Sunday, May 10, 2009

Myth Busting: Women are afraid of "bulking up" in working out - not!

After reading a variety of posts on forums asserting that women are afraid of bulking up, i've been running a survey this past week of gals who do workout in whatever form they define "workout" to see if actual women hold these views - or if this assertion is just one more urban legend.

(update 1, below)

so far there have been 28 respondents to the following 3 positions:

1. i adjust my workouts deliberately to avoid muscular "bulk"
2. i adjust my workouts at least some of the time deliberately to achieve some "bulk"
3. i don't think about "bulk" at all when i do my workouts

1. only 1 person
2. 11 gals
3. 16 gals

So, 40% picked that they DO go for bulk deliberately at least some of the time, while a whopping 57% (who also commented that they lift heavy) don't think about bulk one way or the other when they design their programs they "just want to get strong," or fast, and only 3% said they are concerned to make sure they won't induce bulk from their workouts.

That's a pretty significant inversion of the assumptions that have been expressed like some kind of truth about women's attitudes towards working out.

I'll update after another week if the numbers start to change, but i hope from this tiny sample at least some assumptions about "women" and their views of working out might get updated in folks' heads.

response so far from a few of the gentlemen of good will who have seen this:
  • must be a special group of women i surveyed, like just uni athletes or "women who know better" or "non advanced women athletes" or not the women a fellow sees in the gym who aren't "working out to their potential."
  • These fellers make general statements about "women" of some class/group/category despite citing resources - but a sort of implicit reference to "common knowledge" which seems to be more persuasive than the actual data presented here (and by their own female peers).
responses so far from the few women who have seen these results:
  • They resonate with the other 97% of women who participated in the survey - they either don't care themselves about adding visible muscle or not, or are into getting some muscle mass.
  • These women have not generalized to knowledge of other women or "women" as a general class beyond knowledge of themselves or peers with whom they've deliberately discussed the matter.

Update 2: (may 31, 09)

Since the results haven't changed for a week, here's the latest numbers on the the straw poll survey: of 52 respondents, 88% either don't care or from time to time deliberately do try to "bulk"

Fascinating again.


His Sinfulness said...

A good question, with interesting responses. I hope you can get a large enough sample size for statistical relevance.

mc said...

thank you for writing. great to hear from you and cool blog.

on stat sig:
i wasn't aiming for a particular p value; just to see what the trend is among women who work out and will self-report - since this is about self-perception more so than careful analysis of practice, but that's an interesting idea.

if you don't mind, what would you calculate as a sample size to claim statistical significance using what power analysis?

much obliged,


Georgie Fear, RD, CPT said...

Interesting idea mc! I have to speak up as one of the minority who is fighting the bulk! Tick me off as in category #1. I do, however, know that most women don't have this...I don't want to say "problem"... but for me it really is. I start to look like the chick in your photo waaaaay too easily, and thats not what I want to look like.

What can I say? I have freak genetics perhaps.

mc said...

That's cool, Georgie. THanks for sharing - it's clear you *know* what your bod does and how to control it. That's way cool.

I'll swap ya some genes :)

how's school going?


Swing Kid said...

This fear of bulking up is ridiculous. It is more a topic for gender studies and discourse analysis than for training. By the way it is an anachronism. Look at the crossfit women, strong, muscular and they are proud of it. Or Lucia Rijker the famous boxer. She is a role model for others. I would love to be so strong and muscular as Rijker but it would be too much work to achieve it. I have other things to do.

mc said...

Swing Kid, gender unknown, thanks for posting.

i'm guessing that by "This fear of bulking up is ridiculous." is that you mean that people who say that this is a "fear" are ridiculous? or?? are you saying trying to understand if women actually say this and that this is some kind of a myth being perpetuated is ridiculous?

with respect to gender studies or discource analysis, yes, i agree it's interesting in terms of WHO is making claims about what identity and HOW they are asserting positionality.

It's also very much a topic in cultural studies about the effect of "common knowledge" of cultural biases. for instance it used to be common knowledge that blacks had rhythm and were good at sports and that chinese were super smart and women with smaller brains are less intelligent than men and that women's sporting events are less interesting to watch than men's, etc.

But i do think it's just these kinds of biases that affect training. Who sneers at the gal in the gym who is only "lifting 20lbs"? what kind of climate is that for working out? who sneers at the gal at the bar that has cut shoulders and mass and starts using other cultural memes to demean her?

so ya i'm intrigued by how cultural common knowledge informs practice, and am keen to see what's myth or what's fact - i didn't know if as other posters have said "it's just me who doent mind the idea of bulk" - since we keep hearing supposedly all our other sisters are afraid of it.

good to know that doesn't SEEM to be the case.

Thanks very much for pointing out Rijker.

Very strong looking arms, indeedbest

Swing Kid said...

Hi mc,

I am female and I know you from Dragon Door Forum. I like your blogs and packed your post about barefoot walking and shoes on my website (among the recommended links).

I just wanted to say that the outdated ideology -bulky arms are not "feminine" and women have to look cute not strong- is ridiculous to me. Of course I know that sexist and racist images, norms and representations are very powerful.

There are women who fear bulking up and others (mostly professional athletes) who don't. That is the fact.

And it's hard to ignore social prejudices and you need mental toughness or a social privileged position to do so because you will pay a price. Or you just move - let's say from the back country to New York, London or Berlin. Ok., I am just kidding . That's not an option for everybody.

There you can join the crossfit community, an MMA club, Olympic weightlifting club or escape to the feminist or queer theory circle at university. :-)

Btw. I remeber feminist sports science produced interesting material about images and stereotypes about female athletes.

Best regards
Swing Kid

Swing Kid said...

Hi mc,

seems my last post didn't reach the target. It disappeared. Here is a nice video with three strong women - from John Berardi's Precision Nutrition Blog

best regards
Swing Kid said...


I can only speak for one woman, but my wife is intensely bulk-phobic, and will not listen to me or anyone else (i.e. CrossFit instructors) who tell her that the fear is unfounded. My wife played basketball growing up, but has always been a fairly slender person (she's underweight per BMI standards, which I only mention because it is *a* reference point, even if its a crappy one). She's has nice *flexed* guns, but otherwise no one would ever look at her (or her arms specfically) and think she was anything other than feminine looking.

Yet the fear of bulking up is very real to her, even if it is completely unfounded and she has been told as much (by numerous people other than myself).

I believe that many women are imbued with a great deal of body shape paranoia -- hell, I think men are, too. It's hard to look at magazine covers and not see perfectly sculpted men and women that in no way reflect real, or even normally healthy people (I make that qualification because it seems that a real, average person would almost necessarily be overweight).

mc said...

Thanks swing kid for the posts.


"I can only speak for one woman, but my wife is intensely bulk-phobic, and will not listen to me or anyone else (i.e. CrossFit instructors) who tell her that the fear is unfounded."

well i'd be a little resistant too if someone said my fears were "unfounded" eh? :)

That said, i've no idea what sources would make it safe for her to train heavy and either accept that mass may happen or that it's unlikely without care and feeding.

Being told something is not how all people learn. Just a thought.

If you're interested it may be interesting to look at images of atheltic women - like some of the russian tennis players or basketball players - that your gal admires - and then check out their training programs.

As a colleague of mine, Roland Fisher, recently wrote to me, he also trains gals who initially great weight training with this bulkophobia, but quickly find if they do that they enjoy the workouts, and that the muscle they see on some of the more experienced gals is part of the image they want for themselves - it's mass seen with new eyes.

anyway, i do hear you.

Thanks again all for your posts, all



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