Aikido · athletes · body image · football · weight lifting

Do girls get a bulking season? Silly question….

bulking seasonThe other morning my son, the high school athlete, polished off one breakfast and then went to shower. I started cooking eggs and toast for other family members and when he emerged back on the breakfast scene he also wanted eggs. And toast, 4 slices, with peanut butter.

“Didn’t you just have breakfast?” turned out to be a silly question.

“Mom, it’s bulking season.”

“Bulking season” is a new concept to me. The idea, as it’s been explained to me by a table full of high school aged boys (just so you know the exact limits of my expertise) is that now football and rugby are over for the winter they can work to put on weight. They all want to be bigger. They’re lifting lots of heavy weights and eating a ton. My grocery bills scare me.

Partly, it’s a joke among them. It’s a great excuse for eating dessert and having second breakfast. Partly, it’s serious. Some calorie counting was involved to make sure they’re getting enough. For the first time I heard talk of tracking and calorie counting apps from the perspective of weight gain. Here, have another cookie.

But it’s also a seasonal thing. They’re running so much and training so hard during rugby and football that they can’t easily get bigger. So their plan is to gain over the winter, and lose a bit over the summer.

The internet–I’ve now moved past my dining room  table in my research–tells me this is common.

It’s getting to that time of the year where the summer cut is finally coming to a close and now the fun begins. It’s time to bulk gentlemen (and ladies …)! For those of you just starting out, this is probably all new to you and you really don’t understand the concept of cutting and bulking and why things happen during certain times of the year.

For most, fall/winter is the time to bulk and put on some slabs of meat. If they add a little fat during this time, so be it. They will be wearing a lot of long sleeve sweatshirt types of clothing; therefore, they can hide whatever fat they might gain.

Then come spring/summer is the time to cut and drop the fat that you might have gained during the cold months to show off the new lean mass you added. Not to mention most people go to the beach or go on vacation these months so it naturally makes sense to diet and hit some cardio during this time to get in the best shape of the year.

Now I don’t want to debate the merits and demerits of “bulking season.” Whatever. It’s mostly a joke for them as they’re all also playing basketball and so football and rugby might be over but they’re not really getting an off season.

I do want to note the incredible pressure on young men to get big. There is a young man on the football team who is pretty tiny and the coach yelled at him the other day saying, “Colonel Saunders called. He wants his legs back.” He’s a small guy, just over five foot and he’s got a slight build. I can’t imagine coaches getting away with making jokes about girls’ bodies.

The pressure on men to get bigger continues in adulthood. John Berardi, the person behind Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating programs for men and for women also has a “Scrawny to Brawny” program but it’s for guys only.

But do girls and women ever get a bulking season?

A funny question, right?

Lots of women gain weight over the winter and lose it over the summer but that’s something about which we’re often ashamed. It’s not really celebrated. Why is that? There are lots of my complimentary terms for big men. My favourite is “brawny.” But you rarely hear these terms applied to women.

I try out the label “fat” for myself from time to time and it doesn’t fit quite right. I wrote about that ambivalence here.

“What’s the alternative? At Aikido the other day I started to notice the vocabulary we have to describe male bodies. We often joke about how much fun it is to throw the “big” guys. Someone commented that I should pay attention to how they roll because they have to do it with more finesse to avoid crashing into the mats. (A mistake I make from time to time. Ouch, sore shoulder.) And the big men are big in different ways. Some are overweight, others are tall, some are extremely muscular such as the power lifter in the club. One of the guys is a Clydesdale weight adventure runner. But there’s no angst in referring to them as “big.””

My sons reject it for me. They say I’m a “tank.” I had to check urban dictionary on that one and here goes:

1. Any person who is exceptionally large, either in terms of height, weight; being built.2. Any person who is exceptionally strong.

Man! He’s a friggin’ tank!

CrossFit is the only fitness environment I’ve ever encountered where women getting larger and stronger isn’t something to be feared.

In my post on CrossFit women, I quote strength training coach Mark Rippetoe, on women’s physiques.

Rip: “You would look better if you gained about 10 lbs of muscle” Woman responds with look of utter horror.

Rip: “Trust me, I’ve been looking at women a long time, and I’m really good at it.”

Wit and Wisdom of Mark Rippetoe


19 thoughts on “Do girls get a bulking season? Silly question….

  1. Interesting, I didn’t know about this pressure on young men. But when you apply this to women, that was my same question–don’t we do this naturally, lose in spring/summer, gain in fall/winter? I think we do, and this is something I struggle with–an on season and an off-season for fitness. I think we naturally need that off-season because you can’t train 100% of the time, you need a break from some of the intensity. But when we add that extra layer we want to cover up with sweaters and baggy shirts, we generally give ourselves a hard time. Wish I could free myself from feeling like the off-season is not-ok like those carefree boys…

  2. I get a “bulking season”, although it’s more of a training phase than a season and we call it “hypertrophy”. The end results are the same, though; build muscle volume that can be strengthened in a later training phase. It requires additional protein and calories. I try to do it carefully so as not to pack on body fat as well, since the dance partner of “bulking” is “cutting”. I’d rather not have to tango with “cutting”, no matter how slowly and carefully it dances, any longer or more than is necessary.

    You’re right, though. Most women with whom I have spoken about this have real difficulty with the idea of adding weight, no matter what form. Their heads recognize the need for and use of muscle weight, but their psyches have been cultivated to reject weight gains in all form. It takes most women significant work and mental gymnastics to re-imagine themselves as stronger and heavier.

    Had a pretty interesting conversation about this over the weekend with a fellow weightlifter. Even athletes struggle with it.

  3. Interesting post. For me, part of the struggle has been won by simply not weighing myself anymore. I frankly don’t know how much I weight (this makes for interesting moments when consulting health care providers who want to know). But if we are talking about bulking, it is not so much the scale that worries us but the size of our body. There is a very interesting poster at my chiropractor’s office. Two women are drawn, one thinner and the other bulkier. The insides are shown and the caption tells you that the thinner person is actually less healthy because of lack of muscle. We need more images like this. That said, while my head understands that, I still had a hard time with the compliment a bodybuilder once gave me when he watched me train: “You could have been a weightlifter at the Olympics!” Yes, well… thanks! I guess! 🙂

  4. The only women I’ve known who truly bulk up to gain strength, and then seriously cut back to lose weight without losing too much of that newfound strength, are female bodybuilders. Bodybuilders are quite extreme about this process, and it is somewhat unhealthy, as both Tracy and you have blogged about in the past, what they actually have to do to achieve their goals. Perhaps other types of female professional athletes do something similar albeit not so extreme, and so not necessarily unhealthy. I don’t know. I would think the decision centres around different performance goals which might come to exist at any given point in time. Oh and yes, of course men want to be big and strong, although like women they don’t want to get fat, or should I say so fat, that people in general would likely consider them to be a fat guy. I think they’re telling you not to gain weight to get bigger and stronger, Sam, because they think you’re big enough, and that you should stay with what you’re doing whereby you are slowly changing your body composition.

  5. Just looked at what I wrote. I hope you know what I meant, Sam, is that your family likely believes that for reasons related to performance in your sports of choice, they likely think that you purposefully gaining weight to get stronger would be counter-productive, i.e. the pro’s would outweigh the con’s from a performance perspective, in respect of improving in hill climbing, rowing times, pull-ups, etc., which is what you’ve written about as areas in which you’d like to improve. That said, if your choice right now is to excel in powerlifting, that’s different. It’s our actual performance goals which dictate our training choices.

  6. It’s not just bodybuilders, Craig. Many athletes in power-based sports use the cycle of “eat more calories to build muscle then pare back to trim fat”. It’s pretty common. The smart ones do it carefully and not radically. Yo-yoing just isn’t healthy or useful from a performance perspective.

    It really depends on your athletic goals. For endurance sports, it makes no sense to accumulate extra weight in any substantial way. For sprinting or Olympic weightlifting, for instance, there’s a balance to be found. It’s a personal thing, though. Every individual’s ideal weight for a particular event/sport will be different.

    My coach has used the words “like a wall” and “unstoppable” to describe me and those are acceptable to me, but fall short. I’m 5’3″ and powerful and there are few complimentary words to describe short, muscular women. I’ve been called everything from “tank” to “dynamo” to “steamroller” and none of them really fit the combination of my physique and personality.

    You’re right. Words fail in this instance.

    1. I know that even in boxing, one’s fighting weight is different from one’s normal training weight. What I was very uncertain about though was whether other professional athletes bulk up in the same manner as bodybuilders, only to then have to seriously diet in an almost unhealthy manner. I suppose you’re right though. It could be a very individual thing!

  7. I have found that there is quite a bit of acceptance for women “bulking” in strength sports – whether Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongwoman, or Crossfit. Yes, a lot of these women then do cut back down after gaining, but I think a lot of that has to do with being competitive in the sport they train for. I do better in a competition at a lower weight, plain and simple. I think the acceptance comes from the fact that a lot of these women already reject the binary gender norms of body types because they choose to sport muscle.

  8. About words, I just use “big” to refer to myself. Because “fat”* isn’t accurate, but I am heavier than most people, and do need plus-size clothes. I haven’t had “tank” used to describe me (it’s a neat word! Congratulations!) but I have had “beast” and “hoss.” I’m especially partial to “beast.” 🙂

    (I’m tall as well as muscular, and don’t know how tall you are. There are some words that specifically describe a short, powerfully built person which are also lovely.)

    *The blog “This Is Thin Privilege” made it obvious to me that, even though I have the size, I don’t have all the same issues that a fatter person of my same weight would. Physical things, like clothes not fitting or furniture/built environment being designed for smaller people and having to wonder whether I can use a particular object, I do experience, but I don’t get treated with the contempt a fat person does, and doctors typically listen to me and don’t just say “You need to lose weight” in response to whatever it is I’m worried about.

    1. That sounds a lot like me. I do well with health professionals generally because all the other markers they care about look so good and I think they recognize my muscles. But that said, I’m also obese by BMI standards and I want people to realize that talk of obesity includes me.

      1. This post had me chatting lots with students in the philosophy department about “bulking” but also about size and sports more generally. It made me realize that what’s hard is changing size mid-season. You might think cyclists lose weight during racing season. But no. Cyclists I know have been told not to restrict calories when racing. You can’t afford to under-fuel. But once racing is over lots of cyclists go on mad diets to lean out over the break. It’s the reverse of bulking but in a way, the same idea. Change your size off season.

  9. Just wanted to chime in as a weightlifter! We bulk when there’s a long time between competitions, and then we cut if we are worried about making our weight class leading up to a competition. It is really hard to pack on muscle without plenty of protein and calories! So… yes, we bulk too, just it’s not about seasons or looking a certain way, but about making gains in our lifts and then making our weight class at a competition.

    1. Just read some other comments, and wanted to say that this is about a 2kg weight flux for me (nothing major), and that I am only a novice lifter (i.e., I have a provincial ranking, but it’s not good!)

  10. “Rip: “You would look better if you gained about 10 lbs of muscle” Woman responds with look of utter horror.
    Rip: “Trust me, I’ve been looking at women a long time, and I’m really good at it.” – Wit and Wisdom of Mark Rippetoe”

    No wonder woman responded with horror, most women would rather have a root canal without anesthetic rather than enter the weights room. Mark’s comment is a breath of fresh air as most heterosexual males like women who resemble strands of spaghetti aka runway models. A lot of men feel more secure if the woman is weak, frail, stupid and makes a lot less than they do!!

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