Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 08/06/2012

I’m Still Waiting to Get Too Big



It came up again on a message board last week. A very nice, intelligent, reasonable young woman told the community that she wanted to try the training program in one of the New Rules of Lifting books, but was terrified of getting too big.

Of course we explained to her the reality of her situation: You can’t catch muscularity like the common cold. Nobody bulks up accidentally. It takes years of hard work, not to mention truckloads of food, to build what an objective observer would describe as “bulk.”

I know because I spent much of my life trying to do exactly that. (The photo above is my son when he was 2 years old, I think. His interest in strength training ended shortly after I took the photo.) I appreciate that some people gain weight faster than others, with a combination of muscle and fat. But pure, functional muscle tissue is hard to gain and easy to lose.

Of course anyone’s who lifted for a while understands this. But here’s something I don’t understand as well as I should: Why is strength training a pursuit that so many begin with a firm idea of what they don’t want to accomplish? What else in life works that way?

Success: Eww!

I don’t think any young man or woman has ever gone into a salary negotiation and said to the boss, “I don’t want to get too rich.”

Likewise, I’d be surprised if any author has ever said he didn’t want to sell too many books, or any actress told a director or producer that she didn’t want to get too famous.

When you’re a kid playing a sport for the first time, you don’t think about not hitting home runs, not scoring game-winning goals, or not being the first one to cross the finish line.

Even in adulthood, what runner starts out by telling herself that she never wants to run a 10k, much less finish a marathon, because she doesn’t like the way people look when they’re all tired and sweaty? What novice golfer doesn’t aspire to breaking 100? For that matter, what lifelong golfer doesn’t aspire to breaking 90, or 80, or 70, or, for that matter, accomplishing anything he hasn’t yet accomplished on a golf course?

Looks Don’t Kill, but Why Take the Chance?

I understand that these are silly questions, and you understand I’m deliberately ignoring the single factor that makes strength training different from work, writing, and competitive sports. The goal of strength training, unlike acting or golf, is to change your appearance.

People are fine with performance-oriented goals as long as there’s no risk they’ll end up looking like someone they consider hideous. And these days, we never really see hideous-looking millionaires or athletes. Even among writers, a profession that’s perfectly appropriate for someone whose appearance falls at the far left end of the bell curve, a couple of standard deviations below “average looking,” we mostly just see the good-looking ones. Even the ones who’re certifiably homely, like Stephen King, seem to get less ugly with age and familiarity.

More to the point, nobody looks at Stephen King and thinks, “I don’t want to write a bestseller because I might end up looking like that guy.”

And yet, lots of people recoil with horror when they look at the biggest bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strength athletes. They don’t see guys who tried to get that big, who pushed and pulled massive weights for years to attain their awful size, and who in many cases took a pharmacy worth of illegal drugs to get bigger than their genetics would allow. They see their size as a logical and perhaps inevitable result of lifting weights.

Strength training is the only pursuit I can think of that people enter with the idea that it will change them at the genetic level. The odds that it will change your appearance in a dramatic way are slight. The more likely outcome is a slight change in your appearance.

But that’s the greatest thing about lifting, at least to me. That slight difference tends to be one we cherish right along with our more meaningful career and personal accomplishments. It matters to us because it was hard and because it took time.

And yet, those who’ve never tried it assume it’s all too easy. As a lifetime lifter, I can’t tell you how strange that seems to me, even after hearing it for so many years.

  • Greg Esres

    I’m not sure people really mean it when they say they don’t want to get too big; it may be an effort to keep their goals realistic to give them confidence to even start. I teach people to fly airplanes and very often they begin by saying “I don’t want to be an airline pilot”, but many of them eventually do.

  • lisa

    “I’m afraid I will get too big” is simply an excuse….either because they are scared or because they don’t want to lift weights. Exercise, including wgt training is work, and face it…nowadays…people don’t want to have to do work. But they forget that work can be fun. To me lifting weights is more fun than laying on the couch watching tv or even reading….because I get to see results from the work and it makes me feel better.
    The women who complain they are aftaid they will get too big are often the same ones that complain about skin flapping under their arms….hmmm….if you had a tricep muscle there that wouldn’t happen.
    We can do something about the excuse if it is “being afraid” by encouraging women to lift and by helping make them more comfortable in the weight room but if the excuse is because they dont want to do work……..well……it is what it is.

  • J B

    I can only speak for myself…and if I lift too much, people start asking me if I body build, if I’m trying to get bigger on purpose. Perhaps I’m the only woman on the planet with this issue.

    • People ask me if I work out all the time. I believe it to be a complement, and take it that way.

  • As a woman, I do understand it. I think what many women want is why Tracy Anderson is still in business. They want to look like 15 year old girls, with no mass to them. Outside of the fact that is unrealistic, it is also unhealthy. Considering that size 4 is considered the upper end of sizes for models, you can see what they are really saying. I try to show that muscles are sexy. I think that it is a shame that a healthy body is considered “bulky”. However, considering that most women’s reality is the exact opposite of a size 4, I think once they see their pant size decreasing, happiness will ensue. The last thing I have to say is that I have substantially increased my strength over the last year, without gaining a pound, or increasing a pant size.

    • Hutchkd33

      Awesome comment. SO focused on the size number or the need to look like a 15 year old, and nothing focusing on health or strength. Thankfully Laurel, you and I can change one mind at a time. It is all it takes.

  • Anna @ www.proteinpow.com

    Excellent article, Lou, nice and to the point. Thank you, again 🙂

  • George Haberberger

    When I first started working out about 33 years ago, I overheard the gym owner taking another newbie through his first workout. During the demonstration, the newbie said something like, “I don’t want to get too big.” Mike, the owner, paused a beat, then dramatically ripped up the papers in his hands, and said. “Wow, good thing you told me that in time. By next week you would have had to buy all new clothes.”

  • OGJ

    Hello Lou, hello everybody. For what it’s worth, I’ve come to realize that

    on a woman’s smaller frame, even the really small amounts of

  • Sharon68

    Hello Lou, hello everybody. For what it’s worth, I’ve come to realize that on a woman’s smaller frame, even really small amounts of muscle gain can look like a lot. Here I’m speaking as a 44-year-old woman who is a relative newbie. Recently I’ve been having the “but my legs are seriously becoming too big!” discussion with my personal trainer. This is from a mere 9.48 lb gain in muscle (on a female frame which was 107 lb to begin with, at 25.4% body fat).

    Although I am not doing bodybuilding per se, my trainer is a professional bodybuilder. So he knows how to create the illusion of size by tweaking body proportions.

    The last “my legs are too big already, I don’t want to do this any more!” debate ended with my realizing (with a bit of help from him) that my thighs HADN’T actually increased in girth (going by how my jeans fit), they just LOOKED bigger because they had leaned out just enough for the muscles to be defined.

    But I have to say that, whether the increase in “bulk” is real or is merely some bodybuilding optical illusion, it IS something which I find unsettling. Still trying to figure out whether I like it.

    To be honest, I’ve gained nearly 12 lbs (muscle + fat) and when I force myself to be rational and logical, I realize that I actually look SMALLER all-round unless I… ahem… flex something. When I’m fully clothed, people who haven’t seen me for a while think that I’ve actually lost weight (as opposed to gaining over 5 kg). But when I wear shorts, I get asked whether I am a bodybuilder; I think it’s because then they can see where one muscle begins and the other ends. These days I avoid wearing shorts except for yoga class (coz I want to train myself to stop being self-conscious about my big legs).


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  • Anonymous

    Guys please help. I have downloaded the The New rules book onto my kindle. I cannot for the life of me figure out the workout schedule. Im really confused. It seems one does workout ABAB 3 times a week but then what is workout 1,2,3,4? Please help.

  • Anonymous

    Guys please help. I have downloaded the The New rules book onto my kindle. I cannot for the life of me figure out the workout schedule. Im really confused. It seems one does workout ABAB 3 times a week but then what is workout 1,2,3,4? Please help.

    • Sorry about the confusion. Later books are more clear, but the original NROL still confuses people.

      This thread at JP Fitness explains the setup:


      Also, for Kindle users, we have free workout logs at werkit.com:


      Good luck with the workouts!

      • Anonymous

        Hi Lou, thanks for the reply. I had a look and it kind of made more sense but I have a question. It seems from what was said that:

        Mon: Workout A #1
        Wed: Workout B #1
        Fri: Workout A #2
        Mon: B #2
        Wed: A #3
        Fri: B #3

        Which implies that one only does one exercise a day? ie Monday will be workout A 1? OK it will be 2 sets of said workout, but is that correct? Actually Im still really confused and frustrated because I want to get started now. Can you give me an example of a typical days workout and I can extrapolate from there? Thanks.

        • Debbie, a workout is all the exercises listed on the workout chart. You do them for the sets and reps listed on the chart. That’s a workout.

          • Anonymous

            Ah Lou this is not helping. I just want to know what letter and numbers I must do on Monday (which is when I plan to start) for stage one. For workout A, which I assume must be alternated with workout B, there is A, B1,B2,CI,C2 and each one has 8 workouts. Where do the 16 workouts done in 6 weeks come from if there are 8×5=40 workouts?

          • On Monday, do Workout A. That includes exercises A, B1 and B2 (you alternate these until you’ve finished all the required sets), and C1 and C2. That’s a workout: 5 exercises, 2 sets of each (or 3, or whatever the chart says).

          • Anonymous

            OK now I think I get it. So it will be workout 1 from each of A,B1,B2,C1 and C2 and 2 sets of each. Then the next day I work from workout B and the next day back to workut A but this time it will be workout 2 from each of A,B1,B2,C1 and C2?

          • That’s it!

          • Anonymous

            At last…..:) Thanks.!

  • That seems pretty common. People also fear that they’ll become “extreme”. What many don’t realize is that the changes they’re making are actually pretty modest — and they’re not in any danger of becoming extreme.

    • Oops. To clarify, I was talking about dietary changes.

  • I have made this statement in the past. I weighed 120lbs more than my current weight when I said it. I would definitely get bigger. I would ONLY see the big. I wasn’t ever able to see the changes with all that weight! Now at my current weight of 150lbs @ 5’5″, I can see the big in an entirely different way. Without the extra weight, I can see the muscle! Bring on the big! I would take big muscle over big rotundness any day.

  • That’s a really interesting discussion here. Women don’t want to have visible muscle because our culture tends to celebrate women who have the bodies of small girls – now that sounds about right to me.

    I wonder how pervasive that is, and how many women feel compelled to hide their slender bodies because it’s possible to see that they are strong as well.

    • I don’t disagree, but I see some irony here after two weeks in which we’ve celebrated every Olympic medal won by fit, strong, muscular women competing for our country. Just to pick one example, look at Alex Morgan:


      She’s 5’7″, about 130 pounds, and embraces the nickname “Baby Horse.” She’s a physical and competitive powerhouse, and men regard her as a sex symbol.

      I’ve heard commentators bemoan the lack of endorsement deals for super-heavy weightlifters like Holly Mangold and Sarah Robles, but I think that misses the point. If they were male they still wouldn’t be marketable. Their sport is too obscure, and nobody — male or female — wakes up in the morning wishing for a 50-inch waist.

    • Sharon68

      Hello Maria Wolters. [QUOTE]Women don’t want to have visible muscle because our culture tends to celebrate women who have the bodies of small girls – now that sounds about right to me.[/QUOTE] Hm, that’s an interesting viewpoint. But it sounds a bit too… “simple” to me? I’m (sincerely) trying to understand why I’ve begun to be slightly uncomfortable with the direction that my body is taking. I’m not ashamed of hard-gained muscle, and I do get annoyed when I hear anybody feeding the “don’t worry, trust me and you will NEVER get bulky” b-s to another woman.

      THAT SAID, I can honestly say that I’m still figuring out what my own values are, concerning body aesthetics in general, and the aesthetics of my own body in particular. And for better or worse, I have in fact gained a noticeable amount of muscle bulk.

      I suspect that intelligent women are not troubled by muscle gain insofar as it projects strength (and perhaps also insofar as it represents their personal revolt against the mainstream body image b-s), but they may in fact be uncomfortable with the reality that when there is a noticeable gain in muscle bulk, this is just one more area where you have to realize afresh that you sort of lose control over what kinds of things will assume about you.

      Nothing that an intelligent and (physically and emotionally) strong woman can’t resolve, but I would say that it’s unnerving when you are still sorting out your own stance.

      This applies to other life choices which involve noticeable changes. I am a recovering alcoholic who practises total abstinence, and while this choice (ie total abstinence) is a no-brainer for me, and — as far as I’m concerned — a decision which is purely personal and entirely individual to ME, I have to say that I do tend to avoid drawing attention to this choice that I’ve made because people tend to take it as a statement about THEM. Then suddenly your private business becomes THEIR business… they mean well but I’m not always in the mood to be pulled into a conversation where somebody is trying to fit ME and my choices concerning alcohol into their existing assumptions.


  • Hutchkd33

    Sounds like an excuse not to work too hard right from the beginning as well as well as someone looking to fit into the society norm. Too bad for her. I will stick with your plan. Healthy & Strong.

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  • Susan

    I like Zumba on occasion, and one of the instructors loves to tell us/me that the trainers are causing the women to ‘bulk up’ and that all people need are what she has to offer, of course, as I stand there wondering what she is seeing on me that looks too ‘bulky’. Funny thing is, she is a thick little stocky thing, and sort of reminds me of a ‘weight lifter’, but I would never say that to her.
    I have JUST started the first workout from NRLFW book. o.m.g. I consider myself in fairly decent shape for an active 53 yr old, but I definitely feel challenged. Got through most of the workout pretty well, push-ups are not my strong point, so started with the easier ones, but I am so bummed…I could not do the Prone Jackknife on the Swiss ball to save my life! I think it could be because it was the last exercise, and my arms already felt like they were gonna fall off (not really) that I just couldn’t take anymore. I’m going to try to do that exercise sometime here at home, after I’ve recovered, see if it’s just me.
    Questions: should the exercises be done in the exact order of workout?
    I am really enjoying the book, a lot of it is making sense and I’m looking forward to getting stronger!

    • Sharon/ OGJ

      Hee hee, I’m definitely turning into a “thick little stocky thing” these days (thanks to lifting…), and I still LOVED your comment!

      ((((( HUG ))))))

      Because I know that you were attacking not a body type, but rather, the baffling “illogic” behind that kind of self-promoting “advice” which feeds on women’s fears of getting hyoo-oooge.

      But I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to pretend that I’m NOT still learning to feel genuinely confident about my body. Only this morning, I bumped into my friend Mikko — a really nice guy — whom I hadn’t seen for maybe two months, and I definitely was not prepared for his reaction, “Wow. You’re… you’re… you’re… hey, you’ve gained mass. Yes, you’ve gained mass. And your posture… it’s really good.”

      I KNEW that it was meant to be a compliment — Mikko used to work in fitness, and he knows (and likes) my personal trainer –, but I am ashamed to say that I did the “girl” thing and wasn’t able to stop myself from asking, “I gained mass? And you mean that in a good way, right?”

      When those words popped out of my mouth, my hand was already moving automatically (and surreptitiously, I hope…) to pat my thighs for “bulkiness”, and (the shame! the shame!) I believe that I also SHRANK MY SHOULDERS A BIT (and tucked my elbows in a bit, chicken wing-style) just in case I looked… massive.

      Within two heartbeats I was feeling like an idiot because I had just made my friend feel as if his sincere compliment was some kind of faux pas. The next time I go to the gym, I’m going to have to do some rows using the pink Barbie 3 lb barbells, as penance.


      I don’t know if Lou Schuler is able to keep up with my endless comments on this topic, but I feel that there is something behind this, which goes beyond being “lazy” (which I am NOT), or being an airhead who believes what people like Tracy Anderson plug (that’s not me, either).

      Recently, my googling threw up what may be a clue. Looking at the images thrown up by my search (“fit woman”), I realized that few of the fit women in the first few pages of the hits were any more “real” than the (putative) “15-year-old skinny fat bimbo” type of model that intelligent women love to mock.

      No. Those fit women were generally so lean that even the least lean ones amongst them looked — to my half-trained eye — to be carrying maybe 20 – 22 percent body fat, at the most. No more. They all looked fabulous, but it’s pretty much a no-brainer (to me) why it’s such a no-brainer for intelligent women who lift, to question the intelligence of any woman who wouldn’t subscribe to THAT ideal.

      My point is, that those fit women’s bodies do in fact represent an ideal. It’s an ideal; the amount of muscle these women have is realistic and attainable for “Everywoman”, but the main reason why they look so good, in a (gasp!) “non-bulky” lean sort of way, is that they have dieted their body fat levels down to percentages which you don’t generally see in women unless they are “fitness professionals” or they are prepping for a shoot or a figure

      What I am trying to say, is that these women’s degree of leanness — and in effect, their “look” — is not a natural or common consequence of lifting weights just to be strong and fit. They represent an ideal but how close are they to the real women we actually see when we go to the gym?

      My own body fat percentage is really good now, for my frame; I did in fact manage to lose the extra 2 lbs of fat I had grumbling so publicly about. But I am sure that intelligent women would have negative reactions to my fretting over something as trivial as 2 lbs of unwanted fat. I bet I sound really vain or shallow or really hung up about my body image, for that! However, the thing about women and muscle gain (if you are totally honest about it), is that if you gain a decent amount of muscle mass — say, 10 percent of your body weight –, you ARE going to look bigger, perhaps even chubbier, depending on how much fat you are carrying.

      Being/ looking “bigger” or “chubbier” is not a bad thing. It is my body, after all. Basically, I am comfortable with my body as it is, and have better things to do with my time, than dieting down to lower levels of body fat. Even if I gained back that 2 lbs of fat mass, I’d probably just let it be, accept that my body likes to hold a bit more fat when I am carrying more muscle, and focus instead
      on the muscle mass.

      My point here is that we intelligent women may not be doing ourselves any favours by poo-poo-ing other women’s visceral reactions to the idea of “getting bulky”. The issues behind this could be more complex than they seem.

      For example, when I think of the women I see regularly in the gym where I exercise, there are maybe two women who look lean and strong in the same way as those idealized “fit women” (ie body fat percentage of about 20 percent), and maybe 4 or 5 other women who are just as strong and muscular but — like me — are carrying between 22 and 25 percent body fat.

      All of these women look good, all of them have bodies which I would be happy to live in, but the leaner ones look… leaner. If I hadn’t read NROLFW, and if my own perceptions of “women who lift” were based solely on what I saw at my own neighborhood gym, I might have hesitated at quite a few points along the way on my journey to “trying to become strong”.


      • Sharon/ OGJ

        P/s: Even Alex Morgan, the stunning “Baby Horse” used by Lou as his example of a “fit, strong, muscular” woman, is extremely lean… she’s an athlete, in a different league from the average fit, strong, and muscular women I try to emulate in my neighbourhood gym. 🙂

        • Sharon/ OGJ

          P/s to the P/s: Now HERE is a real woman who is fit, strong, and muscular, Karin Christley, a woman I can definitely identify with, and definitely one whom I emulate (as in “when my muscles grow up they want to be like hers, but it will be a long time before I am as strong as she is…”): http://www.christadoran.com/blog/?p=567

      • Susan

        Thanks for your reply, Sharon. Thinking about this instructor, and my own body type, simply reaffirms to me just how much genetics plays a factor in how our bodies will get ‘shaped’ by the training we go through. Personally, I have strong legs…big calves, strong, shapely thighs…and this is definitely genetic. My core & upper body strength is what I really have to work on, esp arms…and this is where I most look forward to seeing fat loss, muscle growth, scuptling and strengthening through this regimine. No, I was definitely not attacking her body type…but admit to lashing out a bit to what sounded to me, a tad judgmental & hypocritical. I am proud of my lean, strong legs, big as they are. I’m pretty confident this program is going to help me to develop strength in the rest of my body.
        Thanks for sharing that link…Karin looks awesome strong!

        • Sharon/ OGJ

          Yes, genetics! Susan, I agree with you that it is a big factor behind how our bodies will respond to training. I’ve only been going to the gym for about 10, maybe 11 months, but it’s already long enough for me to observe how other women respond initially to a good programme.

          When “good training” and “good nutrition” ignite the genetics, the results can be so stunning (in a good way). You may be surprised by the strength gains — and also the mass gains — in your upper body, even though at this moment you are accustomed to thinking of your legs as being your “strong” point. That’s something to look forward to! — Sharon

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