Weightlifting Myths Debunked

(Last Updated On: August 11, 2011)

onearmrowdoubleHi Everyone!  Thank you for the wonderful feedback concerning my last few articles and I look forward to sharing more with you.  This week I’m focusing on unfounded myths concerning heavy weight lifting (heavy meaning around 60%  or more of your one rep max).  I have noticed there are many unfounded myths concerning the lifting of heavy weights in an exercise program that unfortunately persuades many of you not to strength train.  Strength training is one of the key components of physical fitness and is absolutely beneficial in bettering and maintaining your overall quality of life.  Therefore, I think it is important for me to take some time and to try to debunk some of these myths.

Myth #1 : Muscle weighs more than fat –  This perhaps the most popular myth in this category, but it is also untrue.  Let’s really think about this.  One pound of muscle weighs the same as one pound of fat or one pound of feathers.  Seriously, a pound is a pound regardless of what it is made of, right?  The difference between muscle and fat is that one pound of muscle will take up less room than one pound of fat in your body and that’s a good thing!!!  Let me illustrate this point:  Take two women weighing 130 pounds of the exact same height and body type. One woman lifts heavy weights on a regular basis along with doing her cardio activities and has a body fat of only 12%. The other woman does not lift heavy weights and only does cardio activities for her exercise. Her body fat is much higher at 30%.  The woman that lifts heavy weights will be able to wear a much smaller dress size than the woman who does not lift heavy weights because her bodyweight is comprised of more muscle which takes up less room than fat. You might be surprised by this and ask “how could this be?”  Well, we already learned that muscle takes up less room than fat and increases your BMR which keeps your body mass lean and your metabolism running optimally.  Therefore the woman that lifts heavy weights in addition to her cardio workouts will be able to eat more food each day than the woman who does “cardio only” workouts.  Remember, “steady state cardio only” workouts burn limited fat and calories at the time of  the activity,  but they don’t carry forward the post exercise benefits that heavier weight lifting does. Plus the women who lifts weights will also be able to wear a much smaller dress size than the woman who does not lift heavy weights because her bodyweight is comprised of more muscle which takes up less room than fat.  So, hands down, having more muscle on your body is the way to go.

Myth #2 :  Lifting heavy weights will make you gain weight –  Excluding temporary weight gain from water retention, the only way to gain weight is to consume more calories than you burn. Lifting heavy weights burns calories, it does not add them to your body and thus it is impossible to gain weight from just lifting heavy weights.  For example, look at me, I’ve been lifting heavy weights for decades and I weigh less now than when I was in high school.   Even power lifters will lose weight if their calories consumed are less than their TDEE. So, no matter what your exercise, if you burn more calories than you consume you will lose weight–Myth Busted!

Myth #3 :  Only light weights will lean you out –  This is also another very popular myth that is untrue and causes a lot of harm.  If you want to get cut you just have to eat less calories than you burn.  Getting “cut” is a result of decreasing your body’s subcutaneous fat and this only happens when you create a calorie deficit.   It does not matter what your rep range is or how heavy the weights are that you lift, getting cut comes from eating less than you burn – not your dumbbells.  Sure, it’s possible that you might burn more calories in a light weight high rep routine than in a low rep heavy weight workout, but you can get the same “cut” look by lifting heavy weights and burning some extra calories by adding a short cardio workout. In this case you have the added advantage of developing increased lean muscle mass making your “cuts’ more pronounced.

Myth #4: Heavy Weights will make Women Bulky –  Getting bulky means gaining weight and as I mentioned previously  the only way to gain weight is to eat more calories than you burn each day.  Since muscle takes up less space than fat if you just maintain your current body weight  and increase your lean muscle mass you will become smaller, not bigger.  Woman can build muscle, get stronger and improve their physique by lifting heavy weights, but they will certainly never build as much muscle mass as a man since they have a lower testosterone level. So unless you use steroids, and please, let’s never even consider going there,  you’ll always look feminine.  So why is it that some women insist that their legs get bulky when lifting heavier weights?  There are two reasons this can happen:  If your thighs increase in size after starting a heavy weight program it is either because of temporary water weight gain or because you are consuming more calories than you are burning. It is a scientific fact that changing your fitness and diet program to create a calorie deficit will result in weight loss and yes, that means your thighs shrinking in size too. Even if you lose one pound of fat in your thighs and gain one pound of muscle, your thighs will still shrink in size since muscle take up only about a third of the space fat does.  If you are trying to slim your thighs the key is to make sure you have a negative calorie balance and that you reduce your body fat while increasing your lean muscle mass. Your legs will not only be slimmer, but will look toned and healthier too!

Myth #5: Light weights are better for women– There really is no difference between the weights a man or a woman should use in their training program. Light weights are great to use in a circuit, endurance  or a low impact cardio program to burn extra calories, but they are not as efficient as heavy weights in developing lean muscle mass. To understand why this is true, you need to first understand how a muscle works.  When you lift a weight, or for that matter any heavy object, the muscle you’re using must contract.  What you may not know is your entire muscle does not contract, but instead just some of the thousands of muscle fibers that make up your muscle will contract. Your body learns through life experiences just how many muscle fibers it needs to contract to lift an object of a certain weight.  For instance, when you see a big bucket of water, your muscles contract much more forcefully and in greater abundance than say the muscles used to pick up a glass of water.  This is why you don’t throw a drinking glass across the room when you contract your muscles for this movement. To maximize efficiency your body only uses the minimum amount of muscle fibers necessary to lift an object. And each individual muscle fiber either contracts 100% or it doesn’t do anything at all. There is no such thing as an individual muscle fiber contracting at 20% or 50%.  This means when you only do an exercise with a light weight only a very small percentage of your muscle fibers in that particular muscle performing the exercise are doing any work at all. The rest of your muscle fibers within that particular muscle are doing absolutely nothing and getting pretty much zero benefit from the exercise. To work as much of the muscle as possible you need to engage as many muscle fibers within that particular muscle as possible and this usually means lifting heavy weights.

Myth #6: You can’t increase lean muscle mass while on a calorie deficit diet – It may be more difficult to do, but yes you can increase your lean muscle mass while on a calorie deficit diet. The only exception to this is a person who already has low body fat, like a body builder getting ready for competition.  I will admit it is easier to gain lean muscle mass when you’re eating more calories than you’re burning, but you can still increase your lean muscle mass while dieting too. I know some people who believe this myth first try to lose their weight before trying to increase their lean muscle mass, but I disagree with this approach and I feel the science backs me up on this.  Doing both weight training and cardio activities simultaneously is the better way to go in order to get optimal strength, endurance, cardiovascular, and body composition benefits….not to mention many other health benefits.

I hope this article convinces many of you who fear gaining weight as a result of heavier strength training to change your mind.  Cardio exercise may be better at burning calories in the short term, but lifting heavy weights  has long term benefits  and will add lean muscle to your body that will increase your BMR and turn your body into a fat burning machine even when you’re not working out. Mixing both cardio and heavy weights into your fitness routine is what I recommend as this combo will burn calories both in the short and long term as well as have the best overall health benefits.

by Cathe Friedrich

25 thoughts on “Weightlifting Myths Debunked

  1. I heard another one from someone in my class. She said she didn’t want to add muscle because as she gets into old age (and can’t maintain the weight she lifts), she is afraid her muscle will turn to flab. Good information, thanks!

  2. Hi Cathe,

    #1 shouldn’t be referred to as a myth. It’s not a myth, but it is easily misunderstood.

    When someone says “muscle weighs more than fat” they’re actually saying “muscle [per unit volume] weighs more than fat”, and as you pointed out, a pound of muscle occupies less volume than a pound of fat.

  3. As always, you have good, sound advice and back it up with research and facts–thank you!! Love that you cut through the hype and myths and give us solid information :).

  4. There are so many threads on your website that start out by saying that they did sts and gained weight. I always want to reply that they are eating too much. I thought that was rude so I didn’t say anything.

    Love your new articles. They should help a lot of people if they follow your advice.

  5. I love this article, and I have loved weight training in the past. I have fallen off my ‘fitness wagon’ and need to get serious about getting on again. My main question for you revolves around upper body weight training for my middle aged achy arms. I have a recurring tennis elbow that flares easily, both shoulders are susceptible to strain and inflammation which can lead to pinched nerves and a ‘carpal tunnel’-like pins and needles feelings in both arms. I instinctively feel that weight training will strengthen my arms, stabilizing both shoulder and elbow joints, probably ultimately leading to decrease in frequency of these injuries. But, I admit that I’m always nervous about doing upper body lifts, and don’t know how to safely train with heavy weights. How do I get from where I am (not currently lifting more than 5 pounds for any upper body move) to a place where I can confidently train with heavy weights? Long winded question (I know!) and maybe it should be posted elsewhere, but any advice would be deeply appreciated!

  6. Firstly, a message to Joe:

    I know you have good intentions Joe but a myth is a false notion people have and based on what YOU said, Cathe is absolutely correct in calling #1 a myth.

    And now, to Cathe:

    I think what I most admire about you Cathe is you ‘walk the talk’. Not only are you the physical manifestation of what heavier weights can do for a woman, but your ability to articulate your personal and professional knowledge with such precision makes you formidable. And personally, I believe any woman who can’t respect that doesn’t know her own strength!

    I personally don’t care a rat’s behind about doing cardio (this from a lifelong runner), but I do power walk every day with weights. It seems to be the only way I can fit both into my schedule these days, though I truly do miss working out to your awesome DVD’s. I’m out on the streets every morning walking and doing shoulder presses, lateral raises, front raises, tricep presses, and one arm rows. My neighborhood thinks I’m absolutely mad! Maybe I am lol! But I can’t help myself – I’m hooked on weights! Knew it from the time I was 17 years old when I first entered a gym. Of course I didn’t have a clue what to do with those weights but I knew I loved the feel of them in my hands. A lot of hidden power in those weights! Sadly, it took another 18 years before I learned – but at least I learned and now I know I’ll never stop.

    My mother started lifting weights when she was just past 50. She’ll be turning 75 at the end of this month and still lifts weights! If she can do it, we all can!!

    Cathe, because messages of body image and exercise are transmitted almost as if by osmosis from mother to daughter, I would love to see you infiltrate these types of messages to young female adults (17-24) who are more consumed with excessive cardio and starving themselves for weight loss instead of lifting weights. My daughter is 18 and all her friends have already been on at least 2 or 3 “diets” and do massive cardio yet none of them lift weights. So sad.

    As for the myths, I think you pretty much summed it all up. Now it’s up to women to WANT to believe what you do and say is true.

    Thank you so much for this article. As ever, chocked full of valuable information. Looking forward to reading much much more!

  7. Thank you for that article!!! I have been lifting weights for over 20 years and know from experience that these are merely myths.

    Ellen Lawrence

  8. Cathe, what a wonderful, informative article! Thank you so much for the wealth of information! And in words we can all understand!

  9. Thanks for the information Cathe, I guess I am one of those who always felt I bulked up when doing heavy lifting, now I realize I was just eating too much. I think I may give heavy lifting a try again. Thanks.

  10. Even though I got into heavy lifting late in life, I must say how pleasantly surprised I am with the results. I feel so much stronger and more confident. My husband had always assured me that I didn’t have the right hormones to “bulk up”!! He was right and you have confirmed that. Thanks, Cathe! I’m also hoping to stave of osteoperosis!!

  11. My husband introduced me to weight-training in 1979. Tomorrow is our 31st anniversary, and I’m the same size as the day we were married. I like variety in my workouts, and Cathe’s videos and DVDs keep me motivated. I love STS, but I still use PURE STRENGTH, CTX, POWER HOUR, etc. For cardio, Cathe’s step workouts can’t be beat! I can’t wait to receive the new series that I’ve just pre-ordered.

  12. I LOVE reading your articles! I follow you every step of the way! I have never been a smaller size since I started to do regular weight training with cardio between. Thank you for STS!! I love having a tight tone body and find I definately am not a picky about what I eat to maintain my size. Thanks CATHE!

  13. Excellent information, easy to read and understand, love your dvds and love that you walk the talk. You are an amazing role model!!!

  14. Loved this article…I was one who thought I would bulk up with heavy weights and it wasn’t until I did my first round of STS to discover the opposite is true. I didn’t lose weight but lost inches and went down a size in my clothes! And, I felt so much healthier! Doing the 1RM also “pushed me” to lift heavier then I thought possible! I am a true believer in using heavy weights to see results. Thanks Cathe for such great workouts. I am forever indebted to you!

  15. I can’t agree more with everything you said. I focused on cardio workouts for the longest time and was in a plateau. I began lifting heavy this year and I weigh now what I weighed in high school (I turned 40 this year) but I wear a smaller size than I ever have. And I used to have to starve to weigh that then – not now. I am a big believer in weight training and I really found I enjoy it – I can’t imagine my workout routine without it. Keep all the good info coming – I love reading the science behind the workouts.

  16. Information women can use…thank you for a well-written piece on the benefits of lifting heavy. Go for it ladies!

  17. This is a reply to Kathy, above. Get thee to a physical therapist, get an assessment, and ask for a prescription of exercises. A physical therapy M.S. or a physical therapist assistant (or a personal trainer recommended by one of the above) can guide you until you learn how to lift safely on your own.

    Many trainers in gyms, though they have the best intentions in the world, are not educated in corrective exercise nor experienced in working with rehab or injury prevention.

    Your regular doctor should be able to refer you to a PT for at least the assessment visit, and your insurance ought to cover a short course of supervised PT training while you deal with your repetitive stress injury.

    Good luck!

    And Cathe: I am linking to this article next week, because so many dancers (my own little audience) do no strength training, and they really should. Thank you!

  18. I do understand the point but #1 isn’t a myth. Muscle does weigh more than fat. To say that muscle weighs the same as fat because one pound of each weighs the same is poor logic. By that logic, everything in the world weighs the same as everything else because afterall one pound of this will always weigh one pound of that. You’ve only proven that one equals one not that they weigh the same. If you have the same AMOUNT of fat and muscle, muscle weighs more. If an obese person said I weigh the same as skinny-model because a pound of me and a pound of them are the same so therefore we weigh the same, you’d easily see how wrong the logic is. But it’s the same logic people use when they say fat and muscle weigh the same thing. One pound of ANYTHING will always weigh one pound of ANYTHING else. That doesn’t mean they weigh the same.

    The rest of what you say is absolutely true. Fat takes up way more room and two people of equal weight but one has more muscle will be tighter and sleeker than their counterpart. And people do use the fact that muscle does weigh more to try to justify and say myth #2 as a reason to not lift weights and put on muscle.

  19. This is the razon we love you, because you always inform us of benefits of food, exercices and always are there for. Thank you.

  20. To “grow” a muscle requires much more planning than just increase caloric intake.
    1.HGH has to be released.
    2.You MUST protect the muscle from being metabolized.
    3.The muscle MUST enter energy depravation.
    4. The muscle MUST recover
    To grow a muscle is to get bigger and stronger. To get stronger is no necessarily to “grow”

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