As a strength and conditioning coach for over seven years, I’ve seen and heard it all when it comes to myths about weightlifting. These misconceptions aren’t just wrong, but arguably dangerous - as resistance training is the one of the most beneficial things a person can do for preventative health.
Why It Matters
If there is one form of exercise that should be done to improve the five metrics of fitness (cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition), it is resistance training. Many individuals have an aversion to it because of age-old misconceptions that just won’t die.
- Lifting weights does not cause a bulky appearance. In fact, it is possible to garner the health benefits without large increases in muscle mass
- While lifting will improve your aesthetic appearance, it is most definitely not the only benefit. Weight training leads to improvements in many health markers including increases in bone density, muscle mass, resting metabolic rate, cognitive function, fat loss, and improved hormone levels
- You should not replace cardio with resistance training. A good program combines both forms of exercise
- You do not need to lift barbells and/or heavy weights to achieve strength gains
- Do not try to lift as heavy as possible every time you exercise
Lifting Will Make You “Bulky”
One of the most common reasons people avoid resistance training is out of fear of becoming bulky. The media has created an association between lifting weights and the almost unnatural looking amounts of muscle commonly seen in powerlifting, bodybuilding, and crossfit. These performers are not an accurate representation for the effects of resistance training. Living on the extreme end of the exercise spectrum, these athletes lift five to seven times a week and prioritize training and diet for performance, not health and wellness. For the general population this is not necessary, nor is it advised. Studies have demonstrated that incorporating just two days of basic resistance training in addition to two days of cardiovascular exercise a week can increase strength, VO2 Max, and hormone production without any increase in muscle size (1). This means you can enjoy the health benefits of resistance exercise without becoming bulky.
The “bulky” look is entirely dependent on the amount of fat mass an individual has in addition to their unique body shape. Weight training combined with a large calorie surplus will cause the addition of both lean muscle tissue and fat - which gives the “bulky” look. A properly structured nutrition regimen will prevent weight gain. Becoming bulky is a common concern for females who are new to training. A woman's hormonal profile is not set up to gain large amounts of lean muscle mass, even after years of consistent training. So do not fear hitting the weights.
Lifting is Just for Appearance
The health benefits of cardiovascular exercise seem to be widely understood and accepted. Resistance training has been mistaken as a form of exercise focused on improving appearance more so than health. This could not be further from the truth. Resistance based exercise has shown to have a host of health benefits including increases in bone density, muscle mass, resting metabolic rate, cognitive function, fat loss, and improved hormone levels. This is not to say it should replace cardio. A well-rounded program should include both forms of exercise to maximize potential health benefits (2).
As an individual begins to age, their bone mineral density diminishes making them more susceptible to fractures and reducing their strength. This process is exacerbated for post-menopausal women, individuals who suffer from osteoporosis, and the elderly. Resistance training has been shown to effectively improve bone mineral density in these populations (3). Specifically, utilizing low repetitions and heavier loads relative to the individual has demonstrated the greatest improvements (4).
Skeletal muscle is the type of muscle that attaches to your bones and allows you to move. From age 20-50 adults lose an estimated 5-10% of their total skeletal muscle mass. From ages 50-80 it is estimated that they lose an additional 30-40% (5). This can be attributed to a lack of muscle use, compounded by decreases in hormones such as testosterone. Resistance training has been shown to prevent this muscle loss (2). These muscles allow us to effectively breath, move, and perform daily tasks. If you want to pick up your grandchild, or comfortably move well into your 90’s, consider weightlifting.
Resting Metabolic Rate
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) is the amount of energy an individual expends in a 24-hour period to maintain basic bodily function. This measurement is usually expressed in the form of calories. A calorie is essentially a measurement of heat transfer as a byproduct of all the processes that occur in our body. Collectively these processes make up our metabolism. Studies show that following a resistance training program can increase your RMR by almost 10% (6). This change is mostly attributed to the increase in skeletal muscle mass. Put simply, raising your metabolism will allow you to burn more calories and eat more food.
Executive function of the brain is “a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions...” (7). Resistance training improves brain function by increasing executive function (8). While the mechanisms responsible are still up for debate, improvement in brain function is an excellent incentive to exercise.
Testosterone is a sex hormone in the body that influences fat distribution, muscle mass, libido, and bone mass (9). Growth Hormone is responsible for cellular growth and metabolism (10). These two hormones are increased in individuals that perform resistance-based exercise (11). These hormones tend to lower in production as the body ages, but this can be delayed and or reduced by lifting weights (11).
Requires Barbells and Heavy Weights
When people talk about resistance training, they commonly refer to lifting weights and heavy barbell loaded movements. Resistance training may consist of anything that requires the body to produce force to overcome resistance. This could be bands, bodyweight, water, or more traditional weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells. When choosing a form of resistance you might consider availability, comfortability, and your current fitness level/goals. If your goal is to build muscle mass and improve your hormone profile, you will want to spend time using more traditional weights. If you just want to improve your strength qualities without building muscle, bodyweight or training with bands will suffice. Studies have demonstrated that following bodyweight only exercise programs can increase strength, power, endurance, and flexibility without increasing muscle mass (12).
While heavy lifting does have health benefits, there are other ways to achieve strength gains. Research has shown that using lighter weights (about 40% of maximum strength) for more repetitions can achieve the same level of strength gains as using heavier weights (about 80% of maximum strength) (13). This study illustrates that there is no need to lift heavy each time you exercise if overall health is your primary objective. In fact, lifting heavy each session can lead to reduced results and increased risk of injury. So whether you prefer light weights for more reps, heavier weight for less reps, or somewhere in the middle, find a form of resistance training that is sustainable for you based upon your lifestyle and goals.
The scientific literature has strong support for the health benefits of weightlifting. A training program should be highly individualized, but everyone can benefit from some form of resistance based exercise.
If you are a beginner looking for an introduction to weightlifting, I recommend two to three sessions per week. These sessions should be focused on bodyweight to light weighted movements. Each day should be a total body workout that includes a squat, hinge, lunge, upper body push, pull, and core variation.
Sam Bartlett, MSc