I want to be strong.

The debate about CrossFit making women “bulky” rages on. Every time I hear this word I giggle a little and also get a bit annoyed because it is just such a loaded term. Like, what does “bulky” even mean? I love listening to others’ interpretations of what bulky means to them.

“Women get “bulky” when they do CrossFit”. I have my personal stance on this topic which I want to share with you.

I think that when people use the term bulky they are referring to mass added to the body (muscle and/or fat) after prolonged CrossFit participation, or, in other words, they get bigger. So…since women gain muscle very slowly, it’s safe to say that CrossFit will not make a woman bulky in a year’s time. If you’re lucky, you might gain a pound of muscle in a month – maybe. If you’re eating well, training appropriately, sleeping well, genetically capable, and limiting stress it’s possible.

As soon as a woman begins to appear more muscular than she once was she is automatically labeled as bulky by those around her who subscribe to the notion that women should be small, lean, dainty, and “toned”, but not muscular. Most of this mindset has been culturally and societal created and fostered by the media. We have been lead to believe that women should look a certain way and even value people based on their appearance. Many people believe that body fat equals laziness, lack of will power, unhealthy, low motivation, while leanness equals motivated, hardworking, healthy, beautiful. Many also look at well-muscled women and think (or say), “she looks like a man” while a thin, slight figure is more feminine and “natural”.

We see women who are professional CrossFitters. These are women who are training all the time, sponsored athletes, heading to the Regionals, and maybe even in the Games. They appear VERY muscular as a result of their training and dedication to their sport.  I don’t know about you, but if there was a realistic chance of me winning over a quarter of a million dollars and being that physically accomplished you’re f*cking right I would let my body take whatever shape it needed to!

Training at such a high level is not sustainable – the body cannot handle it forever and ever. So there is a point where these athletes will need to make a decision about how hard they are pushing. My thought is that if a person had the time, desire, and other resources needed to see how far they can push, then why would they not see how far they could go. #YOLO. It’s better than wondering for your whole life and wishing you’d pushed a little harder.

I totally see the other side of the picture too. Many women do not desire to look like CrossFit Games athletes and are concerned that by joining their local CF gym that this bulky look will soon be their destiny. As a CrossFit coach I try my best to assure women that this will not happen, but I still hear and see the fear on a regular basis. There is no perfect answer for everyone.

The truth is that every woman’s body is unique and different. After years of experience working with women I can give a good prediction, but I cannot see the future. I wish I could be there to create perfectly portioned meals and make sure enough water is being consumed and enough sleep is happening each night. But sadly, I cannot. It is mostly your responsibility to eat well most of the time, keep a sleeping routine that allows you to feel rested and recovered, and to drink enough water. I’m not going to tell you to not eat the cupcake, but I am also not going to tell you it’s okay to eat cupcakes every week if you want to be lean.

So yes, you might actually get “bulky” after YEARS of CrossFit. And by this I mean you might gain some hard-earned muscle. In my eyes this is not a bad thing because of my perspective and definition. I see women who gain a few pounds or whose weight remains the same but whose bodies morph into shapely, powerful machines. Their muscles are sculpted and visible. These women can lift weights and do handstands and pull-ups, but they can also go home and lift their children, their groceries, and the heavy boxes in the basement. I also see women who will not be frail and dependent on others in their older years of life. “Bulky” is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t equate bulky with bad, I see hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, and strength. But I get it, it’s not for everyone.

I’ve been on both sides. I spent years going to the gym trying to be smaller and thinner because I thought if I looked this way I would fit in with society’s ideals for women. I wanted thighs that didn’t touch and arms that were skinny.  I got them. But being thin didn’t make my life any better. I thought I would be happy, but being this way only left me feeling bad if I couldn’t sustain it. And I couldn’t because it’s not the natural shape my body wants to take. The other downside was that I felt weak. My clothes fit better, but I felt weak and so tired. I lived alone at the time, so feeling weak was not ideal while trying to manage household tasks.

I’ve also trained hard in CrossFit to see how far I could push my body. It was exhilarating. To finally front squat 200 pounds and finally get muscle ups and to be able to do 30 kipping pull ups unbroken was stuff I’d always dreamed of. I was so strong and capable and I felt so great in the gym. Outside of the gym I felt like I had too much muscle to be accepted in the “real world” but I didn’t really care because I knew what I was capable of and that outweighed the negatives. I also had to be very diligent with my nutrition so that I was appropriately fueling my body and my training.

Now I am somewhere in between and it feels good. Although I am not as strong, I still feel like I am able. My muscles are not as defined and I have more body fat. I don’t know if people look at me and consider me bulky and I don’t really care because I love the body I have. I care that I feel good, healthy, vibrant, and strong. I participate in CrossFit class three times per week. I also love to take a walk or jog 1-2 times per week if I can fit it in. Otherwise I stay active around the house and by doing yard work. Once the winter comes I will probably get back into yoga, skiing, and snowshoeing.

What I think is important to recognize is that each woman has a different desire for her body and endeavors. What I want may not be what you want. Whatever the goals may be, we need to support each other and build each other up.

Side note: If you feel you are getting bulky while doing CrossFit, please be honest and sit down to talk with a knowledgeable coach. Usually there are solutions and tweaks that can be made in your training and nutrition that will ease your mind and get you the results that you desire.

Photo credit: Vanessa Halliday

Photo credit: Vanessa Halliday

One thought on “I want to be strong.

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