Don’t want to build muscle?

This is a very common question that I get asked especially by women when I suggest that they add some strength training into their routine. From my experience, it’s very hard to convince many women to build muscle. This may be related to a mild stigma in society against women building muscle for fear of looking “butch”. But another reason many women hesitate to do strength training is the notion that muscle will transform into fat if they stop strength training intensively.

Just to be clear, muscle tissue does NOT transform into fat tissue. That is physiologically impossible.

Having said that, there are physical consequences when stopping an exercise routine – one of which may be a the root cause of this misconception. The key is the relationship between your diet and your exercise routine. Building muscle requires a higher intake of calories, so people may need to eat more in general when they are exercising intensively. However, if you maintain this level of calorie consumption after stopping your exercise routine, you are providing your body calories that it doesn’t need any more. The result, is increased body fat. When you stop strength training, your body stops building and maintaining muscle mass. Muscle is a very metabolically expensive tissue.  The upkeep for having muscle is so high that it requires you to eat a certain amount of protein and to train at a certain level of intensity to signal the body that it is still worth having around.  But when you stop exercising, your muscles shrink and your ability to burn energy goes down.  If you don’t reduce your food consumption to match your new level of muscle mass, you will store the excess energy from the food and gain body fat; thereby leading many people to think that one has turned into the other.

There is a solution to this (never stop exercising!). If you find it difficult to sustain an intensive strength training routine, the simple solution is to eat less.

But ideally, men AND women should do more strength training, as putting on even a little more muscle can have massive benefits to your metabolism. As I mentioned earlier in this post, muscle isn’t just hard to build, it’s hard to maintain as well. Maintaining muscle mass requires energy even if you are at rest. So the more muscle you have, the less likely your body is to store energy in fat cells. Not only that, there are really no downsides to strength training, whether you are a man or a woman. Obviously, men who train to increase strength are going to look more buff, which no one is going to argue with. However, women are simply not going to get big manly arms by doing a bit more strength training. This is because their genetic profile and lower testosterone levels make it much more difficult to put on muscle mass at the same rate as men.

Just to be clear, muscle tissue does NOT transform into fat tissue. That is physiologically impossible.

And the beauty of strength training is that if you DO feel like your arms are getting too big, just stop strength training! That muscle will atrophy and disappear much quicker than it took to build up. A much more likely scenario, as many of my female clients have found, is that strength training gives women enough muscle definition to achieve that toned body shape they have been aiming for, which just motivates them to stick with strength training rather than giving it up. So the next time someone tells you they are afraid of building muscle because they don’t want it to turn into fat when they stop training, tell them: a) never stop training; b) if you stop training, then you have to reduce your food intake; and c) refer them to this blog!

Happy training!


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