Lifting Is How I Learned To (Literally) Take Up Space

In praise of bulking up.

by Alyssa Ages
Alyssa Ages' book "Secrets of Giants" explores weight lifting.
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Getty Images
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I’m standing in my kitchen, staring at a 12-ounce BlenderBottle full of a cloudy white mixture of vanilla whey protein powder and water. I do not want to drink this. It’s chalky and bland and my stomach is already full of scrambled eggs and a thick slice of buttered sourdough toast. But I’m motivated by the goal to break my personal lifting records in a few months at a national strongman competition. I hear my coach’s voice in my head: “If you want to put on muscle and get stronger, you’re going to have to eat more.” Am I really ready to intentionally “bulk up,” the one thing that everyone warned me about from the moment I picked up my first dumbbell?

Everything about this method of eating and working out was counterintuitive to how I approached food and fitness for most of my life. As a kid, I ate like my dad, a marathon runner. Big bowls of pasta covered in Parmesan cheese. Two chocolate-frosted doughnuts snatched from the long white Entenmann’s box when no one was looking. But by my teenage years, I’d internalized the notion — from friends, TV, and teen magazines — that food was to be consumed as minimally as possible. Six almonds here, a 100-calorie pack of pretzels there, and for a treat, a single SnackWell’s cookie. Though I was objectively a normal-sized teenager, I always believed that I should be smaller and could be if I just tried harder. The impossibly thin models in the pages of YM and Seventeen, which I took as gospel, weren’t devouring baked goods, I was sure of it. I stared at their exposed midriffs, then at my own stomach, which I kept hidden under a chunky sweater or boxy T-shirt, and wondered what I was doing wrong. I saw hunger pangs as my body telling me I was doing something right and ignored them with a self-righteous smirk.

It was confusing and exhausting, and by my early 20s I was still trying to achieve this look by clocking 30 minutes on the StairMaster while reading an issue of People, followed by sets of 15 to 20 reps at the lowest weight on my gym’s circuit of resistance training machines. I judged progress by whether I could fit into size 0 boot-cut Abercrombie jeans.

I always believed I had a healthy relationship with food, but sitting here, recalling decades of wishing my body was different, I realize just how fraught it really was. Was I really ready, for the first time in my life, to look at a scale with pride as the numbers climbed instead of falling?

As I thought about what it might feel like to add weight to my frame with this new eating plan — in lifting parlance, to bulk up — I wondered why the possibility of getting bulky was so scary. The term seemed to always be used negatively: to describe the undesirable appearance a woman might get from lifting anything over 5 pounds. It was a cautionary tale: Don’t lift heavy, because you don’t want to get too bulky. Lifting enthusiasts might give it a slightly different spin (that still pegs it as an unfortunate side effect of strength training): Don’t worry, you won’t actually get bulky.

Was I really ready, for the first time in my life, to look at a scale with pride as the numbers climbed instead of falling?

But what does bulky even mean?

I Googled it: “Taking up much space, typically inconveniently,” read the first definition. I smiled.

The sneering way bulky is often used to describe muscular women suddenly made sense. Taking up space is the opposite of what we want women to do. Inconvenient is exactly how a woman whose appearance challenges gender norms would be seen. A woman who takes up space is threatening because it’s generally assumed she’s taking that space from a man.

“For hundreds of years, women have been told that weakness is sexy,” Hayley Shapley writes in her celebration of muscular women, Strong Like Her. “Men are supposed to be big and powerful. Women are dainty and beautiful. Blur those lines and you just might be a man-hater, ugly, misguided, or all of the above. Until bulky is no longer the scariest descriptor that can be used in reference to a woman’s body, we won’t know what’s truly possible.”

What we define as the ideal female body has shifted over time vacillating from a preference for small and frail frames, to healthier and stronger ones, and back again, generally at a speed that far outpaces the human body’s ability to change shape. Today, muscular women are (marginally) more socially accepted than ever before. Still, there’s an invisible line between what we deem acceptably built and freakishly bulky. The term “strong not skinny” is tagged over 10 million times on Instagram and populated primarily with images of women who, while strong, are also still traditionally slim. Women are told to be strong but not too strong. Muscular, but not so much as to upset traditional gender roles. Powerful, but still traditionally feminine. How is it that we still have such a narrow definition of what makes someone masculine or feminine?

Courtesy of Alyssa Ages

Sure, lifting weights is more acceptable now; it’s even part of upscale boutique studio workouts. But the messaging remains the same: This is fine as long as you’re using it to slim down, not bulk up.

Fitness companies, gyms, apparel brands, and supplement makers promise us “that the body is infinitely malleable, and that with the right combination of diet and exercise, every person can reach the ideal,” Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell wrote more than 30 years ago. For example, I was a teenager when having “toned muscles” became the body ideal. The problem was, no one told me that whether and how you put on and show visible muscle isn’t entirely up to you, but to your genetic makeup.

The promise of the infinitely malleable body still drives marketing messaging today, even though we know that’s not how bodies work. It’s no real surprise: We have to believe it’s possible to build the “ideal body” because many of us are unhappy with the one we have. A 2021 study of just over 1,300 men and women over the age of 16 found that women were 25% more likely than men to describe themselves as overweight, and that men were twice as likely as women to say their body is athletic. They also found that 60% of women say they feel completely or somewhat pressured to have a particular body type, compared to 42% of men. A full three-quarters of the respondents believe that the media promotes an unattainable body image for women.

Not only do we believe that the ideal body is attainable, but we also believe achieving it will bring us ultimate happiness. Walking around in that “perfect” build tells the world that we are in control, we can delay gratification, and we engage in hard work.

Courtesy of Alyssa Ages

As a teen, I heard the message that if I just tried hard enough, I could achieve whatever ideal body I desired. Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly), I was told I’d be happier when I arrived in that body. That if I didn’t get there, it wasn’t because it was physically impossible, but because I didn’t do it right or I didn’t try hard enough. So when I crossed the finish line of my first marathon without the gazelle-like grace and sinewy limbs of the women in the Nike ads, I was crushed. When I bought a one-year pass to a yoga studio and didn’t leave with a long, lean figure I could contort into various pretzel-like shapes on picturesque peaks for social media, I was whatever the opposite of enlightened is. Even when I started doing CrossFit and didn’t suddenly have a six-pack and boulder shoulders, I wondered what I was doing wrong.

Walking around in that “perfect” build tells the world that we are in control, we can delay gratification, and we engage in hard work.

So if trying to get bigger and more muscular seemed strange, there was a good reason. Challenging the narrative that muscles might make me “manly” and that being bigger is bad meant pushing back against a lifetime of tightly held notions of what the ideal body looked like and what it meant to achieve it. And that’s a heavy burden, no matter how strong you are.

Women who discover their strength often use a term to describe their newfound confidence as well: Taking up space, the same words that lead the definition of bulky. The desire to be small is pushed aside by the compulsion to own their place—in the gym, at home, in the office, on social media. These women don’t give a sh*t if their bodies are inconveniencing anyone with their size. I hoped that by finally leaning into building my body instead of breaking it down, I could create some of this confidence in myself, too.

I pick up today’s midmorning protein shake from the counter and the top opens with a satisfying pop. As I sip the thick drink, I imagine my muscles growing in real time, like Popeye’s biceps after a can of spinach. I think about all the personal records I might break with that extra strength. I visualize myself standing in the middle of the arena at the strongman competition, hearing the judges call my name to the floor. I see myself approaching the barbell, hooking my wrist wraps around it, and beginning to pull. I see the bar lift up, first just an inch, then higher and higher, until I stand upright with nearly three times my body weight in my hands, a huge smile spreading across my face. I open my eyes and notice that goose bumps have formed on my arms as I anticipate the pride I’d feel in that moment. I think about what matters more, how my body looks, or what it can do. I look at the last few sips of that sad-tasting shake, smile, and chug.

Adapted from SECRETS OF GIANTS Copyright © 2023 by Alyssa Ages. Reprinted here with permission from Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House Publishers.