Illustration of a woman squatting a barbell
Elnora Turner
Life

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.
23 July 2020, 8:45am

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 made me enormous, without my permission. I didn't mean for this to happen, but now I am permanently stuck this way. Children cry in the street when they see my enormous arms and bulging quads; as I waddle through grocery store aisles and struggle to reach up for boxes of cereal on the high shelves (my arms and so big and tightly-bound I can't lift them more than shoulder height), men throughout the store whisper to one another "dear God, what is that thing?" But this is no one's fault but mine, for touching the devil's iron tools; now I'm doomed to roam the Earth forever, wailing for acceptance and understanding, picking up semi-trucks and cars only to put them down again, very gently, because it's all that I am good for.

I am, of course, joking.

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 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. Here are a bunch of people who became substantially smaller while lifting weights as some or all of their exercise. Here are some people who have lost body fat through heavy lifting from the r/progresspics subreddit:

Here are some more:

Switched from cardio/yoga to weight lifting

CICO (calories in/calories out) and strength training

Strength training and a keto/intermittent fasting diet

CICO and weight lifting

CICO, cardio, and lifting heavy

Nutrition and lifting heavy 5x/week

While this doesn’t quite start to answer the questions at the top, I’m trying to get at the underlying fear of the questions, which is that lifting weights will necessarily make you bigger. It will not. 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.

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

They do this in cycles, all while training, for let’s say, a decade, or at least 20 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 offence 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. We can go on looking like we do not do very much at all other than having a good time and eating a lot of food.

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 doesn’t EQUAL strength; though big people 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 wasn’t worried about gaining a little 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 good it looks, how small and skinny 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.

The best thing that strength training actually did for me was detach me from how my body looked being the number-one most important thing about it. Before I started, 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.

This probably explains more fairly muscular people than you might realize; it might be hard to imagine someone whose appearance is 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 and see the results?

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?

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.

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 swole.woman@vice.com.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.