a person walking through a doorway transforming from normal-sized to muscular
Illustration by Elnora Turner

If I Wanted to Actually Go to the Gym, I'd Simply Have Confidence and Time

Where to start and how to best go about building a jacked and tan upper body.
December 11, 2019, 8:27pm
Sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs? A Swole Woman is here to help you be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.

Hey Casey!

I'm a transgender guy who isn't on testosterone, which means I'm practically unchanged physiologically. I cycle, so my legs are pretty strong, but I've always had pretty weak arms. I really want to start bulking up to feel more comfortable with myself! There's a logging sports club at my college that's really cool, but I also suck at time management. Any tips on either feeling confident enough to pursue getting swole, or actually doing it amongst all the other time-consuming stuff?




A logging! Sports! Club! I struggle to think of anything I’ve ever supported more after hearing less about it. That sounds great, and you should do it.

It does sound like the kind of thing that would benefit from upper-body strength, but lower-body strength can contribute more than a lot of people realize even to upper-body activities. For instance, if you think of a baseball player swinging a bat or throwing a ball, they are really using their whole bodies, including hips and legs, to make it happen. The same goes for a lot of what we do with ourselves, and training lower bodies can help prevent injuries that can come from imbalances that result from, well, only training upper body. And while cycling is good, it’s not really a strength- or stability- or mobility-building activity (and has you crouched in one position the whole time).

The good news is absolutely everyone can benefit in the same ways from basic strength training, T or no T; that ability to benefit is not affected at all by your gender or hormones! Many people erroneously assume strength training is about getting a ripped look, but it extremely doesn’t have to be about that. Being able to squat or deadlift or bench even a modest amount of weight will require strength as well as general mobility (you’d be surprised the number of people who cannot, due to all the chair-sitting and tight-pants-wearing we do, actually do a proper squat at first). So just the pursuit of the activity, “results” aside, can have huge payoff in how it feels to just move around or do simple activities. In your case, it will pay off in the speed with which you can hand-saw a section of tree trunk.


I say all this because it plays into the trepidation many people have about strength training: When they see only muscle-bound alpha dudes in the weight room, they take that to mean strength training is not for them, since they are not a muscle bound alpha dude, nor do they want to be. This is patently incorrect; strength training is for everyone.

More importantly, everyone starts somewhere, even the muscle-bound alpha dudes. It feels embarrassing to go into a gym or weight room for the first time and awkwardly struggle mightily with a few pounds while it feels like everyone around you is handling enormous weights with ease, or worse, with dramatic grunts and sweat-bullets so you can see and hear just how hard they are working.

But the entire way strength training works is through a method called “progressive overload,” where you are adding intensity or volume (more weight, or more reps, more time under tension) to all your lifts, as opposed to going in and doing the same exact routine with the same weights and peacing out. You don’t go in and do three sets of 20 curls with two-pound weights and then slowly back out of the room; you go and do, say, three sets of five bench presses with 45 pounds, and then the next week with 50 pounds, and then the next week with 55 pounds, next week with 60 pounds. You support this process by eating and sleeping enough, so your body can build back the muscles it broke down during your workout. It may feel like you are totally incapable of this, when you might feel like you’re breaking a sweat with the two pound weights you’re already using. But some small adjustments (heavier weight, fewer reps, making sure you take care to eat enough) makes a huge difference.

Another thing that will help your confidence is knowing exactly what you’re doing when you go in the gym, or at least having a simple plan. Fortunately, strength training programs don’t have to be insanely complicated. (Here are a bunch recommended by the r/ftmfitness subreddit). Remember that doing anything the first time in life is incredibly awkward. It’s important to accept that and know that each subsequent time, you will get more comfortable, and eventually even be as comfortable as the alpha dudes you were intimidated by in the first place (really, they can be OK).

Generally, these programs take the form of a few sets of a few reps of only a few exercises. Getting stronger does not require logging billions of hours in the gym or such intensity that you dread each session. You may be surprised how easy it actually is.

Once you’ve gotten a little stronger, you can start pursuing the “bulk” side of things. As the r/ftmfitness subreddit says, “No one has ever accidentally built muscle”; you need deliberate effort in order to get bigger (that subreddit may be a great resource for you in general). People who want their muscles to be bigger focus their gym work in the “hypertrophy” range, which means slightly more reps (8-12 per set is common). I personally got a lot out of this post about hypertrophy work to get an overall better bench press; real ones know a great bench comes from a holistically strong and balanced upper body, including shoulders and back, and not just chest and arms.

You may have some particular concerns about the social environment and/or political climate of any given gym. Fortunately, as strength training gets more popular, many more gyms are becoming sensitive to matters of inclusivity, and there are even gyms that have opened in recent years with a specific focus on making sure people who traditionally feel marginalized by a stereotypical gym feel safe, supported, and encouraged. Nothing is perfect yet, but it can be worth looking for somewhere in your area that makes a point of being an inclusive space. Regardless of where you live, just as an example of what this can look like and what standards we might hold existing gyms to, you could check out Strength For All in Brooklyn.

As for time management, getting to the gym involves some combination of prioritizing that personal choice and not trying to change too many things too quickly. But think of it this way: 40 minutes three times a week is almost no time at all (two hours total! It’s practically nothing!). You might spend more time sitting and bingeing a TV show in a single night than it would take you to do a week’s worth of workouts. It’s annoying to add yet another Task to the pile of stuff we all have to do, but if at all possible, think of it as a privilege that enriches the rest of your life (which it does): carrying things around is easier; bending down to pick stuff up is easier; your lower back hurts less; colors are brighter; food tastes better; the air feels lighter on your skin. When you think about it, it’s almost rude of you to yourself not to lift weights.