The association between picking up a dumbbell and putting on muscle mass and/or ”getting bulky” is deep rooted in a large part of the performing population, as well as within the wider society. This is what has been told to them throughout their training, and in fairness it is not completely wrong in some specific contexts. I say that because it’s about how you lift, what you lift, and how often you lift that will dictate how your body adapts. This is where skilled prescription of loading is key, to achieve what is required and avoid the undesired adaptations.
The additional muscular infrastructure that can be developed with resistance training can be exceedingly useful when it comes to improving your efficiency, fighting fatigue and reducing your chances of pain and injury.Another important factor to consider is that adaptation doesn’t happen overnight. Strengthening to a specific region takes time and when it gets to a point where goals have been met, then it can be a chance to change or progress the exercise in ways that do not always equate to adding more load.
In my experience, a full explanation in a meaningful way to the performer can usually put their mind at ease when it comes to strengthening, with resistance exercise and why it would be useful to strengthen an area at that moment in time. The education process is the key component here, the practitioner has to have the ability to answer any questions and concerns, reinforce why strengthening is the answer and also alleviate concerns about bulking up and putting on muscle mass. I’ve applied these strategies to performers with modelling workloads in a recent Disney production, where muscle mass is heavily scrutinised, and through their results, I can safely safe it is possible to do without putting on noticeable muscle size. The surprising side effect to the addition of this kind of strengthening was how strong and fit the performers felt, that this new strength was carried into their performance, helped to keep them pain free and also improved their performance in cardiovascular related exercise, which was their main source of exercise previously.
As mentioned previously, there are many variables that will dictate whether the load you are lifting will result in hypertrophy (muscle growth). In figure 1 you will see how the number of reps achieved (when working to, or close to, failure) will bias a certain adaptation. With the larger font indicating the dominant adaptation. As you can see there is huge variety here, and this is the same across many training variables like number of sets, speed of movement (tempo), rest periods, exercise selection and exercise order, and also what muscle group you are targeting.
One of the positive effects of social media has been the positive messaging around lifting weights, especially in the female population. I feel that barriers are really starting to be broken down and the physical benefits are being felt throughout the population. The performance sector has been a little slower on taking up these habits, however it does seem to begetting better and this bodes extremely well for the performers themselves. As when done well, strength training will decrease pain and injury, therefore allowing more time to be dedicated to performing and developing your art, potentially adding years to careers… and not just years, but healthy years. Understanding this aspect of exercise is key to maximising your performance, and therefore reaching your potential.
So, in answer to the question posed in the title.... The answer is no, lifting weights does not equal bulky. It's how you use them that dictates the outcome.
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