Does Crossfit make women bulky?

14 Mar

It had to come up sometime…

It seems that the great “Does Crossfit Makes Women Bulky?” debate has circled like a vulture and finally landed in Gales Gardens. The mere mention of it on Facebook started a long thread of comments, so I thought it would be good to have the debate here for all to participate.

Here’s my starter for ten. As many of you know, I’ve undergone a transformation myself. The Zone diet has removed a lot of body fat, and Crossfit has made me stronger and fitter. While I was losing stone after stone, everyone would compliment on how great I looked. But recently, some are commenting on the more obvious muscularity that’s being revealed/developed. Jokes about arm wrestling, not wanting to get in a fight with me, that sort of thing. I’m not in the least bothered – I’d much rather have scary triceps than be an obese weakling.

I work on a women’s magazine. Every few months, we cast a cover shoot from hundreds of models. (I must mention now that most of our girls are from a pool who would be too short/large for catwalk work. They have healthy BMI’s). Five are chosen; they have hours of hair and makeup, are dressed, lit, shot – followed by more hours of extensive Photoshop retouching, before finally making it into print. If you ever wanted to be reassured that NO-ONE is perfect – come and visit me at work.

We are all relentlessly bombarded by the media as to what a female ideal looks like. Tall, skinny, well dressed, frail. No matter how much we love our Crossfit WODs, some can’t help but be haunted by the spectre of ‘getting bulky’ and be afraid we will cash in our femininity chips for good.

Yes, we know, women don’t have enough testosterone to grow huge muscle. But let’s be truthful – some do get more muscular, and don’t like it. What’s the answer?

Some trainers out in Interweb land have sniffily pronounced that aesthetics have no place in Crossfit, it’s all about increasing your work capacity. This sounds like an overdose of Kool-Aid to me. C’mon, admit it; everyone wants to feel as good about their looks as their Fran time.

I would personally like to see a sea-change in attitude about ideal female body type, as cogently and entertainingly argued here. But bottom line, I wish everyone enough confidence and contentment to carry off whatever nature, nutrition, plus 3-days-on, one-day-off, has bestowed. The argument may not be Does Crossfit make women bulky? so much as “Yes it does, so what?”

So over to you, what do you think? Gents, please jump in too – this debate includes you. And everyone, be honest!

19 thoughts on “Does Crossfit make women bulky?

  1. Looking forward to Phil’s response on this. I expect a lengthy one.

    I completely get it. The majority of girls don’t want to put ANY muscle on as they view this as manly and digusting on women. I personally find strong, fit women much more attractive (not much better than a woman with a good stomach…I know, you can call me slightly strange…)

    I think the problem is warped perceptions and lack of understanding. The majority of the world just lack the knowledge to fully understand things of this matter…they don’t understand exercise physiology and that women struggle to gain much muscle due to their lack of testosterone and they think if a woman touches a weight biceps are going to pop up everywhere. The majority believe running long slow distances and going to aerobics/spinning classes as the best form of exercise period (no puns, please). There isn’t much in the way of “in between” for women who train….they’re either small and thin ala runners or they’re large and muscular ala bodybuilders. Again the problem is most women will equate these larger, more muscular females with weights, not understanding the nature of their training methods or their (often) use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

    A big contributing factor to this is how the medical world views healthy and unhealthy (they’ll get there one day…hopefully…) They use BMI as a measure which is a ridiculously useless tool for gauging someone’s health. They still push lousy diets.

    As you touched on, a lot of the perceptions come from the media too. Famous, popular women and models are idolised and normal people aspire to be like them.

    It’s hard for us guys to comment, as we’re never truly going to understand and be in a woman’s shoes (apart from maybe Colin on a Saturday night ;)), but in my own opinion Crossfit and even just weight training has too many benefits for overall health/life longevity, fitness and mental carryover to be passed up on. So what if you get marginally bigger arms or shoulders…you can take solace in the fact that you can look after yourself, are more able than a large proportion of the population and will lead a longer, happier and less diseased/sick life.

    And at the day, isn’t that what it’s all really about?

  2. I think there is a slight difference in European and American attitudes towards female beauty . In the US, the fashion in recent years has been to be strong and slightly muscular looking. I have seen pictures of celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Jessica Biel, (Sooki from True blood anyone? ) and many others with strong bodies that would shame many of us in xfit while in European magazines the look is still very much thin and hungry.
    I personally never have liked the ‘I’m too thin to carry my own suitcase’ look and think it contributes negatively to ideas about women being weak emotionally and physically. I also wish that women who had enough sense and strength of character to come to crossfit wouldn’t complain about ‘bulking up’ as its not only unscientific, but almost dismisses the wonderful benefits we get from it.
    Whats so great about having small spangley arms and thighs as small as toothpicks?

  3. Great article Kate. I’ve just come across the SINS (Strong is the New Skinny) craze on Facebook so well timed!
    One of my aims joining Crossfit was to lose weight but more importantly get STRONG a lá the lovely US ladies mentioned above. How often do you see girls out on a Saturday night in London with beautifully toned shoulders or sculpted upper arms? Rarely if ever! Well that’s my goal!
    Ref the change in attitude part – I point a steely finger of accusation at the men in society not the girls! My own other half grimaces when I proudly flex a newly tightened bicep – and have been advised by other male friends “that’s nice Kate but no more”!
    For some extra motivation for anyone fearing bulking up or gaining too many muscles (madness!) etc look no further than this recent post on Marks Daily Apple –
    Sign me up!
    Happy lifting!

  4. As the 3rd person on this fb debate, I’ll repost here.

    Crossfit does change your body, as a girl, in unexpected ways. I came to crossfit after 3 months with a personal trainer: clean eating, lots of swiss ball crunches (but also lots of squats) all cardio intervals, no heavy weights. I was the thinnest I’d ever been. 3 months into crossfit I’d gained a stone, lost inches on my waist and gained inches on my thighs. I was definitely in better shape, but I completely freaked.

    For many women, you exercise to be thin – not because they love fitness or that feeling of accomplishment or even those addictive post WOD endorphins. They want to be thin, end of story. Crossfit doesn’t make you fat, and I would argue it doesn’t even make you ‘bulk up’ – but it might make some changes to your shape that take you away from matchstick kate beckinsale standards of beauty. Crossfit will never be for those girls.

    My ex-flatmate refused to do bicep curls because she was afraid of ‘madonna arms’ – even if I explained how madonna got those arms (years of training, unhealthy diets and genetics) or that bicep curls were useless it would fall on deaf ears. The girl was not going to do a single arm exercise.

    I can’t help but think that people who want to be athletes will find their way to crossfit (or something similar), and they’ll deal with any ‘unpleasant’ side effects they encounter on the way. I got over the fact that each thigh was 1 inch bigger when I hit new PB back and front squats. Skinny jeans are stupid anyways. I don’t have time to explain to silly girls how silly they are!

    However, I do think ‘fair warning’ might be good for girls new to crossfit. If someone had said to me ‘you won’t bulk up, but you will change and you might even gain some weight in muscle, but thats just making you stronger’ I might have saved myself some evenings agonising over whether I was ‘getting fat’ again.

    Oh, and I’m totally with Simon on the BMI thing.

  5. Fantastic article Kate. Hand on heart I have to admit this is something that did trouble me for a while after starting Crossfit, especially when a friend who hadn’t seen me for several months did a double take and commented on my huge shoulders (thanks pull ups, I still love you). It was an adjustment process because for me anyway, Crossfit more than any other form of training regime I’ve followed has definitely had an impact on the way my body looks. But it was about accepting that having what passes for ‘huge shoulders’ in the girl world is not a bad thing, just part of investing in my body for the future. In a way I think of my body as being like a pretty cool machine, and training is one way of making sure it keeps running well, just like putting decent fuel into it. I have for sure been thinner pre-Crossfit, but I haven’t felt like the machine was running so well (ok weird analogy).

    Like you I have to say I felt more reassured after I started working with Photoshopped images of women every day – seeing even our size 12 models be ‘slimmed down’ definitely put things into perspective as it teaches you that most of what appears in magazines is as mythical as unicorn tears. At the end of the day Crossfit training makes me feel like a million bucks, so for me a bit of ‘bulk’ is worth it if means I can do a badass shoulder stand!

  6. Kate and the other ladies posting here have got it right. The issue is not so much whether or not women ‘bulk up’ from a particular exercise methodology (they do, let’s be fair); it’s the screwed up perception of ‘ideal beauty’ in the media. Many women are still aspiring to stick-thinness.

    However, once your body shape does start changing, you notice something else too: the number of compliments you get about your body goes up! My butt is a lot bigger than before I started weightlifting – but I get compliments about it all the time these days!

    The other thing that happens is your propensity to care about what you look like goes down. It’s not that you ‘let yourself go’, it’s just that being able to do cool, impressive stuff makes you feel good about yourself, and you simply become in less need of compliments about your appearance (less needy, right?).

    Bottom line is that if you can persuade women in the door (and it is difficult but not impossible), the physical and mental changes that take place will help them to change their attitudes. You don’t have to shove it down their throats or say ‘you’re wrong’ or deny that what they see in the mirror is actually happening. Instead, acknowledge it, but for the positive thing that it really is.

  7. Thanks for starting this convo Kate, It’s nice to hear the viewpoint regarding this from all the ladies of Crossfit London and i’m glad they represent and are proud of what they are/have grown into.

    Sally…”Kate and the other ladies”? The main point of my post was regarding the perceptions especially in the media etc…give us guys some credit to! 😉

  8. Great article Kate and interesting responses all.

    Largely down to genetics though really. Some people simply put on muscle more easily than others. Also quite dependent on nutrition. The weights bias in the majority of the wods will make girls put on muscle if their genetics and nutrition supports it. I think the majority of us as x fitters can see the positives and benefits in this.

    But I know numerous girls (especially in running community) who have no interest whatsoever in becoming stronger. They want to be slim and petite. And they can achieve that by simply running a lot. Some address muscular imbalances with yoga and pilates etc. Crossfit probably wouldnt suit them and they probably would not appreciate the benefits. So I can shout all day about the positive effects of crossfit (and I do) but I think we need to be honest and realistic about what some people are actually trying to achieve with their training. For a guy or girl who wants to become genuinely fitter and a genuine all rounder they should crossfit. But if someone wants to simply become petite, I personally would tell them to go out and run.

    Personally I have no issue with me putting on muscle so feel free to turn me into the incredible hulk Crossfit coaches 🙂

  9. Interesting article. I remember when I was desperately reading everything negative I could about CrossFit (I think it’s my masochistic research technique) and came across the adage: “Crossfit: turns men into girls and girls into men.” It think I saw it first on some bodybuilding website, where (amongst some admittedly decent science, there was a prevalent current of thinking that men don’t run, and women should be trophy waifs).

    I think most would agree the arguments about anything other than aesthetics are non-starters. CrossFit is by definition the best exercise for you (due solely to the fact that if something better is found, it will be folded into the mix).

    Kate, the Blogher article you link to is quite interesting. The two pictures of her ideal bodyshape before CrossFit look like the industry-standard, airbrushed abstract. But similarly, the picture of the CrossFit girl is slightly unrealistic. If you do a google image search for more pictures of her (for research purposes, research purposes!) she looks less like a bodybuilder and more like the gymnasts and track and field athletes you see at the Olympics – she’s “just” a world-class athlete.

    I’d agree that the media ideal seems far too muscle-averse, but like Tems says it’s not absolute – I think I saw the cover of the same Heat magazine. (In the supermarket checkout queue, honest! – I’m really not coming across well). The jist of Heat’s photojournalism appeared to be “Ewww, look at the girl-muscles” but the celebs photographed often seem to lead the way for popular opinion.

    Personally it seems to me Crossfit pushes women towards the same sort of shape you see in multidiscipline athletes. It may be a case of sermantics, but I wouldn’t call that shape bulky. I would call it possibly toned to an extreme. Again, personally, in terms of aesthetics I don’t actually find the very extreme the ideal, but outside the world-beaters, I think progression along that line is unmitigated improvement.

    Cor, what a ramble!

  10. Oh, and to anyone who disagrees with my spelling? It’s all down to sermantics. Doh!

  11. I’m incredibly impressed at the thoughtfulness (and lengthiness!) of people’s responses on this subject. Thank you for taking the time to write them.

    Just wanted to note that the photo of Crystal is a studio shot, and also “industry standard” – but for a male fitness media. She’s wearing body make-up and lotion, and has been lit quite harshly (for a girl). She also has her muscles under tension, pre-deadlift. I’m sure in real life she “merely” looks fit and very toned.

    Andrew has awesome abs, but they don’t always show up in pictures. We did an experiment once where I drew in his ab lines with makeup and smeared vaseline on the contours. Dim environment, oblique lighting and Voila! An extra from “300” was born!

  12. I’m very conflicted (my new favourite word) by this issue ,

    I see the stereotypical waif women as a yet unassailed symbol of female oppression. I really do. I think it’s the result of insidious brainwashing that goes hand in hand with girls get prams, boys get swords.

    Because brainwashing is very effective, it hits it’s victims on numerous levels. Its attack on a woman’s self worth is the most unforgivable.

    That said, everyone has their own sense of cool. All Women don’t all like the same thing, (two women in the same party in the same dress… not good). Some knit, some box, some climb mountains, some want to look waif-like. I suppose those who want to look waif-like will, and we should respect that.

    So it ultimately comes to a choice, or a sliding scale of delicate counterbalances: functionality v “a look”.

    For some this is a devastating, irreconcilable choice: and one that only ends in constant inner turmoil. Imagine hating yourself every time you look in the mirror.

    Be grateful that God hasn’t given you a similar dilemma.

  13. I like to think in most cases it is not about making a straight choice between functionality and fashion. It’s not that black and white and it doesn’t have to be either/or. I don’t think it’s a straight choice between being a catwalk style waif and being happy to carry a bit more muscle. For most its somewhere between the two. The fact is you can actually achieve a functional and aesthetically pleasing physique without doing crossfit. You can run, cycle, box, kickbox, yoga, pilates etc. You don’t have to lift weights. And I think a lot of girls know that.

  14. While some find this word scary, I’d like to say this is the most interesting *Feminist* discussion i’ve been part of in ages, and all you lovely crossfit men, at heart you’re total bra-burners (except maybe in this case you are 1kg dumbbell burners?)

  15. Nice article Kate ! If Andrew won’t mind, I think you look fantastic!
    Those people that said they wouldn’t want to arm wrestle with you, were not just commenting on your appearance, but also your new attitude and their perception of your chosen activity. Maybe part of this discussion is about gender stereotypes, and some women being afraid of seeming too strong to be attractive to men?

  16. Wow, such an interesting topic and so many interesting points made already. I don’t really know where to start but I’ll just add a few thoughts based on a comment an old ‘islington chattering class’ friend of mine said recently. She works for some big insurance company in the City and had been talking about me in her office saying I did crossfit which involved lots of weightlifting. She said as soon as the word ‘weightlifting’ was uttered the response was as she expected. Oh ‘a dyke then!’ and the topic was then dismissed without further interest. I was surprised at these outdated views and said surely most people don’t still think like that? She said I’d be surprised and that she thinks a lot still do even if they don’t admit it. So I wonder if many women are unconsciously afraid to put on any muscle and prefer to stay waif like because to be thought of as unfeminine in any way is too frightening and social suicide.

    But as Patrick says you can gain muscle by kick boxing, pilates and many other ways. But again I think the above thinking pushes a lot of women more towards kick boxing/pilates etc because it is more socially acceptable to do that ‘for a woman’ than to do weightlifting which is the ‘preserve of the male’! Old fashioned parlance but according to this friend of mine a lot of men haven’t evolved beyond cave man (And probably have never heard of paleo either!)

    Yes, Efe, stereotypes, definitely.

  17. Thank you Efe! Blushes!

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. We’re supposed to be wilting flowers so big strong men can rescue us, and God forbid we should be able to deadlift our own sofa (when needed!) But I’m always grateful when a gallant Crossfit guy still offers to put my bar away after a WOD.

  18. hi guys and girls,

    the reason why “run, cycle, box, kickbox, yoga, pilates” are seen to be female friendly is for the very reason they will not affect arm or shoulder size: the endurance focus tends to favour the “skinny” approach, rather than the muscle approach.

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