Illustration of a woman squatting a barbell
Elnora Turner

Can Lifting Heavy Weights 'Tone Me Up' Without Making Me Big?

Bodybuilding, strength sports, and weight training for fun all have things in common, but one of them is not being ripped for the gods against your will.
July 22, 2020, 5:31pm
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What is the difference between bodybuilding (especially the “physique” class) and lifting for lifting’s sake? - AF

How can I get strong without getting swole? That is, powerful with minimal visible muscle? - Mouse

Ok so, here I am:

As you can see, it's true; lifting weights muscle-bound me, without my permission. I didn't mean for this to happen, but now I am permanently stuck this way.

I’ve been lifting consistently for six years now (five in this picture) as my only form of exercise, yet I would say don’t look like I do at all. I take special pride in my back exercises, The “Swole Woman” thing is mostly a joke about how I’m not swole at all (and because it causes men who care very much about how women look to message me “you’re NOT swole,” and it’s the little things that get you through). Many people can grow pretty big muscles, especially with the help of drugs, but I feel like what we’re getting at here is, does anyone need to worry about becoming huge by accident? The secret I can tell you is, if you try pretty hard, the best you will probably do is something like the above.


It’s a funny thing to me that I spend at least some of my time trying to convince people to lift weights by telling them it won’t change very much about how they look at all. It seems like we all think—I include myself because this applied to me several years ago—that if we lift weights, our bodies will stay the same size but somehow look as if muscles were virtually painted on to us, if it doesn’t make us even bigger. Likewise, we think cardio is the only way to become smaller, or maintain the same size.

This is demonstrably untrue; the variety of ways that lifting, like all physical activity, can affect a person’s body, including “not very much at all,” is much greater than we are made to believe based on the “long and lean muscle toning” marketing for Pilates or barre classes trying to scare you out of lifting. Strength training can also cause body fat loss, and there are ample before-and-after pictures of people who have lost body fat from a strength training program, sometimes in pursuit of a more conventionally attractive aesthetic. But if those kinds of things are reassuring to you, I want to return to problem of that being the case, after talking about general difference in training for size versus training for strength, or just general health.

While lifting weights is a critical tool in making muscles bigger, it will not necessarily make you bigger. This is true for two reasons: one, how you lift and what you lift substantially affects how your body responds. Two, it takes an enormous amount of effort, probably so much more effort and time (and food, and maybe even muscle-enhancing drugs) than you can imagine to become really bigly muscular.

First let’s talk about how people get big. They get a little strong to begin with, so they can lift heavy enough weights with which to get big. Then they start programs that focus on a “hypertrophy” (muscle-size-increasing) rep range, which generally means most movements they are doing are for sets of 6-15 reps. They pursue cycles of bulking and cutting, or eating more calories to build up body mass, including muscle, and then eating slightly fewer calories than they technically need for short periods of time to shed the body fat they gained while they were putting on muscle.

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They do this in cycles, all while training, for let’s say, a decade, or at least twenty bulk and cut cycles. Here’s one pretty typical example, Katie Lee, with a comparison photo of where she was at after three years of training versus eight years:

You can see she's done a lot more with her years of training than I have, physical-appearance-wise. In both photos, she is also stage-prepped, which is another whole process of delicately manipulating diet and body fat to look maximally lean for the shows she is doing to enhance the muscles; outside of show season, she would be much less lean. Here is an interview with bodybuilder Shanique Grant, as well as a competition prep video from Karolína Borkovcová, that encompasses how complex this process is, so you can see you couldn’t possibly do it by accident:

Now, let’s talk about how people get strong. Some things are the same, but not everything. They start off with a basic strength training program, where they likely prioritize movements for low numbers (five-ish or fewer) of reps. At first they are able to increase the weight they lift every session, then after several months of that, they probably can’t increase weights more than weekly.

After that, strength progress gets a lot less straightforward and they spend most of their time lifting less weight than they are technically capable of, because it would be extremely taxing to push themselves too hard all of the time. At that point, they are not world-class athletes, but are almost certainly in the intermediate-ish range of “strong” people. If they wished to continue to get even stronger, they would ALSO start to undertake bulking and cutting cycles (I’ve done this a few times myself, and, see the above photo). Their training would stay oriented toward strength, and they might work in some hypertrophy-range movements too after their strength stuff, because a slightly bigger muscle will help them be stronger.

And while many of the strongest people out there are on the bigger side, many are pretty far from what you might think of when you think “meathead who lifts weights.” Here are Kavita Devi, an internationally competitive weightlifter who now wrestles in the WWE, and Kim Walford, an international powerlifting champion and record holder:

I think it's fair to say they don't look like how the average person pictures a bodybuilder, no offense to them. And that’s assuming you want to be nationally competitive; if you’re content to just do lifting as your workout, perhaps getting somewhat stronger along the way but OK with not achieving much, here, come sit by me.

For another counterexample to “the stronger I get, the larger I’m going to be compared to everyone,” look at Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron. He is sure lifting some serious weight, but he is not strong enough to qualify for Nationals in the most prominent powerlifting federation in the US right now. He’d be in a great position to get there, probably, but huge as he was, that didn’t make him the strongest guy.

Size, and especially leanness, doesn’t equal strength; though big people with highly visible muscles can be quite strong, smallish people can be very strong also. How big you’d have to get to be the strongest you can possibly be would be pretty dependent on your genetics, but you’d have at LEAST a solid year of training to do before you’d even have to worry about making the choice to get a tiny bit bigger in order to get stronger.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but by the time I got to that point myself, I loved the feeling of being strong and getting stronger so much I wanted to gain weight and muscle to do it, and it ended up being one of the most gratifying and validating experiences of my life, in part because getting strong allowed me to understand the value of my body in a way other than how it looks or how small it could be. My body was capable of going to the gym and banging around 45lb plates; if I could eat a few more cookies in order to allow it to do more of that, who was I to say no to myself?


So now, more to your actual question: how do you get stronger without getting bigger? You just do a beginner strength training program, eat enough (at your maintenance calories, even a little more), and sleep. That’s all. Worrying about getting bigger is getting so much farther ahead of ourselves than people realize. And even if you do end up getting accidentally swole, muscle does also go away if you stop using it as much; I wrote about this specifically in relation to Jessica Biel training for Blade: Trinity.

Before I started lifting, how my body looked was the number-one most important thing about it, the thing I cared about most was how it would change how I looked. When I actually started doing it, not only did I realize that the appearance changes I was afraid of were almost a non-issue, but the changes that did happen were far less important than the way it made me feel, which was like a beast.

But I want to address this idea of detaching from appearances more, and relate it to the before-and-after pictures mention above. I found images like that to be comforting in getting started with lifting, but I now have a lot of discomfort about it being a factor for me. I’m not proud of it. I wish I could say I got into lifting because I was able to detach first from the value I placed on what I looked like, when really, it mostly happened the other way around: Lifting has done a lot to help me detach. 


But that doesn’t change the fact that I needed to reinforce my bias toward a particular beauty ideal to feel okay about it, or that whatever feelings of body neutrality I can achieve is still enabled by a system that values the way I happen to look in the course of pursuing a balanced lifestyle, while punishing others who don’t enjoy the same physical privilege. 

I want to confront the biases contained in being motivated by images like this, and in fear of looking any way but as thin, modelesque, straight, cis, and white as possible. Images like this give may comfort us personally, but the values they represent—that being smaller has value, while being bigger does not—still reinforces those biases at large. While the scaremongering about the relationship between “becoming tremendously bulky” and “lifting weights” is practically unfounded, the real problem remains the fear about, and bias against, larger body shapes and sizes. 

If you find images like this or the idea that your body will look certain ways and not others reassuring or motivating, I’d strongly encourage you to confront it, too; while it may feel like a higher bar, it’s important work. I also strongly recommend further reading on this subject, including this Vox piece about before and after pictures; this Human Parts piece about Transformation Tuesday; and more widely on the subject of fatphobia and physical appearance biases, Charlotte Zoller’s column at Teen Vogue, and Your Fat Friend’s column at SELF


Relating to your body based on what it can do or how it feels may explain fairly muscular people than you might realize; it might be hard to imagine someone whose appearance may so driven by an activity they deliberately do, not because of how it makes them look, but because they just like the activity a lot. But this is a hard thing to understand if you haven’t explored that possible relationship with yourself ever. Is it possible they love lifting because lifting is good, Janice? Not because they are narcissists, but because it's fun to do a physical activity?

Do I need to put it out there that, most ultimately, it sucks that we even care about how an activity that makes us vastly healthier and in better shape makes us look? That we care MORE about how it makes us look than what it does for our health or how it makes us feel? More to the point, there are many people who are strong and pursue lifting who don’t look like the stereotypical beefcake; it further sucks that our understanding of what “strong” and healthy looks like does not encompass them, but does encompass people who go through dieting cycles so aggressive that it affects hormonal cycles, or require drugs with severe side effects on their health.

It’s hard to articulate what about lifting heavy weights feels so good, but I think it’s something to do with the fact that it accesses a physical intensity that the vast majority of us don’t experience in everyday life; even the way I feel after running a long distance is not the same. When I’m lifting a heavy weight, my focus has to be so totally on what I’m doing that there’s no room for other thoughts. Particularly in these wild and weird times we are being told to take time for ourselves to center and detach from our stresses and concerns and "read a book or something," lifting works much better for me than reading.

So if you’re thinking about getting into strength training but worried about how it will change you physically, I know it’s extremely fraught to say “don’t worry about it” when appearance, for many people, is a highly sensitive topic, but really, you shouldn’t worry about it. Just try it! I promise you will see what I mean.

Update: This article has been changed throughout to more thoroughly confront the biases inherent in reassuring people about the the effects that lifting may or may not have on physical appearance, or the role of physical appearance in strength training in general. I deeply appreciate that people I respect took the time to check me on this, and welcome further comments or discussion on these issues at

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email