Are Women in CrossFit Too Bulky?

The common concern among new female CrossFitters is that they’ll be too buff. Female coaches weigh in on the heated debate.

Jenn Jones competes in the 2012 CrossFit Games. She finished in 28th place. Photograph courtesy of Jones.

Googling “CrossFit” can be just as dangerous to one’s psyche as Googling one’s health symptoms. Photos and videos pop up of seriously ripped men and women with bulging, veiny muscles heaving tractor-trailer tires across a field.

It’s no wonder that the high-intensity program that’s taken over the fitness world either has people coming back for more or running in the opposite direction.

Alison Bukowski made the mistake of Googling “CrossFit” before being dragged to her first intro class by her husband three years ago. “I was terrified of a lot of the people I looked up on the Internet,” she recalls. “I saw hard-bodied people doing things I couldn’t do, like a pullup or pushup. I was like, ‘What is going on?!’””

It’s a common reaction for CrossFit newcomers, especially from women.
Ask any personal trainer the most popular question they get from females
and it’s likely this: “Will lifting make me bulky?” The same goes for
CrossFit coaches.

As annoying as it may be for trainers to hear
this repeatedly, it’s not an entirely unfounded question, says Bukowski,
who is now a certified coach at CrossFit Bethesda.
“I completely understand the question, especially coming from women,”
she says. “Our goal as females is not to look like the She-Hulk—nobody
wants that.”

So will CrossFit make you gain muscle? Absolutely. Will it give you biceps bigger than your head? No.

Bukowski herself can attest to that. Before her foray into CrossFit, the five-foot-two athlete weighed 135 pounds. Almost four years later, Bukowski may look more toned and be able to back-squat 225 pounds, but she remains a steady 135 pounds.

The same goes for District CrossFit’s Jenn Jones, who is five-foot-six and normally fluctuates between 135 and 145 pounds. “There are people who correlate heavy lifting with huge muscles. But with CrossFit, there’s so much more involvement than lifting heavy weights,” Jones, also a coach, explains. “There’s an intensity factor, and every workout involves cardio.”

Athletes start getting into the so-called She-Hulk territory when they perform isolating exercises, says CrossFit Dupont coach Cali Hinzman. “With fitness in general, you can isolate one particular [muscle]. The reason CrossFit females look so fit is that the movements are full-body and functional.”

In addition, the heavy-lifting exercises involved in the program, such as the back and overhead squats, look misleading. Hinzman says that while the exercises may appear to be lower-body dominant, if performed correctly newcomers soon realize that they require full-body engagement.

Says Hinzman, “If we teach you how to engage, for instance, your abdominals in every part of a movement as simple as a squat, then you’d better believe you’ll have a stronger core and maybe a more appealing waistline.”

However, it’s worth noting that in some cases, weight gain and muscle growth is expected in CrossFit. Jones says this year she put on more muscle while training for the CrossFit Games, where CrossFitters compete to be the “fittest man or woman on earth.” Jones is at her highest weight, 150 pounds.

Many newcomers to CrossFit may experience a weight gain in the beginning and eventually progress to their average weight with the help of healthy eating. Says Bukowski, “It’s not always about weight, but that’s hard to get across to people because they are so used to using the scale as a measurement of their fitness.”

Hinzman adds that while CrossFit may not be for the girl looking for a supermodel body, it isn’t for a select group of ultra-competitive people, either. She recalls how some intro-class takers say to her, “I want to be stronger, but I don’t necessarily want to look like . . .” and trail off while glancing at Hinzman’s 145-pound, five-foot-five frame. “I know they’re trying to say me,” Hinzman says.

“I interrupt them and say, ‘Everybody has different goals within CrossFit. Generally, CrossFit classes are going to make you a well-rounded athlete, and by no means is [CrossFit] going to change your physique in any sort of unappealing way.’”

And if you need more reassurance, take a look at the 2012 female Olympian in weightlifting, Li Xueying, who won gold with a clean and jerk of 304 pounds.

“After watching the heavy-lifting Olympics event this weekend, that makes me feel completely demoralized,” Bukowski says with a laugh. Her personal best clean and jerk is 135 pounds. “It’s makes me think, ‘All right, I gotta get to the gym.’”