" to "meaty". I like being strong, so whatever.

Unfortunately, for some women it's very much a case of "train like a dude, look like a dude". If I were you, I'd stick to cardio, stop worrying about it so much, and be glad you're in good health.
posted by aquafortis at 2:06 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're question isn't really specific, and I think it's confusing people a little bit so you're getting answers all over the place. Basically you still want to lose weight, and maybe get a more athletic look, correct?
Let's look at some basic things people are not really explaining here. Three things make up a workout program: Intensity, Volume, Frequency.
It's fairly simple but for some reason people espouse ideas about workouts that doesn't really line up with the simplest method for getting people to where they want to be.
Intensity - The amount of weight used, percentage of the one repetition maximum, or the effort used during the exercise.
Frequency - The number of workouts per week (or unit time) or number times a muscle group is trained per week (or unit time).
Volume - Total amount of work performed in a training phase (workout, week, month, etc). Methods of calculating include:
number of repetitions or sets performed in a workout
product of resistance and repetitions (eg: 10 reps * 45 kg = 450 kg)
total work (eg: 445 N * 1 m * 10 reps = 4450 J)

When you're trying to lose weight what you want to concentrate on is high volume or frequncy of work. Intensity is at best a medium priority and will work great as a low priority. Simply speaking, high rep workouts(=more volume), which offers an increase in recovery time and which also means a decrease in time between workouts(= more intensity). Soooo, concentrating on heavy weights and low reps (= decreasing frequency and volume of work) is not the best way to lose weight.

Anyway, to answer your last question:

I'm wondering - are simple bodyweight exercises like pushups/situps/squats/lunges effective in helping to tone the muscle without extra bulk up?

The simple answer is yes, but the context is a much larger conversation. I would suggest you check out some articles from people who get to do this thing for a living, like Rachel Cosgrove or some others at Figure Athlete.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:54 PM on April 28, 2011

One thing I should mention is that if I were to suggest a specific workout it would revolve around complexes or circuit training in the vein of HIIT type training.

Here's a great article about what I was getting at in my last post.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:25 PM on April 28, 2011

Mearls can I just say that article explained to me what I feel like I've been trying to grasp for forever in terms of how to build a workout. Thanks!
posted by whoaali at 3:43 PM on April 28, 2011

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