Are your legs really bulking up?

Are your legs really bulking up?

Hands up anyone who has ever said they had naturally big legs? I’m willing to bet at least three-quarters of the people reading this have their hands in the air, including my younger self!

The majority of women who come to me for training advice usually say one of three things:

  1. I’ve always had thunder thighs. I played X sport when I was a teenager, so my legs have always been very developed.
  2. I put on muscle in my legs in seconds, but I can’t develop any upper body muscle or strength.
  3. Can we avoid any isolated leg exercises? I don’t want to get even more bulky.

I can tell you now that only 1-2 per cent of the female population actually have naturally big and muscular legs. Before you try to convince me that you’re in that minority, hear me out. Unless you’re this lucky lady:


For almost a decade I went around convinced that my legs were unbearably huge and manly. I danced five days a week so I had more muscle than the average teenage girl, sure, but not as much as I thought.

I refused to run, because I read somewhere that running makes your legs bulky (how is this even possible? Certainly you will see some increased definition, but it is cardio!).

Heaven help me when I started weight lifting. I refused to do legs twice a week because I panicked that I would become even more out of proportion.

It wasn’t until my coach (sweetly) stated that all women think they have big legs. He explained that if you dieted down to a competition level of leanness, you would be left with very tiny legs because all the existing tissue is FAT.

So I had a big, fat butt. Harsh, but true.

Even though I had developed muscle from ballet, running and light resistance training, it was surrounded by a nice layer of chub. Nevertheless, my lower body was much stronger than my upper body. I think I squatted 40 kilograms my first day in the gym without batting an eyelid.

Grab your thigh right now. If you can pull out a nice, juicy hunk of flesh, I hate to break it to you but it’s fat. If you have someone with super muscley legs in your vicinity (I use my husband as reference!) grab their legs and feel the difference. You can’t pinch anything on Rob’s legs – it’s similar to pinching my wrist or ankle.

Since I started lifting heavy, my legs have increased in size – but their composition has also completely changed. Where I could previously grab my fat, I can now feel a nice tight muscle in my quads, hamstrings and glutes.

My current booty!

I didn’t do anything specific diet- or training-wise to cause this change. Lifting heavy and following a proper nutrition program will naturally build muscle and burn fat at the same time.

Temporary puffiness
When you first start lifting heavy weights, or training seriously for the first time, it is natural to feel bigger for the first couple of weeks. Your muscles will seem fuller, but I can assure you that your legs haven’t grown ‘in seconds’ like you may believe.

At the most basic level, anything that upsets the balance of sodium or potassium in your body will cause you to retain water. So when you lose fluid during exercise via sweat, your sodium levels increase and thus your body holds on to any remaining water in your system.

When you lift weights, it isn’t just blood that travels to your muscles: water does too, and it remains there as the muscle heals. Regardless of your experience level, you will have that telltale muscle pump for at least 24 hours after training a particular muscle group. If you are brand new to the weight lifting game, your body will go into shock and it will retain water (and nutrients) even more to protect itself.

Um, yeah, please excuse my dirty mirror!!

Secondly, it is common for people to start lifting weights and also increase their carbohydrate intake to fuel muscle growth and a higher caloric requirement. Carbohydrates cause water retention, which is why cutting out carbs can see a drastic weight loss – the majority of which is water – in the first few days (I did a detailed post on carbohydrates here).

Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in your muscles, which will increase the size and hardness of your muscles. This is why competitors and fitness models ‘carb-up’ the day before a competition or photo shoot.

You have to give your body at least a month to respond to what you’re doing. Just because you start eating less doesn’t mean that you are going to lose weight immediately, and eating too little can make you hold on to fat.

If you do a leg session and convince yourself that your legs have grown overnight, give it two or three days and I can promise you they’ll go back to their normal size.

Do you think you have big legs? Tell me why I’m wrong 😛

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