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Debunking the Fear of Bulking: How Women Are Embracing Strength Training

Bye bye two-pound dumbbells. Tonal’s first-ever State of Strength report reveals women are breaking barriers and lifting heavy.

Heavy lifting for women on Tonal

For too long, women have been discouraged from picking up heavy weights, in part due to an outdated myth about “bulking up.” In the past decade, though, the tide has been shifting as more and more women are embracing strength training for benefits ranging from improved body composition to better mental health

“When we look in the mirror and feel strong, that allows us to see ourselves in a different way,” said Tonal coach Ash Wilkng. “Even if it’s just being able to enjoy our day-to-day without any pain, having strong muscles means healthy ligaments and tendons, which means healthy joints.” 

Women are, unfortunately, still underrepresented in exercise science research. According to a 2020 review, only 8 percent of published studies focused on female physiology. That’s why Tonal’s exclusive data set on strength training is so important. For the 2023 State of Strength report, Tonal analyzed more than 175,000 unique members, 41 percent of whom were female. It turns out, female Tonal members are breaking barriers and leading the charge on lifting heavy. 

Here are the top five insights from the State of Strength report on how women are making strength training their own:

1. Overcoming Obstacles

Seventy percent of female members surveyed said they experienced barriers to strength training before Tonal. Here are the top three reasons women said they’ve avoided lifting weights in the past:

Top 3 Reasons Female Tonal Members Avoided Strength Training in the Past:
1. I needed guidance from a coach or trainer.
2. I was intimidated by the weight room in the gym.
3. I focused on cardio-based activities

Tonal member Katie Dunford admits she used to choose cardio over strength training, but would often end up overtrained and injured. “For years, I thought that spending hours each day running or cycling was the best way to get in shape,” she said. “It wasn’t until I gave up that routine and embraced strength training that I started to feel my best.” Now, the 41-year-old mom has lifted more than one million pounds on Tonal and has never felt better.

2. Choosing Strength

Female members lifted a whopping total of 11,976,334,178 pounds in one year.

Even with so many workout modality options available to them including yoga, barre, high-intensity interval training, Pilates, and dance cardio, women still choose strength training workouts 62 percent of the time. 

Tonal member Shinneka “Nikki” Baker is glad she made the switch to prioritizing lifting heavy over endless cardio. “While you lose weight with cardio, you can also lose muscle mass,” she said. “With strength training, you build muscle and lose body fat.”

3. Getting It Done on Tonal 

Gone are the days of mini weights geared toward women. Women today are moving heavy weights on a regular basis. In one year, female members lifted an average of 3,431 pounds per workout. For those choosing a coach-led, multi-week program, that number jumps to an average of 4,348 pounds per workout. That all adds up to an average Strength Score increase of 57 percent in their first year on Tonal. 

As female Tonal members know, these big lifts translate to lean muscle gains, not unwanted bulk. “​​Unless you are eating a lot and training really, really, super hard specifically to put on mass, you’re not going to get bulky,” said Stacy Sims, Ph.D., a female physiology expert and Tonal advisory board member. 

Big Numbers….Equals Big Results
Bye bye, two-pound dumbbells:
Female members lifted an average
of 3,431 pounds per workout.

In their first year on Tonal, women
increased their overall strength
by an average of 57 percent

Women’s hormonal profile makes it especially difficult to put on muscle mass, Sims explains. Women produce far less testosterone, an anabolic hormone responsible for muscle growth, than men. While estrogen plays a similar role in women’s bodies, it’s less effective in muscle building because its levels fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle.

With the drop in estrogen post-menopause, older women have an even harder time gaining muscle, which is why Sims stresses the importance of lifting heavy for women of all ages.

4. Building Better Body Balance

In a survey of Tonal members, 58 percent of women ranked full-body workouts as their favorite type of strength workout compared to just 38 percent of men. The top five moves for women include a mix of upper- and lower-body exercises such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and rows. In comparison, men tend to lean toward upper-body gains. The top five moves by the number of sets performed by male members are all about the chest, arms, and back.

Top Tonal Moves by Gender:
1. Bench Press
2. Biceps Curl
3. Single-arm Bent Over Row
4. Triceps Extension
5. Seated Lat Pull Down

1. Goblet Squat
2. Neutral Grip Deadlift
3. Brench Press
4. Single-Arm Bent Over Row
5. Biceps Curl

5. In Their Own Words

Completing a challenging lifting session can give you a huge confidence boost. “When I finish a workout on Tonal, I feel like I can conquer the world,” said Baker, while Dunford reports that she feels “like a total beast” after a strength training session.

In Their Own Words
Here's how women say they feel after a Tonal workout..

accomplished, strong, energized, empowered, great, good, satisfied, powerful, etc.

The Bottom Line

By embracing strength training, women are making positive changes in their lives, and improving how they feel both physically and mentally. Female Tonal members like Michelle Tee love their newfound muscle definition and the confidence it brings. “Strong can come in many shapes and forms, but you can look at me [now] and know that I work out,” she said. “I wanted someone to do a double take, like, oh, I didn’t know you had all of that underneath there,” she laughed.