Building muscle happens far more slower than you think. Picture: 123RF/WARAKORN HAMPRSOP
Building muscle happens far more slower than you think. Picture: 123RF/WARAKORN HAMPRSOP

Q: My personal trainer has added weights to my training, such as dumbbell rows, squats and presses. My goal is to lose fat and shape up, so how do I prevent myself from becoming too masculine, or big and bulky?

A: If becoming big and bulky were as simple as lifting weights we wouldn’t have so many sons, brothers, fathers and husbands with body dysmorphic disorder injecting themselves with anabolic steroids, swallowing toxic pro-hormones and shovelling down inhuman amounts of protein and carbohydrates.

Relax, unless you intend increasing your food intake drastically or injecting yourself with copious amounts of the male sex hormone testosterone, you won’t become the Incredible Hulk or embark on an improbable bulk. Once you have been cleared by a professional to move, and have undergone proper coaching on how to exercise safely, take your trainer’s advice.

I think you are ready to hear the mighty words spoken by the oracle of Mount Abdominal: bread rises in the yeast and sets in the waist. In other words, you are what you eat.

Your diet will play the most important role in how you look. There is no getting around it.

Which brings us back to the weights. Glossy bodybuilding magazines and heaps of “bro science” have fed us — read men — a pack of lies since adolescence and now we — read men and women — are terrified of the one thing that’s actually good for us. How many times have we heard a huge, implausibly big, gym-rat tell us they grew so big because of tuna, sweet potatoes and a healthy dose of “no pain-no gain”?

And now you’re afraid of going down the same route.

Technically, they’re not lying. I bet they are eating just that, and more. But if they are also lean, I bet they are shopping at the same online store as Sylvester Stallone.

I ate so much tuna and sweet potatoes in my 20s in the hope of reaching Hulk Hogan’s mystical level of muscle that when I look back at old photos, I can’t believe those who genuinely loved me allowed me to squeeze my bulges into otherwise respectable clothing.

A decade ago, a solitary tear rolling down my face at 6pm at the old Times Media building as I struggled to swallow a second portion of steamed fish and boiled sweet potato was a turning point in my life.

“Never, ever again,” I choked in sorrow, vowing to find the truth, and this truth I will now impart to you.

Weight training and eating correctly builds muscle, and building muscle happens far more slowly than you think. And, being a woman, your hormonal profile means it is likely that you will gain muscle even slower than I did. So, if it happens so slowly, why bother?

Lean muscle is incredibly good for you, not least because you will improve your performance, your posture and how you look. You will also burn more fat — which, according to your question, is your goal.

Weight training is energy intensive, and burns a lot of calories. It also triggers something called post-exercise oxygen consumption (or the afterburn), which in essence raises your metabolism for up to 36-48 hours after a workout.

This happens as your body goes through the metabolic process of clearing out toxins, adapting to the training stimulus and returning to its resting state.

In addition to this, muscle is more metabolically expensive than fat — it requires more energy, meaning it burns more calories, just to exist.

Then there’s heaps of studies — you’re encouraged to go read up on them — that speak about the positive effect of responsible resistance training on your hormonal environment, from endorphins to growth hormone, all the way through to a recent article on the website Diabetes In Control that points to potential positive effects of resistance training on insulin sensitivity.

In summary, embrace the weight training and do it responsibly and correctly. A tired cliché will drive the point home: visible abs are built in the kitchen, not the gym.