Experiences of females that started weightlifting?
October 16, 2013 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I switched from doing cardio to lifting weights at the gym, mainly because I LOVE IT. However, despite every website telling me that, as a woman, I won't get "big and bulky," I think I might be. I've gone up 1-2 clothing sizes, my butt has exploded, jackets now seem narrow in the chest ... It would be one thing if, standing nude in the mirror, I saw a 6-pack staring back at me, but I don't. It doesn't "look" like I've lost much body fat at all (but I can definitely tell that I've gained muscle - I've got a bicep! For the first time ever!). So, my question: will one day my muscle mass get large enough that my metabolism will rev up and my body fat will melt away? What are other ladies' experiences with beginning weight training and that effect on their body? (and I mean REAL weight training - bench presses of over 100 lbs, for instance - not lifting a 5 lb weight)
posted by athena2255 to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
There's a difference between getting "big and bulky" in the terms you describe, and the "big and bulky" that suggests ripped lady bodybuilder in a bikini competition.

You will gain muscle, but it seems much more bulky than you assume because you haven't lost the fat. No, just working out won't cut out most of that fat. You. Need to switch up your diet too, but you definitely will keep the muscle, too. Most women I know who lift (including myself) have gained a fair bit of weight on the scale, but if you can get the diet in order, you should look less "fluffy".

To put this in perspective, I gained about ten pounds and my body fat is low for a woman (about 13-15%) and I still don't look like a bodybuilder. It's so super hard to get that look, so wouldn't worry about that. I know women who bodybuild and figure comp for a living, and its still super hard for them. You have just gained muscle wight losing any fat.
posted by mrfuga0 at 3:41 PM on October 16, 2013

Muscles are built in the gym, fat is lost in the kitchen. No your metabolism will not "rev" up until you get into the caloric deficit needed to burn fat you need to diet.
posted by bitdamaged at 3:47 PM on October 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding mrfuga0. It took pretty serious diet adjustments and adding cardio 2-3 times per week for me to see results.

When I first started weightlifting I reshaped my body over the first six to twelve months and looked better in clothes, but didn't really lose any weight per se. When I got strict on the diet and added cardio the weight melted off exposing the muscles underneath.

No, I don't even remotely resemble a bodybuilder, never will, and unless I flex my body looks completely normal. It took pretty strict eating to reach that point, and weight lifting alone was sadly not even close to sufficient to lose the fat. I bench around 80, and deadlift 140.
posted by tatiana131 at 3:50 PM on October 16, 2013

Your metabolism won't "rev" up if you get into a caloric deficit either, but your body will have to find energy elsewhere, and will draw from both fat and muscle. If you aren't the type of person who already had a mini six-pack post-puberty then you aren't likely to get one even through a combo of dieting, lifting, and cardio without going to serious extremes. That doesn't mean that you can't get leaner, stronger, and fitter without going to serious extremes.
posted by Good Brain at 3:56 PM on October 16, 2013

It doesn't "look" like I've lost much body fat at all

And unless you're changing your diet, it won't and you won't. Different bodies are different, but I lost 30 pounds on diet change alone - no gym, no running, no kickball, no biking, etc. You are going to have to switch things up in the kitchen to see more results.
posted by rtha at 3:56 PM on October 16, 2013

Go to Nerdfitness.com and look for articles about spazzy, she is someone they feature often. She deadlifts over 300 pounds, and while she looks very fit, she certainly doesn't look super muscular. That site has a ton of good information.

If your goal is to get fit, get strong, and not get very muscular, the best way to do that is to focus on lifting heavy weights with full body exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, presses, etc. Lifting heavy with low reps will not build your muscles as big as if you are lifting moderate weights at 10 reps per set. You'll still get the other benefits, just not the same amount of size. I'm always surprised when I see this one guy come into my gym who looks really thin but can lift 500 pounds.
posted by markblasco at 3:56 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally, when I started lifting at least three days a week for 30 minutes or more and using heavier weights, I felt that parts of me did get bigger. My butt is more rounded. My chest/back seems larger around to me. My upper arms are large but not flabby (or particularly defined for that matter). I refuse to do another bicep curl ever. I have trouble I feel fitting into a regular Tshirt sometimes without tightness across parts of the shirt. I will never look like a bodybuilder but that doesn't mean I can't look larger from weight lifting. So people who say women won't look like a bodybuilder are missing the point I think of your question.

Now, the gains in size have been small when I check my measurements and I am more firm than flabby compared to the past. So a suggestion is for you to take detailed measurements.

The online trainer I use repeatedly says that you can't build unless you are taking in an excess of calories so diet is a really large part of it. Also he says that some women do build muscle and people do sometimes have muscles that respond more so you have to read your body and adjust your routine.

In my personal observations, I am a large person and I do not want to be larger whereas many small, lean builds seem to want to build more visible muscle and still remain within the desired societal norms for women.

I look forward to hearing other's experiences.
posted by RoadScholar at 4:00 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

These are my actual results after six months or so of weightlifting and switching to a low-carb diet. (Kinda NSFW, sports bra/naked torso)

Weightlifting did not make me bulky. I have always had big, strong thighs. That did not change. I got a higher, firmer butt that was probably slightly bigger. I got muscles in my back but I would not call them bulky. I lost many inches all over.

Again, this was with an overall calorie deficit and low-carb diet, weightlifting probably 3 times a week. I used the Starting Strength program and was deadlifting 150 lbs, squatting 145 lbs, benching 85 lbs.

I have lost more since then mostly through diet, but credit weightlifting greatly. I only lift about once a week now but would like to increase that.
posted by rachaelfaith at 4:05 PM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I lift weights and am also restricting carbs. My weight loss is slow but steady. If you decide to change your diet to lose weight, you need to eat right so you won't get weak and exhausted during your work-out. I do this by having the proper dose of carbs before I exercise, and keeping a close watch on how I'm feeling during and afterwards. Usually I eat something before I leave the gym. It took some experimenting to find out the best type of food, the best amount, the right timing of snacks -- and I actually had to eat too little a few times to realize what it felt like. There are all kinds of debates about eating before exercise; I think it all depends on the person, her workout, and how her body works. In my case, it's not enough food to cause a problem with digestion or feeling full.
posted by wryly at 4:30 PM on October 16, 2013

As you are not looking for a cultural observation; that you are a woman matters less than age and hormones. My across-the-hall neighbor [a woman] is a weightlifter. Certain hormones and exercise contrbute positively to muscle gain, age and exercise are what most contribute to muscle development.

"So, my question: will one day my muscle mass get large enough that my metabolism will rev up and my body fat will melt away?

Muscle tissue consumes energy by existing. Fatty tissue does not. "Rev up" might not be the best terminology but yes - if you maintain the same diet and gain muscle there will come a point where caloric expenditure will exceed caloric intake and your body will utilize fat as a source of calories.
posted by vapidave at 4:47 PM on October 16, 2013

Two sizes is a pretty big difference. I'll echo the calls that in order to lose fat you will need to also restrict your diet, and I would bet money that lifting has increased your appetite to the point that you are probably gaining both muscle and fat right now. This is what bodybuilders would call a "bulking" phase, and it's not a bad way to gain muscle and strength, but it's probably at odds with your goals if you don't want to literally get bigger (take up more space).

For what it's worth, I was a competitive powerlifter (I'm a lady) and although I felt awesome and strong and I looked good (in my opinion), lifting heavy weights did not give me a "conventionally attractive" body if you're basing your standards on, say, Self Magazine, or Cosmo, or whatever. In fact it took some of my genetic traits (thick legs, big butt, small waist) and accentuated them to an almost comic degree. It wasn't until an illness sidelined me from lifting and I lost about 40 lb of muscle and fat that my body became the societally "correct" shape, all the clothes at the store fit, etc etc. So I don't know what your goal is -- the only thing you mentioned in your post was a six pack, which could really go either way -- but if you're training for aesthetics you should know that models and stuff are pretty much thin women with genetically "correct" body shapes, and lifting does not make those bodies.
posted by telegraph at 4:49 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

To be fair, it might be more that you have a muscular body type than that you are doing something wrong with your diet. When was lifting heavy (300 DL, 185 squat, 135 bench) with a very restricted diet, I had some abs, but I also had larger thighs and uncomfortably large shoulders/upper arms. I agree that most women don't "bulk up," but I also think it's possible that some bodies are more likely to build muscle than others, or are already relatively muscular. I felt that I looked better under my clothes when I was training (firmer and more defined) but, as telegraph says, my clothes fit better/I've heard that I actually look slimmer now that I've stopped lifting and lost mass. This is sad for me because I love lifting and want to get back to it, but for me at least, there is an aesthetic tradeoff.
posted by ohkay at 4:56 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you quit doing cardio altogether in favor of weights, and didn't change your diet, your current results are pretty much what you can expect to happen. If you also want to have good health, you'll need cardio for that too.

Having a lot of muscle is no bar to eating in such a way that you'll gain fat instead of losing it.

With your jackets, it's probably the shoulders that are too narrow rather than the chest. If the jackets have shoulder pads in them, removing them may make them fit better.
posted by yohko at 4:57 PM on October 16, 2013

Most people will see some initial immediate gain in size and weight when they start lifting. This is because your muscles will retain more glycogen and water in response to the increased stress. This does not reflect an actual increase in muscle mass or fat any more than bloating when on your period reflects an increase in fat.

If you want to lose body fat, you have to tweak your diet. Nutrition changes are necessary for fat loss. Muscle gain helps with fat loss and ensures you look tighter and firmer as you lose the fat, and will make you look better at higher body fat levels than you would otherwise. But few people will see the body fat changes they want unless they consciously work on changing their diet.

I think where some women get confused about "bulking up" is they don't realize strength training is not a substitute for diet change, and thus get the intial "bloat" increase and any other subsequent muscle gains but don't decrease their caloric intake. This leads to them looking "bigger", even though very little of the actual size and weight changes are from muscle gain.
posted by schroedinger at 5:04 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, my question: will one day my muscle mass get large enough that my metabolism will rev up and my body fat will melt away?


Google image search "offensive line". Very muscular, very fat dudes. Sorry, but fat doesn't melt away.

Talk to male body builders. Those guys watch what they eat more obsessively than almost any other class of humans on earth. Like, scales for boiled chicken breasts. They eat a lot of lean protein, and basically nothing else. (Don't do this!)

Abs are made in the kitchen.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 5:10 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I work out a lot I will gain a ton of muscle in my upper body and no longer fit into the narrow shouldered women's clothing that fits the rest of my body. Small or xsmall waist, large or xlarge shoulders. Also the arm holes get too small to go around my upper arms. So in a sense I go up a size in my upper body but i dont get "bulky" or larger overall, I think that's a diet issue.

Personally I blame the lunatics that design women's clothing, not working out.
posted by fshgrl at 5:19 PM on October 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Search through /r/xxfitness, you can find lots of similar questions, anecdotes, before/after photos, etc.

To your question about metabolism, muscle does contribute to resting energy expenditure, but it's a relatively small amount -- around 6-10 calories per lb each day. Some cite that as proof of the fact that "strength training increases metabolism" is a myth. However, strength training can lead to a significant increase in energy expenditure, and lean mass gain is just one component of that increase. (Take a look through this review if you're curious.)

Having said that, if you want to reduce your body fat, that's almost always going to require some level of dietary control, not just lifting weights.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:44 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Calisthenics — bodyweight exercises — are great at building strength but generally not good for adding bulk. A recent post on the Progressive Calisthenics blog addressed this.

From personal experience, both my husband (by nature a big, beefy-tending-to-pudgy guy) and I (tending more toward the bony, wiry end of the spectrum) have found that the progressive calisthenics program laid out in Convict Conditioning builds solid, firm muscle but doesn't tend to add bulk. Fine by me, but he'd like to pack it on a bit more, and so may need to take some tips from that post.
posted by Lexica at 6:10 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Look at women who Crossfit and watch what they eat - that is your potential future! (Andrea Ager, Elizabeth Akinwale, Christmas Abbot, off the top of my head) - also Tumblr is great for finding women who are into weight lifting/crossfit and are happy to talk about how it has changed their bodies.
posted by hepta at 6:29 PM on October 16, 2013

Disclaimer: IANAD, and IANAPT. Good luck.

Easiest way I know to cut that last stubborn 10-15 pounds of flab off is to swim.

Swim slowly, if possible wear a suit that has a ton of drag, or maybe throw a long t-shirt on and swim slowly and deliberately. Maybe start with five laps, push it to ten, then up it to fifteen, then maybe drive for twenty.

Before you know it you'll be amazed with your muscular definition.
posted by Sphinx at 7:46 PM on October 16, 2013

Well, I loved weight training, and I never had a faster metabolism than when I was doing weights + cardio. I was triathlon training, so my cardio varied, but there was a big difference between the time I was just doing all the cardio, and doing cardio + weights -- serious weights too, heavy squats, bench presses, free weights. My energy was fantastic, every little chore of the day was easier from climbing stairs to doing laundry, and it did give my metabolism a lot of room. I was revving high just about all the time.

I recall that I did gain in definition and bulked up a little, but it kind of got where it was going to go and stopped. I doubt I would have gotten any bigger without getting into, like, competition level lifting. It actually transformed my shape, but in a really good way - my shoulders became very defined, as did biceps/triceps, quads, glutes and calves. There's just a big difference between slack muscle/fat and toned muscle, and that probably accounts for a large part of your change in shape. You aren't going to turn into He-Man all of a sudden.

Also, my body fat didn't "melt away," but it was much less, and in the end I totally didn't care if I had little fat deposits here and there because I was a weightlifting badass with a very positive body image. Though yeah, I was taking in a lot more calories and not gaining weight from it, because of the higher rev.
posted by Miko at 9:42 PM on October 16, 2013

High-level athletes, including top Crossfit women, are a very bad example for where the average woman "will go" when she starts weight training. Whenever you are looking at a high-level athlete and wondering about whether your body will look like theirs, look at their numbers and ask yourself how close you are to performing them. That is, are you squatting 350#+ and deadlifting near 400#? No? Then you will probably not be looking like Elisabeth Akinwale any time soon. Are you qualifying for the Olympics in hurdling? No? Then Lolo is likely not in your future. Now there are plenty of athletes who put out the same performance and still have different body types, but the differences between body types are not the difference between someone who deadlifts 350# and someone who deadlifts 50#.*

I think it is far better for you to look at the before/after photos of people in your similar situation (like that Nerd Fitness girl everyone talks about, or the myriad before/after on many fitness forums) than to look at high-level athletes and either freak out or despair about looking like them.

If you just have a bicep for the first time ever, then believe me, you have a long way to go before you're going to look like a high-level weightlifter or bodybuilder or whatever. If you have just started weight training, and feel you look "bulky", the issue is not muscle gain. The issue is body fat.

*And for the other strength-training nerds out there, yes, CNS development has a great deal to do with strength development and so strength-muscle mass are not so directly correlated but let's not be pedantic here
posted by schroedinger at 9:54 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I personally become "bulky" from exercise. Bellydance added to my waist because I built up lower bsck muscle in a way that riding and swimming, for instance, never had. Mearly not riding much and certainly not riding several horses several times a week has turned my arms into twigs that fit easily into cap sleeves.

However, that's me. I have very round arm and leg muscles.

There are women at my gym who are much stronger, pound for pound, and more fit thsn I who are not the least bit bulky or defined. Bodies are different.

If you ask me, you should celebrate developing your body, enjoy the many benefits if exercise and working with weights, and, if you want to drop fat, then eat less. A healthy you is going to look like a healthy you.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:24 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to a personal trainer for about a year and was doing only weightlifting and primarily bench presses, deadlifts, squats and kettlebells (with a few other varies lifting exercises thrown in). I didn't lose any weight and I don't even think I really dropped a size (I usually hover around a 12) but people at the gym did comment on my body shape, saying I looked thinner and in better shape. I was really proud of my muscles as well, I could really feel how strong my quads were and overall I felt a lot better physically and mentally.
posted by triggerfinger at 6:11 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I had a feeling I would need to diet; I wasn't looking forward to it.

To clarify: I started lifting approximately a year ago as a supplement to my cardio; I have since mostly dropped the cardio about 8 months ago. As for my body: I was definitely "skinny fat" before - a size six but weak and flabby. Now I'm a size 8/10 with actual thigh muscles and a butt you could balance a glass on. My waist is the same size as before, but I've probably gained about 3 inches in my butt/thigh area. Arms are the same - when I ride my bike, I can see my triceps bulging out. I like it.

However, despite my respect and appreciation for my body and what it can do, it would still like to lose about 10-15 pounds of fat. I have a belly pooch and flabby knees and hefty arms and all the rest. I eat low carb during the day & whatever my husband has cooked me for dinner. A beer or two nightly. Desserts on special occasions. Darn it - I LIKE the way I eat now and don't feel like I want to give up anymore ... Then this becomes more of a stage and less of a sustainable lifestyle. Sigh. So, I guess it's time to diet ... Blerg.
posted by athena2255 at 6:13 AM on October 17, 2013

Well, I'll suggest that you not think of "dieting" as a stage, and instead, changing your eating habits as the "sustainable lifestyle."

I will suggest that one major culprit is the beer. I am right there with you, I love a daily beer or two, but I have had to face the facts - beer is not low carb and not low calorie. I have cut back to an upper limit of 7 drinks a week (which is the maximum recommended for women healthwise anyway) and switched from mostly beer to wine or spirits. The results are surprising - just curtailing from, say, 10-14 drinks a week to 7 removes several hundred calories from your diet weekly and that translates to weight loss with few other changes.

You might need to start looking at "whatever is served" for dinner. You could work with the cook in your house to identify high-protein, lower-carb, high-veggie suppers that he can prepare. You could also check on your portion control. You can probably eat what he's making, but perhaps not in as large quantities.

Also, take a look at daytime. If you eat high-protein, low-carb all day, that's a good start. Be sure you have frequent snacks, because you need them when you have a higher-running metabolism. Snacking on healthy stuff - veggie sticks, hummus, mixed nuts, a piece of string cheese - will prevent you being famished and overeating at the end of the day.

Think of these as permanent shifts, not a temporary "diet." You need to eat a new way for the new body that you have. It isn't a dramatic or drastic shift - and you'll feel better and have more energy, and have plenty of wiggle room for those occasional treats.

Finally, belly pooch might not totally go away...I know it's not great news, but once you've brought your percentage of body fat down, it's still possible that you'll have loose skin and adipose tissue there from years of carrying extra weight there. I've been told the only complete "cure" for that is plastic surgery - the muscle underneath can be really tight, but there are no skin-surface muscles to make that spot taut again. But the first step would be to get to the fat percentage you're aiming for, and then see if it's still an issue for you.
posted by Miko at 6:29 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I should clarify the exercise that can make me bulky doesn't involve weights. (Not specifically - riding has some weight aspects such as picking out stalls and lifting hay bales and bags of feed. Overall, however, it's positions and balance.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:42 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Drop the beer. Switch to hard liquor. I know a lot of my weight began to go away when I stopped the regular beers - I still drink beer, but much less often.
posted by rtha at 7:26 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would suggest trying the Whole 30 diet for the prescribed 30 days. It is basically eating Paleo (if you need to google recipe suggestions). It's only 30 days. It will produce shocking changes in your body and you will reevaluate how you think about food. It will also be really, really hard - but you can do it. You're strong. Then, add back in beer and whatever else you miss. I think you will find that you will naturally drink with more moderation afterwards.

I'm an all or nothing person when it comes to diet. I can't cheat a little because I end up cheating a lot. What I like to do is commit to 4 Whole30's a year (when the seasons change, basically) and then eat basically what I want the rest of the time. It will make a big difference. Especially as you continue to build more muscle in your body, when you do cheat it won't affect you as much. But you have to get to the starting line you want before you can add the cheating in.
posted by corn_bread at 9:43 AM on October 17, 2013

Congrats on your new found strength & love of weightlifting! I've recently discovered it myself, and as a former skinny-fat, also found my first bicep muscle not too long ago. Awesome, right?

So it sounds like what's happening, as other MeFites have mentioned, is that you've gained some muscle without losing fat so now you're "bigger". OK, what now?

You say, "Darn it - I LIKE the way I eat now and don't feel like I want to give up anymore ... Then this becomes more of a stage and less of a sustainable lifestyle. Sigh. So, I guess it's time to diet ... Blerg."

I encourage you to start with reading Tradeoffs: What Will You Do For What You Want? and Is Being Really Lean Really Worth It, by heavy weight lifter and former figure competitor Molly Galbraith. You have some questions you need to ask yourself and answer first.

If you do decide you're willing to give up some things to be leaner, it doesn't have to be all low-carb, all or nothing, plain salads and chicken breasts forever. Jill Coleman has a ton of great advice on how to maintain a healthy diet without feeling deprived, how to practice mindful eating, and how to make fat loss a lifestyle, not just a diet. (Start with 11 Ways to Feel Less Deprived on your Healthy Diet, then check out the rest of her nutrition archive.) Also, Metabolic Effect has some good articles (like this one) about carb intake and how carbs aren't evil, they're individual.

You could also look into adding in some cardio back into your routine. You don't say why you dropped it in the first place, but it can be beneficial for fat loss and stress-reduction, and it doesn't have to be endless running on the treadmill. Check out Jill's Do You Even Sprint? 13 Female Fit Pros Weigh In With Their Own Cardio Routines. If you're not into traditional cardio (and you said you LOVE weights), maybe something like metabolic chains will appeal to you.

Good luck!
posted by geeky at 3:17 PM on October 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I was gonna ask about why drop cardio too. Cardio is just weightlifting for your heart, basically, and is great for your oxygen uptake which your muscles need. Quitting it cold may not be doing you any favors.
posted by Miko at 9:23 PM on October 17, 2013

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