I’m an exceptionally vascular woman. I have been my whole life. But it wasn’t until I swapped marathons and rugby for strength training and CrossFit two years ago that my veins came out to play.
For a sense of scale: My dad recently likened one of my arms to a “beefy snake.” My last partner said the veins sprouting in all directions from my nipple looked like an “angry tree.”
When my veins first became pronounced, I confronted them with a similar amount of judgment — that is, until I learned the physiological reason why my veins had become so pronounced and used that insight to come to terms with my green-webbed body.
So, from a vascular athlete to others, here’s why lifting makes veins more visible and how this information helped me love myself — popping veins and all.
Disclaimer: Please note that I’m not talking about varicose veins, which are enlarged veins that can be caused by weak or damaged valves. I’m reporting on the effects that exercise has on healthy veins. For more information on varicose veins and how to prevent them, click here.
First things first. Dr. Antonios P. Gasparis, director of the Center for Vein Care at Stony Brook Medicine in New York, assures me that more noticeable veins are a completely normal bodily response. “It’s usually a sign of being healthy because it points [to] the fact that you’re working out,” he says.
Why does exercise make veins pop? “Whenever a muscle is being exercised, there’s an increased need for oxygen and nutrients. Because our blood transports both oxygen and nutrients, more blood flow is directed toward the muscles,” explains Dr. Jonathan Levison, a vascular surgeon at the Vein Institute of New Jersey at The Cardiovascular Care Group.
Our arteries carry the oxygen-rich blood from our heart to the tissues in our body, such as the muscles we work during exercise, and the veins carry blood back to our heart, explains Gasparis. “The blood flow in arteries is faster than the blood outflow in our veins, which causes a slight backup in the veins.” This causes an increase in pressure in our veins, which makes them more visible — or, rather, look like a “beefy snake.”
“The type of exercise affects how much your veins pop too,” says Levison. As a rule of thumb strength training causes more of a pump than traditional cardiovascular workouts. “Strength training causes the muscles to engorge and swell with plasma,” explains Levison. “This pushes the veins closer to the surface.” It makes them more visible, especially on folks (like me) with pale or thin skin, he says.
Out of the strength-training movements, those that involve pushing weight over or above your head — like a bench press, shoulder press, push jerk, snatch, etc. — will lead to a greater vascular response. These moves also happen to be the core movements of CrossFit, so it’s no surprise that my veins became so visible after starting the program.
Generally, the higher the reps or intensity, the more the muscle will swell, and the greater the pop will be. (And, let’s face it, nobody’s ever accused CrossFit of being low intensity). Sure, your veins may not be as visible or bulging as mine, but they’ll change as a result of exercises. “Even if you can’t see a noticeable pop from your veins, your veins are most likely bigger and your muscles most likely more swollen and harder during exercise,” says Levison.
“Genetics determine why some people have a greater number of veins or thicker size of veins,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Daniel P. Friedmann, MD, FAAD, with Westlake Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Texas. Unsurprisingly, my mom is also super vascular. My aunts, grandmother, and cousins also all sport green spiderwebs of their own.
“Decreased body fat will also lead veins to appear much more prominent, since these veins are within the subcutaneous tissue,” says Friedmann. And I admit — thanks to genetics, healthy eating, and a rigorous exercise regime — I’ve always been quite lean. But when I started CrossFit, my body fat dropped even more. While the accuracy of these tests is debated, a recent body fat test revealed that I’m 12 percent body fat, which is 5 percent lower than I was before strength training.
Low body fat alone doesn’t necessarily mean that your veins will be more visible. Increased muscle mass is usually needed too. Levison says this combo can lead to the kind of in-and-out-of-the-gym pop that I experience.
Other factors that affect vein visibility include whether or not you’ve had previous chest or breast surgery, which Friedmann says can increase appearance of veins, how hydrated you are, if you’re pregnant, and if you’re taking birth control or a hormonal supplement.
My visible veins are one of the many parts of my body that indicate I’ve worked hard to become a competitive CrossFit athlete.
As Gasparis says, “Even without the genetic predisposition, because athletes tend to be lean and have less body fat surrounded their veins, the veins in athletes tend to be more visible.” Add that to the fact that I come from a line of veiny women, and my popping veins were inevitable.
Courtney Glashow, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of Anchor Therapy LLC in Hoboken, New Jersey, reminds me to think about my veins as marker of my athleticism. They’re something I’ve earned, not something I’m stuck with. “Remind yourself that these changes are positive and symptomatic of the hard work you have been putting in at the gym. They show that your body is strong and powerful.”
So, when I get caught in a negative self-talk spiral, I ask myself, “Would you rather perform worse during CrossFit workouts and competitions and be less veiny or keep the veins and continue to become a better athlete?” Then, I run my fingers over the anaconda that snakes up my forearm and feel powerful.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.