I Don’t Want to Bulk up – But Why Should You?

Functional Resistance Training for Women

Posted Jul 06, 2013

In an interview with a fitness instructor and personal trainer, we talk about the importance of the ideal body. The instructor believes that exercising to obtain a ‘certain look’ is still ‘big.’ Men’s pressure to build a six-pack has increased, but a lot of women, she asserts, ‘are still scared to lift weights because they don’t want to bulk up and then look masculine.’ As I established in an earlier blog, the ideal masculine body is characterized by visible upper body musculature in the shoulders (the deltoid muscles), the chest (the pectoralis major muscle), the upper back (trapezius muscle and latissimus dorsi muscle), the upper arms (biceps brachii muscle), and the abdominal area (‘the six pack’, rectus abdominis). Many resistance training machines and weight training exercises focus on building these muscles. The ideal feminine body is thin and while ‘flab’ is not desired anywhere, toned muscles are desirable in legs as opposed to a ‘bulky’ upper body. The instructor defines a fear of building big muscles as a myth because it is important also for women to gain upper body strength. While not everyone buys into this myth, this instructor has often confronted these types of attitudes when designing resistance training programs for women who do not want to get ‘big.’

When I ask how she negotiates women’s fears and the need for strength, she first refers to the amount of training needed to build significant muscle mass: one needs to do a specific training program designed for building muscle size. Working out ‘an hour a day’ will not result in ‘huge muscles’, she suggests, but possibly in more muscle tone. Fitness industry professionals have referred to this fact for some time now to persuade women to strength train. However, the instructor’s second point refocuses the discussion: she wants her clients’ attention on what their bodies are capable of doing, what they can accomplish rather than what their bodies look like. With this approach to fitness training, we move from a focus on the looks of the body to the body’s ability to perform tasks.

The goal is to improve how the body functions and therefore, this type of training is sometimes called functional fitness. This term, however, has assumed multiple meanings depending on what is considered ‘functional.’ In my own approach to fitness, I endorse the idea of helping individuals to move better through their everyday tasks. This approach allows for increased individuality in training practices: movement needs of an elite athlete are different from a stay-at-home mom with young children, an office worker, or a retired person. In this sense, functional fitness training provides for multiple needs where ‘looks based’ training is based on the same, narrowly defined young, thin, and toned feminine body ideal which, for most of us, is unattainable. From this perspective, looks based training could be considered functional for those working in ‘looks based’ industries (e.g., modeling). As most women do not enter these professions, alternatives to ‘looks based training’ are definitely needed.

How does functional training differ from ‘looks based’ training? There are many characteristics to functionality. Some advocate multi-joint training instead of single-joint training because many everyday movements involve more than one joint. Most resistance training machines are based on single joint training. For example, the elbow joint is moved by the biceps (brachii) and the triceps (brachii). Each muscle can be trained separately with a purpose built machine. The benefit of this type of training is its specificity: the machine guides us to train the intended muscles effectively. If we think about it, however, we do not use an isolated elbow flexion very often in every day life. Therefore, building a big biceps is not very functional for either men or women in the current society, but serves more to create a look defined desirable for males. Other advocates of functionality assert that the workout should resemble every day movement patters instead of movement positions that we would never perform outside an exercise setting. In my own training, I aim to think of improving the function of overused muscles and joints by stretching and releasing them and strengthening the underused muscles. This does not exclude single joint movements or any particular exercise, but allows me to think how to balance the different demands placed on my body given my particular lifestyle. To illustrate my point, I will use myself as an example.

The majority of my time during the day is spent sitting in front of a computer screen. This position requires me to have constant elbow flexion. I have to hunch my shoulders forward and round my lower and upper back. I lean my head forward to look at the screen. The muscles needed for this work would include my biceps (to keep my elbows bent), my pectoralis major to keep my arms adducted in front of my body, my trapezius to slightly lift my shoulder blades and keep my head from falling forward. I also need to slightly lift my arms and thus, I need to engage my deltoid muscles. To my functional thinking, these muscles are overused during my work day and thus, they need releasing and stretching instead of further strengthening. Considering also that I seldom need to use elbow flexion to lift anything heavier than a pen, I do not need to train to obtain significant biceps strength.

The muscles that I overload during my work day are also the upper body muscles that are part of an ideal masculine body. As I don’t necessarily need significantly more strength in these muscles in my everyday life, I should not really worry about substantially training these muscles, besides releasing and streching, to manage my life well. The muscles that I need to worry about are the ones balancing the work of the biceps, the pectoralis major, the trapezius, and the deltoids. Therefore, it is important for me to strengthen, for example, my triceps, the muscles in between my shoulder blades (to prevent my shoulders hunching forward), the rotator cuff muscles in my upper back, and my lower back muscles. I have not heard many worried comments about bulging rhomboids in between the shoulder blades or growing huge lower back muscles. Consequently, if one thinks functionally balancing the body’s movement needs, ‘looking bulky’ becomes a much lesser issue. Functional resistance training of the underused muscles can include single or multi-joint movements. In addition to the upper body, I should think of strengthening all levels of my abdominals to sustain my posture when sitting or standing. As my legs are bent sitting down, I should consider stretching the muscles contracted (such as the hip flexors, quadriceps, and gluteus maximus) and strengthening my inner and outer thighs. In addition to resistance training, I should also consider my cardio-vascular fitness needs, but that is topic for another blog.

With a focus on balancing the needs of one’s body, exercise becomes less of a gender issue where women’s and men’s exercise programs need to be different because they want their bodies to look different. Women and men who work in similar sedentary positions can have very similar functional training needs and thus, resistance training is not designed to change the looks of their bodies but to alleviate work related pain and improve mobility in what ever activity one is interested in. This does not mean that we all will look the same—that is already predetermined by our genetic make-up. On the contrary, a functional focus to resistance training allows for individual differences in terms of specific exercise possibilities without the fear of unintentionally growing visible muscle bulk. For example, someone working in an office during the day, might also be an avid triathlete and thus, the bodily requirements for balancing both work life and triathlon training need to be considered. Many athletes also need considerable muscle strength and thus, should embrace visible musculature. We all need muscles to have enough strength to support our bones, but the amount of strength in specific muscles can vary greatly depending on each individual’s needs.

Instead of worrying about ‘bulking up,’ we could celebrate the muscles that enable us to do what we want to do. The instructor and I are proud of the muscles that allow her to perform her job and allow me to function in my everyday life without pain and to move smoothly in a variety of situations. Muscles are necessary for poised movement, not for ‘the looks of body.’ They should, thus, be appreciated as important parts of anyone’s beautifully moving body.

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