“I want to start strength training, but I’m worried that it will make me too muscular, too big, too bulky or gain too much weight.”
Believe it or not, I have heard this so often that I’m gradually beginning to understand the hidden meaning behind this statement. I believe it has something to do with the perception of aesthetics.
I want to stay lean
Notice the word “stay” in that sentence. The population worried about getting too big and bulky are not the big and chubby people. Big, heavy people are never concerned whether strength training will make them bigger; they are concerned if strength training help make them lose weight.
The group concerned about becoming too muscular and/or too big are skinny people.
What is skinny? You can define it as how you like by using metrics such as body weight, BMI(weight-height ratio), body fat %, clothing size, or by visual markers such as the visibility of your six-pack.
Let me use my definition. Naturally skinny people will lose weight when they don’t pay attention to their diet and keep track of their bodyweight, eating as they please. They are the ones who find that it requires no effort to lose weight, and much easier to undereat than overeat.
If you are in this group, let me reveal my conclusion:
I strongly suggest starting your strength training immediately. You can be both stronger and lean. You will not catch yourself in a situation whereby you wake up one morning and suddenly find yourself being too big.
I have the opposite problem – I want to be big!
But I can’t. Or at least not that easily.
I have always been skinny. How skinny, you say?
When I was in my mid-20s, I worked for a clothing company. We had to wear the clothes from our store while we were on our shift. Unfortunately, I was so skinny that I couldn’t find any pants that fit me. The smallest size of mens jeans that we sold were size 28”, and even those were too big. Sure, I can wear it with a belt, but the waist will fold awkwardly, making the jeans have a giant pleat on one side.
(I’m sure all the skinny people reading this know what I’m talking about).
So I did what any sensible man did – I wore size 23″ womens jeans.
When I found barbell training back in 2015, I weighed somewhere between 52-54kg at 1.67m tall. 7 years later, I currently weigh 71-72kg, but still at the same height (sadly). My BMI has increased from 18.6 (underweight) to 25.8 (slightly above normal). Although my BMI is in the overweight range, I can assure you that I look healthy and normal. Nobody has called me fat except my wife.
7 years, and almost 20kgs of bodyweight extra. If you think this is crazy, let me tell you about Chris.
When Chris started training with us, he was a 70kg skinny fat dude. Within six months, he’s almost 90 kg, with the most jacked arms in our gym.
This might be a horror story for everyone who wants to stay lean.
“OH, NO! Strength training made these people fat!”
Not really! Chris wants to get big and strong, and he ate his three meals in double portions for several months. Of course, an average person will stop doing that after three weeks, but he persisted, because he wanted to get big and muscular.
It’s extremely important to note that Chris wanted to get big and muscular and did what was necessary to get there. Getting big and muscular never happens accidentally – it happens with a lot of hard work and consistent effort to get there.
I, however, represent the less hardworking population of the world. I get excited for a few weeks, gain a few kgs, and then cool down for a few months. Rinse and repeat CONSISTENTLY for seven years. On many occasions, I went back to square one, but at least I was consistent, right?
If you start skinny and small, I promise you that strength training will not make you explode and become fat. It will not do that because the food component is a huge chunk of the process to get big and bulky. You will not eat that much unless it’s a deliberate effort to do so! And that comes from experience.
Yes, the choking point for me to get big has always been the diet. It’s easy to be consistent with training; it’s just 3x a week. Diet is harder; you need to be consistent all day. Every. Single. Day. By keeping tracking of your diet, you can finetune the growth rate according to your liking.
Have you ever been too bulky?
Sometimes, the concern of becoming too big doesn’t come from fear of becoming too big but from experience in that situation.
It could be that you have gotten too bulky or muscular in past from engaging in some physical activity and that bothered you. In situations like this, I’ll usually ask, “have you ever feel like you were too bulky/muscular?”
Thus far, I have received one yes and countless nos. Debbie did a lot of cycling during her youth, and her thighs became bigger than she felt comfortable.
If you happen to fall into this category, I think it’s good for your coach to understand where you’re coming from. Finding out your history of the activity can be helpful – things like your training intensity, frequency of the activity, and how long you committed to that training regime.
People that get put on muscle mass usually fall into two different groups:
1. They are/were either doing a specific sport and/or are training very seriously for an extended period of their life (let’s talk about years) or,
2. They are athletically inclined. Simply put, they are more talented physically than the average person.
More often than not, most people fall into group 1 as most people are average and not athletically inclined. People in group 2 most likely know that they are more athletic than average. They’ve always excelled in sports from their early years and were always better than their peers during PE in school. Their PE teachers made them the captain of the team. I will also guess that the people from group 2 would be more likely to engage in sports when they were younger (thus also belonging to group 1) and may have competed as some level.
The solution to help these people who felt that they have gotten too big in the past is simply programming. Discussing every possible scenario of programming tweaks here is impossible because it will be highly individualized. Simply put, the training stress can be adjusted to serve your needs of becoming strong (to a point) without getting too big for your liking
Cutting too early
As far as I know, every person who has a six-pack is terrified to see gradually fade away behind a layer of adipose tissue. They will pinch their tummy and say, “I am getting fat; we need to do a cut NOW.”
Then you start cutting your food portions, doing more conditioning, and other interventions in an effort to cut your bodyfat so that your abs can once again see the light of day.
I used to entertain these thoughts, but have since learned that it kills strength gains quickly, bringing me a few steps back from my strength progress and the ideal physique I was after.
This doesn’t happen exclusively to the six-pack; everyone has a different benchmark. The more commonly used metric is body weight %.
The correct approach to solve this issue is to clean up your diet, eating the same amount of calories but changing the macronutrients – dropping fat and increasing your protein intake. The change in your diet will promote better recovery and muscle building while your body goes through recomposition.
Special considerations for females
Ladies, it’s even more challenging for you to gain excessive muscle mass. And it’s because of a hormone called testosterone.
The muscular ladies who compete in the highest level of sporting events or bodybuilding competitions are very athletically inclined. Sometimes, these competitors also take drugs to make them more competitive.
Remember that most people are of average athleticism and the athletic predisposition is spread in a spectrum; there are females who is more physically gifted than most males. Unfortunately, or fortunately for you, this population is very few and far between. Again, if you are one of them, you will know it as you have been kicking boys asses in sports since you are 6.
Most of you who don’t are all good! You will still be able to get stronger. Probably even stronger than what you think you can be without getting “big and bulky”.
Last word of advice
Fellow skinny people! Start your strength training!
Get as strong as you can, and stop worrying about getting too big for now.
If you wake up one day and feel that you’re too jacked, remember, you are naturally skinny.
It’s going to be easy for you to swing it again to the leaner side.
Don’t do a U-turn! I implore you to stay on the course and assess your diet.
Give it a few extra weeks for it to stabilize, and give it a few extra months for the results to show.