“You don’t need to do cardio if you lift weights!” “Weights will make women bulky.” “You have to lift heavy to see your body change.”
Ever since bros have been lifting, there has been “broscience.” A classic way to spot one of these broscientists is the guy walking around the gym with a protein shake and a brightly colored pre-workout drink. And he may also be sporting a bag of trolli gummi worms, because it’s “chest day.”
A lot of the myths surrounding strength training make it more of an intimidating world to approach. How can you dedicate hours of extra time a day to doing sets when you can barely tear yourself away from that spreadsheet?
Here are 5 common beliefs about strength training and how to keep your busy schedule without having to become a “bro” parked in the gym for hours.
If you want to see my primer on strength training first, jump to this article:
MYTH #1 – STRENGTH TRAINING IS ALL ABOUT LIFTING WEIGHTS
When you curl 15s, it may feel powerful and like you are getting some pump, but look at people who naturally have active jobs. Many of them are in great shape. And a lot of that results from frequent moving around and lifting heavy things. In the same way, your every day life has a lot of strength training built into daily activities. When you go to the grocery store and use a basket, you are lifting weights. When you are picking your child off of the ground, you are lifting weights. Lugging a backpack around? Lifting weights.
Even when you do go to the gym, pause before you make a beeline for the free weight rack where everyone else is. There are so many ways you can actually do strength training than just curling 20s, like the sled/push-pull in this photo:
Medicine balls, sandbags, and kettlebells all have a great function to throw your body weight around and get fuller body engagement. Here are some example workouts you can do with each one:
- 10 best medicine ball exercises for full body workouts
- 20 minute kettlebell workout
- Full Body Sandbag workout
MYTH #2 – STRENGTH TRAINING MAKES YOU BULK UP
The myth that lifting weights makes you bulky is a concern primarily for women, one that I used to have. It is hard to disprove when you see some of the people who regularly hit the squat rack, but becoming “bulky” with muscle is almost impossible to do deliberately. You would need to engage in a rigorous strength training program, consume a significant amount of calories, and likely need supplements to achieve this in a short amount of time.
If you really want to “bulk,” you need to eat in a calorie surplus and lift a significant amount of heavy weight over time. Diet, as usual, is the core of the outcome. Watching your calorie intake coupled with strength training will produce a toned look faster as you lose fat. If you lift every day and see the scale go up more than 5 pounds, it is time to look at your diet and what you are eating. As I discussed in the below article, eating TOO MUCH protein to “build muscle” actually ended up sabotaging my efforts. When I followed a dietitian’s advice and cut down on that intake (in favor of more carbs), I saw more results.
If your goal is not to “bulk” but to lean out and burn more fat, strength training is key.
MYTH #3: YOU HAVE TO LIFT WEIGHTS TO GET RESULTS
How many times have you heard, you can only build muscle if you use heavy weights and lift for 8-10 reps? With at least 5 minutes of rest between sets? Ummmm. Hello, I have a real job? I don’t have time to sit around for 5 minutes.
Good news is this is not necessary. Muscle building comes from fatiguing the muscles, which can also be achieved through high-rep low weight activity. Certain fitness classes, like sculpt, barre, and Pilates incorporate these high-rep low weight movements into their program.
This also applies to machines and equipment like cables, shoulder press, and leg press. You can start with lower weights and higher reps, which is also a good idea if you are newer to this type of equipment. Typically, my rep set is from 15-20 when I am using lower weights.
Whatever avenue you choose is really about preference, since both will generally achieve similar results. So my recommendation is to experiment with both and do what you prefer. Some people do psychologically better knowing they don’t have to go up to such a high rep count, and some people like to have more control over their form and do more reps. Or, you can combine the two for different kind of exercises. For example, I like to do high-rep on my tricep cable pulldowns.
MYTH #4: IF YOU STOP STRENGTH TRAINING, MUSCLE WILL TURN INTO FAT
This is like saying peanut butter can turn into jelly. We all know peanut butter is the favorite, and so is the muscle. But don’t worry – it cannot just magically transform into fat if you stop training. These are two different sets of tissues in your body made in entirely different ways, and one cannot be converted into the other.
When you stop exercising, your muscles may begin to atrophy or shrink in size over time, as they are no longer being stimulated and challenged by physical activity. This can lead to a decrease in muscle mass and a corresponding decrease in your metabolic rate, as muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue. However, that muscle mass loss doesn’t “convert” into fat. You might gain fat from consuming the same amount of calories as you did when you were exercising. Your body may begin to store more of those calories as fat, since it no longer needs as much energy to support your physical activity.
This is why college athletes often experience weight gain when they graduate or stop playing the sport. A competitive swimmer could need up to 5-6000 calories to fuel morning and evening practices (Michael Phelps had 8,000-10,000 a day!) But if you take a complete break from training for whatever reason – vacation, work business, life – adjust your food intake appropriately.
That being said, you don’t have to constantly live in the gym to keep your momentum. Once you build up muscle mass, however, it is relatively easy to maintain it with having to do less – resistance training just one to two times a week may be enough. So even if you don’t have the time you used to, at a previous job, in school, or before busy season, you don’t have to do much to maintain your results. And even if you don’t have time to get to the gym, staying frequently active and eating well can go a long way to preventing unwanted fat once you have to take a break from training.
MYTH #5: YOU HAVE TO LIFT WEIGHTS 5 DAYS A WEEK FOR IT TO MATTER
You often hear about “leg day” and “chest day” and how people structure workouts to focus on 1-2 body parts a day – but we are busy, who has time to do that?
Following a program of working full-body training 2-3 days a week is more efficient because it works more muscle groups at one time. To fully recover, 1-2 days of rest is required, so this naturally establishes a 2-3X weekly cadence.
In fact, I got better results when I only strength trained no more than 2-3 days a week, per my 4-3-2-1 formula.exercise for success. I was giving my body more time to recover. I felt more refreshed and energized for my next workout. On my on-lifting days I rely on walking, yoga, or NEAT to get more activity.
See my post on NEAT here – it’s basically exercise you get without exercising: