“Using multi-joint movements such as barbell lifts, eating sufficient protein, and monitoring your caloric intake is the best way to a lean, defined physique that will not compromise the features you were born with or pack on pounds of excess body fat.”
Mythbuster: Strength Training and Your Physique
We’ve all seen and heard it before – the advice on how to tone up, bulk up (or NOT bulk up), get shredded, lean out, etc… If you’re like me you’ve probably tried light weights, heavy weights, sets of 8, sets of 20, supersets, cardio, yoga, circuit training… the list goes on. So why did it all stop working eventually? Why do your pants not fit better? Why don’t you have 21-inch biceps? Chances are, at one point or another, you’ve succumbed to at least 1 of 5 common myths about strength training in your pursuit of a leaner, “more toned”, or muscular physique. Well, I’m here to set the record straight! Let’s get started and bust each of these myths once and for all!
Myth #1 – “Toned” Is How I Want My Muscles To Look
Ah yes, a common reason people begin to dabble in strength training. While I understand what people are trying to say as it relates to their physique, it actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Tone is not a descriptor of how your muscles look. Tone refers to muscle tension, and is a muscle’s passive resistance to stretch. Many of our muscles maintain a constant level of tension at rest (i.e. they are not 100% relaxed all the time) in order to maintain posture so we don’t become a collection of bones in a skin sack when we sit down. If a sudden stretch occurs, the muscle will automatically increase tension to prevent injury or loss of balance. This is not synonymous with how strong, weak, sleek, or bulky a muscle is or looks.
Pathological (abnormal) amounts of muscle tone include both hypertonia or hypotonia. Hypertonia, or increased tone, is the result of a central nervous system lesion (such as a stroke or Parkinson’s Disease) and presents as spasticity or rigidity. This cannot be corrected with stretching and is treated with anti-spasticity drugs. Hypotonia, or decreased tone, is commonly seen in individuals with Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy, and is not synonymous with muscles weakness although the two often occur together.
So what do people actually want when they say “toned”? I would say they want “more muscle definition and shape”. In order to see more definition in your muscles, you need to make them bigger and/or shed some body fat to expose the shape of the muscles better. Small muscles, and muscles encapsulated with high levels of fat, do not look defined because you can’t see them very well!
Myth #2 – Light Weights and High Reps Will Make Muscles Look Defined
Another common misconception stemming from the “toned” myth is that light weights and high reps will improve muscle definition. Again, this could not be further from the truth! If you want to see changes to your physique, it is imperative that you challenge your muscles by continuously progressing yourself. This means that you cannot lift the 5lb dumbbells for 3 sets of 10 over and over (and over) again and expect to see a change. If you’re not asking more of your muscles than what they can already do, why would you expect them to change in response? That’s insane!
Definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
This is based on the theory of “stress, recovery, and adaptation”. All tissues in our body respond to the stresses placed on them. In order to invoke a change in your muscles (increase strength, size, definition, etc.) you must stress those muscles and trigger an adaptation. You stress them by doing a little more than you did last time. Of course, there are other ways to increase the stress than just going heavier, such as doing more reps, resting for less time in between sets, and so on… but your routine cannot be stagnant; it must change and progress in order to produce the results you want in your physique, for your health, strength, or overall quality of life.
Weight training in lower rep ranges with heavy weights results in increased strength, while increased hypertrophy can be seen across a variety of rep ranges under 20 reps. Reps above 20 result in increased muscle endurance. The ins and outs of hypertrophic response in muscle is beyond the scope of this article, but the bottom line is this: whether you are training for hypertrophy or strength or both (the two often go hand-in-hand), you need to work with weights that are of appropriate intensity in the appropriate rep range for the desired outcome AND progress the stress of your training over time.
Myth #3 – Heavy Lifting Makes Women Look Bulky
This is probably my favorite (or least favorite) of the 5 myths. I believe that I have some pretty solid ground to stand on with my own experience. I’ve been an avid lifter for years squatting 226lbs, benching 121lbs, and deadlifting 242lbs at my best, yet I believe I look feminine and petite despite lifting heavy weights.
Do you think I look like a man?
The truth is that many women do not understand the amount of training and eating required for a person, male or female, to put on significant amounts of muscle mass, a strong reason why you find that natural bodybuilding athletes take 2-3 years off between competition seasons to build more muscle mass. I have been lifting heavy barbells for 5 years now and eating over 2,000 calories a day, and have put on maybe a few pounds of pure muscle mass. Most of my clothes still fit (most… thanks to some booty gainz) and I still look feminine! I am only one person, but this is a perfect example of the primary fact at play – most women simply do not have the level of testosterone (the growth hormone required to build muscle) needed to put on significant amounts of muscle mass from lifting heavy.
It is possible, however, for women to build a muscle-y physique is that is their goal. Yes, there are genetic outliers, but for most people this would require lots and lots of hours in the gym, a significant caloric surplus, and a lot of supplements. In other words: it’s not going to “just happen”.
Myth #4 – You Can’t Get Stronger Without Gaining Weight
Debunking this myth requires we make a distinction between getting stronger and actually gaining muscle. You can’t simultaneously lose body fat and gain muscle mass, since losing weight and gaining weight are two different physiological things. Gaining weight will almost always be a combination of fat and muscle, and losing weight will almost always be a combination of fat and muscle. But, even if you are losing weight, you can add weight to the bar thus increasing force production per unit area of your muscles: this is strength.
This involves a complex combination of weight training, HIIT, and cardio, perfectly timed meals and workouts, hours of meal prep, and a long list of forbidden foods – KIDDING!!! What it actually involves is proper programming and nutrition in order to slowly add weight to the bar while losing body fat in a steady, sustainable fashion. Admittedly, if you want to take on the task of losing weight while getting stronger, keep in mind that neither is going to be rapid, nor easy, and your food consumption will need to be carefully tracked. But with the help of an experienced coach, it can be done quite successfully! Hi 😉
Myth #5 – Weight Training Doesn’t Burn as Many Calories as Cardio
Do you despise cardio and look for any excuse not to do it? Yeah, me too! Maybe you like cardio, that’s cool. We can still be friends. Too many people spend hours every week on the treadmill trying to burn calories. But the fact is that a few hours in the weight room each week may give you a much better bang for your buck. Sure, a 1-hour cardio session may burn more calories during the session than a 1-hour weight training session, but the calorie-burning effects of a cardio session don’t last for very long after your workout is over. On the other hand, building lean muscle through weight training will improve your basal metabolic rate – or how many calories you burn as a reward for existing! You can burn all the calories you want with cardio, but you’ll never burn more calories after you stop running if you don’t build more muscle! In fact, you’ll have to keep doing more and more cardio to burn more calories as you adapt to the amount of cardio you’re doing. It’s a vicious cycle.
We’ve all seen the clickbait stories: “Here’s a picture of Jim (with dad bod) eating 1,200 calories a day” vs “Here’s a picture of Jim (totally shredded) eating 4,000 calories a day”. How? For one, he worked dang hard! But also, the jacked, lean Jim has way more muscle mass, meaning he burns a lot more calories while not exercising than when he was under-muscled and eating 1,200 calories.
So instead of thinking solely about calories burned in a session, look at the long-term picture and consider what will give you your greatest return on investment!
Trading Fear For Confidence
I’ve witnessed incredible shifts in mentality within myself and many of the clients and friends that I’ve worked with. When a person commits to adding weight to the bar every time they walk into the gym, regardless of whether or not they know they can lift it, something amazing happens. Not only do they continue to surprise themselves with what they can do, but despite the fact that their body is changing, they no longer obsess about what they look like as much as they celebrate what their body is actually capable of! Put in the work, your body changes and confidence will follow.
If you’re considering incorporating weight training into your fitness routine but were hesitant or misguided due to one of these common myths, you now have some clarity about how to achieve lasting results! Continuously progressing yourself using multi-joint movements such as barbell lifts, eating sufficient protein, and monitoring your caloric intake is the best way to a lean, defined physique that will not compromise the features you were born with or pack on pounds of excess body fat. I challenge you to keep picking up heavy weights when you go to the gym and experience an incredible transformation of your mind and body that you never before thought was possible!
A version of this article originally appeared on www.progressiverehabandstrength.com on September 3, 2018.