Defining Bulky, Once and For All


(This article has been updated since it’s original publication. I have made general editorial edits but also added new information.  Before you read this article, you need to understand no “look” or body type you desire is wrong. This article is not about knocking the “skinny girl” or “bulky lifters.” The purpose of this article is to provide a “definition” based on current dialogue of what the average population believes to be bulky; not a lifters population. What you choose your personal journey.)

In New York during the beginning of the 1900’s, there was a “women’s only” weight lifting group. They met privately in a rundown gym after closing hours. The janitor would let them in and they would train with tremendous intensity and passion. They would leave and return to their families and husbands, never saying a word about what they did in their off time. It is no secret weight lifting for women was not only unpopular, but severely looked down upon by society during those times.

100 years later the world has new (and not so new) perspectives.

Does heavy equal bulk?

Women lift weights all the time now in many countries. The amount of weights they lift is the subject of interest and controversy for this particular article.

In the commercial gym circuit, we often see women lifting 3-5lb weights or preforming non-weighted floor exercises. These exercises are extremely low in challenge towards the maximum strength abilities of women.  Challenge meaning the difference between a one armed body weight push-up and 3lb tricep kickbacks.

When it comes to gaining in strength or hypertrophy there is one undeniable fact, you need an extreme amount of resistance. You do not achieve a 500lb deadlift because you decided to pick it up that day. You must steadily increase in the load amount of the weight you are lifting, over time. This is irrefutable. While there are arguments towards what rep range is the best for hypertrophy (size with strength), it should be agreed upon that going heavy means adding mass.

What is questionable and undefined is – what determines “bulky?” When a woman moves out of the 5lb dumbbell range, she internally asks the question, “Will lifting this heavy weight make me bulky?” “Am I going to add mass I do not want?”

What defines bulky?

When I got into the health and fitness industry, and more specifically my job now, I started off like most people when looking at bodybuilders and figure competitors. I am not going to lie, at first I was massively uninterested in looking at any of them and was turned off.  I didn’t quite understand why a man wanted that many veins on his body, or why a woman wanted no tits and large biceps. As time went by, and I looked at these bodies more and more, trained them, and helped people achieve those bodies, my view changed.

My perception of what fat, lean, large mass, and small mass is, is completely different now. I have a broader view of what is attractive, strong, and pretty to me. You can get so comfortable seeing a certain type of look and style that it starts to alter your perception. Thankfully I have a decent head on my shoulders because, due to my job, I have to be highly critical of body fat levels, muscle build, etc. I could be so easily screwed, like so many others are.

The Poll

I took it to a poll of 2000 women online. I asked the following questions…

(Participants were of college education, between 21-45, and of moderate to higher income. It included both single and married women. Some statics vary for being skipped over.)

How many times a week do you exercise?


Do you lift weights that you consider to be heavy?


Do you think that muscles on women are attractive?

No, never-41%
Sometimes, in small amounts-26%
Sometimes, depends on the body-15%
Yes, most of the time-14%
Yes, always-4%

Do you think that men like muscle on a women?


Do you think that women like muscles on other women?


Of the listed women, whose body do you like looking at the most?

Paris Hilton-12%
Angelina Jolie-19%
Jessica Alba-35%
Jessica Biel-12%
Kate Winslet-22%

Of these women who do you feel defines muscular/bulky on the terms that you are thinking for this survey?

Jessica Alba-2%
Jessica Biel-36%
Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)-43%

Would you rather appear to be…

Too Thin-71%
Too Muscular-11%
Too Fat-18%

If you thought that lifting heavy weights wouldn’t make you bulky/muscular, would you lift them?


The Results






Not Bulky


Below are a few interesting bullet points that we can take away from this survey:

  • The majority of women don’t like the look of muscle on themselves or others.
  • The majority of women think that men prefer the look of a lack  of muscle on a woman’s body.
  • The majority felt that Jessica Biel and Hilary Swank (in MDB) define “bulky.”
  • The majority of the women expressed little interest in lifting weight, even if it didn’t result in a “bulking” effect.
  • A large majority of women would rather be too thin than either too fat or too muscular.
  • More women choose to be fat over muscular.
  • Based on the actress looks, women prefer softer and trim over too lean or too muscular.

Do these 2000 women make up a piece of what speaks for the world? I personally think it does, and it is almost what I would predict in this situation. The question is…


Are these women wrong about what makes you bulky? What does this mean for women who have even more muscle and more definition than the women above? Will lifting heavy weights equal bigger muscles? If these women state that bulky muscles is considered to be Jessica Biel or Hilary Swank, then the answer is yes, they do. To throw in an additional note Jessica Biel has since that picture atrophied to a lesser size for her career.

The Outback Jack Conclusion

Maybe I was lucky, or maybe it was fate that brought the “Outback Jack” marathon to my door on a Sunday afternoon. To give you a brief summary, “Outback Jack” was one of many dating shows. The premise was a group of girls were dropped off in the middle of the Outback to endure nature and meet the man of their dreams. If that isn’t entertainment, I don’t know what is.

During the course of these episodes, a challenge was brought forth to the remaining 5 girls. 5 new girls were brought on the show to race against them on an obstacle course. These girls were nicknamed the “Amazons” due to their “bulging muscles” and “butch” bodies.

The Conflicting Advice

The problem with most trainers is they don’t make any sense. They tell you that “lifting heavy won’t make you bulky,” but then say the magical phrase “don’t worry that the scale hasn’t dropped, you’ve had fat loss, you’ve just had some muscle gain too!”  They say “Women can’t gain muscle! They don’t have the testosterone or genetics,” but then say “On my programs women can make great gains in muscle and strength!”

My favorite contradiction is that the majority of the male trainers telling you to lift heavy and not be afraid of weights, are the same guys putting up pictures of models and actresses that are “smokin,” when most have never touched a real weight in their life.  Just a little something for you to think about there.

The Muscle Building Limit?

Most women can gain a certain amount of muscle, but there is a tapping point. After that point, it takes a long time of effort, eating, and dedication, to achieve that next level of gain. Beyond that, it takes drugs. The problem is that years of training can lead to more muscle than some women want, especially if their diet isn’t what it should be. The body fat underneath didn’t allow them to see what they were gaining. If this is the “look” you want,  great; however, if this isn’t the body  you  want, you probably will not be happy.

The Body Fat Factor

The majority of women are not suffering from the bulky muscles they think they are. A lot of women never get lean enough to see the what is actually there. This is because your body fat levels are too high to show any definition. Mix that with a lifting program and you end up looking fatter, but firmer. I should note that some like this look. Remember nothing is “wrong” here.

Take the “Amazon” women on our “Outback Jack” video, the majority of them are just higher body fat levels and have tight traps. This is what the majority of women think of when they are “bulking up” on their own bodies. They may or may not be bulking up, but they are “plumping” up. Word to the wise if you train women, most don’t like to look plump.

Instead of avoiding the issue you need to confront it. If you are a trainer or the trainee, you need to clearly explain what is happening instead of feeding yourself, or your client, a bunch of hot air. The majority of the time the fix is in less body fat overall. Madonna, for example, has a decent amount of muscle for her age but has lower body fat. She was still considered less bulky than bodies  Biel and Swank. Why? Likely because their muscle was under a larger layer of body fat, giving a less desired look to the survey participants.

Before you accuse the muscle of being the culprit, take a look at the body fat.

What do we do now? Where do we go from here?

  • Train for the look you want. That is what you do, period. If you don’t want to look like you lift heavy weights, don’t lift heavy weights. Don’t mistake this as this being the answer to your body problems, it isn’t. My point is, the only people that look like they lift or train aggressively are those who lift and train aggressively.
  • Don’t be afraid to be strong, if you want to be. Don’t suppress what is inside because of society. No ones judgment is worth your dream, and the more that people get used to seeing change, the faster change happens.
  • Don’t judge others for what they want to do. I am just as tired of those who lift bashing those who don’t. No one HAS to deadlift to be healthy.
  • Be crystal clear about what you want from your training and how you are going to get it.
  • Realize that no training will make you look like someone you want to look like. You have to look like the best version of yourself
  • If you want to say screw it to the world and go for it anyway then be prepared for a very long and hard journey. Be prepared to eat a lot of food and lift heavy weights. Be prepared to have to face scrutiny and judgment based on these decisions.

Always remember that “normal” isn’t normal anyway, and everyone can have their world view changed when their world does.

I do have plans in the future of releasing a program that provides everyone, “bulky” or not, the results and answers they need for these problems and questions. In the meantime, I hope this helps you be able to communicate better with others and yourself.

To read my follow up article “Bulky Muscles and Women –  Part Deux” click here

Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. I do not claim to cure any cause, condition or disease. I do not provide medical aid or nutrition for the purpose of health or disease and claim to be a doctor or dietitian. This is merely an opinion blog. Read full disclaimer here -