‘Lifting weights makes you bulky’. ‘I’ll look masculine if I do too much resistance training’, ‘cardio is the best way to slim down’. You’ve probably heard these excuses before, or may even have uttered them yourself – I certainly used to. It’s a fairly common belief, especially among women, that lifting heavy weights will leave you looking muscular and big – which, if you’re looking to slim down, isn’t ideal. This simply isn’t the case, though. In fact, it is one of the most pervasive myths surrounding resistance training.
Let’s be clear, lifting heavy weights can make you muscular, but only if you are eating the right foods (and a lot of them) alongside your training. You may also end up putting on weight if you do not alter your diet to promote fat loss – but the gains would be marginal. The ripped CrossFit physiques you see on Instagram certainly do not happen overnight, they are often the result of years of training and eating the right food. That doesn’t mean to say that it would take a beginner long to make noticeable gains, it is just meant to demonstrate that lifting the sort of weights that would give you noticeably large muscles, does not happen after one, three, or five days worth of lifting dumbbells. If you are aiming to build large muscles you certainly can achieve this (and I will address this sort of training in future blogs), but if you are looking for a toned, lean physique, you can get this through lifting weights and diet.
I, personally, have seen the biggest and most positive changes to my body through resistance training. Don’t get me wrong, lifting weights isn’t really going to improve your cardiovascular health. Getting on the treadmill will help to keep your heart healthy; however, pounding the pavements will not necessarily give you toned arms and defined legs that you are aiming for. That’s where weight training comes in, and the benefits really are numerous and varied.
Far from leading to extra pounds of muscle and bulk, resistance training can actually help you to lose weight and, more importantly, body fat. According to a 2002 report, Resistance Training for Health and Performance (Kraemer et al. 2002), previous studies have shown that body fat reductions, ranging from 1 per cent to 9 per cent, are possible following resistance training programmes. The paper states that lifting weights can lead to an increase in daily metabolic rate, in addition to greater energy expenditure while exercising. Further research (Van Etten et al. 1997) actually reported a 9.5 per cent increase in average daily metabolic rate after 18 weeks of resistance training. Put simply, muscles burn more calories than fatty tissue at rest, which could lead to weight loss and a reduction in body fat.
Stretching is essential when you’re engaged in a resistance training programme. The more you work out your muscles, the shorter and tighter they can become, restricting your range of movement and possibly leading to injury. According to Resistance Training for Health and Performance, “a combination of resistance training and stretching appears to be the most effective method to improve flexibility with increasing muscle mass”. The report advises that exercises be performed in a full range of motion to maximize gains in flexibility and reduce the risk of injury, while the stretches themselves should be performed following your workout when your muscles are warm.
Another happy result of weight training is the improvement of bone health. Rather than damaging your bones from lifting heavy weights, bone actually responds to the strain and intensity of resistance training. Numerous studies have shown that this type of exercise actually stimulates bone tissue growth, making your bones stronger – which is particularly good as you age and your bone density begins to lessen.
According to Resistance Training for Health and Performance, “research over the past 10 years now indicates that chronic lower back pain” can be managed with specific resistance training exercises. In the case of back pain, I would always advise talking to a personal trainer or a physiotherapist before attempting any exercises yourself, but for references sake, according to previous studies, exercise can increase the strength of the muscles in your lower back, “thereby reducing low back pain”. It continues that “patients with chronic low back pain who resistance train can expect significant improvements in muscle strength, balance, endurance, joint mobility, and relief of pain and symptoms”.
I really can’t reiterate enough how lifting heavy weights will not give you huge muscles overnight. I have been training with weights for nearly two years, and a lot more intensely over the last six months, and I really struggle (despite my efforts) to build the muscles in my legs, and especially my hamstrings. My gains are now marginal and slow going, despite implementing a progressive resistance training programme. Since I am not looking to develop a CrossFit physique, this doesn’t worry me; I know that I simply do not eat enough to put on huge muscle gains. I, along with other women, also do not possess the same testosterone levels as a man – a hormone that promotes muscle development.
I’m not saying that everyone should be aiming for the same kind of body, I’m not even saying that ‘toned’ is what everyone wants to achieve. I simple want to dispel the myth that lifting weights always makes you bulky, because it doesn’t. Resistance training should be a core part of any fat loss programme. #Doyouevenlift? #Yes!
*Van Etten LM, Westerterp KR, Verstappen FT, et al.: Effect of an 18-wk weight-training program on energy expenditure and physical activity. J Appl Physiol 1997