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Weight Training for MTFs: Stay Strong Without Size

Weight training is beginning to be recognized as an activity that can and should be performed by anyone and everyone. It helps retain lean muscle tissue and bone density, and improves functional strength, active flexibility, balance, coordination, and body awareness. It has lots of applications to daily life and other sports. It’s easy to see why folks who enjoy weight training would want to continue doing it.

But what if you’re an MTF who wants to weight train, but are worried about gaining size? This is in some ways similar to the fears expressed by bio women about “getting too big” from weight training. In other ways it is unique to MTFs, who may already feel as if they are too muscular, or have much invested in maintaining a physique which is visibly feminine.

The answer to the question of MTF weight training depends in part on your starting point.

  1. Existing muscle mass. If you have a great deal of existing muscle mass that you wish to lose, see my article on Dieting for MTFs. If, on the other hand, you’re already a skinny Minnie, then you don’t need to worry too much.
  2. Source of endogeneous androgens. Do you still have body parts whose job it is to make testosterone? Or have you had surgery to remove them? If you have had an orchidectomy, or full genital surgery, then you no longer have a significant source of testosterone in your body. Your hormonal status means that you now have much less ability to gain muscle mass, just like bio women.
  3. Hormonal supplementation. Supplemental estrogen as well as anti-androgens will make a difference in your ability to gain mass, as well as the deposition pattern of your bodyfat. If you are supplementing these, you may also find it difficult to retain any existing muscle mass, particularly if you have reduced your caloric intake. MTFs who have not had surgery, and are not supplementing should consider watching their eating carefully. Mass gain can’t happen in a vacuum, and if you don’t give your body the resources to make more stuff, it can’t make any. If you want to weight train but prevent mass gain, eat at maintenance or slightly under, approx. 13-15 x bodyweight (lbs.) in calories daily.

Your training protocol as an MTF also depends on what your intended outcome is. If you don’t give a rat’s arse about your muscularity or achieving a particular kind of feminine physique, then you can train as you like. This training routine assumes that you are an MTF with a minimal to moderate degree of existing mass, and that you would like to continue weight training without gaining more mass.

This routine is based on two things. First, the use of compound exercises. As always, I prefer to use them for their efficiency, greater applicability to daily life, and demands to capacities like balance and stability. There are a few bodyweight-only exercises here. Second, the conventional “3 sets of 10 reps” protocol is abandoned in favour of low intensities, often shorter sets, and a focus on speed and/or endurance. This type of training is preferred by athletes who want to get stronger without adding additional body mass, so that they can compete in a particular weight class.

This routine is meant to be done three days weekly. Warm up beforehand with 3-5 min of light cardio. Save most of the static stretching for afterward. If you like, you can also add other activities, such as lower intensity cardio, yoga, etc. on days you don’t do weights.

Day 1

Bodyweight-only or lightly weighted squat, 10 x 3 speed reps with 20-30 sec rest in between
Stiff-legged deadlift, 3 x 15
One-legged hops, 2 x 10-15 each side
Conditioning cardio: interval training, 10 min

Day 2

Push press, 10 x 3 speed reps with 20-30 sec rest
Pushups, 3 x 15-20
Ab exercise of choice, 3 x 20
Conditioning cardio: interval training, 10 min

Day 3

Dumbbell swings, 3 x 15-20
One-arm dumbbell row, 3 x 15
Squat jumps, 3 x 15
Conditioning cardio: interval training, 10 min


To perform speed reps, do the negative under control, pause for a moment, then explode into the positive part of the rep. For example, to do a speed squat, descend under control, pause for a moment, then explode upwards.

Conditioning cardio is intended to be some form of interval training. Interval training combines short periods (20-60 sec) of very high intensity work (like sprinting or running up stairs) with periods of low intensity work (e.g. walking). What you do is your choice, but good options include sprint-walks, hill or stair runs, jumping rope alternated with marching slowly in place, hitting a heavy bag, or adapting this concept to the exercise machine of your choice.

For instructions on performing a push press, see here.

For instructions on performing the dumbbell swing, see here. (Ignore the manly-man rhetoric; I have a 50-year-old female client who loves these).

12 thoughts on “Weight Training for MTFs: Stay Strong Without Size”

  1. I’m thinking if I wanted to look more female (meaning gaining fat in the more typically female places, amongst other things), yet retain my strength as “a male” while on HRT, how would I go about that? Is it inevitable to lose strength with testosterone blockers? Should I perhaps bulk up first and get to my genetic peak, and THEN take hormones, or should I train and take hormones at the same time? Perhaps the latter would make it harder to become really strong/explosive?

  2. Unfortunately, given the demographics these days, it would be my bet that most transitioning will not start with just a little body mass. I would think that for most, the midsection is going to be a problem, and it is going to be the most difficult layer of fat to cut out. With that in mind, I would recommend for those who have a larger waist line to forgo the weight training entirely for a while. If you are overweight, you’re already doing resistance exercises. Instead, work on cardio (around an hour a day), and do any body exercises that focus on the core. Once you get slimmed down, you can rebuild, and the one thing you are going to have to focus on is your butt. Squats are perfect for that, and the lighter weight with explosive up and controlled down is good advice. In the meantime, while on the cardio equipment, to keep the butt from disappearing altogether, focus on controlling the motion with the heels of your feet rather than your toes when you can.

    • Thank you so much for this extra insight! Putting this into practice with my existing routine will hopefully yield some better results!

  3. im having trouble losing weight ive tried both eating at the minimum calories intake to becoming a vegetarian. and with both of these ive been woking out no weights involved to an exception to my legs workouts. combined with 30 minutes super sprints. yet I have not lost a single pound I feel as if im starting to lose it my body immune to being big I guess. ive been on hormones for 1 year and a half now with 200 mg on spironolactone and 4mg estradiol. I am hoping I can get a response here. and to mention I used to workout before I got on hormones I used to lift weights but I was lean and fit now im bulky and fat back then I was around 140 lb now im 200 and haven’t lost a single pound please help

    • I feel your pain, caingp. But don’t despair, there’s always an answer (s). My weekly diet plan is healthy and helped me drop over 16 lbs.

      Monday: Salad and main course (e.g. half breast of Rotis chic well done from Shop-Rite).

      Tuesday: Spinach side dish, steamed (remove stems from whole bag of Dole pre-washed baby spinach prior to steaming);
      press out the excess water and mix spinach on plate with sauteed browned fresh minced garlic. Ymmm! Plus make some steamed peas & carrots and mix on a plate with garlic powder, pepper and a little BBQ sauce. WOW! Serve with main course (e.g. 1/2 lb salmon). OR can alternate peas & carrots with steamed baby asparagus.

      Wednesday: Steamed broccoli/peas/carrots and main course (e.g. half breast of Rotis chic well done from Shop-Rite).

      Thursday: No dinner-Fast until breakfast!
      Only half Tsaine (infusion) tea or coffee.
      And some chia seeds for enough fat to take fat solouble supplements and Rx drugs. With no elaborate meal to prepare, now’s your chance to get to bed early!

      Friday: Too tired by now to make salads. Have veg Soup with UNsalted pretzels and one Morningstar chic pattie and 1/2 Morningstar or other brand veg. pattie. With no elaborate meal to prepare, now’s your chance to get to bed early!

      Saturday: In AM, make salads for three days. Then have breakfast.

      Saturday: PM, have salad and main course (e.g. 93% ground round burger from Shop-Rite with Nathan’s Famous steak sauce or pork chop). With no work the next day, now’s your chance to get to bed early!

      Sunday: Salad and main course (e.g. Healthy Choice frozen chic stir fry
      and veg burger).

      Yes, Thursdays or one other day a week you must have NO dinner and nothing else until breakfast. I know that fasting is foreign to many people, especially to most Americans. But if you’re looking to drop serious weight
      in a healthy and orderly manner this will do it. Just remember to relax and drink plenty of water that night, though perhaps not too close to bedtime. If you must have chewy carbs, maybe just eat the dark skins of a bagel or some unsalted pretzels. But no alcohol and especially no sugar. It’s best to
      drink water, herb teas and coffee and eat plenty of fresh fruit (berries, cherries, melon, bananas, squeezed fresh lemon juice/seltzer) You can do it!

  4. I have been on testosterone blockers for 2 years without fail. I want to do some exercises to lose fat but I am so afraid that I may get muscles. I have not started taking estrogen yet but I will be very soon. Is their a way that I can feminize and not become masculine. Thank you very much.


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