Fitness Myth: Lifting Weights Makes You “Bulky”


My personal goals involve increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and performing heavy barbell lifts.

However, the majority of my clients do not share these goals. Most of my clients want to lose weight, regain function, improve posture, and reverse disease.

In fact, one of the most frequent concerns I hear from those trying to get in shape is that they “don’t want to get big muscles”.

For that reason, I’m going to discuss what causes muscle growth, and how you can avoid getting bulky muscles while still leaning out and improving performance.

The technical term for developing muscle size is “muscular hypertrophy”. Hypertrophy is merely the process of tissues increasing in volume. And the form of muscular hypertrophy that results in the largest muscular gains is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”.

Strictly speaking, 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate weight is the protocol for hypertrophy training. However, intensity and volume are the real deciding factors.

Intensity is accomplished by working until the muscles can no longer perform the exercise properly, known as “failure”, and moving quickly between sets.

Volume is an equation of sets, reps, and weight. This means that 2 sets of 20 repetitions


A female Olympian in the 165 lb. weight class. Does SHE look bulky? I don’t think so!

with 5 pounds will result in more growth stimulus than 3 sets of 1 repetition with 50 pounds.

I personally perform an exercise for 4 sets of 15 repetitions if I am trying to increase muscle size. Almost any load can cause significant growth when performed for 15 slow and focused repetitions.

I bring up the topic of intensity to address those that avoid lifting heavy weights because they don’t want to bulk up. The classic bodybuilder approach of 8 to 12 repetitions means that “heavy weights” (relative to the individuals strength) cannot be used.

BulkyThe weights that bodybuilders handle may look heavy but this is merely because they are very strong and have been lifting, with regular improvement, for a long time. It may look like a bench press with two 75-pound dumbbells looks heavy, but if the individual is doing it for 8 or more reps, they could handle over 100-pound dumbbells for fewer reps.

Contrarily, lifting a massively heavy weight for fewer than 5 repetitions will actually train the mind more than the muscles. Yes, the body is getting a great workout, but lifting a maximum load for 1, 2, or 3 repetitions results in more neurological adaptations than muscular growth.

So, if any rep range can stimulate muscle growth, and 8 to 12 reps with a moderately-heavy weight is the most promising to grow muscles, what can you do to avoid “bulking up”?

  • Always feel like you could do 2 to 5 more repetitions with perfect form. The moment you go to failure, and technique breaks down, you are causing muscular damage that will result in the muscle growing larger during recovery.
  • Also, take the time you need to rest between sets. Many bodybuilder programs recommend timed recoveries under 60 seconds, sometimes as low as 15 seconds. Starting your next set before the muscles are ready is a surefire way to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Finally, don’t consume excess calories! One of the main goals of exercising is to increase lean body mass, but, if you don’t want your muscles to grow considerably larger, eat at, or even below, maintenance so your body replaces fat with lean mass.

One last point worth making is regarding “toning”. The same people that say they don’t want to “grow muscles” say that they “only want to tone”. Believe it or not, tone means muscle! There is no way to make fat or skin look “toned”. The definition or tone visible on a fit persons arms, legs, or torso, is actually their muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to train like a bodybuilder and put on 50 pounds of muscle to looked toned… but replacing body fat with lean body mass (also known as muscle) is necessary to achieve a fit physique.

The world of fitness, nutrition, and health is filled with mixed messages, preconceived notions, and bogus ideas. But please don’t give any mind to the false claims that lifting weights and increasing strength will make you bulky!

If you work within your limits, have a program structured to your goals, and don’t eat to excess, you will achieve a healthy and proportionate figure.

And as always, if you would like professional guidance, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me !


What I’ve Been Up To: Lifestyle & Supplements

What I've been up to (2)

After my last two posts, you should be all caught up on what I’ve done nutritionally and in terms of exercise over the past year – but what about everything else? As the last part in this 3-post series, I’ll discuss any development in lifestyle that contribute to health, starting with sleep!

With my new work schedule, I can either workout before work, from about 5:30-7AM, or after work, closer to 6PM. I personally love to start my day with a workout and doubt I’d feel up to anything truly productive after 9 hours of computer-based work. 

images (2)So, I’ve transitioned from sleeping 10+ hours to hardly 8. Now yes, I am still getting more than the average American, but I no longer wake-up before my alarm, eager to hop up. Some of this could be due to having to be up before the sun as well, which has been a good excuse to get back to using my “light therapy” lamp!

At the moment I am not trying to build muscle or set PR’s in the gym so I’ve been able to make due with less sleep. But we’ll have to see what happens as my focus shifts…

I still foam roll every night and take an Epsom salt bath before bed (in the summer its turned into more of a shower with an Epsom salt scrub). Rolling certainly decreases
soreness but I find there is a point of diminishing returns. 

One thing I have made a better effort to incorporate is 15 minutes a day in nature. It makeswpid-rest_optionsan enormous difference for me, psychologically, to walk through the trees to a river behind my house after work. And the added Vitamin D from the sun is an added benefit!

Before I get into supplements, let’s cover the ever-popular topic of what I consider to be an “indulgent supplement” – alcohol. For about a year or two, I didn’t touch alcohol. I’ve since become a little more moderate, having an occasional drink if I’m out in a social situation, or splitting a bottle of red wine with friends on a Saturday.

No, my opinion (and the facts) about alcohol have not changed. Yes, it is still a toxin with more detriments than benefits. But, I haven’t noticed any detriment to my health or performance when consuming a moderate amount once a week, and it does bring certain social and relaxation benefits with it.

What about other supplements though?

I’ve start consuming a “pre-workout” drink before training. I’ve always said a cup of coffee is sufficient, and I still believe that. But, the extra bit of energy and focus that certain pre-workout powders contain make an amazing difference for me, getting to the gym before the sun rises.

quote_food always have recommended Vitamin D for those that don’t spend hours in the sun everyday…but we are seeing a reduction in benefits when too much is consumed. There are still no reports of overdoses (like Vitamin A for example) but we see that those with extremely low blood levels, and high levels, both suffer worse health outcomes. Instead of just recommending 10,000 IUs a day, I favor getting a blood test and supplementing to keep your levels in the 35 to 50 ng/mL range.

I have also started using vitamin C, B vitamins, and Valerian Root on occasion. But I still don’t recommend them for everyone across the board – they tend to have limited application in times of stress (such as starting a new job, sleeping less, or eating a calorie deficit). I still think there is good reason to supplement with magnesium (either transdermal or oral), but I’ve stopped consuming fish oil altogether.

The argument for fish oil makes sense, but, from a chemistry standpoint, consuming the most unstable fat in nature, extracted from fish, packaged into bottles, shipped across the world, and stored for weeks or months, doesn’t seem ideal.

I avoid vegetable/seed oils and grains, only eat beef and dairy from grass-fed cows, and consume seafood often. This seems like a much more sensible way to improve my omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Feel free to comment, or contact me directly, if you have questions about what lifestyle changes, or supplements, may be most suitable for your wants and needs!

Next week we‘ll get back to the nutrition and fitness topics that most of you have come to expect of me – thanks for sticking through all the posts about me from this past week!


My Training History

Eventually this blog will consist of more up-to-the-moment information…discussion of new studies, changes in nutrition that can affect body comp and health, training techniques, recovery protocols, etc. But, for now, I just wanted to catch you all up on my experiences!  This post will summarize my fitness training and activity level.

When I got serious about lifting in college, I started with the typical “bodybuilding” programs from magazines and websites. These consisted of 9 sets for big muscle groups (chest, back, etc) and 6 sets for smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, etc), with repetitions in the 8 to 12 range. The frequency resulted in each muscle being worked once over the course of 5 training days per week. The rest periods between sets were short (less than a minute) and the weights were heavy (70-90% of maximum) so every set was carried until failure (technique failed before the last rep).  This did NOT work for me.

What did work were more focused workouts, still with high volume, but never pushing to the point that technique faltered. I switched to 4 sets of 15 reps, one movement for each muscle group, and a weight that felt manageable. I trained upper body on Monday and Thursday and lower body on Tuesday and Friday. This workout, coupled with a healthy increase in calories, helped me grow from a spindly 140 lb novice to a 180 lb weight-lifter.

My current focus is strength so I have been using the “5/3/1” program by Jim Wendler. I would recommend ordering the book from Jim’s website but even an internet search will result in comprehensive discussions of the routine. Basically, there are four training days, each based around a primary strength movement – bench press, squat, military press, and deadlift. I find 3 days a week seems to work best for me. I can handle 4 days a week but I don’t feel the same eager anticipation before each workout. The most valuable feature of this program is what is referred to as the “training max”.

Strength is often determined by a 1RM (1 rep max; the maximum weight you can lift, properly, for one rep). If you take 90% of your 1RM, you’ll have a much safer and effective “training max”. This means that, when you are on the heaviest week of 5/3/1, lifting 75% of your 1RM for 5 reps, 85% X 3, and 95% X 1+, you are never actually lifting more than 85% of your 1RM (95% X 90% = 85.5%). The second key to 5/3/1 is the plus-sign next to the “95% X 1+”. For the last set of the primary lift, you can try to get as many reps (with proper form) as possible. These two features give you enough wiggle room so you can vary the intensity of any given workout, based on how you are feeling that day. Working at your maximum, day after day, will do nothing but burn you out physically and mentally. Conversely, the body can benefit from high intensity output on occasion.

In terms of conditioning, I perform one high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session a week…sprints in the warmer months and Concept2 rowing during the winter months. These workouts consist of a warm-up, anywhere from 5-20 intervals of high intensity work with short rest periods, and a cool-down. I also stay active as much as possible during the day. As a personal trainer, I spend a lot of time on my feet and demonstrating exercise technique. I also try to go for a one-mile walk outdoors whenever I have fifteen or twenty minutes of free time.

In conclusion, I do not think you have to beat yourself up or view workout as torture to reap the benefits. Lifting something heavy a few times a week and staying as active as possible in everyday life is adequate for people focused on general fitness. Finally, throw in an occasional session of short but intense work to improve body composition and function.

On a personal note, at every step of the way on my path to fitness, I was mentored by an amazing personal trainer working in Providence, RI. The guidance of a reliable trainer is invaluable and necessary for continued success. That being said – please e-mail me to arrange consultations, program tailoring, training sessions, etc. Sorry for the shameless plug! This blog and all the information on it will always be free but, heck, I need to make a living too right? Haha.

Hope you’ve all had fun strolling down memory lane with me! The take-away is: I’m not an athlete by nature and I’m not physically built for bodybuilding or powerlifting. If you are not genetically gifted, not everything will work for you…but with enough experimentation, an effective trainer, and some dedication and patience, your goals are possible!

Stay tuned for the next venture later this week…through the many nutritional approaches I’ve tried!