When it comes to elite bodies, it's all too easy to categorize them by sports: Runners are long and lean; swimmers are built and broad; gymnasts are small and skillful.
But meet Morghan King—she's a five-foot tall, 105-pound weightlifter competing in the (lightest) 48kg weight class for Team USA on Saturday. And she's driving home a different point: Strong is strong.
The 30-year-old is currently one of the strongest women in the country—she can lift double her body weight! But King wasn't always encouraged to compete. "[Coaches] told me I was too small to get to the top," she told NBC Olympics.
Here's the thing, though: "There is no one body type of weightlifters," says Joel Martin, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an assistant professor of kinesiology at George Mason University. "Olympic lifters in the lightest weight classes are testament to the fact strength doesn't come just from muscle size." (Check out our interview with another badass 100-pound weightlifter and prepare to be inspired.)
There are also plenty of other factors that determine how strong someone is, he says. For one, the nervous system plays a crucial role. "The amount of muscle fibers you activate within a given muscle as well as the total number of muscles activated play an important role in how much force you produce," he says. Olympic weightlifters, he explains, take full advantage of their nervous systems.
Plus, in weightlifting, the goal isn't to be bigger—it's to be as strong as possible given your bodyweight. "'Bigger' lifters may be able to lift more weight compared to a smaller lifter, but they would not be competing in the same weight class," says Martin.
And allow us to drive home this point once and for all: Weightlifting isn't by nature necessarily going to make you bulkier. "Actually building large amounts of mass is quite hard," says Michael J. Ryan, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise science at Fairmont State University. Assuming your diet is balanced (read: you're not loading up on tons of supplements, protein shakes, and thousands of extra calories), a weightlifting routine will boost metabolism, burn fat, and increase muscle definition without the bulk, he says. (Sign us up!)
But every workout with weight is different. "The type of weightlifting you participate in will play a major role in any physique changes you may see," he adds. (There's a world of difference between Olympic weightlifting and bodybuilding, for example.)
Want to up your own strength in hopes of reaching Morghan status one day? The equation is simple: "If you want to grow strength you need to lift heavy weights and low reps," says Ryan. Aim for weights that are 85 percent or more of your one-rep max, suggests Martin. (Check out all the reasons why you should lift heavier weights.)
And if you're curious, try the sport of weightlifting out for yourself. (See: 18 Ways Weightlifting Will Change Your Life.) If it's your first time, seek out a coach or team. Look for someone who puts an emphasis on proper technique—not just on moving weight around. "Improper weightlifting form can lead to injuries, muscle imbalances, and decreased range of motion," says Ryan. A good trainer, he says, can also create a program tailored to you and your goals. (You can find certified coaches by state here.)
And finally: Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something based on your size. Today, King says her small size is her "greatest asset." And let's be real, couldn't we all benefit from a little bit of that attitude?