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Giant Veins and Other Unintended Side Effects of Exercise [Reader Question]

Posted Aug 29 2012 7:13am

Neck veins: All the cool kids are wearing them these days! I’m so fashion forward! Image Source

Pop quiz: What do Madonna, Angelina Jolie, me and a random dude off the Internet all have in common? No it’s not that we all have “Call Me Maybe” stuck in our heads. (Okay, that could possibly be true. Curse you Carly Rae Jeppson.) Actually we have all had our gardenhose veins called out by strangers. The first time it happened to me I was standing on my head at the gym basking in the glow of what I thought was the admiration of all the onlookers. “Look at that!” “How does she do that?” “I’ve never seen that on a woman before!” It was that last one that clued me in that they might possibly not be as enamored of my circus tricks as I am.

Finally Gym Buddy Krista gasped, “Look at that VEIN! It’s huge!” Girlfriend speaks the truth. My neck veins are so prominent that I can take my own pulse just by looking in a mirror.

So I had a lot of empathy when I got this e-mail from a reader:

Justin writes, “Ever since I became a fitness freak I have noticed that my veins are ridiculously huge in my arms thighs and calves and even my feet. Women think its gross sometimes. I’m not a huge Guy or anything, I’m 6’0″ and 180 pounds. Is this normal?”

First I have to give Justin props for capitalizing Guy. At first I was going to fix his typo but then I decided that if he can be a Guy then I totally get to christen myself a Lady, which is even better because it either a) makes me related to the Lady of Gaga or b) means I’ve been knighted or rebirthed into royalty or something. Either option is awesome. Second, I feel bad that some heartless girls called him out on it because I know that feels.
But to your question. Yes, Justin, increased “vascularity” is totally normal and much talked about in fitness circles. Some people love it (mostly men, gonna be honest here) and are always trying to get more. Others hate it and will do anything to avoid. I think most people fall somewhere in the middle where a little vascularity is good but too much is bad. I mean, nobody wants this much:
I’m going to wager that not even this woman wants this much vascularity most of the time. Just guessing from the pic, she seems to be in peak form for a bodybuilding competition which means she in a state of serious dehydration and leanness so in her off season most of the veins probably go away. Maybe? Should I stop speculating about strangers on the Internet?
Ethel. That was the name of my first vein. Yep, I actually named it. I was so proud of that sucker. A little line right across the top of my right delt, that popped out whenever I did shoulder presses. When the one on my left shoulder emerged, it was christened Lucy. (Don’t ask why Ethel came before Lucy, I loved them both equally!) And since weightlifters see their bulging veins as evidence of their growing muscles, I wore Ethel & Lucy with pride and all of my weightlifting buddies rejoiced with me.

Of course as I’ve started getting older and have been working out longer I’ve acquired more veins – although strangely in places I don’t really workout much like my neck (see headstand story above) and my forearms. But it’s not just Justin and I that are publicly vein-y. Angelina Jolie Madonna , both known for being simultaneously muscular and ultra-sexy, have been red-circled in the press for having rope-veined arms. And I’ve got to admit, my arms look just like Angelina’s. (Which is the only comparison between her & I you will ever hear me make. Look ma, I got celebrity veins!) Granted, the veins are worse when I’m lifting, dehydrated or clenching my fists. Just sitting here typing, you can’t hardly see them at all except for a couple on the backs of my hands. It seems deeply unfair that we chastise women for not looking “toned” but then ridicule the effects of the exercise necessary to get those shapely arms.
So how come some people have a subway map on their arms and other equally fit folks don’t? There are several factors that go into veinousness (yes, I made that up):
1. Genetics. Women in my family are prone to garden-hose veins. And I’m pretty sure the inherited fish belly color of my skin probably helps the veins pop as well.
2. Age. As we get older our skin thins out making veins more apparent.
3. Leanness. How much subcutaneous fat you have can make all the difference in how many little blue ropes you see. The leaner you are, the more veins will show.
4. Fitness. Because I am apparently not the only person who worries about such things, Scientific American has  a very detailed and technical answer  how exercise plays into this. It basically boils down to two things: growing muscle pushes veins closer to the skin and a lack of subcutaneous fat makes them more obvious (which explains why old people have such veiny hands). Bodybuilders have both bulging muscles and a low bodyfat percentage, hence the garden hoses.
So what can you do about it? I’ve got bad news for you Justin: Not much. There isn’t a ton you can do to reduce the veins but if you’re ultra lean putting on a little bit of fat can help reduce their appearance. Other things that I’ve been told help are to stay very well hydrated and to stay away from anything containing a vasodilator (like nitrous oxide – often found in bodybuilding supplements and fat burners). And you should of course get them checked out by a doc if you think something’s wrong.
The upside? No one will ever have to stick you multiple times when taking blood! Like my mom, who is a nurse, always tells me: “You’re a phlebotomist’s dream come true!” She’s so easy to please.
In the end some of us just have bigger veins than others and I’d hope that the ladies would recognize they’re just a sign of your amazing buff-ness! And if it isn’t veins, we’d be worrying about something else. It seems like everyone has a fitness side effect they don’t love. Jillian Michaels wrote that she refuses to do oblique ab work because it thickens her waist. My friend Dee hates how her traps get really big and bulky when she works her shoulders a lot. I hate how working my lats makes all my shirts, dresses and bras too tight. Is it wrong or bad to have strong obliques, a muscled neck or a broader back? No – in fact some people love these things! But it’s also not wrong or bad to dislike it on you. We all have an idea of how we’d like to look and that’s okay. So if you like your veins and are happy with them, wear them with pride (and you will find a girl who will not be “grossed out” by them!). But if you don’t like them you can try the above ideas to try and reduce their prominence somewhat.
So how about you guys – any other vein-y folk out there? Do you wear them with pride or hide them away? And how do you feel about women being critiqued for the size of their veins, of all things? Do you have a side effect of exercise you don’t particularly like? 
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