Bulk & Bro-tein: Myth vs Reality

There are so many fitness myths out there, and some of the most ridiculous have to do with weight lifting and protein consumption.

Have you ever heard a girlfriend say, “I stay out of the weight room! I don’t want to get big.”

Have you ever been told, “Supplements are for bodybuilders! Protein powder makes you fat.”

Let’s bust some myths and educate ourselves about how fitness and nutrition really work.

Does Lifting = Bulk?

It’s a fact that most women don’t do weight training. Even those of us who are in great shape usually spend a lot of time doing steady-state cardio, like treadmill runs or long swims, and very little time lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises.

Ftness Woman After Workout on Black Background

Why? Weight training is fun, functional, and improves your physique! What makes women shy away from something that could not only have significant health benefits, but also be really enjoyable?

The biggest reason is a myth that’s become entrenched in our fitness culture, and that is the belief that

Weights = Bulk.

As women, the last thing we want is a bulky bod! Many of us are looking for a slender, sleek physique that we can squeeze into a tight pair of jeans or show off in a bikini. Maybe we want to look strong, but we don’t want to look like that.


Photo: BobParis

Luckily, weight training does not make women bulk up.

Let me explain.

Men like the guy you see above have to go to great lengths to look the way they do. They devote their entire lives to building a body that will win bodybuilding championships. They spend hours at the gym every single day, and spend almost as much time managing their nutrition and supplements.

And you know those “bro-tein” bros (more on them later) who you see guzzling protein shakes and bulking up at the gym? They don’t look like bodybuilders, they’re just big. This is due just as much to the sugary protein supplements they’re consuming as it is to their weight training routine.

The average toned guy you see walking around the gym has also had to work hard to get that way. He has a regular weight training routine. He eats plenty of protein. Because he’s a man, his body produces hormones that help him build muscle.

And he’s still not big and bulky!

As a woman, your chances of “bulking up” from weight training and getting plenty of protein are just about zero. If a man has to work hard just to look nicely toned, a woman like you isn’t going to turn into a bodybuilder just by adding protein and lifting weights.

The levels of hormones in our bodies that promote “bulking” are 15 to 20 times less than those of men. And these hormones don’t even grace every man with a bodybuilder’s physique. In general, it’s physically impossible for a woman to become so muscular, at least not without a whole lot of time and effort geared specifically toward that goal.

The average woman could probably lift heavy weights every day for five years and never come close to looking like a bodybuilder!

So don’t worry: Lifting weights will not turn you into the She-Hulk.

Does Protein = Bulk?

We tend to associate those weight-room-dwelling gym-bros with “bro-tein”: gigantic tubs of protein shake powder aggressively marketed towards men. This stuff is usually presented as a tool for bulking up, with names like “BUILD,” “GROWTH,” and “MASS.”


Um, that sounds horrible. Just what women don’t need, right? We don’t want to build, grow, or add mass, we want to slim down and get toned!

Wrong. Women need protein, too, especially when we’re trying to get slim and toned.

Adding protein to your diet makes your body burn more fat and keep more muscle. “Keeping muscle” does not mean that you’ll get bulky! It means that you’ll look toned instead of getting that flabby skinny-fat look that nobody wants.

Even though some people use bro-tein to help build their muscle mass to the extreme, protein can help you lose weight and get the sleek, defined muscles that make your body look great.

This is because protein has two important weight-loss effects:

  1. Protein keeps you feeling full, and therefore helps prevent you from pigging out or eating off of your healthy meal plan.
  2. Protein helps build and maintain lean muscles, which in turn burn more calories than fat.

As you improve your fitness, your body will require more protein to build and repair muscles, which get broken down every time you do a tough workout and push yourself to reach new goals. Adding protein helps your body repair and recover more quickly, so that you can get back to the gym faster and avoid losing valuable muscle tone.

And keep in mind: There’s a limit to how much protein your body can absorb and utilize! You certainly need more when you’re working out, but your body won’t just keep taking in protein and transforming it into an ever-growing muscle collection (which is kind of what gym-bros seem to imagine…).

Form vs Function

Sure, some guys do lift weights as part of bulking up. But weight training has a much more important function as part of your exercise routine: it increases your functional strength.


Let’s say you’re doing great at the gym. Your last treadmill workout was amazing, and you have no problem spending 45 minutes on the elliptical machine. You’re happy with your weight, and you look great too.

Then you strain a muscle getting the jumbo-sized laundry detergent down from a high shelf. OUCH. Your shoulder is sore! You haven’t injured yourself at the gym since you can remember, and now you’re hurting from doing a household task.

Specific “functional fitness” and “functional strength” training is actually meant to bridge the gap between physical therapy and exercise. It’s often recommended for people who are so inflexible that they risk injury, or who are still in the recovery process after an injury, or who experience pain when they exercise.

But functional strength itself is being strong enough and fit enough to handle everyday life without getting hurt or overtired. If you’re functionally fit, you can handle whatever life throws at you: kids leaping off the jungle gym into your arms, a spontaneous kayak trip or long hike, chasing after the dog when he slips out the door, carrying heavy groceries. If you’re older (or just prone to accidents), functional strength can prevent injury in the event of a fall. You can probably think of a million events, both positive and negative, that require you to be functionally fit!

Doing weight training increases your functional fitness and your functional strength. Weight training makes you stronger, which makes you more able to handle everyday physical stresses, which in turn decreases your chances of injury.

Lots of functional strength workouts don’t even use equipment! That’s right: you can “weight train” using on your own body weight. Staples of a functional strength routine are exercises like burpees, push-ups, jumping squats, tricep dips, planks, and lunges… none of which require any equipment at all. You can increase your functional strength and fitness right in your own living room.

That said, the gym is the place to go if you want to vary your fitness routine and have access to other important functional strength exercises, like pull-ups, box jumps, and bench presses.

But isn’t the gym jam-packed with intimidating bros and women who look like they could beat you up?

No way! Even if you do go to a gym that’s popular with bodybuilders, or if you tend to feel nervous or awkward about working out around anybody else, you shouldn’t feel gym-timidated. Gyms are for everyone, whether they’ve got a perfect body or not.

Don’t Be Gymtimidated!

Planet Fitness coined this term for their commercials, in which they promised to end gymtimidation once and for all.

Woman lifting weights

So what is gymtimidation? It’s when you suddenly doubt yourself, your workout, and your potential at the gym because of how someone else looks or what they’re doing.

You know what I mean: Maybe you see another woman your size… but she’s doing shoulder presses with weights five pounds heavier than yours. Or you’re trying to use the weight room and you’re getting eye-rolls and sighs from the bulky bros monopolizing the equipment. Or you look over on the neighboring treadmill… and its occupant is not only running faster than you are, he’s been doing it for half an hour already. And he’s not even sweating.

But guess who’s responsible for most of the gymtimidation that women often feel when they work out? You guessed it: the brotein crowd.

The top gymtimidation moments for women are:

  • Fear of the weight room (because of all of those bros).
  • Working out and looking sweaty in front of judgmental men.
  • Feeling awkward and embarrassed in the locker room.

And BOOM, there goes all of the confidence you brought to the gym with you.

Notice that only one of those top gymtimidation moments has to do with other women! When we go to the gym, we’re usually afraid of being judged by the brotein crowd.

Luckily, 99% of the time, they’re too busy flexing in the mirror to take any notice of you whatsoever.

And if they really are giving you bad vibes? Ignore them. Everyone has the right to work out with confidence, whether they’re the most cut person in the building or they’re just getting started.

Here’s how you can boost your gym confidence:

  • Find the right spot. Do some research before you join a gym, and find one where you feel comfortable. Does a huge gym where you can be anonymous put you at ease? Or do you prefer a small gym that’s quieter and less crowded? There are even women-only gyms if you don’t want to deal with the bros at all.
  • Ask a trainer. If you feel clueless about any gym equipment, don’t chance it by yourself. You risk injury, and you could end up feeling even more embarrassed when you fly off the back of the treadmill or drop a weight. Most gyms have trainers present, and their job is to teach you how to use the gym. Take advantage of their expertise.
  • Dress for success. It might sound silly, but wearing gym clothes that make you feel good will improve your confidence… and your workout. Don’t come to the gym in old sweats or a holey t-shirt. Go shopping for some workout gear that looks good, fits well, and helps you feel like you belong at the gym.
  • Pass on the locker room. You don’t have to change clothes in the locker room in front of other people. You can either arrange your schedule to change clothes and shower at home, or you can use the bathroom stalls to put on your gym wear. Believe it or not, most women hate changing in the locker room! You’re not alone.
  • Be goal-minded. Sure, you might feel uncomfortable at the gym when you first start going. But look around you! Every single person at this gym was once a first-timer and a newbie. You will improve, you will grow comfortable, and you will get closer to your fitness goals. You can’t be a beginner forever!


Not Just for Bodybuilders

Neither protein supplements nor weight training are just for bodybuilders! Fit women like you need to add protein to their diets and vary their workout routines to include weight training: to slim down, to tone up, and to increase functional fitness and prevent injury. Don’t let gym-bros gymtimidate you into avoiding the weight room!

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And when it comes to protein, you certainly don’t need bro-tein. You need a protein made for women, with 20g of protein and only 90-100 calories: IdealLean Protein.

This is not the gym-bro’s protein powder. It’s great-tasting, high-quality isolated whey protein that will help you burn fat, build lean muscle, and earn your ideal at the gym.

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Katharine Stevenson

Katharine Stevenson

Writer and expert

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