Disclaimer: There have been a ton of questions about this topic from both inside and outside the gym, from lots of different people. Although, if this topic resonates with you, take the time to read it. This post is more a psychological and analytical approach to body image. Lastly, this applies to any weightlifting regimen, not just CrossFit.
One of the most difficult things to fight as a coach is the thought that “Lifting weights is going to make me ‘bulk up’” from women. There are many of us in the gym that wouldn’t be as enamored with CrossFit if we didn’t see aesthetic results in combination with fitness results, so I do think it is a valuable question that needs to be answered.
The first thing you need to do is look around the gym at girls that have been CrossFitting for a long time. If we created “bulky bodies”, you would see them. Strong, not bulky, don’t you agree?
Definitions and Misconceptions:
To begin, we need to address some misconceptions about how the body works…
- You cannot “tone” a certain portion of your body. Your body will not lose fat in one spot at a time, it will only lose fat. Thus, you must reduce your overall body fat percentage to see results in the area you want. This is why the “ab-(insert attention-grabbing verb)” you see on TV won’t work to help you get a better midsection.
- Lean – having little to no surplus fat - Thus, to look “lean”, you need to have low levels of body fat.
- Toned – seeing muscle definition on a human body - Thus, to look “toned”, you need to have low levels of body fat combined with having enough muscular development that you can see the shape of the muscle under the skin. This is usually accomplished at below 20% body fat on women, and below 10% on men.
- You will never “bulk up” overnight, except from maybe an ice cream and beer binge (guilty). You will never wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you just built bulky muscles in your sleep.
First, I want to establish that having muscle doesn’t mean being bulky…
The first thing you need to do is compare these two women:
For reference, the girl on the left is a runway model and the girl on the right is an elite CrossFit athlete. Both have approximately 12-15% body fat. Both are doing something they love, and the bodies they have created help them do that.
On the left, we have a runway model who has almost zero muscular development while also having almost zero fat deposits. She has enough essential muscle to not fall over walking, but not much more. If you want to look like the woman on the left, sorry, but we cannot help you get there. Although, if you have an apple and a cigarette a day for about a year, you could get close (it supposedly worked for Christian Bale in the Machinist). However, CrossFit will not help you create that type of body.
The female on the right has spent years developing her strength and muscle. She has battled heavy weights and pushed herself to the limit to squat, deadlift, and lunge heavier weights every time she comes into the gym. She weighs approximately 35-40 lbs more than the runway model due to the large amount of muscle that she has acquired. She is likely approaching her genetic limits in the amount of muscle she can develop without going on a bodybuilding routine. Between her and the runway model, there is likely very little difference genetically, yet there is a huge difference in training and diet (more on this shortly).
Thus, you can have a large amount of muscle without ever looking “bulky”. Don’t you agree?
Now that we know that muscle doesn’t make you “bulky”, what does??
Well, the answer is fat. Excess adipose tissue will result in less than satisfactory aesthetics. This is regardless of the amount of muscle you have. This is easily seen in the image below:
The image shows a female figure that has a large amount of fat, while having a very small amount of muscle. This is described in the fitness community as “skinny fat”. While not overly “bulky” she doesn’t have the aesthetics that most of us work so hard to attain. The woman in this image is likely at a level close to 30% body fat and likely has a similar amount of muscle as the runway model. So even though she may look fine wearing a sweater, it is a different story at the beach.
The trick is how to fix this. Well, option 1 is to eat less and do tons of cardio, surviving on a diet heavy with running and light on food, and you will end up looking more like the runway model above. Option 2 is to develop muscle to burn away the excess fat while doing cardio, resulting in looking more like the elite CrossFitter above.
Ok, so we have started to establish that building muscle isn’t a bad thing, right? Yet, you are afraid that by squatting and deadlifting, you are making your legs and butt bigger, thus getting more “bulky”, correct?
Here is the kicker, the reason your legs (and shoulders and arms and back) are getting a little bigger is that you have now started to add some muscle to them. Now, that muscle will burn more calories, starting to help whittle away at the amount of fat you have on your body, even while you sleep. You now are able to achieve that “lean” and “toned” look, as your body fat levels have decreased, and your muscle is starting to show, giving the “toned” look.
Additionally, you cannot have a “toned” look without muscle. This is because that “toned” look that you are going for is the result of seeing muscle that is underneath a layer of fat. If you have too much body fat, it acts as a shielding layer. For those of us that require a visual, imagine your muscle as an apple sitting on a hard surface. Now cover the apple; what you cover it with is representative of your body fat. A wet paper towel=very low body fat. A dish towel = low body fat. A comforter = high body fat. As the covering gets thicker, it becomes harder to see the apple, which is exactly what happens as you gain body fat. Now, more muscle makes the object bigger, imagine the apple is now a grapefruit. Less muscle makes the object smaller, imagine changing the apple to a cherry. Even with all the objects being similar in size, it is the covering that determines how “bulky” they look; same with body fat.
Bad cardio and worse cardio…
Some people keep saying to be leaner they just need more cardio and less strength. Well, yes, if you just do “more cardio”, you will lose more fat, but you would also lose muscle because without anaerobic and strength training, your body burns muscle as well as fat. So, instead of looking more like a Victoria Secret model, you start to look more like a runway model. Then, once you stop doing “more cardio” you will gain fat even faster now that you don’t have the muscle to burn the extra calories, resulting in the “skinny fat” look. You can see this in ex-athletes that have tried to “get leaner” by doing “more cardio” only to result in having more fat with less muscle.
This can also happens as we age, as the muscle we built by running, jumping, and playing in our childhood and teens atrophies due to under-use with a more sedentary life, so people in their early twenties are seen as having “high metabolisms”, supposedly not having to work to maintain lean body shapes. This “high metabolism” is because the muscle they built in their teen years is burning excess calories and fat, and with the low body fat levels, you can see their “toned” muscle underneath. However, as they take day jobs and do not stimulate their bodies, their muscles atrophy, burning less calories and thereby lowering their “high metabolism” and leading to increased body fat as they age. Usually, people try to do “more cardio” to regain their lean, toned bodies that they had when they were younger. However, since they do nothing to build new muscle or maintain their current muscle, they slowly transition to a thin, but “skinny fat”, look as they age.
Most people can agree that they want to get “toned” and “lean”, but have you ever asked someone that was “toned” and “lean” what they have done to get that way? You should, because almost every athlete I know that looks “toned” and “lean” has spent years working to develop strength, power, speed, endurance, and stamina for a sport. They move HEAVY weights quickly.
Lastly, you will never be able to create muscles like a man lifting weights.
A WOMEN THAT LOOKS LIKE SHE HAS MUSCLES LIKE A MAN HAS LIKELY TAKEN STEROIDS!! This is the defined truth, a woman’s muscle development is much different than a man’s. Unless a woman has a very different genetic make-up (a very, very small portion of the population), it is almost impossible to build muscle like a man. (And, as much as you might think it is true, you only have a 1 in a million chance of being the 1 in a million that has the different genetics, so stop saying, and believing, it)
This is because males have 20-30 times the testosterone of women, resulting in deeper voices, more body hair, and more muscle development. Women just physically cannot build muscle like men can, sorry but it is a scientific fact. Some of the maximal amounts of muscle you can put on a female frame with CrossFit training can be seen below. These are women that built their bodies using sports and strength training.
An extremely high level of muscle on a female will look like the pictures above, but again, only with many YEARS of weights training and a focus on a clean diet.
So, lastly, just to clarify, “bulky” means fat. Which does not happen when you work hard at CrossFit!!