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August 24, 2023

Can Women Build Muscle Without Lifting Heavy Weights?

Is it possible for women to build muscle without lifting heavy weights?

My first ever experience of lifting weights was in my garage as a child. That was quickly followed by me following my mom’s Jane Fonda videos.

And thus, we have the spectrum of fitness for women… 

My name is Annie Miller, certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts again.

In this blog, we are going to look at what needs to happen in order to answer this question…

Can women build muscle without lifting heavy weights?

Prefer to learn on video? Watch here: 

Understanding the Fitness Spectrum for Women

Fitness for women is marketed across a large spectrum. It mostly falls between getting toned and using 5lb pink dumbbells or being a completely yoked CrossFit woman. Or a competitive bodybuilder who trains multiple times per day and probably has to eat more than you can imagine in order to keep that physique. 

Somehow those ultra muscular physiques are lumped into what you’ll look like if you moderately lift weights.

Then you are left with the question: How can I build a physique that looks like I train while not being jacked out of my mind? Though, if you want to be jacked AF, that’s game two. No shame. I could be wrong there. 

But this blog is answering the question: 

“Do you have to lift heavy to gain muscle?”

Particularly as a female, we are going to focus on those who want to build muscle. Which I assume is from an aesthetic and physique standpoint…

Maybe you don’t enjoy lifting heavy or maybe you are afraid of it. You may just have no interest in lifting what you currently perceive to be as heavy. 

The appearance of having what I think most people would refer to as “toned” requires a low body fat percentage. 

Yes, we have to build a muscular physique underneath…

Being able to see that muscle comes down to removing that adipose tissue between the skin layers and the muscle.

The Science Behind Muscle Building

In terms of lifting heavy, you have to understand that heavy is relative to a brand new lifter. Why? Because bench pressing an empty barbell could be heavy. 

Lifting heavy doesn’t automatically mean a certain measurement of weight. 

What you perceive to be heavy will change over time based on your seasons of life and training. Now we turn to science to let us know if women can build muscle without lifting heavy weights.

My immediate answer is you will likely have to at some point, lift challenging loads. So if that’s a yes, then you can call it a yes. You’re certainly not going to maximize hypertrophy by lifting loads that are not challenging for you. 

I do think we should also specify that perhaps people asking this question about heavy lifting might also be thinking of extremely low training volume and very high loads. Something like near maximal strength. I do not think that’s needed in order to build muscle. It is needed in order to build absolute strength. So heavy is not always synonymous with a one RET max or a three RET max in training. 

You do not need to be doing that in order to gain muscle or have a muscular physique as a female. 

Let’s look at some studies that give us the answer that you’re looking for. Hopefully regardless of gender, what needs to happen in order to build muscle. 

Note: I had to purchase this article to access more than just the abstract. If you can find it for free, awesome.

Here are some main takeaways that are vital for your understanding of what it takes to build muscle versus strength. And mind you, this blog is about building muscle. 

So the study reads a wide spectrum of intensities. From 40 to 80% (stated in the image above) 1RM, are viable options to increase muscle mass. It is feasible that employing combinations of these intensities may enhance hypertrophic effects. As well as allow for better recovery by alleviating joint related stresses from continuous heavy load training. 

And resistance training with intensity ranging 20-80% of 1RM are effective to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy. 

However, low intensity (20% 1RM) was suboptimal for maximizing muscular hypertrophy. 

This is what we see in my diagram from pure programming in terms of:

  • Power versus strength versus hypertrophy versus endurance… When it comes to training volume and intensity.

The study also states, however, if maximizing strength gains over the long-term training is a primary goal… It is necessary to employ high training intensities. 

Often studies are done in untrained individuals with regards to resistance training, which was the case with this particular study. 

Subjects were healthy untrained young men. This type of individual, regardless of gender, we’ll likely see hypertrophic effects along a very large spectrum of training volume and intensities. But as your training age increases, you will have to use heavier weights. AKA higher training intensities to get the same results. 

Which Brings Us To The Next Study

Which of course is conducted on men. But in terms of muscular adaptations, I do believe the concepts still apply to female counterparts. This study is extremely dense and quite frankly has its shit together in what they tested and how they tested. 

This study also took into consideration the dietary intake of these subjects. Diet is commonly left out in studies and resistance training. 

  • They kept a food diary. 
  • They didn’t change anything, but the information was taken into consideration. 
  • The subjects were resistance trained young men, which I absolutely love. 

What they found was interesting from comparing upper body to lower body adaptations. 

So they had a low volume, high intensity group training at 3-5 reps with higher loads in long rest periods. 

You could consider this true strength training if looking at my lovely diagram from peer programming. 

And then on the other end of the spectrum, they had a high volume, low intensity group. So 10-12 reps under 70% with short rest periods, both groups tested and trained bench press and squat. 

Remember that these are trained individuals, that’s going to be very important for the context of the study. 

The findings of this study found no significant differences in lower body hypertrophy or strength. Though both groups had significant gains in both muscle size and strength. 

Thus, suggesting that size and strength can be gained from both high intensity and low intensity and high volume or low volume training for squats.

Now, I say that with a large grain of salt… I’m wondering how trained these individuals were with any significant lower body training which could skew the results. 

They did find significant differences in upper body strength and hypertrophy.

So 93% of high intensity (meaning load) and low volume experienced an increase in lean mass in their upper body. And only 64% of the low intensity group did. 

This does suggest that training at higher loads with potentially lower volume may be more beneficial for muscle growth in trained young men, and let’s infer young women.

I know that my body adapts best in a hypertrophic state to lower volume, high load training. Both for upper body and lower body. Maybe that’s due to fiber composition or the fact that I do have an older training age. I can’t be sure. After a decade of lifting weights, that’s what I adapt best to in terms of hypertrophy in order to select those higher loads.

You might wanna check out my video on 3 Ways To Choose Your Weights HERE. The gist of this is the loads need to be challenging. Meaning that maybe you have two-ish reps left in the tank. With it being a struggle to complete those reps. 

*You’ll hear me refer to this as the rule of two in my video that I just mentioned above. 

The fact is we build muscle as a response to stimulus and demand for more muscle tissue. So when you lift weights or do resistance training, you’re calling upon your muscle fibers to contract repeatedly. The goal with hypertrophy is to recruit as many of those muscle fibers within a given muscle as you can. That’s why we train muscles via different exercises from different angles and different loads. 

If the muscle is not provided enough stimulus to demand new muscle fiber growth, then we don’t see hypertrophy. 

And to be clear, you don’t grow more muscle fibers, your individual muscle fibers that you have increase their size based on the demand. That’s what’s happening when you see a muscle grow. 

Are there more ways for women to build muscle without lifting heavy weights?

Absolutely, yes. I would argue heavily if you have a young training age that that applies to you. But no matter what stimulus is needed from some kind of resistance training, I believe that lifting weights, particularly heavy weights, is simply the quickest and most efficient way to get there and to shape or form the body that you might want. 

So there you have it, the answer to the question: Do women have to build muscle without lifting heavy weights?

Join The Discussion: 

Let me know in the comments section below: 

Would you consider what you are doing in the gym currently as heavy lifting? 

Do you think other people would consider heavy lifting or just general weight training? 

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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