There are many people out there (ahem, this writer included) who aren’t sure weight training is for them. Don’t get me wrong: I am a regular exerciser who usually fits in a quick run after work. But weight training? It seems kind of involved (requires complicated machines, right?), possibly embarrassing (I can’t lift heavy things!) and my goal is not to get huge biceps (WWE anyone?).
Plus, who has the time? If you’re like me, on a tight schedule with a job, family, pets, etc., a cardiovascular workout may seem like a better use of limited time.
Right? Well … not so fast. There are some pervasive myths about weight training — also called strength training or resistance training — that need some serious busting.
Turns out there are loads of good reasons to add weight training to your regime or maybe even switch to it as a mid-pandemic fitness goal: improved movement control, better cognitive abilities, enhanced cardiovascular health, better bone development, reduction in chronic pain — and just plain old feeling better.
To give you a little inspiration, we talked to four experts who helped us bust common weight training myths and tell us why we should head down pump-iron alley.
MYTH: Weightlifting will make you Arnold Schwarzenegger huge!
Reality: Regular weight training can help you build lean muscle mass.
“Sure,” trainer Blanton Brown-Rowan laughs, “that’s true if you consume upwards of 3,000 calories a day and work out four-plus days a week with really heavy weight loads.” That’s a specific program, she says, “that a person would follow for that goal.” So bottom line: You’re only going to get huge if you really want to and try super hard.
What will happen instead? If you start regular weight training, trainer Aryan Siahpoushan says, you become stronger and build lean muscle mass. The initial visible results can be especially dramatic, says Brown-Rowan, including pounds lost and big gains in strength. And if you want to get huge muscles, she adds, you can do that, too — that’s just a different program.
MYTH: Weight training won’t help you lose weight.
Reality: It’s actually an excellent way to lose the flab.
People think that just because you don’t always lose weight when you’re weight training, you aren’t losing fat, Dr. Wayne Westcott, a fitness researcher, told WBUR in an interview. But the muscle you are gaining (while you lose that fat) is more compact than fat, Westcott. “People say, kind of surprised, ‘Well, I haven’t lost weight, but I’m wearing different pant sizes.’ If we didn’t have scales, just had full-length mirrors, people would do a much better job of deciding what kind of exercise they should do or not do.”
Recent research backs up what Westcott is saying. A new study published in May found that weight training actually changes your body at the cellular level in a way that causes you to lose fat. And review of research published recently in the journal Sports Medicine concluded, “Resistance training reduces body fat percentage, body fat mass and visceral fat in healthy adults.”
The trainers we spoke to weren’t surprised at all by the research. Weight training burns fat just like cardio does, Siahpoushan says — maybe even better.
MYTH: You have to start when you’re young.
Reality: Heck no! You can start at any age.
Both trainers have clients of all ages and at all stages of fitness. “What’s important is telling your trainer exactly what your fitness history is,” Siahpoushan says, “and it’s OK if the answer is ‘none at all.’ ” It’s important if you’re over 50 also to be under the care of a physician to watch out for health issues that can come up as you get older such as heart disease, warns Perry Smith, a neurologist in Bethesda, Md.
MYTH: You need fancy equipment and clothes.
Reality: You can find cheap or free choices, and shoes are optional!
“When gyms closed down, so many of my clients ran out and got weights at Goodwill or Target and those worked just fine,” says Brown-Rowan, who trains people at their homes, in gyms and recently online. In fact, you may be able to get away with not buying equipment at all. “One client didn’t have any weights on hand so we used her laundry detergent containers,” Brown-Rowan says. Her “get started” list for clients only includes a set of light dumbbells, resistance bands and a mat to do floor work.
As for what to wear? Just make sure it’s something you can move in, Brown-Rowan says, adding she has seen it all when it comes to what people wear to weight train. Just one caution, she says: “Please, please, for everyone’s sake, wear clothes that you can bend over in and lift your legs in without showing off what we all don’t need to see.”
And shoes? Surprisingly (to us newbies) it’s actually better to weight train barefoot, both trainers say. The reason, Siahpoushan says, is that you need to be able to feel the floor with your foot to avoid foot positions that could throw your spine out of alignment. If you are not a fan of working out in bare feet, he says, invest in some flat-soled shoes labeled “cross trainers.”
MYTH: You need an expensive trainer.
Reality: You do need some expert guidance to get started, but you can often find cheap or free help.
Weight training is a skill, both trainers say, and you really do need expert guidance to set up a program to help you meet your goals — even if it is just for a lesson or two — and show you proper form so you don’t injure yourself. But there are ways around the expensive part.
If you can’t afford a trainer, find a friend (or a few friends) and split the cost, Brown-Rowan says. It’s worth the investment to prevent injury and avoid burning out because you don’t know what you’re doing. If that isn’t an option, check out your local community center or YMCA to see if they have affordable programs with a trainer who can help you get started.
And what about all those “experts” on YouTube? Both trainers say the internet is a blessing and a curse when it comes to fitness advice. “There’s a lot of good information out there,” Siahpoushan says, “but there’s also a lot of misinformation because it’s an unregulated industry.”
Brown-Rowan says to look for someone talking about proper form, position and body mechanics, adding to look for experts who have been cited in legitimate news sources and medical journals.
One place to start might be the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has links to vetted exercise videos, including weight training. Respected health and fitness websites such as Healthline provide free weight training guidance. Many colleges have online courses you can pay for to learn about weight training, including this one at Harvard. And there are an overwhelming number of weight training apps out there — so while you’re getting started, you might stick with the better known ones such as Nike that will have trainers to guide you
MYTH: Weight training is all about results you see — i.e., looking buff.
Reality: It can help with your overall health and fend off chronic illness.
There is quite a bit weight training does to prevent health issues before you even have them, both trainers says. For one, Siahpoushan says, it can help keep chronic pain at bay. A lot of our daily pains are from “using the wrong muscles when you’re active over a long period of time — whether that activity is something routine [i.e., how you carry your work bag] or working out,” he explains. “Strength training can rewire those movements so that your body can recruit the ideal muscle groups on a daily basis.”
And it keeps your heart ticking. Weight training — just an hour a week — may reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by 40% to 70%, says a 2018 study of about 13,000 adults. It also helps prevent osteoporosis by making your bones stronger in a way aerobic activity can’t, one study says.
Still need more reasons? Weight training can reduce your cholesterol, help you manage diabetes, lower your resting blood pressure, says another study, to name just a few.
MYTH: Weight training is all about the body.
Reality: It can give a mental health boost, too, experts say.
It helps mental health in a number of ways. Brown-Rowan says a 2018 study found that weight training “significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults” — regardless of health status and even if they didn’t get much stronger. Separate research from 2021 found that weight training also reduced anxiety as well as depression, improved sleep and self-esteem, and staved off fatigue, among other benefits.
It also keeps the brain working by staving off neurological disease. “A 2020 study suggests that [intensive weight training over six months] is really quite beneficial to parts of the brain involved in memory,” says Darren Gitelman, a neurologist in Park Ridge, Ill. Smith says research on whether weight training helps with Parkinson’s disease symptoms also showed positive results, including a study that found even moderate resistance training done regularly could help patients improve strength and balance.
The bottom line …
If it’s OK with your doctor (and it’s always good at least to check in when you’re about to start a new program), weight training has a ton (pun intended) of benefits — some short-term and many more long. It’s just important that you commit to keeping it up, Brown-Rowan says.
“You really have to encourage people to be in it for the long haul and be aware of what they are not seeing,” she says. Brown-Rowan compares strength training to brushing your teeth. You don’t see the payoff every day, but if you think about what your teeth would be like if you didn’t brush them, you realize you’re making a difference.