The fear of "getting bulky" is used by many athletes, male and female, as an excuse to avoid the weight room.
If you have trained like an animal non-stop for the last 10 years and have already built a high level of strength and size considering the demands of your sport, there is a point where more muscle mass does little for your performance on the field.
Thing is, most athletes who use the "I'm afraid to get bulky" excuse are not even remotely close to this point.
In fact, very few trainees ever reach this point.
In all my years of training hockey players, I have worked with just one athlete whose lower body hypertrophy work we had to limit because his quads were getting too big. One!
And this guy was an anomaly with great genetics for putting on muscle; definitely not the norm.
Funny enough, the "big and bulky" excuse tends to flow from the lips of female athletes, runners, soccer players, or other weak weight room beginners who could greatly benefit from adding some much-needed muscular strength and lean mass to their frames.
My leanest hockey players still want to get bigger and push the scale weight up. They know the added lean mass will translate into more powerful skating and make them tougher to push around in board battles.
It's sad to see many athletes overlook the advantages of lifting weights. Resistance training improves body composition, posture, performance, injury resilience, confidence and mental well-being. Yet so many people miss out on it for an excuse that simply doesn't make sense.
To be clear, lifting teeny tiny weights for a million reps isn't the "resistance training" I'm talking about. That won't build muscle or make you stronger. I'm talking about real, strenuous weight training.
Let's set the record straight today. Here are five reasons why the "I don't want to get too big" objection is nothing but one beefy excuse.
1. Strength Training Makes You Less Likely to Get Injured, Not More
Refusing to get involved in heavy weight room work negates all the potential benefits lifting weights has to offer.
These benefits include (but are not limited to):
- Greater force production
- Higher power output
- Reduction in injury risk/incidence/severity
- Increased confidence
Few people realize that a bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle. And a stronger muscle has the potential to be a more powerful muscle.
It's no coincidence that my biggest, strongest guys are also my most powerful athletes. These are the players who jump the highest and run the fastest on test day in training camp.
Too bad this insight is lost on so many gym-goers who believe that muscle growth somehow hampers performance. They think lifting legit weight will automatically turn them into an un-athletic ball of muscle who can barely turn their head without pulling something, and that's just so misguided.
As far as injury reduction goes, here's something I have been thinking about lately.
Why do professional soccer players—who are known for their lackluster weight room efforts—seem to occupy the injured reserve list all the time?
Having once been a pretty decent junior soccer player, I'm very familiar with the training culture of the sport. I also have colleagues working in soccer I talk to now and then.
I believe the reason for the abundance of injuries comes down to this: Players and coaches fear barbell work.
Leg Presses, Leg Extensions and Light Half-Squats replace conventional free weight barbell and dumbbell movements. Resisted single-leg work is rarely implemented, and when it is, it's Split Squats and Lunges done with a pair of 15- or 20-pound dumbbells.
Athletes are never pushed out of their comfort zone, so the body never has a stimulus to get stronger.
And apparently the only weight room tool players get excited about is a kBox—perhaps because it's a novel piece of equipment and doesn't grow those "big" muscles. In any case, is it any wonder that non-contact injuries to the hamstrings and groin area are a huge issue in pro soccer?
Non-contact groin and lower abdominal injuries have developed into a significant problem in hockey, as well.
However, my athletes experience these issues very, very rarely. I believe this is due to them building injury-resistant muscle through high loads.
Consider that my D1 and pro players routinely perform Single-Leg Split Squats and Lunges with over 300 pounds.
In my experience, attaining high levels of single-leg strength works wonders for groin strain prevention. And you can only develop this strength by lifting heavy weights, not tiny weights.
You can never fully nix injuries, especially in any sport when heavy contact with other players is allowed.
Still, you'd be remiss not to bulletproof your joints and muscles off the field. And the best way to do that is through smart, heavy weight room training.
2. You Need to Eat a Ton to Get 'Big'
The reality is that getting bodybuilder "big and bulky" requires eating so many calories that it's almost impossible for it to happen by accident.
My hockey players routinely consume around 4,000 calories (or more) on heavy training days, yet remain at a low body fat percentage and certainly aren't "too big."
Why? Because they burn most of what they consume in the gym and on the ice.
It's virtually impossible to obtain massive calorie intakes from "clean" food sources.
Eating 5,000-plus calories a day worth of steak, chicken breast, salmon filet, brown rice, fruit and salad is a monumental, often-painful task.
If you want to build muscle, you do need a caloric surplus. New muscle tissue doesn't just fall on your torso out of thin air.
But for athletes, simply gaining any muscle often requires a concerted effort to eat more, particularly if most of your calories are coming from clean food choices.
To gain massive amounts of muscle via clean food choices is such a monumental long-term task that it doesn't happen by accident. Just look at The Rock's diet.
Now, you can certainly get a different kind of "big" if you constantly stuff your face with Hawaiian pizza, Snickers bars, and Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
But that has nothing to do with lifting weights. In such a case, understand that your nasty weight gain wasn't caused by lifting iron—it had everything to do with your crappy diet.
The point is that lifting alone will never make you "big" or "bulky." It's all about the diet you pair it with. The right diet will help you improve your body composition by adding muscle.
3. Low-Volume Weight Training Doesn't Get You 'Big'
Training volume strongly correlates with hypertrophy. Up to a point, the more weekly lifting volume you accumulate, the bigger your muscular gains will be.
Here's the thing, though. You don't magically gain 10 pounds of new muscle by performing three moderately heavy sets of Power Cleans, Weighted Chin-Ups, Squats and Bench Presses a few times per week for a month or two.
If gaining size were that easy, we'd have a lot more dudes walking around jacked out of their minds.
As already mentioned, relative strength is more important than absolute strength for a non-strength athlete. Lifting heavy but limiting total volume and caloric intake is how you drive up your relative strength with minimal changes in your current body weight. As long as you keep calorie intake in check (around maintenance levels), your weight will stay about the same.
There's a good chance following a low-volume weight training program and sticking to smart food choices will lead to a body recomposition (a simultaneous reduction in body fat and increase in lean body mass), especially if your training age is low. There are few people on this planet who wouldn't benefit aesthetically and athletically from this type of recomposition.
If you're not eating an absurd amount of calories and you're not doing bodybuilder-type high-volume workouts (which can often take a very long time), you've got little to worry about.
And if you did start to believe you were getting too big or bulky, it's such a gradual process that you can adjust your approach. You don't go to sleep scrawny one night then wake up Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime the next.
4. You Don't Have Enough Time to Build Significant Muscle
As a field sport athlete, you need to devote time to speed, agility and jump training, as well as conditioning drills in addition to weight room work. These activities are all on top of practicing and playing your sport.
We know that, in addition to training volume, lifting frequency is another important factor for muscle growth.
Weight room beginners (which many team sport athletes are) need to train a muscle group at least 2-3 times per week for maximal muscular gains.
Here's the issue.
Barring the offseason, how many athletes are in the gym three or more times per week? Practically none. Many don't even lift twice per week during their competitive season.
One resistance training workout per week is the unfortunate reality for most athletes over large parts of their calendar year. Some go weeks without touching weights during their busiest periods of the season.
Bottom line—there are not enough hours in a week for you to accumulate the high lifting volumes and frequencies required to reach significant size gains while also partaking in school, speed and conditioning workouts, sports practice and games.
5. No Miss, You Won't Lose Your Slim Figure
This last point is to assuage the (unnecessary) fears of many female athletes.
These women expect to wake up one day looking like the She-Hulk once they leave the pink dumbbells behind and graduate to proper barbell training. This, of course, is pure nonsense.
If you already possess low-to-moderate body fat, adding more muscle in the right places will give you that slim, defined look all females (athletes and non-athletes alike) covet. I've worked with women's hockey players who could Trap Bar Deadlift and Hip Thrust around 300 pounds, yet still maintained very feminine figures:
If heavy strength training turned Janes into Joes, I would have seen it. But it just doesn't happen.
There's a reason so many female celebrities have embraced strength training as a means of enhancing their physique and confidence.
However, if your body fat is already high, then losing a bit of fat will allow the aesthetic-enhancing benefits of strength training to really shine.
To quote Canadian strength coach Christian Thibaudeau:
"The misconception with these women who think they will get too big is that they already think that they are too big before they even begin to lift (likely because they have an extra 10-15 kg of body fat). If they build muscle while maintaining the fat they have, they will not look more defined or toned because there is half an inch of fat covering their muscles. This will only make them look bigger, not better. The problem is not adding muscle; it is the excess of fat."
What's common for every female athlete I've trained is that their upper bodies remained rather slim. Due to biological differences, females' upper bodies simply don't respond to training the same as males' upper bodies.
Although we did train females' upper bodies, we prioritized lower-body development. They built bigger and stronger legs and glutes—which is exactly what any athlete, male or female, needs.
This is what I mean by adding muscle in the right places. Your legs and hips generate all the speed and power that set you apart on game day. So, it makes sense to build up these large muscle groups that are so critical to your performance.
One of the women's National Team goaltenders I trained over the past two years actually had to throw all her old pants in the trash.
Because she could no longer fit into them.
All the Squats, Split Squats, Hip Thrusts, and other lower-body strength movements she did made her legs and glutes bigger, so she literally had to upgrade her wardrobe.
You'd think that this type of "bulking up" is the last thing a young female would want. But I didn't hear any complaints from her when she saw those gains carry over to her on-ice speed and agility. And the fact that she built a proper hockey butt didn't hurt her self-confidence, either.
Most importantly, what happened to her performance in the rink?
She backstopped her team to a National Championship with a 6-0 win/loss record in the playoffs, won a silver medal at the 2019 IIHF World Championship with the Finnish National Team and received a scholarship to play D1 college hockey in the US next season.
The lesson here?
If you're a confused woman (or an equally puzzled fella) who believes lifting weights makes you too big, check yourself. You live in Fantasyland.
Individuals who start out with a lean body composition won't witness huge muscle growth by following your typical athletic strength and conditioning programs. The weekly lifting frequency and volume is too low for that. Staying in a caloric balance doesn't promote massive muscular gains, either.
But by half-assing or skipping your gym training, you're limiting your performance on the field.
So hit the weights hard and heavy. You will likely add some new muscle on your frame. Muscle that will help you run faster, jump higher and look irresistible in the mirror.
What's not to like?
Photo Credit: MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY/iStock
Schoenfeld, BJ et al. "Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Journal of Sports Sciences. 2017 Jun; 35(11):1073-1082.
Schoenfeld, BJ et al. "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." Sports Medicine. 2016 Nov; 46(11):1689-1697.
Schoenfeld, BJ et al. "Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2015 Jul; 29(7):1821-1829.
Thibaudeau, Christian. Christian Thibaudeau's Guide to Hypertrophy. Clean Health Fitness Institute. 2019.