Muscle Hypertrophy in Women
We have all heard the argument about women not wanting to get big, bulky, muscular, she-hulkish, so on and so forth. Not to mention everyone has varying sets of genetics (some women pack on muscle without thinking while others work their butts off for minimal gains) and definitions of bulky. Yes, yes. Whatever.
To combat the misconception that strength makes you big, many women stick with low weight, high rep training. ALA Tracy Anderson.
Complete one set of each exercise every other day. You’ll need a pair of 3-pound dumbbells. “Don’t go any heavier,” Anderson cautions. “Lighter weights and higher reps are key to chiseling your arms in a very sexy, detailed way.” As you become stronger, tack on additional reps—up to 10 at a time. Anderson’s clients often eke out 100 reps per move in a session.
Truth be told, I would never begrudge an individual the body she finds sexually appealing. Personally, I think strong and muscular, but with a little bit of fat in the thighs and butt, is extremely feminine and attractive. (The context of this post is in terms of women, so why not share my opinion?) My problem is the logic behind this kind of training.
Let me explain.
Bodybuilders, men and women alike, are very good at getting big. The successful bodybuilders are, anyway. The whole point of their training routines, aside from enjoyment, physical well being, and to some degree strength, is to get big. As big as possible. Bigger than every other man or woman trying to get big. How do they do this?
Sure, I mean, there is a lot more that goes into it, but volume is kind of an overarching necessity. Say what you want about body part splits (i.e. devoting 2 hours to your quads or an hour to your biceps every week), they make people big and they have for as long as bodybuilding has existed. The best bodybuilders often even incorporate compound movements, such as squats and deadlifts, but instead of doing 5×5, they’ll do 10×5 or 5×20 or 10×10. (That means 5 sets of 5 reps, 10 sets of 5 reps, 5 sets of 20 reps, etc.)
I was going to link some specific articles to really drive the point home, but instead I’ll point you to individuals themselves. I have read articles by and/or heard talks from all of these gentlemen on muscle hypertrophy (size gain):
- Bret Contreras
- John Romaniello
- Nick Tumminello
- Jason Ferruggia
- and let us not forget the classic of classics, Arnold Schwarzenegger
I realize I have just listed a bunch of men. Their gender doesn’t negate their knowledge as it applies to women, but if that doesn’t convince you that some amount of volume is necessary, just look at Crossfit competitors, regardless of your opinion of Crossfit. The women jacked but are not doing body part splits like bodybuilders, but they are doing a very high volume.
While I am almost positive none of them follow the National WOD’s (workout of the day) on a regular basis, the structure is still similar in terms of movement quantity. Here is today’s National WOD for instance:
Complete 4 Rounds Total for Time
40lb dumbbell squat cleans, 23 reps
200m is hard to swim fast (at least it was for me), combined with nearly 100 reps of squat cleans? AND to do that amount of work on a regular basis? Oof. This then begets an importnat question: Why are women resorting to lower weight and higher reps to avoid muscular hypertrophy?
If your goal is not to put on mass, this just seems counterintuitive to me.
Instead, look at many powerlifters; they tend to be smaller than their bodybuilding counterparts in terms of muscle mass. (I have always loved this article by Bret Contreras, “Why Bodybuilders are More Jacked Than Powerlifters“.) Hell, the women’s weight classes for powerlifting go as low as 97 lbs – you don’t need to be big to be strong.
That is kind of all I had to say on this. I would be really curious to hear the community’s thoughts on this one, so please leave a comment if you have anything you’d like to add!
An important point I considered and then neglected to write was brought up in the comments. The commenters did a lot better job phrasing it than I did, so I am just going to quote them.
I see your point about Tracy Anderson and the high volume thing being just about the same as body building, though there’s one main difference I would suggest — Tracy Anderson’s 3 lbs are nowhere near the max for her recommended rep ranges. And really, body building hinges on lifting heavy enough within that rep range, doesn’t it? If a body builder wants to go high reps on legs and does 5 sets of 20 squats, he’s still going to use the most weight he can for those 20 rep sets. He’s not going to artificially set a limit, as Anderson would, on the amount of weight he can put on the bar. And there are plenty of times when a lower volume scheme could be added to an otherwise high volume body building program — like to bust a plateau, etc.
3 pounds is light enough that most women won’t get big from it, even if you did do 100 reps. there’s not enough muscular stimulation, in my opinion. high reps like that need to be combined with moderate to heavy weights (ala bodybuilders) to produce the big mass.
Yes, 3 lbs is not enough to produce muscle gain and it isn’t enough to build strength. So…what is it enough for? I suppose maybe the ‘feel good’ effect of knowing you’re moving and not totally stationary. Just don’t tell me ‘toning’. Toning means losing fat (diet) and having enough muscle to produce a line (hypertrophy).