Why Not Try “Bulking Up” This Winter, Ladies?
Ladies, it’s winter. Time to bulk up.
Wait. WHAT? I know, I know. I’m not supposed to say the word “bulk.” Mainstream female fitness culture has taught me to avoid that word at all costs. But ya know what? Eff it. Because I have a confession: “bulking up” is just a silly way of saying “gain some muscle.” We tend to think of it as getting huge and veiny and muscular like a bodybuilder, but that’s not really true. It basically means the same thing as “toning,” “sculpting,” and “getting more defined.” The only difference is those last few phrases means gaining muscle while losing fat. When you talk about “bulking up,” you’ve simply removed the goal of losing fat. Which means you can focus more effectively on gaining muscle. Still with me?
Let’s discuss fat-loss. I know you’ve all figured out that losing fat alone isn’t going to give you shapely legs, defined arms, or nice abs. You need to have some lovely muscle underneath to give you shape and tightness. Women are constantly worrying about getting “too muscular,” but more often than not they much more fat on top of their muscles than they like. So fat-loss can be a really important part of the equation, for sure. HOWEVER. Most women will focus on fat-loss for the entire year, year in and year out, for their whole lives. Even women who are looking for “maintenance” tend to focus on fat-loss. Why? Because that is what we’ve been fed through fear-mongering fitness industry “experts” who are trying to sell us something.
My proposition is simple. I think you should focus on fat-loss until you’ve hit your goal, and then move on to another goal. I do not believe that the lifelong purpose of training should be to keep your fat in check. (If you’re not sure if dropping the fat-loss goal is right for you, I highly suggest checking out this post by fellow fitness writer Dani Shugart. goodgirlfitness.net/blog/136-grow-muscle-to-get-leaner.html)
I think everyone would benefit from pursuing completely different training goals from time to time, if for no other reason than to see what it feels like to approach your body from a different headspace. It’s amazing what can happen to your relationship with your body when you go from saying “I must work out to burn off that food” to “I must eat this food so I can work out harder.” It’s a piece of the healthy-relationship-with-your-body puzzle that I see lacking for most women. And I think it needs to be experienced to be believed.
That’s why I propose that this winter, you try a workout plan with the goal of purely gaining as much muscle as you can. Just 8-12 weeks of trying to “bulk up” will boost your metabolism sky high. It will also teach you a TON about how hard it is to gain muscle, and it will most likely give you a brand new appreciation for your body and it’s abilities. More importantly however, it will give you a break from the never-ending Battle Against The Fat that you’ve been waging since you were 15. (You can always resume that battle later if you want. Your call.) It’s amazing what can happen in 2-3 months of approaching your body from a completely different perspective, and actively trying to build it up instead of break it down.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. Many MANY women can look great and feel great without ever doing a workout program where the goal is to bulk up. Plenty of women prefer to do extra cardio to burn off extra seasonal treats, or wouldn’t want to give up their metabolic-style workouts because they are emotionally attached to getting sweaty. I don’t believe that means they wouldn’t benefit from one, but simply that they might not like one or choose to do one. And, obviously, that’s fine.
My issue is that the mainstream media and the sales-hungry fitness industry have been terrifying women with words like “bulky” for way too long. The truth is, most women would feel amazing with a few extra pounds of muscle on their frames. Yet almost all the information and programs out there for women focus on the fat-loss part, and make the muscle-building an incidental part of the equation. Women are encouraged to do fast-moving circuit training, intervals, and cardio. I have absolutely no problem with fat-loss programs, but I believe the reason so many women are drawn to them is out of fear of getting “too big,” or “too masculine.” I want to encourage you to let go of that notion. Try spending the coldest, darkest part of this year attempting to just build some muscle. See what happens if you really commit to it, and see how you feel during the process. Then enjoy what happens come spring, when you blast through personal records, you’re stronger and faster, and your body handles fat-loss like a well-stoked furnace.
Ok, I know you still have questions. Let’s discuss.
1) Why do you insist on calling it “bulking up”? It sounds so ugly.
It’s simply for the sake of trying to de-villianize an over-hyped buzzword. Feel free to call it “muscle-building” or even “sculpting” if you like. But just know that the goal is hypertrophy, which means the gaining of muscle.
2) Should everyone try a bulking program?
Not exactly. If you’re a fairly new lifter or a total gym beginner, I think there are many more effective programs out there, whose goal would just be to get you acquainted and comfortable with strength training.
I suggest doing a bulking program only to women who train regularly throughout the year, and have been strength training for a while. If that’s you, and you’ve hit a plateau in terms of fat loss or strength gains, or you’re bored and want to try something new, a bulking program might be for you. If you have never tried pursuing any goal other than fat-loss, and you still don’t quite feel like your body is where you want it to be, a bulking program is totally for you. If you’ve always wanted more definition in your arms, back, shoulders, abs, legs, or butt, or just really want to get more awesome… then yup, it’s for you.
3) Can you explain the actual difference between a fat-loss program and a bulking program?
Absolutely. Most fat-loss programs focus on strength training in fast-moving circuits with short amounts of rest, so that your heart rate gets up high and you burn more calories, but you also get the metabolism-boosting after-effect and body-shaping benefit of resistance training. These are often called “metabolic” workouts. This can be a pretty win-win situation for most women, who want to feel the sweaty, out-of-breath cardio burn, while reshaping their butts, legs, core, and arms. Typically this type of program would be accompanied by a fat-loss nutrition plan, in which the person is either counting calories or macronutrients, and trying to maintain a calorie deficit every day so that they are losing fat. Often the 2-3 days/week of circuit training is also supplemented by 2-5 days/week of interval training or cardio in order to boost the overall calorie deficit for each day.
A pure bulking (hypertrophy) program would include more overall volume of strength training, meaning you either spend more days per week lifting weights, or lift for more reps or sets per workout. Sometimes both. The goal would be more strength-training volume per body part each week, which can be accomplished with many different (super fun) combos. Usually there is more rest time between sets, and the whole workout moves slower, because it is unconcerned with getting the heart rate up. Additionally, the nutrition plan would be in support of the muscle-building goals, which means you’d be eating a SURPLUS of calories each day, with a strong emphasis on getting enough protein. Every day would include enough calories to put that day’s muscle-building workout to good use. Cardio could be cut out completely, though interval training may be left in if desired, typically at very high intensity and very low volumes. (Think half a dozen or so 15-30 second balls-out sprints.) This allows your body to gain the maximum amount of muscle without losing any along the way.
4) Ok, this all sounds great. But why do it during the winter?
Doing a bulking up workout phase just seems to align with most peoples’ natural instincts during the winter. In the summer we want to be outside. We want to get sweaty and be lean and eat lots of fresh veggies and fruit, and run and frolic and be free. (No? Just me?) But in the winter we tend to crave hearty, filling meals, we want to hide out and snuggle at home, and we have a tendency to preserve our energy like hibernating bears. In the winter I eat heartily to support my heavy lifting, and I lift heavily to put my hearty nutrition to use. So I ask you… when else does 8-12 weeks of eating filling, meat-heavy meals (aka protein to support the building of your sexy new muscles) make sense?
Plus, since we’re wearing layers upon layers of sweaters and scarves all the time, it’s the safest time of year to “test drive” the idea of trying out being a little bigger. Maybe your firm new butt cheeks have trouble fitting into your skinny jeans for a few weeks, or you don’t know how you feel yet about your (amazing) new biceps. The winter provides you with a bit of a buffer while you get used to the idea of looking stronger, and for many women this buffer is exactly what they need to stick out the rest of the program. Then, come spring, you can switch goals again and start a fat-loss program if you want. If you do, I promise it will be the easiest and most fun time you’ve ever had getting leaner. Your body will be a fat-burning machine, just in time for tank tops and jean shorts.