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LIFE, UNEDITED: “Bulky” Isn’t “Bad”

Our fitness editor explores the language behind lifting weights and body perception.

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In the November issue of Experience Life, our Fit Body feature turns a critical eye on some common fitness and nutrition adages. Our team and readers wanted to know the truth behind conventional “truths,” shining light on the myths, highlighting the facts, and acknowledging the gray areas that exist between scientific research and anecdotal n=1 experience. I’d really encourage you to check out the whole list here, and I invite you to chime in with your own experiences around one or more of these prevalent beliefs.

To hopefully get the conversation started, I wanted to weigh in, so to speak, on adage No. 9.

True or False? Lifting weights makes you bulky.

Verdict: FALSE. Lifting weights makes you healthy and strong.

“This is one of the more stubborn myths surrounding the practice of strength training — that anyone, male or female, who hefts a pair of dumbbells will trans­form into an Incredible Hulk,” contributing editor Andrew Heffernan writes in the piece. “Most people’s muscles will get slightly larger on a strength-training program, which helps keep fat at bay, your metabolism revved, and hormones balanced.”

The facts tell us that you won’t “bulk up” by accident. You won’t “get bulky” overnight.

But what the facts in this particular piece of “fact or fiction” don’t tell us is what we mean by “bulky.” What are people really saying when they warn, however narrow-mindedly, that “Lifting weights makes you bulky”? What do people fear when they proclaim, “I don’t want to get bulky”?

What I’m trying to get at is this idea that 1) we all agree on what “bulky” is and 2) we all agree that “bulky” is “bad.”

Bulky, like any other aesthetic term, is subjective — to some people, even a small amount of muscle definition equates to more bulk than they want for themselves; in this regard muscles that become even “slightly larger” could be considered bulky.

Moreover, bulky is not bad. Bulky is not necessarily undesirable. Bulky is not a medical condition best avoided. Despite what the true-or-false statement above might imply, being “bulky” and being “strong and healthy” are not mutually exclusive. Lifting weights has the potential to help you achieve all of those things, or none of them, depending on how you approach it.

More and more people — men and women — are embracing hypertrophy and intentionally trying to get bigger by increasing muscle mass through targeted nutrition and exercise. For these individuals, being “bulky” is the goal, not something to be avoided. One EL contributor, Jennifer Blake, endearingly describes her upper traps as “meat cushions” — “because they give [the barbell] such a cozy place to rest while I’m squatting,” she says. Blake’s body is her “meat suit.” Her muscles represent the hard work she does in the gym and radiate the self-confidence she feels on the inside. She wears her “bulk” as a badge of honor.

Much less seriously, my best friend and I use “bulky” code language to describe the act of sitting on the couch eating ice cream:

Me: What are you up to?

B: Working on getting bulky.

For B and I, this is not in the least intended to demean each other or ourselves. We love ice cream and feel good about eating it. We love lifting and feel good about doing it. The joke here is that if we do both — eat ice cream and lift — we might bulk up; and that’s not necessarily “good” or “bad” in our books.

My point in all this is not to convince anyone that they should want to “bulk up.” Same way I wouldn’t ever tell someone to “slim down.” My general opinion is: You do you, I’ll do me. Our goals and methods might look different, but we can still support each other.

I simply want to use this opportunity to draw attention to the way we use language and tone in the fitness industry, often in ways that break people down instead of build them up. (Given my job and my personal passions, it’s hard not to feel bombarded by the judgment out there.) Let’s listen to how we talk to and about ourselves, and how we talk to and about each other.

I’ll let my friend K sum up my sentiments here. About four years ago, a group of women at our gym in D.C. was once talking about “getting bulky.” We did CrossFit, many of us were noticing new muscles and bigger muscles, and several of the women were lamenting the physique changes. K listened to them, gave them space to voice their concerns, and then simply said: “What if some of us WANT to get bulky?”

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