Q: My boyfriend wants me to start bodybuilding, but I don’t want to develop big muscles. How can I get fit, lean and athletic but without becoming masculine?
A: Many women are unwilling to get into bodybuilding because they fear that they will develop big muscles. That concern is unfounded, and it prevents them from enjoying the extensive benefits that bodybuilding produces.
Women’s bodybuilding has changed dramatically over the past 30 years or so. For example, check out photos online of Tonya Knight, a star in the ’80s and early ’90s. At the time she was a leading competitive bodybuilder, but her physique back then probably wouldn’t place in the top three in a top-level figure show today.
The same applies to even bigger-name female bodybuilders from that era—for example, Rachel McLish, who won the inaugural Ms. Olympia in 1980, and Anja Langer, who was second in the ’88 Ms. O.
While few women outside of the world of competitive bodybuilding like the look of today’s elite-level women bodybuilders, many athletically-minded women do like the type of bodies that Tanya, Rachel and Anja displayed. Once drugs became endemic in women’s bodybuilding, the level of muscle development increased dramatically.
Few women can develop big muscles even if they want to. Few women have the genetically determined characteristics required for bodybuilding to yield big muscles.
Women are limited in strength and muscle size because of their hormones. They lack the large quantities of testosterone that produce many of the male characteristics. Furthermore, women generally have wider hips and narrower shoulders than men, have a higher bodyfat percentage and carry most of their fat around their hips and thighs.
A tiny number of women have narrow hips, above-average testosterone production, longer muscle bellies than is typical for women and little bodyfat. When highly trained, they may develop the Tanya-, Rachel- or Anja-type bodies—and when further enhanced by sufficient bodybuilding drugs, they may achieve the extreme development seen in women’s bodybuilding today.
For the great majority of women, however, the development of big muscles is an impossibility.
If you’re a woman who has an unusual potential for developing muscle but you don’t want to realize it, build the degree of muscle you’re satisfied with, and then just maintain it. Don’t pursue greater mass. Focus on other components of overall physical fitness.
Women should train for strength and muscle. Even a little additional muscle can improve appearance greatly and yield substantial health benefits, and additional strength has many practical benefits.
Aerobics is overrated—it won’t do—and tinkering with bands and tiny dumbbells won’t either. You need serious bodybuilding for serious benefits.
Most readers of this column are men, but the instruction I promote is just as relevant for women.
Women should train hard on basic exercises—squats (or parallel-grip deadlifts), conventional deadlifts, bench presses, parallel-bar dips (the machine version if freestyle aren’t possible), overhead presses, rows and chins (or pulldowns if chins aren’t possible).
The provisos are that you use correct exercise technique, keep your training sessions brief, do them just two or three times per week, and fully satisfy the components of recuperation. Then you can build ever-greater strength. Of course, the same provisos apply to men as well.
Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or www.Home-Gym.com.