Don't worry, strength training won’t make you bulky
Some people steer clear of strength training because they worry that adding weight to stuff like squats, overhead presses and deadlifts is going to make them bulky, which is not the look they're aiming for. While on the face of it's a valid concern, the types of strength work included in HIIT sessions (like at Ritual) are actually designed to work for lean, dense muscle, not bulk, and lead to full-body functional strength, not hypertrophy. (Hypertrophy training is basically a fancy term for ‘training to get big’, which is what bodybuilders do, and generally what people are trying to avoid when they say “I don’t want to get bulky”.)
Training for ‘bulk’ is a really specific thing
Any bodybuilder will tell you that to actually get appreciable increases in muscle mass, you have to do some very specific things in your training and eating style. It’s very hard work, requires a crapload of discipline, and takes a long time. There's a ton of research backing this up.
There are a few ways to train for hypertrophy, but generally they require (i) lifting a specific load to some type of local muscular failure (which isn't a part of our programming); (ii) lifting at specific tempos (that you won't see in Ritual sessions) with a specific amounts of rest (that are significantly longer than rest periods in our training protocols), and (iii) using exercises that we either don't use or use in different ways.
All this means that it’s damn near impossible to get these bulky effects when doing Ritual-style HIIT training. Adhering to these hypertrophy-specific variables is not necessary for full-body functional strength training, which is what we’re after with our workouts.
Let’s use an example to illustrate this. In order to get real hypertrophy (bulk) from weighted squats, you might need to add 40kg of additional weight, for 10 reps (where the last 2-3 reps make your legs really shaky), with 120 seconds of rest in between sets. However, with our significantly shorter rest periods and program structure (multiple exercises in a row, for example), you might only be able to do 10 reps of squats with an additional load of (say) 16kg. You simply cannot get to the specific loads and intensities needed to bulk up.
When you layer exercise programs like we do, with a combination of strength and cardio, you build full-body functional fitness without the bulk, because your body simply doesn’t have any other choice. With our programs, the stimulus sent to your body signals “get lean, athletic, functionally strong, with a cardio backbone I can rely on”, not “get huge”.
To get bulky, you need to eat A LOT
Hypertrophy requires some specific dietary interventions, like an increase in protein and carbohydrate intake, a consistent caloric surplus (i.e. eat significantly more calories than you burn each day), and sometimes even specific supplement usage, all done over a long period of time.
If you don’t adhere to the specific eating style, your body is not going to get the consistent stimulus it needs to keep getting bigger. This is why you see bodybuilders measuring out their food, bringing food out with them, and drinking protein shakes to meet daily requirements. They need to stay consistent with their energy surplus. Ask any bodybuilder—the hardest part is the eating!
On top of that, other individual variables such as body type, age and biological gender matter too. For example, women naturally have much lower levels of testosterone than men, which generally makes it much harder for women to put on muscle mass than men.
Strength training is crucial to getting lean, and avoiding it will be detrimental to your goal. The programming at Ritual (and in the Ritual FIT app) is designed to build you a lean, dense, functional body, not a bulky body—so don’t be afraid of lifting some weight.
You’re not going to randomly fall into the lifestyle of a bodybuilder unless you’re really intentional about it, so don’t sweat it. If getting bulky was easy, every 20 year old dude at the gym would look like The Rock. So pick up a kettlebell, dust off those dumbbells, and let’s get to work!
Ian Tan is the Co-Founder of Ritual. He’s got an MSc in Strength and Conditioning, a background in psychology, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).