An all too common question from female clients, unfortunately. And a fair question considering the old school fitness regimens that preach 2 pound pink dumbbells and the current internet information overload. The biggest fear and misconception that stops women from lifting weights is getting "bulky" which in itself is a broad term and could have different meaning for different women. Women were once told not to lift too heavy as they would get too muscular and big. People were also told smoking was completely ok and would have no consequences. We now know both are false, but unfortunately many people still believe the former. The reality is that gaining significant muscle mass is very difficult for women because of nutrition and testosterone levels.
Goals vary but most consist of gaining more muscle definition and strength while losing weight. Consistently lifting very light weights or cardio won't get you there as your body adapts to those weights. These goals will be best achieved with proper strength training combined with progressive overload. More on that later. Other fitness modalities help of course, unless they're making false claims, but strength training should be the main dish.
In order to "bulk" as the bros like to call it, or gain muscle mass, you need to be eating a surplus of calories. So if your maintenance calories are at 1900 then eating 2400 daily calories will hypothetically add 1 pound per week. Do this for a couple of weeks or months and you will gain weight whether you're working out or not. If you're looking to improve your muscle definition and lose fat then you will have to get into a caloric deficit so you could aim for 1500 calories for example. As you can see, gaining massive size with a caloric deficit would be like trying to get a big bank account while spending more than you're earning. It's important to maintain as much lean muscle mass during a caloric deficit with adequate protein. An increase in protein will help fire up protein synthesis (muscle growth) and reduce proteloysis (muscle breakdown) meaning more lean muscle mass during fat loss.
Testosterone is important when it comes to gaining muscle mass as it drives many of the anabolic processes. Anabolic meaning muscle building to keep it simple. Testosterone is the main reason why men gain more and faster muscle mass than woman as men have up 10 times the testosterone levels as women. It can directly increase protein synthesis and it also activates the main muscle building pathway called mTOR. This makes it much harder for women to get the same muscle size as men.
Unless you're consuming a surplus of calories and taking some form of testosterone (i.e. steroids), then you probably won't be "bulking" or gaining significant muscle mass. With this being said, all bodies react differently to strength training. If you find you are working out and you are gaining too much size for your liking in a particular body part then reduce the volume and progressive overload for that body part. At the end of the day, gaining muscle definition and achieving a toned look comes down to proper strength training and consistent nutrition.
Progressive overload refers to increasing the difficulty or intensity of the exercise. Doing more regularly. But, what is more? The "more" can be done by increasing the number of sets, reps, weight, time under tension, range of motion with an exercise, reduced rest time, increasing weekly workout frequency, lifting the load with greater speed, and more. In oder to gain more lean muscle mass and muscle definition then you have to gradually make it more difficult. I find that many new clients that come in say that they haven't seen progress in a while while working out on their own. We go over their current or past workout programs, and it usually consists of the same routine, sets, reps, and weights for the past couple of months or even year. They most likely had decent results when they first started as it was a new stimulus to their body but the body eventually adapts. And that's where progressive overload comes in and takes you to greater strength levels and body composition goals!
Basic Progressive Overload Example:
Barbell Squat: Weeks 1-3 (Increasing the reps)
1st Week: 8 reps @ 60 lb
2nd Week 10 reps @ 60 lb
3rd Week: 12 Reps @ 60 lb
After this 3 week cycle, you can increase the weight from 60 to 65/70 lb and go through that rep cycle again. This is just one of many way to make the exercise more difficult. Most people stay at the same weight or rep scheme so there body eventually plateaus. Others try to change up the exercises on a weekly basis. Make slight modifications but don't program hop. It's hard for your body to get stronger in an exercise when you only do it once a month.
Progressive overload will be less of a concern if you find you are happy with you current muscle definition. If you reach that point, then you can have less focus on progressive overload for that certain muscle group but still utilize progressive overload for the rest of the body.
Everyone has different goals and everyone reacts differently to strength training. From personal experience, most women coming in are looking to lose some weight and/or increase muscle definition aka get "toned". The best way to go about this is consistent nutrition and strength training that focuses on progressive overload. Like I mentioned earlier, everyone's body reacts differently. So if you do find a certain body part is gaining too much mass for your liking, then reduce the volume and progressive overload on that body part. Don't stop training it but just focus on maintenance. Again, for the majority of women, gaining large amounts of muscle mass is extremely hard unless they're taking in a large amount of calories or taking some form of outside testosterone. So put those DVD's and fitness magazines that promote 2 lb dumbbells away, and lift!
Unless it's Friday in which you can PARTY OFF THE POUNDS!