“I don’t want to get bulky. I just want to look more toned.”
Have you said this, or something similar when someone suggested you start strength training?
If you’re afraid that lifting weights will make you look ‘bulky’, or too masculine (if you’re a woman), you’re not alone. A lot of people are worried about ‘bulking up’ when they begin strength training, especially if they have never done it before.
Let’s put your mind at ease. The only way you’ll bulk up is if you undertake a body-building program.
A strength training program for weight loss, however, is quite different because it focuses on improving your body composition, rather than bulking up with lots of muscle. And it’s this approach that will actually help you lose weight.
What is body composition?
Body composition is basically what your body is made up of. Body composition is used to describe the proportion of body fat and non-fat mass. Non-fat mass includes bone, water/fluid, muscle, organs and other tissues. All of these things combined will add up to your body weight.
There are some parts of your body weight composition that you can’t change. These include bone mass, organs, other tissues and water/fluid. (Although fluid content can vary on any given day, variations are minimal).
However, you can control how much body fat you have and how much lean muscle mass you have.
Fat versus muscle
Your body composition (how much fat and muscle you have) is not only an important indicator in your overall health, but it contributes directly to how you look and your ability to lose weight. A common misbelief is that muscle weighs more than fat. But a kilo of muscle and a kilo of fat weigh the same. However, muscle is denser which means it takes up less space than a kilo of fat.
Differences in fat and muscle composition explains why two people of the same sex, height and weight can look completely different from one another, as shown in the graphic on the left.
However, you can change the way you look, by changing your body composition. And the way to do this is to reduce your body fat, and improve your lean muscle mass.
How do you change your body composition?
One of the mistakes that many people make when trying to lose weight is focusing on cardio exercise. If they do any weight training at all, they stick to doing lots of reps on low weight, because they’re afraid of getting ‘bigger’ or ‘bulkier’.
While cardio exercise may burn calories, too much cardio exercise breaks down your existing tissues leaving your body soft and saggy. This explains why marathon runners have less muscle mass, compared to 100m sprint runners who combine cardio with weight training.
Please note: We know that the weight training program for the sprinter pictured was probably designed to give him power so he can sprint fast, and is not the same as a program to help you lose weight. However, the image is simply to show you what happens when you focus only on cardio exercise.
However, strength training, weight training or as we call it, Focused Intense Resistance Exercise (FIRE) helps you change your body composition by improving your muscle mass and reducing your body fat.
Improved muscle mass, reduced body fat
When it comes to weight loss the thing that will help you most is changing your body composition by improving your muscle mass and reducing your body fat. Not only will this improve your metabolism (see below), but it will dramatically change how you LOOk (body shape/ composition), how you FEEL (your health) and how you FUNCTION (energy levels), and help you drop dress sizes, even if you don’t lose a single kilo on the scales.. This is one reason why scales are not a true indicator of weight loss success!
These photos show our coach, Mel. In both photos she weighs the same amount. But you can see the massive difference in how her body looks. Through FIRE training, Mel has reduced her body fat percentage and increased her lean muscle mass. And she looks far from bulky!
Often, people gauge their success by the amount of weight loss shown on the scales and become disappointed if there is not a dramatic change. But changing your body composition and improving your lean muscle mass percentage is more important because it will change how you look, and make it easier for you to continue to burn fat.
The truth is, FIRE training shapes your body. It doesn’t make it ‘bulky’.
However, it’s benefits don’t stop there. In the rest of this blog, we look at 8 other reasons why muscle is the friend you need to embrace, not an enemy to steer clear of.
Increases metabolism and burns more fat
Put simply, our metabolism refers to the many complex chemical processes that keep our body functioning. This includes digesting food and breaking it down into nutrients, growing and repairing our muscles, as well as the things that keep us alive, such as breathing, circulating blood, producing and adjusting hormone levels.
Our basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of calories our body burns at rest to perform these tasks, and this rate accounts for 70% of the total calories our body burns every day.
The biggest influence on our metabolism is our muscle mass. Around 66% of our metabolism is influenced by our muscle mass. This means that the higher the muscle mass, the faster our metabolism will be and the easier it becomes to lose weight and keep it off. More muscle mass does not equate to being bulky because 2 people can weigh the same, but the one with the higher muscle mass will always look toned and smaller.
The truth is everyone should be performing strength training because as we get older, we lose muscle mass which causes our metabolism to slow down. Over their lifetime, the average adult will lose 9kg of muscle mass, and replace it with 16kg of fat!
Unfortunately, the rate of muscle mass loss accelerates with age. Without strength training, by the time a person reaches 40 years of age, they will have lost 50% of the strength they had in their 20s. By the age of 60, the decline in strength will be as high as 70%!
This decline in muscle mass, and slowing down of the metabolism explains why teenagers and young adults can get away with eating junk food for years without gaining weight and then start to put on weight when they get to a certain age. It also explains why many people gain weight ‘for no reason’, or find it increasingly difficult to lose weight as they get older.
Changes your body shape
When you change your body composition, you also change your body shape. In fact, FIRE training and increasing your muscle mass is the only non-surgical way to change the shape of your body. You can spend hours on a treadmill or a bicycle, but you won’t change your body shape at all.
However, when you undertake FIRE training, you can sculpt your biceps or triceps, shape your shoulders, or build a more defined butt — whatever your goal may be. The type of exercises you do will help determine how your body shape will change. But running on a treadmill will not get you abs, or nicely shaped arms, no matter how long you spend on it.
Strengthens your body and improves movement, mobility and posture
Not only does FIRE training strengthen your muscles, but it strengthens your bones, ligaments and tendons. This is an extremely important aspect of your health.
Many adults as they age, lose strength, flexibility and mobility throughout their body. Not only does this mean they’re not able to move around as well as they used to (e.g. not be able to walk up and down steps, get off the couch, get off the floor, etc.), but it also increases the risk of accidents and falls.
However, FIRE training can maintain and even improve your overall body strength, flexibility and mobility, and protect you from the risks of injuries and mobility loss as you age.
For example, a stronger core will improve your balance and coordination. Stronger bones will help protect you from osteoporosis. Stronger muscles, ligaments and tendons will improve your mobility, flexibility and reduce the chances of injury.
Reduces chronic pain
A lot of people suffer from chronic pain, especially lower back, neck and shoulder pain. In many cases, this can be caused by poor posture, or by certain muscle groups compensating for others that are weak, don’t engage or work correctly. However, FIRE training can greatly reduce chronic pain, and in some cases eliminate it, by improving posture, and strengthening the areas of the body that aren’t working properly, and getting the body to work as it was designed to do.
Improves your immune system
Did you know that your muscle mass and the strength of your immune system are related? Muscle mass is an important reservoir of proteins that the immune system calls upon. Muscle is what powers your immune system. In fact, one study1 showed that 55-79 year-olds who performed regular exercise that built and maintained muscle mass actually had the same amount of immune cells as a 20-year old.
Of course, having a strong immune system means that you’re less likely to become sick, and if you do, you’re better equipped to fight off bacteria, viruses and infections.
Reduces your risk for chronic disease and improves cognitive health
Research shows that regular strength training can reduce your risk for chronic disease. One of the reasons is because of the positive effects strength training has on reducing inflammation in the body.
Inflammation plays a vital role in healing, but chronic inflammation may increase the risk of various diseases including some cancers, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, obesity and asthma.2 However, strength training has shown to reduce chronic inflammation3 and therefore reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Maintaining muscle mass is also important when it comes to your cognitive health. Studies show that cognitive decline is associated with reduced muscle mass and increased body fat — which is what happens as you age, if you don’t do FIRE training. Lifting weights should be part of your plan if you want to keep your brain in tip-top shape.
Slows down the ageing process
When it comes to ageing, there are some processes that are a normal part of getting older. These include less elasticity of the skin (i.e. wrinkles), greying hair and poorer eyesight.
However, many ‘age-related’ health conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), unwanted weight gain and increased risk of illness, or falls are not a normal part of ageing. Instead, research suggests they’re related to a decline in muscle mass, and the metabolic processes that occur as a result. In women, muscle loss also equates to the premature on-set of menopause.
It, therefore, follows that if you build and maintain your muscle mass as you get older, you’ll not only maintain your mobility, flexibility and strength as we mentioned earlier, but you’ll slow down the ageing process altogether.
Improves your confidence
Finally, muscle improves your confidence. By building muscle mass, you’ll significantly change your body composition and body shape, which will boost your confidence levels. You’ll no longer want to hide away or compare yourself with other people. Instead, you’ll feel proud of yourself for doing something so positive. Lifting weights also increases your self-belief and helps you realise that you’re stronger (physically and mentally) than you think you are.
Increase your muscle mass…and health, without getting bulky
As you can see, increasing your muscle mass is pretty important. It’s not just about athletic performance and vanity.
It’s about improving the quality of your life now, and being proactive so you can have the future you desire.
Imagine feeling good in your own body and not worrying about what you look like.
How good will you feel knowing you’re ageing well, looking and feeling younger than you actually are?
How reassured would you be if you knew you were doing all you could to reduce the likelihood of chronic disease and the associated medical appointments, so you have the time and freedom to do all the things you want to do?
Improving muscle mass won’t make you bulky, but it will make your life better in so many ways.
If you’re ready to make your life better, we can help you through our online coaching program. This program, delivered completely online will give you the right advice and guidance on how to improve your body composition safely, effectively and without making you bulky! In addition, we include habit, mindset and nutritional guidance to help you build a body you can be proud of.
 Pollock RD, O’Brien KA, Daniels LJ, et al. Properties of the vastus lateralis muscle in relation to age and physiological function in master cyclists aged 55-79 years. Aging Cell. 2018;17(2):e12735. doi:10.1111/acel.12735
 Calle, M. C., & Fernandez, M. L. (2010). Effects of resistance training on the inflammatory response. Nutrition research and practice, 4(4), 259-269.