This post was kindly written by Max Shippee, owner of CrossFit 1440 and Paleo Plan’s fitness guru.
“I don’t think I should lift heavy weights.”
“Are you injured?’
“No, I just don’t want to get all bulky.”
This is the second most common request, or anti-request, that people (ladies) come in with.
Now, this one is tricky, and it can be kind of like putting toothpaste back in the tube. At some point, somehow, you read somewhere that lifting heavy weights makes you bulky, and you believed it. Or you looked at pictures of female body builders and assumed that if a woman lifted ANY weights at all, she would suddenly become one.
Unless you’re in the right state of mind and receptive to new ideas, changing your beliefs about something is really, really difficult. It’s one of our crazy human faults. So, for now, we’re just going to deal with facts. No emotion, no beliefs, just facts. Here we go. Quick warning, there is math ahead.
If you read the last awesome post I did about toning, then you understand that what we’re really after is sweet, gorgeous, curvy muscle, with just enough of a layer of smooth subcutaneous flesh (yes, fat) to provide a nice sweep of feminine goodness. It’s just poetry, ain’t it?
The best way to do that without getting all “bulky” is to pick up heavier weights for fewer reps. We already know that if you work out with super light weight, you’re really not doing anything, right? Remember the Star Trek metaphor?
A quick definition.
Your 1 rep max. This is the maximum (max) amount of weight that you can lift/move 1 time, for 1 rep. If you tried to do 2 reps, you wouldn’t be able to. This number will move up over time, showing that you’re getting stronger!
How do body builders work out?
Here’s a surprise. They don’t go super-heavy. Body builders want one thing primarily, to get bigger. They tend to hang out in the 8-12 or maybe 10-15 rep range using about 70-80% of their 1 rep max. Sure, they get stronger in the process, but for the most part the goal is size. They use a weight that is just heavy enough to give them a good “pump.” Specifically, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Ohhh, big words!! Are you pumped?
There is fluid inside a muscle cell (the sarcoplasm) that facilitates the contraction of the muscle. You’ve got a lot of stuff floating around in there; stuff like mitochondria, high levels of glycogen (stored sugar), cell nuclei, water, creatine, and, of course, myofibrils (they’re the part that actually does the contracting). There’s lots more in there, but you get the idea.
When you’re doing higher reps (8-15 or more), your muscle needs more “stuff” (glycogen, water, etc.) to keep the action going. It stores that “stuff” locally in the muscle cell. Do enough of this type of lifting over time, and your body adapts and maintains a larger storage system to be ready next time. You do get stronger with this over time, and once a weight is too light, they will add weight, but lower the reps, but rarely, rarely do they go below 8 reps.
This type of workout, doing higher reps with 70-80% of your 1 rep max, is what will lead to more “bulk” over time. It’s how your muscles adapt to work longer for that weight.
How does this girl work out?
This lovely woman to the right is actually one of my clients. I don’t think she’s bulky at all… Instead of doing higher reps with 70-80% of her 1 rep max, she lifts heavier weights fewer times (and yes, totally in those heels). That’s what you’d want to do if you want toned curves like hers. Lift heavy enough that you literally in no way could do more than 8 reps. Heavy enough that you have to hold your breath. Heavy enough that you want a spotter. Heavy enough that you want to quit on rep 3.
This kind of heavy cues a different kind of adaptation in your system. Specifically, myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofribrils are part of the cell structure that actually contracts to make your muscle fibers shorter, to cause your awesomeness to move around. So, instead of increasing the fluid inside the cell, which takes up more space and gets us “bulky,” we want to build more of the myofibrils. Building more myofibrils makes the muscle more dense, and compact, and way stronger. It also looks hella-sexy. Once again, this building of myofibrils tends to happen in the lower rep, heavier ranges, i.e. 3-5 reps at 80-90% of your 1 rep max.
Now, of course, these adaptations don’t happen completely independently. As you firm up & get tighter by going heavy, you may have a very small to negligible increase in the size of the muscle. This does awesome things for your waist to hip ratio. Also, since you’re going all Paleo, and may be even Keto, you’ve burned enough fat away from your subcutaneous layer that you can’t wear your old clothes anymore cuz you’re too smokin’ HOT!*
Combine this with a little intermittent fasting, and we’ll be posting your pic on here real soon.
If you want more specifics on how to plug this kind of lifting into your program, let us know in the comments. At the very least, you’ll want to do it once a week for 5 sets (for example, 5 sets of squats, 4 reps each, totaling 20 reps). Any more detail than that, and I’ll start up again too much, so we’ll save it for another post if there’s interest.
*PS. In addition to you looking hotter, you’re going to stave off osteoporosis big time. Your bones will thank you. ;)
Max Shippee grew up in a very small town in northern Maine, minutes from the Canadian border. Growing up in the woods, and being the son of a dance teacher, he’s been physically active his entire life. He has embraced health & fitness philosophies ranging from body building to endurance training, before finding CrossFit and its performance-based approach to lifelong fitness.
Before finding a fit with the Paleo approach to nutrition, Max had also tried numerous nutritional practices, including raw flood, veganism, and Atkins. A father of three, he’s as proud of his family as he is of his business, CrossFit 1440 in suburban Los Angeles. Max has Level 1, Kids, and Mobility Certifications from CrossFit. He likes the geeky things in life, including Legos, lasers, and computer operating systems named after cats.