But I don’t want to get all bulky!

“I don’t think I should lift heavy weights.”

“Are you injured?’

“No, I just don’t want to get all bulky.”

Deep… breath.

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’s Bio

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.


  1. Max, this is an awesome post!! I’ve been trying to convince some of my girlfriends to join me in my crossfit journey, but they keep shying away from it because they don’t want to look “manly”. I’m showing this to them, it’s brilliant.

    Keep up the good work, and thank you!

  2. Hi! Thank you for this post and your last post, Max. Very helpful and the way you explained it makes a lot of sense.

    My question is related to what you said about integrating this only once a week. For a newbie, what would you recommend doing the other times you lift that week? And would you aim to increase the amount you are 80-90%-ing it each week?

    Thanks again for the info!

    1. Hey Sarah! & Leslie too!!

      If your’e doing this only once a week. Choose the lifts you’re going to be using each & every week (deadlift, squat, bench). Then yes…try to either increase the weight or the reps each week. For example

      Week 1

      Squat 100lbs 3 reps, 5 sets
      Deadlift 150 lbs 5 reps, 5 sets

      Week 2

      Squat 100 lbs 4 reps, 5 sets
      Deadlift 160 lbs 3 reps, 5 sets

      Week 3

      Squat 100 lbs 5 reps, 5 sets
      Deadlift 160 lbs, 4 reps, 5 sets

      Now these are just arbitrary numbers. Starting out, you’ll no doubt be able to increase weight by 10 or even 20 lbs each week. As you get closer to your genetic potential, those may go down to 5 lbs a week, or even a pound a week. Eventually, you will plateau, and that’s a good thing. You’ve reached your current potential. There are quite a few things that can alter that potential (i.e you could decide you want to do a marathon, and your big numbers start to go down, because you’re adapting to endurance rather than strength).

      Does that make sense?

  3. I second Leslie, more info please!! Can you tell us more about how to build this type of lifting into our program? Also, I live in a (very) small town in Northern Maine. :) Nothing like chucking around some firewood to get a good workout in!

    1. Hey Becky!!!

      First off, you have to tell me where in Maine you are!!! I grew up about 20 miles north of Millinocket. Are you in Presque Isle? Madawaska? As far up as Fort Kent? Talk to me!!

      Second, how to build this into your program… see the comment I just made to Leslie and Sarah. And depending on your set up, the woods can be a great place for Strongman type stuff. There’s no doubt that just old-fashioned hard work gets your blood going. :) Of course, if you’ve got access to a good squat rack, it can be your best friend! Let me know what you’ve got!

  4. Max, very informative post. Hope there are more post coming soon, always look forward to reading them. I have read that you can increase your mitochondria, which I assume in theory would increase your energy or endurance. Is this accomplished through diet, or increased weight and reps. Do you have a blog were we can find more information. If not, you should.

    1. Hey RC!!

      Thanks for the kind words :)

      Mitochondria, eh? Well, if you’re doing high intensity interval training, you’re building more of them. Also, if you’re low carb, you’re building more of them. If you’re doing resistance training, you’re building more of them. ANd finally, if you’re taking a protein supplement (and specifically branch chain amino acids, or BCAA) you’re building them.

      Mitochondria are the motors of the cell. They are what make ATP, which is the energy your body uses for just about everything. They go through, quite literally, millions of reactions every day to give you the gas you need to make your awesomeness happen.

      As far as increasing them beyond what any normal, health conscious person would already be doing will take a little more research on my part. I do know that there was a TED talk a while back by Dr. Terry Wahls (link here) about her curing her MS through nutrition that she says specifically feeds the mitochondria. If I remember right, it was damn close to Paleo. I’ll have to review it :)

      Was that enough, or do you want more?

  5. Great article! I lift 3 times a week (one is with a trainer). I have friends who don’t understand why I don’t want to attend step class with them. I always feel and look better when I have more weight training to my exercise routines. I use the oldies but goodies (squats, deadlifts, chest press, etc), run about 15mls a week, and eat Paleo. Even at 40 and the stay at home mom of 2 boys, I am in the best shape of my life!!!

  6. What if I want to bulk certain areas and just get stronger and toned in others? For instance, I want to increase the size of my legs and butt (currently flat) and the rest of my body I would love to shape and tone. I assume I would stick with high reps and lighter weights for, say, squats and deadlifts, but then move to heavy weights for chest/back, arms and abs?

    1. Hey Elaine…I want you to know that I am here to support you in your quest for a nice backside. I think it’s an awesome goal. Yes, yes I do.

      I’m reading up on some specific muscle building techniques at the moment, and I’m going to get back to you with more specifics when I’m done the research, but for now I’d say you want to be doing something in the 12-15 rep range for the squats particularly. The deadlifts I tend to shy away from high rep sets, just because it’s a great way to hurt yourself if your form starts to fall apart.

      Assuming your form is dialed in, the sets you’re doing should never feel like, “Oh, that was nice.” On about rep # 6 you should be thinking to yourself, there’s no way I’m going to make it to 15. Then make it to 15. A spotter or using a smith machine might be a good idea or safety sake.

      If you REALLY want to light up your butt, try some Bulgarian split squats. See here for a graphic. Notice her back foot is elevated. You want to keep the weight very in the heel of the front leg, you should be able to lift your toes at the throughout the movement, even at the bottom. Also, the more you can keep that front knee back, as in keeping the shin nice and vertical, the better. When you do it just right, you’ll feel your butt light up like a christmas tree!

      As far as keeping your upper body smaller. I would be careful for two reasons. #1, you don’t want to look unbalanced. #2- you don’t want huge differences in strangth from one part of your body to the next. Imbalances can lead to injuries. If you’re worried abot big shoulders, just stay away from kipping pull-ups. I have a theory (just mine, mind you) that once ladies get kipping, suddenly the volume of pull-ups they can do increases, and they may see an increase in size, just because you’re literally doing more in a row and spending more time on the bar. So stick with dead hang pull-ups and you should be fine :)

      Report back!

  7. thanks for the info. i am a mom of 3 (ages 3, 2, and 7 months) and am currently in the process of getting my old body back…except a better body because instead of just trying to get thin i am addicted to weight lifting and eating clean. i dont really know what i’m doing when it comes to weight lifting…i just end up reading articles (like yours) and others and go from there. it’s working though. with my third baby, i’ve lost the same amount of weight in 6 months that took me a year to lose with my second baby. so i’m stoked about that. i dont have any support in my weight training. i’d LOVE to do cross fit but they dont have child care :) so i go to the gym with my three little ones tagging behind. okay…here’s my question. i’ve been weight training for 3 months now. when i do dead lifts i can only do about 75 pounds. mind you, at first i was only brave enough to try 40 pounds (i told you i really dont know what i’m doing). but so i’m at 75 pounds right now and doing 10 reps for 3 sets. i do legs two to three times a week. when will i ever be able to do the big lifts??? seems impossible…so what am i doing wrong or what should i do differently? also, i do arms two times a week (other days i do chest, shoulders, back)…but i have not seen any fat melt off the back of my triceps. i see definition under it, but the fat isn’t going away? i guess my point is that i’ve lost weight, but i’m ready to start seeing cut muscle definition. any hints?

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