In my two decades of being in the fitness business, I can count on one hand the women looking to get bulky. Almost all of them want to be strong, though. By strong I mean functionally strong, not to compete in powerlifting. Being functionally strong is when you can easily perform all the daily tasks of life. For example, a new mother would have to lift, carry, and move around a baby. The bigger the baby gets, the stronger the mom has to be. A student might have to carry a heavy load of laundry to the laundromat two blocks away from their walk-up apartment. Or carry heavy bags of groceries up those stairs. Imagine living on the fifth floor in that walk-up building. Yikes! Or how about shoving your carry-on bag into that shelf above the seats in the plane? Unloading your car also takes a lot of functional strength. The examples are endless.
Anyone who strives to live a healthy life, not to mention be self-sufficient should ensure they are functionally strong. The older you get, the more important it gets as we tend to slow down when we age. Have others do stuff for us.
The best part about strength-training (or weight-training, same thing) for functional strength is that it doesn’t make you bulky. That’s because you want to involve your core, the many muscles supporting your spine, in as many exercises as possible. Muscles supporting the spine include the glutes as well. To be functionally strong you need a strong core and buns of steel, as the glutes support the spine from behind.
So what exercises are great for functional strength? Anything that involves most of the body’s big muscle groups. Examples include push-ups, deep lunges and squats (with or without weights and a trunk twist), pull-ups, TRX-backrows, cables that involve rotating moves, one and two-legged deadlifts with free weights, hip bridges with your upper back supported to make the bridges deeper, standing free-weight exercises, kettlebell swings. You can totally use machines as well, just don’t lean back to support your spine or brace your legs against those thigh pads when performing the exercise. Or at that pad you can lean into for support on some machines. Instead, sit up tall, shoulder down and back. You want to use your core when you do that seated row or one-legged glute extension. You’ll notice that, if you train this way, you won’t be able to lift as much as when you strap yourself into whatever machine you’re using. That means you won’t get as bulky, but you’ll definitely get strong. You’re essentially turning the machine into a full-body exercise by not leaning into the back of the chair, the front or using those pads for the legs. By leg pads, I mean the ones you find on most lat-pulldown machines. In fact, stand up when doing your lat pulldowns to involve more muscles. One of my favorite exercise is lying down on the floor and standing up, all the while holding a dumbbell in one hand directed at the ceiling at all times as you stand up, then lie down again. Always refuse help to get into a standing position after having been on the floor. The elderly you will thank the young you for maintaining this very crucial movement pattern. Imagine falling down and not being able to stand back up because you don’t have the functional strength to do so.
See what I’m getting at here? The more you have to use your core and glutes in strength-training exercises, the more functionally strong you’ll become and the leaner your muscles will get. Skip all those ridiculous crunches. (I would never waste time doing crunches. The Roman chair is good for abs, though. Done correctly, it forces you to use lots of big muscles.) You’ll also burn more calories involving all those muscles throughout the workout. That’s how you should train if you want to be a lean, mean powerhouse!