We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our...Pecs?

As anyone who's seen me at the beach, the pool, in a dressing room, or in the buff knows, I'm not what you'd call "amply-endowed". As a teen and younger woman, I was thrilled to discover the random outlet mall B-cup brassiere that, due to factory or designer error, legitimately fit my modest needs. Otherwise, I cut the tags out of my 36As, occasionally added a little pillow stuffing to the linings, and rolled my eyes when curvier female relatives and family friends told me I'd be thankful one day for my no-hassle silhouette.

(vintage "falsies")

Well, I'm older now and I AM grateful. Plenty of my gal friends navigate life with more generous feminine proportions, and they all speak freely about the challenges therein. I've never once had to consider the integrity of my bra before dashing down an escalator to catch a Metro car.

While my body image has changed considerably since my days of bra-stuffing and tag-tearing, I can credit something else with my change in perspective too. Since I started heavy resistance training a few years ago, I've built much stronger and shapelier muscles throughout my body -- including the muscles of my chest. One could even say that I have a bit of cleavage for the first time in my life.

Okay, maybe "cleavage" is an exaggeration (Jane Russell I ain't). But I do now feature lovely rounded muscle contours where for years only skin and sternum used to be. My pectoralis major muscles -- the ones that underlie my breast tissue -- are much more developed than they were pre-weight training days. The difference is subtle but, to me, significant.

Why, oh, why didn't I figure this out sooner? Let's discuss.

Girls, Women, Muscle:

Even if she'd known about the promise of weight training for décolletage, I'm not sure that my 16-year-old self would have started bench pressing for bosoms. Teen girls of yesteryear almost universally equated barbells with highly-developed (and testosterone-enhanced) female bodybuilders. Exercise for young women at the time meant one of three things:

  • Dance (ballet, tap, jazz)
  • Step aerobics
  • Organized sports

All three of these pursuits are great things and certainly leaps and feminist bounds beyond the fitness protocols of the earlier 20th Century. But for my generation growing up, physical strength and muscular development were not priorities.

Feminine icons of the day -- from Winona Ryder to (yikes) Kate Moss -- were waifish. Strong-willed, perhaps, but strong-bodied? No way. Crossfit was merely a twinkle in Greg Glassman's eye and weight lifting was something that steroid-pumping Communist countries did.

There have always been muscular women as part of a kitchy subculture (think circus Strongwomen, Venice Beach, and later -- the American Gladiators TV show), but the value of muscularity for women -- EVEN TODAY -- is still, well...weak. We can delve into the social psychological bedrock of this phenomenon another time, but for the moment let's instead look at what female muscularity really means...and how to obtain it.

Sexy Muscles and (Briefly) How We Get Them:

As anyone who's seen me sans clothing recently knows, I do not look like a testosterone-enhanced bodybuilder. I look strong and sexy. I have shapely shoulders, arresting arms, a proud chest, and a back with the symmetrical contours of a topographical map. And you'd better believe that when I stop waving at someone, my arms do too.

Such are the pleasures of womanhood with developed upper body musculature. Before I come across as an insufferable narcissist (is it too late?), I assure you that the aesthetics of my muscles are only a delightful bonus to the physical abilities I've cultivated through strength training. Carrying six full bags of groceries into the house in one trip by myself? Marvelous! Finally saying I can complete the old-school Presidential Fitness Test because I can do not zero but EIGHT pull-ups? Divine! Not worrying about osteoporosis? Can't beat that.

Building muscle is a topic for hundreds of thousands of blog posts across the interwebs, but the short and sweet formula is thus:

  • Lift HEAVY weights, With Good Form, 3x Week, and Make It Hard Every Time

Your goal is to induce "hypertrophy" of your muscle fibers, which essentially means forcing the individual fibers that comprise each muscle to become thicker. It's all about your body -- a fascinating machine of awesomeness -- responding to stimuli and ADAPTING accordingly. My husband and brilliant trainer, Elliott, composed a blog post not long ago about the 5 Truths of Fitness (what actually works). Guess what? Nothing's changed, these truths apply today, yesterday, and tomorrow. There is a science to building a stronger, more capable, and sculpted body.

A Note About Thighs:

I think that a post about women and muscle must address the timeworn and, frankly, misplaced anxiety that many girls and women have about building "bulky" leg muscles. It is true that your quadriceps and hamstrings are some of the largest muscle groups in your body and that millions of women feel that their legs are ALREADY too big. There is some validity here. Most women, due to our hormonal profiles (compared to men's) do carry much more muscle mass in their lower bodies than they do in their upper bodies, even if they don't exercise at all. It's why a "skinny" teenage boy can probably do a bunch of pull-ups while a "skinny" teenage girl probably can't do a single one (and a "voluptuous" teenage girl would rather vanish from Earth than be seen trying).

The reality is that women who feel their thighs are too big are very likely carrying more bodyfat than they would like (NOT more muscle). Women are genetically programmed to store more bodyfat than men, and often more around the butt (hips) and thighs than men.

Furthermore, they probably have very little upper body muscle development. Little upper body muscle combined with high bodyfat percentage (stored predominantly in the hips/legs) may make many women feel "bottom heavy" (an atrocious but often used descriptor). This is why it's important for women who wish to achieve a fit-looking physique to build muscle everywhere and to eat for leanness. More on that here.

Some women fear building muscles in their legs because they don't want to outgrow their clothing. I say this from much experience: modern clothing is seldom designed for a fit physique. Most women's clothing is cut to conceal flaws and to literally compress bodyfat into casings (skinny jeans, anyone?). Adipose tissue (fancy word for bodyfat) is far less dense than muscle tissue, which means it is squishier and is more likely to benefit from compression wear like Spanx and the squeezing effects of tiny-thigh dimension skinny jeans. The muscular woman below probably puts on the same size jeans as the other woman, but who looks better naked? 

The kind of garbage that gets featured in women's "health and fitness" magazines perpetuates the fallacies of women's lower body musculature. A colleague of mine recently discovered a website encouraging women to achieve a "thigh gap" by shrinking both bodyfat AND leg muscle. Atrophy and decrepitude for all!

Instead, check out strength athlete, Kim Valentine, posting on Instagram with a before and after account of her own muscular transformation. Her leg circumference is no doubt bigger in the "after" photo, but look at the SHAPE.

No Ifs, Ands, or Butts:

Fortunately, the idea of a developed REAR END is actually IN fashion these days, which is good because your gluteal muscles are super important for posture, movement, and looking fabulous. The downside to the current tushy training fad is that the message to women is largely -- Muscular Butt Good, Muscular Legs Bad. Here's a link to something called the Brazilian Butt Lift Workout. DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT use this as a reference for legitimate exercise training, it's about a scientifically solid as astrology. The thing is, your legs and butt work together, especially when you're lifting heavy weights (vital for building muscle!). It's nearly impossible to isolate your glutes in exercise. While it can be done if you are very experienced, it's not a worthwhile pursuit for most. Muscular legs and muscular glutes are equally wonderful. If you minimize bodyfat, your muscular legs will SEEM smaller, and they'll look fantastic.

Get to It!

Building muscle isn't easy, but plenty of women are proof that it can be done, and done with fabulous results. The first and sometimes hardest step? You have to want it.