Healthy Living YMCA Health and Fitness

Ask a personal trainer: Will strength training make me “bulky”?

A member lifts a barbell with the Y logo behind her.

Delving into the world of fitness and nutrition can feel overwhelming. How long should a cardio workout be? How much protein do you need? How do you know if your technique’s decent? We want to take the guesswork out of your healthy living routine so you can make the most out of your time at the gym. So we asked Paul, a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at the Toronto West End College St. YMCA, to answer some of your most frequently asked fitness questions. In the first of our new bi-weekly series, he explains why everyone should be doing strength training — and why it won’t make you look like the Hulk.

It rarely fails. Just about every time I meet with a new client, we discuss their goals, review their exercise history, and then the conversation comes to a screeching halt with the utterance of a single phrase:

“…I just don’t want to get too big.”

My usual response: “That’s good, because getting big is tough!” It takes an awful lot of work (and an awful lot of food) to get jacked. I’ve been lifting weights for more than half my life and, sadly, not once have I ever been mistaken for Dwayne Johnson.

I understand the reasoning behind this bulk-phobia. More often than not, the people who tell me they’re after a “toned” body are women, and the whole Neckless Viking Marauder look doesn’t fit too well with our society’s notions of femininity. That being said, worrying about massive muscle growth on Day 1 of your training is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

Generally speaking, muscle mass is a product of three factors:

1. Intense hypertrophy-based training, meaning multiple sets of high-repetition exercises done with a moderate weight;

2. A constant caloric surplus, meaning you’re eating somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2400–3000 calories daily, depending on your body weight; and

3. Lots of testosterone.

Women don’t typically produce the levels of testosterone needed to gain serious size; for any women reading this, unless your training system includes daily doses of anabolic steroids, your bulking fears are baseless. The other two factors — training and diet — are well within your control, too. In the kitchen, build your meals around quality protein sources, eat plenty of plants, and stop eating when you’re full. In the weight room, focus on mastering exercise technique and building muscular strength, and your body will respond accordingly.

In the end, training for strength is an entirely different beast than training for size; the weights are typically heavier, and the repetitions, fewer. Yes, your body will change in appearance as you get stronger, but I promise it won’t blow up to cartoonish proportions.

From stress management to stronger bones, resistance training offers so many health benefits that absolutely everyone should partake in one form or another. Don’t let worries about becoming a muscle-bound beast stand in the way of becoming the best version of yourself.

Paul graduated from Humber College’s Fitness & Health Promotion program (with honours!), earning a certification in personal training and group fitness from the Ontario Fitness Council along the way. His training specialties are body weight training, strength training for older adults, and plant-based nutrition.

Do you have a question for our personal trainers? Message us on Twitter or Facebook.