Women and Hypertrophy

Mythbuster: If I lift weights will I look like a man?
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I don’t want to get big and bulky, I just want to get toned!

Every personal trainer on the planet wants to commit hari-kari with the nearest set of body fat calipers when a new female client says this. The “bulking up” myth is on par in infamy with Little Mikey kicking the bucket from eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coca-Cola simultaneously. But unlike Mikey’s myth, this one won’t die.

“The biggest misconception about hypertrophy — gaining muscle — in women is that it happens quickly and easily, when in fact gaining significant amounts of muscle mass as a woman is hard,” says Molly Galbraith, CSCS, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong in Lexington, Ky. “You have to lift challenging weight for enough repetitions with enough time under tension to force an adaptation.” In addition, most women simply do not have the copious amounts of testosterone of their male counterparts to allow for bulky gains.

This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your goals. If you’re a “toner,” then not to worry: You won’t become the Hulk. “When a woman starts strength training, she can expect to gain 0.5 to 1 pound of muscle per month at the absolute maximum,” says Galbraith. This is achieved with consistent, challenging lifting and dedicated nutrition, and most recreational lifters using moderate amounts of weight will stay well below this threshold and achieve their goal of toning. (By the by, toning is just another way of saying “adding muscle.” You’re just not adding a lot of muscle).

If your goal is to gain some sleek size and shape or bring up certain bodyparts, however, then your task is more challenging. “Those initial size gains will taper off over time as you become a more advanced lifter,” says Galbraith. But you can push your limits and force adaptation through conscientious programming.

Lifting in the six to 12 rep range is best for hypertrophy, according to Galbraith, but she also emphasizes building a solid foundation of strength. “The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift for more repetitions, leading to more lean mass gains,” she says. “Performing large, compound movements such as squats and deadlifts in the one to five rep range is great for building your foundation of strength.”

Hypertrophy

When you’re looking to gain, Galbraith advises using a four-day split in which you do two heavy days to build strength and two repetition-focused days to add muscle. Follow a program such as this for four to six weeks for optimal hypertrophy:

Sample Hypertrophy Split

Day

Workout

Day 1

Heavy, Upper Body

Day 2

High Reps, Lower Body

Day 3

Rest

Day 4

High Reps, Upper Body

Day 5

Heavy, Lower Body

Day 6-7

Rest

Adding advanced techniques can also push your boundaries. “We are much stronger in the eccentric [lowering] phase of an exercise than we are in the concentric [lifting phase],” says Galbraith. “We can use this to our advantage by really slowing down the negative rep for increased time under tension. Drop sets, where you perform reps to failure, then reduce the weight and continue the set, are also a great way to increase time under tension and tax both your fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers.”

Still convinced you’re going to Hulk out? Then remain a cardio queen and cruise the status quo. But if you want to change your physique, boost your metabolism and increase your energy levels, then get your lift on and embrace hypertrophy, however much of it may come.

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