Do you avoid the weight rack for fear of getting too bulky? Skip strength training because you think cardio is the best way to drop pounds? If you answered yes to either question, you're probably acting on faulty assumptions.
Whether your aim is look better in the buff, develop strength or increase overall endurance, working out with weights can help you reach your goals. Not to mention lifting builds stronger bones and protects you from injury as you age. So, don't let rumors hold you back from reaping all the amazing health benefits of pumping iron.
Here, fitness experts break down the nine most common weight-lifting myths to help you separate fact from fiction and take your fitness game to the next level.
Myth 1: Lifting Heavy Will Make You Bulky
Worried that lifting heavy will make you look like the Hulk? A lot of women avoid grabbing the heavier set of dumbbells for fear of becoming too muscular. But even though "men and women build muscle similarly with training, men have greater base levels of muscle mass," says K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS, fitness writer, trainer and coach.
That means if a man and a woman both boost their lean muscle mass by 10 percent, the increase will always appear greater on the man since he started with a larger amount.
What's more, building muscle is a slow process that requires strategy. "You don't get bulky by accident," Fetters says. "It's important to realize how much time and effort it takes to really build discernible size. Looking like a bodybuilder takes years of dedicated work with exercise and nutrition plans that are specific to that goal."
Myth 2: If You Don't Feel Sore After Lifting, It's Not Working
Many lifters judge whether they've had a good workout based on how sore they feel. "Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the muscle ache you feel following intense exercise," says IPE Natural Pro 3x Champion, Master World Champion and ISSA certified personal trainer, Michael Wittig. It's your body's inflammatory response to microscopic tears in the muscle fibers.
But how much you hurt post-workout isn't always indicative of a successful sweat session. "DOMS doesn't necessarily signal that a workout is somehow more effective or beneficial," Fetters says. "Rather, DOMS tends to occur most often when performing new movements and/or eccentric exercises."
DOMS happens when your muscles are subjected to a new kind of stress. But in time, your muscles will eventually adapt, and the soreness frequency and intensity will decrease. In fact, if you lift to the point where your body always aches, you may be undermining your progress.
"If you're sore all the time, you probably aren't doing something right," says Morit Summers, CPT, creator of Brooklyn-based training studio Form Fitness. "You might be changing things up too often, not sleeping enough or not eating properly."
Plus, "if you feel super sore, you're more apt to skip that day's workout, or, if you do work out, to dial back on your intensity," Fetters says. Moral of the story? "You'll get more benefits from exercising regularly with less DOMS than by destroying yourself in every workout."
Myth 3: Lifting Burns Fewer Calories Than Cardio
Anyone who's ever done Bulgarian split squats holding a challenging weight has felt their heart hammer against their chest. Like cardio-based workouts, lifting can elevate your heart rate and torch calories. But what type of exercise burns more — traditional cardio like running or weight training?
"In the end, it's the intensity of the workout and the time performing it that are going to make the biggest determinations of how many calories you will burn, both during your workout and afterward as your body recovers," Fetters says. In other words, it depends. Some cardio sessions may burn more calories than some lifting routines and vice versa.
That said, lifting does have a small edge on cardio when it comes to post-workout calorie burning, Fetters says. That's because, unlike cardio, strength-based workouts increase your lean muscle mass, which burns calories even when your body is at rest.
Plus, resistance training with heavy loads can boost your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, according to the American Council On Exercise (ACE). This simply means that your metabolism continues to rev even after you've left the gym.
Want to really optimize your calorie burn? Structure your resistance workouts in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, and you can incinerate a tremendous number of calories in a short period of time, says Wittig, who adds even training this way for 10 minutes can be extremely effective.
Myth 4: Light Weights With High Reps Is the Best Way to Tone
Cranking out a bunch of reps with light weight is one way to "tone," but it's not the only — or even the top — strategy to achieve results. "What most people refer to as muscle 'toning' is just muscle building, generally while also losing fat," Fetters says.
While you can develop muscle with any rep scheme by training to fatigue (meaning you can't perform another rep), it might take a whole lot of reps (and time) to max out your muscles — and stimulate muscle growth — with a 3-pound dumbbell.
That's why light weights and high reps are generally best for enhancing your muscular endurance, Fetters says. Conversely, doing fewer reps (say, 3 to 6) with a heavier load is more likely to lead to gains in muscular strength, per ACE.
That said, lifting moderate weight for 15 to 20 reps, when combined with short rest periods, can cause a calorie-burning aerobic effect, which can help you simultaneously burn fat and increase your lean muscle mass, Wittig says.
Myth 5: You’ll See Instant Results
Think you'll bench press for a week, and poof! you'll have perfect pecs? Unfortunately, that's not how it works. "You don't expect kids to grow a foot overnight or your hair to grow 6 inches in a day, so why would you expect your muscle and fat cells to alter instantly?" Fetters says.
"There is no magic pill for instant results," Summers says. "There's only hard work and effort. No matter what your fitness goal is, it will take time, and if you are willing to trust the process and enjoy it, the results will come."
So, how long will it take to see some progress? Building muscle — and losing body fat — in a healthy way is not a quick process, Wittig says, adding that it takes even longer depending on your gender and age. If your objective is to drop a pants size, aim to lose no more than two pounds a week.
And, according to Wittig, slow and steady is the key. If you try to speed up the process by under-eating or following a crash diet, you're only sabotaging your goals. Indeed, drastically restricting your food intake may actually impede your metabolism and result in muscle loss.
Myth 6: You Need A Gym to Lift
No gym membership? No problem. "You don't need a fully equipped gym to get some serious fitness results," Wittig says. "A lot of progress can be made at home, or anywhere, using just body weight."
"And just because an exercise is performed at home doesn't mean it's easy," Fetters says. Not convinced simple body-weight moves can kick your butt? Attempt some handstand push-ups or pistol squats. Enough said.
Even if you want to build a small home gym, you don't need fancy, expensive equipment. All you need to develop muscle and strength are some simple, affordable tools like adjustable weights and resistance bands, Fetters says.
Myth 7: Lifting Weights Will Stunt Your Growth
Read our lips: Lifting weights will not halt your growth or make you short and stumpy. All in all, "the length of our bones, and ultimately our height, is based on genetics. So, if you are shorter than you would like to be, the blame goes to your parents," Wittig says.
In fact, weight-lifting may actually produce the opposite effect — though minimal — on your stature. "Sometimes when you start lifting, your posture improves, which can make you look taller," Summers says.
What's more, "building strength in the muscles that support your spine can help prevent you from developing a forward hunch and standing shorter as you age," says Fetters, adding that "improving spinal health through lifting helps keep the discs intact — and deliver nutrients to them — which could make a slight difference in height in one's later years."
Myth 8: Lifting Weights Will Make You Lose/Gain Weight
You can lift to lose or gain weight: It all depends on what your goal is and how many calories you're eating, Summers says.
"To shed pounds, presumably body fat and not muscle, a person would need to consume fewer calories than exerted," says Wittig. Weight training while eating in a calorie deficit can help you retain lean muscle mass, which will aid the fat-burning process and slightly increase your basal metabolic rate.
Conversely, if your aim is to add mass and build lean muscle (i.e., to gain weight), you would need to combine a progressive lifting program with a high protein, moderate- to high-carb calorie surplus, Wittig says.
But what if you want to lose fat and develop lean muscle at the same time? That's achievable too, Fetters says. "If you maintain only a very slight caloric deficit while increasing protein when following a lifting plan, it's possible to lose weight from fat while gaining weight from muscle."
Myth 9: Lifting Weights Burns Belly Fat
Hate to break it to you, but you can't spot reduce, i.e., target fat loss in a specific area of your body. Sadly, 1,000 crunches or side bends a day won't get you any closer to blasting belly fat.
That's because doing an exercise aimed at your abs won't do you much good when it comes to increasing your overall fitness level, strength and energy expenditure, per ACE. And, these three factors, not small muscle fatigue, is what determines how well your body can burn fat.
"Body fat is best reduced by the combination of eating in a clean calorie deficit, resistance training, which builds lean muscle, and in turn, helps the body burn fat more efficiently, and cardio, which burns additional calories and improves general heart health," Wittig says.
"That said, research shows that minute per minute, strength training can be more effective at reducing abdominal/visceral fat compared to cardio," Fetters says. Again, that's likely due to weight-lifting's superior ability to build lean, fat-burning muscle mass, which boosts your basal metabolic rate and overall metabolic health.
So, even though you can't lift to lose belly fat specifically, weight training certainly plays a powerful part when it comes to winning the battle of the bulge.